Monday, April 4, 2016

Who speaks for God?

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were sitting on a bench in Ala Moana Beach Park enjoying a view of Diamond Head. A woman was moving from bench to bench, telling people that God loves them, and attempting to distribute leaflets. We declined the pamphlet; I knew, only because we live near the park and had made previous inquiries, that the woman was a Jehovah's Witness. The Witnesses, like many religious groups, claim to speak authoritatively for God.
Knowing who speaks for God also has wider ramifications. For example, if you are following the Republican and Democratic presidential contests, then you almost certainly will have heard one or more candidate's claim that their positions align with God's will. If we accept these claims at face value, God apparently approves of, while simultaneously condemning, abortion, health insurance for all, broadened immigration, and lower tax rates. No one, not even God, can support and oppose an idea simultaneously. Similarly, in spite of Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders repeatedly declaring that terrorism is always immoral, terrorists from all of those religions still try to justify their killing and maiming the innocent as God's will.
Controversies about who speaks for God are not new. Today's readings from Acts and John each depict one such struggle. In the reading from Acts,[1] Jewish religious authorities demand that Christians cease their schismatic teaching. The underlying question is Who speaks for God? Do the Jewish leaders, supported by over a thousand years of tradition and Scripture study, speak for God? Alternatively, do the leaders of this new Jewish sect, those loyal to Jesus, an itinerant and now crucified teacher and miracle worker, speak for God? In today's gospel[2] when Thomas discovered that the other ten disciples claimed to have met with Jesus in his absence, he refused to believe them until he too should see and touch Jesus. Did the ten really speak for God or were they suffering from a form of group delusion?
The resolution of both controversies is instructive.
In next Sunday's reading from Acts, you will learn that a respected rabbi, Gamaliel, suggests leaving the controversy between the Jewish religious authorities and early Christians unresolved. Gamaliel argued that if the Christian movement were not God's doing, then Christianity would quickly fade away; if the Christian movement was God's doing, the Jews could not prevail against it. Thus, he recommended doing nothing and the Jewish religious leaders agreed.
As an Episcopal priest, I happily coexist with Jehovah Witnesses. I'm confident that their misguided fervor and narrow-minded claims about the limits of God's love harm relatively few. We wisely apply Gamaliel's advice to wait and see who is right, the Episcopal Church or the Jehovah Witnesses. We claim that God loves everyone regardless of race, gender, gender orientation, ethnicity, religion, and so forth. They claim that God will only save 144,000 people, who must remain constantly on their best behavior to avoid incurring God's displeasure.
Conflicting ideas may leave us feeling unsettled or ill at ease. Ideas and words can also hurt, but generally only when the hearer allows that to happen. My parents were like an audio device caught in an endless loop, repeatedly and tirelessly reminding their children that sticks and stones may break bones, but words can never hurt one. Surviving in a pluralistic, secular culture can require having tough skin.
The dispute among the disciples about whether they had seen the risen Christ came to a very different resolution. Thomas, this time in the company of the other disciples, encountered the risen Christ. What I find most striking is that the risen Christ says the same thing both times he is with the disciples in the locked room: My peace I give to you. And he breathes on the disciples, bestowing upon them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Three points are essential for understanding those scenes. First, the second person pronoun you, in the Greek, is plural. Christ speaks not to the individual but to the group. Whatever the text may mean or describe, the message is for Christians, or God's people, collectively and not individually. Anglican priest and noted author on spirituality, Kenneth Leech, characterized distorting spirituality to emphasize individual tranquility as valium for the masses.[3] We have power, and exercise God's power, only when we strive together.
Second, the word peace (eirene in Greek and shalom in Hebrew) connotes the fullness of health, prosperity, and human flourishing. Peace includes individual tranquility but only when that tranquility also includes justice and concern for all. Edward Hicks' painting, "The Peaceable Kingdom" powerfully and memorably depicted peace, with a lion and a lamb amicably dwelling with children, angels, and other animals. Similarly, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared, "True peace is not just the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice."
Third, the gift of the Holy Spirit affirms that God abides with us. Episcopalians, like most Christians, believe that in Holy Baptism every person receives the Holy Spirit, a gift signified by the priest anointing the person with oil and saying, "you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever." In other words, Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the peaceful;" he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."
In the autumn of 2001, just weeks after 9/11, hospital officials asked eleven-year-old Mattie Stepanek, suffering from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, if he had any last wishes he wanted fulfilled before his death. Imagine the officials’ surprise when Mattie made his three wishes: to meet Oprah Winfrey, to speak with former President Jimmy Carter, and to publish a book of his poems, "Journey through Heartsongs." Here is how Mattie describes a “heartsong”: “It’s our inner beauty, our message, the songs in our hearts. Some of us feel we can spread it. My life mission is to spread peace to the world. I’m not sure everyone is listening to their heartsongs now, especially with the national tragedy.”[4] Mattie Stepanek had a mission for his life. He was determined to be a peacemaker.
Who speaks for God? When theological or philosophical ideas conflict, we are usually right to heed Gamaliel's advice. Allow time to reveal which idea is correct. But when more than ideas are at stake, when one path leads in the direction of greater peace, a fuller approximation of flourishing for all of God's creation, then choose that path. Peace is God's desire for us and God assists us through the gift of the Holy Spirit in transforming peace from a utopian dream into a practical reality.

[1] Acts 5:27-32.
[2]John 20:19-31.
[3] Kenneth Leech, Spirituality and Pastoral Care (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1989), p. 33.
[4] “Eleven-year-old teaches peace while battling muscular dystrophy,” Stephen Manning, Associated Press, The Knoxville News-Sentinel Dec. 2, 2001, p. G6.

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