Chapter 8: The Afterlife of Jesus

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine,
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse does shine,
But all the constellations of the story.
– George Herbert, “The Holy Scriptures”

The highest revelation is that God is in every man.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals  

Eyewitness Testimonies

For over two millennia,  Jesus has attracted followers, has annoyed skeptics, and has baffled many who wonder what his existence meant, in all its wild paradox, as Bultmann recognizes when he writes, “The Christ occurrence means the eschatological occurrence through which God has put an end to the world and its history. There, this paradox is the claim that a historical event is at the same time the eschatological event.” (1 – see footnotes below)  That is, Jesus erases history, but he depends on it as well. As it were, the evolution of thinking about Jesus and what his existence signified began within moments of his departure from earth. Soon his disciples began to spread the gospel from Palestine outward, first colonizing adjacent territories, such as Macedonia and Thrace and Cappadocia, then taking the “good news” to Crete, Malta, Sicily, Egypt, and Rome, eventually reaching the farthest corners of the world. The church that arose in the name of Jesus splintered, however, into many churches, and some of these quarreled viciously, with competing theologies, all of them supposedly based on his life and teachings.

The most important early follower of Jesus was surely the apostle Paul. His letters, written twenty years or so after the Crucifixion, constitute the earliest Christian documents, composed two decades before the gospels themselves – a hugely important point that is rarely noted by Christians, who somehow imagine that because the Pauline epistles follow the gospels in the New Testament, they must have been written after them. (Thirteen of Paul’s letters are found in the New Testament, although only seven are considered authentic; the others were written “in the tradition of Paul” by his associates.) Paul’s supple and speculative mind shimmers through his correspondence, and it could easily be argued that he invented Christian theology by shaping its most elementary ideas. His formulations permeate all branches of the field to this day, and it seems impossible to imagine a Christian tradition of thought without him, even though others – James, the brother of Jesus, and Simon Peter, for instance – played huge roles in shaping the early church.

Stories about Jesus spread among his followers, and one assumes that those close to him – the eyewitnesses – could repeat versions of the Sermon on the Mount verbatim. The parables, too, would have traveled well. Stories of his encounters with people that he healed or comforted as he walked in Galilee would have been told and retold, and his final week in Jerusalem – his entry into the city on a donkey, the Last Supper, his arrest and trial, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, with its astounding aftermath – would have riveted all who listened. That interested parties would write down these narratives was inevitable, and it’s likely that we don’t possess the earliest versions – the raw materials that the evangelists (canonical and otherwise) used for the gospels that, decades after Jesus, found their way into written form, in due course becoming the central documents of the New Testament.

The gospels purport to be eyewitness testimony. Think of the opening of Luke: “Given that many have undertaken to compile a story of the things which have been accomplished among us, and just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed wise to me, having followed all of these things closely for some time, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (2)

This sounds very much like someone writing with personal knowledge of what happened, a writer with an urgent need to put down these “things that are most confidently believed among us.” Richard Bauckham has argued convincingly that one can depend on the gospels as participating in the genre of historical memoir. These narratives, he says, “embody the testimony of the eyewitnesses, not of course without editing and interpretation, but in a way that is substantially faithful to how the eyewitnesses themselves told it, since the Evangelists were in more or less direct contact with eyewitnesses, not removed from them by a long process of anonymous transmission of the traditions.” (3)  Furthermore, Bauckham disputes the conventional (if unchallenged) view that “a long process of anonymous transmission in the communities intervened between their testimony and the writing of the Gospels.” In other words, eyewitnesses wrote down what they knew rather quickly. They offered portraits of Jesus, not carefully detailed biographies, drawing on impressions, even word of mouth passed along by those present at the time of the events relayed.

Needless to say, for the gospels to be considered accurate memoirs one would have to take into account the complicated process of memory itself.  Bauckham does so to a degree, citing recent psychological studies of memory. These widely accept that it’s difficult to remember what happened last week, let alone a few decades ago. Memory plays tricks for all kinds of reasons, some innocent, others not so much. That is, sometimes a memory serves a purpose, semi-consciously, even unconsciously. One assumes that the evangelists each had a subjective view, an intended audience, with ideological assumptions that would have shaded their reflections.

