Archive for the ‘Quaker theology’ Category

The Prayer from the Cross

March 4, 2019

A Sermon Delivered at Earlham School of Religion, Third Day, 2/26/2019

Friends: I invite you all to join me, during this hour, in a guided meditation on what might have been going through the mind of Jesus as He was hanging on the cross, waiting to die. Whether or not you accept Him as your personal Savior, a Divine Incarnation, or just a very good man who may or may not have risen from the dead, you are attached to a Christian theological seminary, and the world will expect you to have given this subject some thought. So I’m here today to help with that, though I claim no special knowledge.. Because of the solemnity of the topic, I’ve scheduled no hymn-singing. I will not be dwelling on the cruelty and injustice of the crucifixion, but if you think that discussing the subject at all may be harmful to your peace of mind or mental health, you may leave at any time, with my blessing.

We’ve been trained here to identify the social location we think from, and mine is one you can all see: multiply-privileged white-looking, straight-seeming, well-educated American male. But I pray that, during this gathering, the Holy Spirit, speaking though me, might transcend the limitations of our social locations so that I speak to the condition of everyone here. But I also discern a need to disclose my theological location in giving a talk like this, so here it is: I self-identify as a follower of Jesus Christ, whom I call Lord and Savior, in whom I now live, and who lives in me. I was raised a nonbeliever, and I’m only where I am now theologically because I believe I’ve heard Christ’s voice and felt His guidance. For data about the Crucifixion I rely on the Bible. I recognize that the four canonical gospels disagree among themselves about many details, and include some stories I find unbelievable, like the pericope about bandaged zombies coming out of their tombs at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matt 27:51-53). The part about the darkness at midday (Luke 23:44-45) may be a distorted memory of the lunar eclipse of 4/3/33 CE (not a solar eclipse, impossible during a full-moon festival like Passover).

I believe the gospels reveal a clear and consistent picture of Jesus to anyone who studies them. I have no use for alternate theories I’ve heard, that Jesus was “really” a political revolutionary, or the son of a human father other than Joseph, or a mistaken believer in an imminent apocalypse, or an India- trained disciple of yoga masters. It’s not that I want to quash such speculations, but any truth that there may be in them would add nothing to Jesus’ value to me. I do believe in His miracles, which is to say, in what we call “paranormal” powers over the natural world. I do believe in His bodily resurrection. Finally: if you don’t agree with my theology, that’s fine with me; I don’t think your salvation depends on it. Anyway, Christ may not want you to agree with me.

In any case, there was something about Jesus – His purity of intention, clarity of vision, integrity if not outright divinity – that made Him so different from the rest of us that it’s hard for us to imagine “being” Him, walking in His shoes and thinking His thoughts. But if we must, let’s start by asking His help: Lord Jesus, purify our hearts and enlighten our minds to fit us for this work, so that we might, if only for this hour, love in accord with Your heart and know in accord with Your mind. Amen.

I believe that what He was doing on the cross was praying for the salvation of the world. Yes, also suffering; yes, also dying; but surely His intention was to be praying, with all the concentration He could muster, for He was not one to waste time on futile activities. You and I might just go to pieces when nails went into our hands and feet, but Jesus would not, if He knew in His heart that being crucified was an essential work-assignment that He had to do right if He wanted the world saved. Now some writers have conjectured that crucifixion spelled the failure of His mission, but that simply cannot be, if His mission was to model the way of all-forgiving God. If your mission is to model the way of an all-forgiving God, you do it by being forgiving unto death (Luke 23:34), and a public death like Jesus’s, or like Stephen’s in the Book of Acts, gives you the chance to show the world that you mean it. That God is all-forgiving is surely good enough news to die for!

