Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Is this collect a fancy way to address our doubts? Using it, do we in effect say, we need your help with our faith. Can you please help us to know Jesus perfectly as the way, the truth and the life? If you do that, then we will be steadfast when we try to follow him?
I believe that faith is God's gift to us, not our gift to God. Faith is not a multiple choice test about God's attributes, where a perfect score will assure that we get to heaven. Is our faithfulness in attitude and behavior dependent on how richly God has filled us with seeing Jesus as who he is supposed to be?
I have few problems accepting Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life; many who are far less certain that Jesus' claim are valid live lives far more faithful to God than my own.
Saul appears as a minor character at this point in Luke's narrative. He is a member of the crowd gathered to persecute Stephen, the first martyr. At the time of the martyrdom, Saul is convinced that he is faithfully protecting the faith from the Jesus folks and their heresy in claiming that Jesus is the Messiah. The Christians present recognize Saul with a rather dramatic gesture: "Then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul."
What an anointing! Are the witnesses themselves Christians? Or are they just part of the anonymous crowd gathered to watch, such as those who gather for public executions even in our time when capital punishment is enacted?
Whoever the witnesses are, their public gesture of laying down their coats at Saul's feet shows that they recognize Saul as a powerful force behind the persecution of Stephen.
Of course Luke, the author of Acts, knows the end of the story. In Luke's account of the martyrdom, the detail stands our as a kind of anointing, all the more poignant with Saul's conversion to Christianity.
It is small wonder that after his conversion and his new name, Saul (now Paul) stays away from those whom he persecuted for three years (Galations 1:17-18). Clearly they will need some time to adjust to his claim of being converted.
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
These verses are jammed full of nuggets that show up widely in Scripture and in other Christian literature. Most famously, Jesus quoted verse five from the cross: "Into your hands I commend my spirit."
One of the most frequently used blessings or benedictions is lifted from verse 16: "Make your face to shine upon your servant," which becomes, "The Lord make his face to shine upon you."
The second of the Ten Commandments strongly forbad making images of God; yet verse 16 suggests that it is perfectly all right to ask for God's face to be seen in our own faces.
The passage is quite forceful in providing metaphors to reveal God's relationship to us mortals. For example, Verse 3 refers to God as
- my strong rock
- a castle to keep me safe
- my crag and my stronghold And verse 4 refers to God as
- my tower of strength
In the 21st century few of us in great danger would seek out a strong rock, a castle, a crag, or a tower as a place of security. The most famous threats of our time (earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, nuclear radiation....) seem far more than mere "nets" that our enemies have secretly set for us.
The psalmist asks God to "rescue me from the hand of my enemies" and commits his spirit "into God's hands." In most modern battle, the hand that pulls the switch of major destruction is often continents away. The murderer or the destroyer often never has to lay a hand on the victim nor to look the victim in the eye. Even our dirt and our flowers are often made of plastic to decorate gathering places both public and private.
Yet I am quite unhappy with my attempt to re-cast the psalm in terms current now:
- You, oh God, are the body scanner of my enemies and terrorists
- God you masterfully sniff out lethal weapons and drug contraband
- God you provide a perfect rocket for our escape to another planet or universe when the apocalypse arrives
Clearly I have not yet found a felicitous way to state in the context of our own vulnerability the God-claims that the psalmist made in pre-modern Israel.
Even when we use the language of security, we do so most often to talk about places that are least secure. TSA (The Transportation Security Administration), for example, emphasizes our vulnerability more than our security.
After World War II, The Securitate in Romania (the country's Department of State Security) marked the vulnerability of the citizens to its overreaching control of their lives. From 1948 to 1951 it grew from just 3,549 employees to 25,468, and under Ceausescu it became the most brutal police force in the world, with 11,000 agents and a half-million informers for a country with a population of only 22 million by 1985. (See Wikipedia).
1 Peter 2:2-10
I am fascinated with the comfort level that biblical writers had in using metaphors of gustation to celebrate God.
Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation-- if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
Peter echoes Psalm 34:8 "Taste and see that the Lord is good."
Many 21st century westerners might be disconcerted it told to "taste Jesus" or "taste the Lord."
I suspect we are the losers in not having easy access to this understanding of God and to this understanding of our own bodies.
I have often welcomed opportunities to preach on this text to audiences filled with many out TQBLG persons. Regardless of our own sexual or affectional orientation, read the text again intention supplying transgendered, queer, bisexual, lesbian, and gay as the referent for you:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God's people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
The passage rings dramatically true to TQBLG experience as Christians.
I am struck by the play between the material and the immaterial reality in this passage, one used at most Christian funerals to provide comfort for the bereaved. Momentarily Jesus' world of heaven sounds almost as material as Madonna's "material world" here on earth: "In my father's house are many mansions, many dwelling places....."
Yet Jesus' biggest claims, the ones about himself, are notably immaterial, philosophical, almost ethereal, "I am the way, the truth and the life."
How much is our own personal identity tied to the physical details of our lives? Those of us in our 70s have radically different understandings of "who we are" than we did when we were 14. Tennyson's Ulysses says, "I am a part of all that I have met." One who is 74 may still have all the makings of the self at age 14, but the one at 14 does not have a physical connection to the person she might become if she lives to 74.
Will heaven be at place that most will welcome if there, they find themselves with no connections to the physical selves that they were on earth?
Jesus has said that in heaven there will be no giving or taking in marriage. You won't know your spouse there? You won't know the other members of your family there?
How long is eternity, and will the many mansions there remain stuck in just one style forever and ever.
I am personally far more frightened by amputation or dementia than I am by death. One of the brightest members of my family now has serious dementia. Please pray for her, for those of us who love her, and for those who fear not being able to know and recognize those whom we love in this life or the next.