Dale C. Allison, Jr. neatly summarizes the textual tradition of the New Testament: “Approximately 3,000 mss. of the Greek New Testament (part or whole) have been preserved, copied between the 2nd and 17th centuries, plus over 2,200 lectionary [manuscripts] containing sections (pericopes) of the New Testament arranged for reading in church liturgy from the 7th century on.”  (4)  That is, no original manuscripts exist for the gospels, the letters of Paul, or any other material that appears in the New Testament. The first complete versions of the gospels, in fact, date to the fourth century – a very long time after the events they describe. One can only guess what the earlier versions might have looked like, or how scrupulous those who copied these texts might have been. (As there are numerous discrepancies in later copies of the gospels, one assumes that discrepancies happened along the way as well. Why wouldn’t they?)

So many people rightly ask: Are these stories true? It’s a complicated question without a simple answer. Pontius Pilate put the essential question before Jesus himself during his trial in Jerusalem: “So what is truth?” To a degree, literal truth isn’t terribly hard to recognize. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, it hurts. That is true. If my father dies, I feel sad. That is true.  Then again, even these simple examples have complications. I’ve hit my thumb many times with a hammer, as I like to play around with tools at home; yet I’ve hit my thumb fewer times in recent years. The pain of the first few strikes and black thumbs were necessary in the advancement of my carpentry skills. So context and personal history play a part in my understanding  of this truth. When my own father died, I felt devastated. That was true. But he died over a decade ago, and though I continue to feel his presence in my life every day, and love him now as much as I did then, I – really and truly – don’t miss him, not in the same way that I did at first. However odd, this is true as well.

Context is everything, and this makes it difficult to talk about the gospels, which are usually read out of context.  Churchgoers like myself get used to hearing biblical texts recited in bits and pieces throughout the year. We hear passages from the Old Testament and the New. These fragments scatter in our heads and hearts, making it difficult to form a coherent picture, a sense of the overall pattern. And certain denominations – Christianity is a lush amalgam of churches and movements with very different theological opinions – tend to focus on one verse or another, highlighting a particular strain in the gospel narrative and repressing others. With the lectionary – the passages read in church each Sunday as stipulated by church authorities – an effort is made to link the readings, creating themes that reflect seasons in the church year, but the context is often lost on listeners.

In churches that run to the literal side, and where, in extreme cases, the Bible is taken as the Word of God in the most simplistic and literal fashion, certain verses stand out, summoned by pastors with flashing eyes, usually in the King James Version: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).  Or “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). These appear to narrow the path to heaven considerably, although a fuller exploration of such verses in their original Greek form often reveals a more complicated, and life-enhancing, message. In Matthew 7:13, for instance, Jesus famously says that the path to God is narrow but the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction. This verse, and others like it, seem to fundamentalists to point to eternal damnation. Yet the word in Greek is apoleia, which often means “a sense of loss” or a “waste,” thus mitigating the terror of endless torment so beloved of hellfire and brimstone preachers. The truth is, Jesus had little interest in damning anyone, and he certainly had no concept of hell as a place of perpetual torment.

A kind of literalist reading of the Bible came into play mainly in the wake of post-Enlightenment skepticism about scriptural texts, when a fierce reaction formed among a number of American and British preachers and scholars, who began to argue for biblical inerrancy, centering their faith on rather apocalyptic ideas teased mainly out of the Book of Revelation. One thinks of Dwight L. Moody, Charles Hodge, Arthur Pierson, Benjamin Warfield, or Cyrus I. Scofield in the US. or John Nelson Darby in England. Each of these men developed a large following, and to a degree their ideas still hold sway in Christian fundamentalist circles, with their emphasis on the end times, including the Second Coming and the Rapture, with the threat of hellfire and eternal damnation held up like a sword above the heads of fearful congregations. Belief in the inerrancy of the Bible gives them a sense of certainty that the modern age cannot offer.

Yet the Bible itself declared its openness to interpretation. In Hebrews 4:12 we read: “For the word of God is living and active.” It’s sharper than any “two-edged sword,” piercing to the heart of a reader, “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” One has to accommodate all sorts of contradictory sayings and remarks by Jesus, Paul, and others. These often run against common sense, as in Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” Really? Didn’t God in the Ten Commandments urge us to honor our father and our mother, and didn’t Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount say that the commandments handed down to Moses remain firmly in place? A living and active reading of such passages draws us more fully into the text, into the living Word, which is unstable, always challenging, never set in stone.