An all-forgiving God? Look at the Lord’s Prayer with me: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” After He teaches that prayer, He comments, “forgive all trespasses and yours will be forgiven; but withhold forgiveness and yours won’t be” (my paraphrase of Matt 6:14-15). Now would God ask us to be all-forgiving if God weren’t all-forgiving? (If God had predestined most sinners to eternal damnation and Jesus knew it, Jesus couldn’t and wouldn’t have taught this!. Take that, John Calvin!) The only barriers to forgiveness by God seem to be ones that we put up, (1) by trying to hide our sins from God, often by denial of needing forgiveness, or (2) by refusing to extend forgiveness by holding on to grudges. This is what the Fourth Gospel must mean by describing [all] condemnation as self-condemnation, a fleeing from the truth-revealing Light into all-hiding darkness (John 3:19-20), where God’s forgiveness, by our own decision, cannot reach. But to know that we can be freely forgiven all those things we’ve loathed ourselves for is a kindness of God that, as Paul notes (Rom 2:4), should make us want to repent them! Jesus illustrates the wild joy and generosity of the much-forgiven by pointing to the uninhibited exuberance of the sinner-woman at Simon the Leper’s banquet (Luke 7:36-50).

Now I framed this digression about Jesus’ gospel of an all-forgiving God within a speculation that Jesus was praying from the Cross for the salvation of the world, a prayer that presupposes an all-forgiving God. The whole creation yearns for salvation! The whole creation groans (Rom 8:22), all sentient beings groan along with humankind, groan from ignorance, impermanence, fear, pain, danger, and mortality, things we all long to be saved from whether we can express that longing or not. Jesus is twice hailed as the “Savior of the world” in the writings of John, and I believe that Jesus felt that love, repentance, and forgiveness, practiced universally enough among humanity, might indeed undo our ancient fall from Paradise and work the “reconciliation of all things” (Col 1:20). Love “hopes all things,” Paul wrote (1 Cor 13:7), and if the crucified Jesus saw Himself as called to a ministry of saving the world through love, then He would have been praying with all His heart for it. “One-pointed” as any adept of yoga ever was, Jesus would have been supremely accomplished at focusing His attention on one single point and keeping it there.

Imagine Him focusing it on His own heart as a radiating source of love. Is He distracted by the pain in His hands and feet? Then He is willing them to be radiating outlets of the love in His heart: He’s experienced, as we know, at willing through His hands, which have touched and healed many, and willing through His feet, which have walked on water. Is He distracted by irrelevant thoughts? He’s experienced at silencing them: “Peace; be still,” He’d said to the wind and the waves (Mark 4:39). “Get thee behind me, Satan,” He’d said to His tempters (Luke 4:8, Mark 8:33). Pain does not break His resolve! According to the gospel accounts of the crucifixion, He breaks His silence only for essential things: to pronounce forgiveness of His killers (Luke 23:34), to bless the repentant thief (Luke 23:43), to put His mother under the protection of the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26), and to beg relief from thirst (John 19:28). He cries out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), signaling those “with ears to hear” that He is “fulfilling the scripture” of Psalm 22. He is also, perhaps, crying out as the Voice of All Creation to its Creator: “Restore us to the condition of Paradise!”

Jesus’ body may be in a state of shock as death approaches, with reduced blood pressure and possible hypothermia, so that He weaves in and out of consciousness, but I imagine that His will remains firm. Unprogrammed Friends are no doubt familiar with silences so deep that we seem to be fast asleep, except for the glimmering awareness that our abiding intention is to be at worship. Imagine, then, Jesus’ awareness thus reduced to just a bare, naked intention for the world’s salvation, before the final moment when He comes to, heaves a final sigh – “It is finished” – and gives up the ghost (John 19:30).

It is possible that His consciousness, during His hours on the cross, has expanded so far beyond the confines of His physical body, as egoless minds are said to be able to do, that He has allowed Himself to suffer the sufferings of all creation. This would allow Him to cry out the prayer of every suffering creature to God as with its own voice; – but of such a mystery I can have no knowledge, unless He reveals it to me and grants me a mind that can take it in. I only sense, by faith, that His is the perfect love that casts out fear (1 Jn 4:18); and that His prayer for us is one with the eternal blessing of the Creator, who pronounces the creation “very good” at its completion (Gen 1:31).