The problem of translation complicates all readings of Holy Scripture, for a start. Jesus (and most of his disciples) spoke Aramaic, although one guesses he could read Hebrew as well, having been trained in a local synagogue in Nazareth – at least, one imagines this was the case. Yet the gospels unfold in a late form of Greek, aimed quite specifically at various groups within the early church, some of them Jewish and others gentile. The Gospel of Thomas comes to us in Coptic, like other early writings discovered in Egypt at Nag Hamrnadi in 1945. (It’s impossible to know exactly what sources these Coptic translators drew on.) Many Jews at the time of Jesus knew the Hebrew Bible only in Aramaic translations called Targumim (a Targum is simply a translation) or in the widely influential rendition of  the Old Testament into Greek known as the Septuagint, which dates from the third or second century BCE. So the story of Jesus takes on the colorations and idiomatic tones of many different languages. English versions, in fact, often derived from the popular Latin translation by Jerome, a very late (fourth century) version of the Bible commissioned by Pope Damasus I in 382., a translation that has many problems (and many glories as well).

Quests for the Historical Jesus

As for the historical details of the life of Christ, one feels the despair of scholars as they grapple with a long tradition known as the quest for the historical Jesus. Before the Enlightenment dawned in the late seventeenth century, there was not much concern about the historicity of the life of Christ: he was simply the man described in the four gospels. This was a world of superstition, where scientific inquiry had not quite impinged on theological matters. In the deist view of the world, popular in the eighteenth century, God was said to have created the clock of the universe, wound it tightly, and stepped aside to let it tick away. In the nineteenth century, a distinction arose between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, and this distinction has guided scholarship ever since, creating complications that remain difficult to address or “solve.”

The first phase of the quest for the historical Jesus, called the Old Quest, began with Hermann Reimarus, a revered professor of theology at Hamburg in Germany. After his death, his most adventurous theological speculations found publication, including On the Resurrection Narratives (1777) – a nuclear bomb exploded in the midst of biblical scholarship. He considered Jesus a revolutionary with political designs on the Jewish community of Palestine and decided that his frantic disciples must have concocted the story of the Resurrection, after having first stolen his corpse from the tomb. He pointed to numerous contradictions in the gospel accounts, and he coolly exploited these differences. Various (mostly German) theologians followed in his rebellious wake, although some tried to reconcile the contradictions that Reimarus had raised. In 1835, David Friedrich Strauss published his Life of Jesus Critically Examined, bringing the historical problems in Jesus scholarship before a broad public and playing into Enlightenment skepticism that had grown over the past decades. He attempted to remove the supernatural parts of the narrative, as Thomas Jefferson had done before him, turning Jesus into an ethical philosopher, nothing more. He didn’t see the gospels as history but legend, calling them myths – perhaps the introduction of that word into Christian discourse.

Strauss and successive theologians in Germany pioneered what became Source Criticism later in the century, centered on the idea that both Matthew and Luke drew on Mark as well as a lost document, always referred to as Q.  What these scholars hammered home was that the first three gospels shared much the same vision, with many identical or nearly identical passages: hence, “Synoptic” came to describe them, as they saw the same things, even the same text. There could be no coincidence here. This was a case of rewriting and shaping existing material. These three gospels roughly tell the same story, with a few competing details, a few telling absences.

The results of source criticism became the norm, and nowadays few scholars dispute that Mark is the earliest of the gospels, or that Matthew and Luke follow him closely, drawing on additional material not available to Mark. John – the Fourth Gospel, as it’s often called – continues to puzzle many, as it stands apart from its three cousins in style and substance. It presents new material (such as the story of Lazarus) and portrays a very different Jesus: one who does not, for instance, teach in parables but speaks broadly in “I am” statements, as in “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The majority of New Testament scholars date all four gospels to the second half of the first century, with Mark having been written about the time when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. John was probably the latest, composed in the last decade of the first century; although a handful of scholars (including J. A. T. Robinson, a former Anglican bishop) place it much earlier, possibly before Mark. Robinson says, provocatively: “One of the oddest facts about the New Testament is that what on any showing would appear to be the single most datable and climactic event of the period – the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism based on the temple – is never once mentioned as a past fact. It is, of course, predicted; and these predictions are, in some cases at least, assumed to be written (or written up) after the event.”  (5)

A huge amount of historical and textual study occurred in the nineteenth century among Christian thinkers, culminating in Albert Schweitzer’s justly famous Quest of the Historical Jesus  (1906), which assembled all the known facts and relevant theories up to the date of its publication. At about the same time, other scholars, especially Johannes Weiss, began to dwell on the eschatological tone of the gospels, with their emphasis on a coming “end times” or eschaton. Schweitzer had picked up on this, observing the insistence on the end of the world in the gospels. Schweitzer argued that Jesus originally thought that a figure called the Son of Man would come and put an end to things.  When this miraculous appearance or parousia failed to materialize, he simply became this figure himself, taking on a sacrificial role, imagining that his violent death would force the hand of God, who would bring all of history to a conclusion, with the righteous lifted up and the evil ones cast down. This didn’t happen, so the Jesus of Schweitzer became a failure, a man who only managed to get himself crucified. In the famous last paragraph of his book, Schweitzer managed to lift the level of rhetoric to quite a feverish pitch:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who did not know who He was. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, and the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (6)

In the wake of Schweitzer and several other major German theologians, Bultmann wrote in a moment of despair: “I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.” (7)  This provocative and now legendary statement was mainly a reaction to the late-nineteenth-century so-called Liberal Lives of Jesus, which sought to examine his psychology, as in the popular treatment of Jesus by Ernest Renan, whose Life of Jesus swept through Europe in the 1860s and continued to attract a wide audience for decades. But these biographies also reflected a growing awareness that much of the historical record was inaccessible, out of reach; it was impossible to know the details of Jesus’s life in the way one knows the details of other historical phenomena. Instead of searching for some phantasm of history, Bultmann sought to discover the inherent message or kerygma of Christianity. With other colleagues, such as Hermann Gunkel, he developed what is called Form Criticism, a kind of “demythologizing” that seeks to discover a kernel of meaning within a particular form, such as a saying or a parable. Bultmann sought to take into account the setting for each narrative link in the gospels (German: sitz im Leben) in order to historicize it, to place it within a sound contextual framework.” (8)  He hoped to separate the mythic strands, grounding the story in scientific realities that “proceed from the world picture of natural science.” (9)  In doing so, he lost something of the mythic resonance of the narrative of Jesus, this mythos that I have hoped to reimagine.

The middle years of the twentieth century are often called the era of No Quest: scholars gave up on trying to locate Jesus in time and place, agreeing with Bultmann that the quest was whimsical. But massive discoveries of fresh material in mid-century brought a crisp wind from the Near East, especially with the uncovering of new texts, including the Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the late forties and fifties. As Cynthia Bourgeault says, “We’re living in an era right now which some would call a major paradigm shift, where there’s an opportunity as perhaps there hasn’t  been before to really open up the core questions again.” (10)

Already this was happening in the early fifties, when – fueled by these discoveries – interest in the life of Jesus picked up quite dramatically.   One of Bultmann’s students, Ernst Kasemann, raised the issue of the quest once again in 1953, arguing that his teacher
had been too skeptical concerning the historical evidence and that in the light of new evidence one must try to wed the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith. He raised the old specter of Docetism, an early heresy in which Jesus was regarded as wholly spiritual, never a human being who lived in historical time. One product of this reopening of the quest – often called the New Quest – was Jesus of Nazareth by Gunter Bornkamm. Bornkamm wrote that each biographer of Jesus suffered from bringing “the spirit of his own age into his presentation of the figure of Jesus,” usually with disastrous results. He concluded:  “No one is any longer in the position to write a life of Jesus.” (11)  Nonetheless, he sought to lay down the undisputed facts, such as the birthplace of Jesus, his language (Aramaic), his baptism by John the Baptist, his trial and execution by the Romans. He emphasized the sayings of Jesus, the wise aphorisms that have traveled so well throughout the centuries. It turned out that one could count on quite a few hard facts, and that the sayings of Jesus could, after a fashion, often be judged as true statements. The quest was, once again, up and running.