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The Everlasting Gospel

January 13, 2018

Notes for a sermon to be delivered 1/14/2018

And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people…. – Revelation 14:6, KJV

“The everlasting gospel” – the Greek original reads evangélion aiōnion. This could be translated an everlasting gospel, or “good news that always was and always will be.” Early Quakers often spoke of “the everlasting gospel” as the gospel they’d been sent out to preach to the world, not a mere story about Jesus that people might believe or not believe, the way you and I might believe or not believe in global warming or the theory of relativity, but a word from the Savior himself with the power to “abolish death and bring life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1:10).¹ Think of it as the sound of an alarm clock, which you start to hear in a dream, but it has the power to pull you right out of that dream and into the waking state. This may be what birth was like, and it may be what death will be like: what can you say but “Wow” when what you thought was reality fades away and you find yourself in an all-new reality? “Behold,” says the One on the heavenly throne, “I make all things new” (Rev 21:5). This is the good news; this is what Paul must have meant when he wrote that “the gospel… is the power of God unto salvation” (Rom 1:16).

Now I’ve only had a little foretaste of this salvation from fear, sorrow, shame, remorse, and the threats of pain and annihilation; I know about it only by faith. I did sit on God’s throne in a dream once, and saw everything become transparent, so that the interior of every created thing and being was revealed – but that was only in a dream. I’ve seen Jesus in dreams, but those could just be figments of my dream-generator. I don’t believe I’ve yet heard the ringing of that gospel alarm-clock I mentioned, that wakes us up into eternity and the presence of our beloved Creator. If I’ve ever consciously stood before God before, I’ve forgotten it, maybe because I chose to love something else, and my “foolish heart was darkened” (Rom 1:19-21).

But this I do know by personal experience: that Christ lives in me. He sees through my eyes, hears through my ears, feels through my heart. He must; otherwise He wouldn’t be able to comment on my experience in words audible in my mind, to give me courage and firmness when I need them, to hear my prayers, to direct my walk to people who need to meet me and then to put good words into my mouth. “Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?” asks Paul (2 Cor 13:5). Of course there are people who will tell me that I must be insane, because I’ve heard a voice; and there are people who’ll tell you that I must be hearing the voice of the Devil, because my theology or politics don’t agree with theirs: well, they said that about Jesus, too (Mark 3:22). The point is, once you know that Christ lives in you, your sense of who you are changes forever.

At that point, you’ve heard the Everlasting Gospel. If you’re a Jew or a Muslim or from some other tradition that’s been persecuted by Christians, He may identify Himself by a name more congenial to you, and appear as a “She” or an “It” if that works better for you. He may tell you that your sins are forgiven, He may warn you against a temptation, or reassure you that He won’t let you fall into sin – who can say? – but you won’t forget that voice you heard in your mind, not ever, and you’ll never forget the evidences that He lives in you – and that you live in Him. He’ll remind you (John 14:26).

Now if this hasn’t yet happened to you, and you want it to happen to you, I suggest that you tell Him so. Tell Him you’re willing to give up everything that might stand in the way of it. You may be surprised by how much He lets you keep, even though you now know that it’s all His property, including your own self. If you’re not ready to offer up everything, on the other hand, don’t worry; He has ways of persuading you that it’s a good idea, and a right time in mind to convince you. I’ve found Him very patient. In the end, if you come to Him, you’ll know that it’s only because God’s first drawn you to Him (John 6:44).

¹ George Fox (1624-1691), who associated the everlasting gospel with God’s promise to Abraham (Gen 22:18), wrote that “the Lord God and his son, Jesus Christ, did send me forth into the world, to preach his everlasting gospel and kingdom” (Journal, Nickalls ed., 34-35). Isaac Penington (1616-1679) wrote that “the gospel that was preached to the nations [in earlier times] was not the everlasting gospel; that gospel did not bring life and immortality to light… and men had only a sound of words instead of the thing…. an outward knowledge, a perishing knowledge in the perishing part… which… had no union and fellowship with that which is everlasting” (The Way of Life and Death (1658) in Works, 1:51). Robert Barclay (1648-1690) identifies the everlasting gospel with the commandment to all people to “love [God] in our hearts, and our neighbours as ourselves,” commending the “faithful witnesses and evangelists” in “this our age” who direct all people “to come to mind the Light in them, and know Christ in them… so as they… may come to walk in his Light and be saved” (Apology (1678), 167).