A major effort to authenticate the sayings of Jesus began, with a lively group of scholars using various criteria of verification, such as “dissimilarity,” wherein a saying was deemed true if it contradicted things that might have been said in Judaism or the early Christian church. In other words, if it sounded like something often said by rabbis, it probably wasn’t something Jesus actually said.  But this criterion has obvious problems. Why wouldn’t Jesus simply repeat things that he’d heard in the local synagogues and considered worthwhile? There is the added difficulty that we know little enough about Judaic aphorisms during this period that it might be difficult even to know what was likely or unlikely as a saying.

Another criterion is multiple attestation. That is, a saying is more likely to belong to Jesus if it crops up in more than one place and it’s not obvious that one source (Matthew or Luke) simply copied another (Mark). So scholars looked for multiple independent sources. Of course it makes sense that if different sources quote the same material, it might be especially noteworthy, even authentic. The problem is that it’s difficult to know who copied what, or if oral tradition might have floated any number of sayings, which got picked up here and there, in canonical writings as well as texts that lay outside the canon.

There is also the criterion of embarrassment. Would Jesus really have said or done things that embarrassed him or his followers? If embarrassing things got reported in a gospel, they must be true, as the early church would not like to see them conveyed to potential converts – although they probably felt they must report something if it happened to be the truth. A famous example is that of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Why would the Lord himself require baptism? He was Jesus! And why would he submit to baptism by a lesser person? I myself see little value in this criterion. Good theological explanations exist for Jesus doing things like being baptized by John the Baptist or fraternizing with tax collectors and prostitutes. In addition, Jesus liked to shock people, as it proved a good way to get their attention. In addition to this, ethical behavior is often shocking, cutting against the grain of popular morality at any given time. And the writers of the gospels understood this.

The list of criteria used to authenticate the sayings of Jesus multiplied. Historical plausibility, for example, was another one that seemed to gather a lot of attention. A saying must actually seem in accord with things Jesus taught elsewhere if one were to consider it authentic. There were stylistic criteria as well; the saying must somehow “sound like” something Jesus might have said. That subjective or ideological distortions could play into such criteria seems obvious enough, and these distortions make it very hard to say with any certainty that a saying by Jesus was “true” or “false.”

The next phase of Jesus studies, sometimes called the Third Quest, began in the 1980s, holding up the Jewish background of Jesus to close examination. This movement was aided by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as productive new archaeological digs in the region and the development of more sophisticated analyses of texts from the era. Scholars now reread Josephus as well as various rabbinical writings and newly discovered apocryphal texts in the light of freshly discovered facts. An explosion of research in the period of Second Temple Judaism helped to position the life of Jesus in a context that had explanatory value. Among those who pioneered this phase in Jesus studies were Geza Vermes, mentioned earlier, and E. P. Saunders, who published Jesus and Judaism in 1985 – an important point of reference for scholars interested in the Jewish origins of Christianity.

At about the same time as Vermes and Sanders began to explore the Jewish context of the gospels, the Jesus Seminar arrived on the scene, a group of 150 scholars founded in 1985 by Robert W. Funk under the auspices of the Westar Institute in Salem, Oregon. Among the leading members of the group were John Dominic Crossan, Marcus J. Borg, and Burton Mack. The group would meet twice a year to discuss the authenticity of sayings by Jesus, using criteria already in place and expanding on these with their own considerable skills in ancient languages and history. They used colored beads to vote on the degree of authenticity attached to each saying, for example, and voted by dropping them into a box. The Seminar rejected roughly eighty percent of the sayings by Jesus as either inauthentic or doubtful.

The danger of this approach is almost too plain and was nailed by Garry Wills, who wrote: “This is the new fundamentalism. It believes in the literal sense of the Bible – it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some people have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size.” (12)  I would have to agree with Wills (whose various studies of Christian ideas have shaped my own thinking).

One interesting byproduct of the Jesus Seminar was The Five Gospels (1993), a re-translation of the canonical gospels, plus the Gospel of Thomas (1993) by Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and other members of the Seminar. (13)  This fresh translation of the Greek and Coptic texts is worth reading, even if one dismisses the idea of voting on the sayings of Jesus to determine their authenticity. In this edition, the sayings with a high degree of being the actual words of Jesus appear in red, those with less certainty appear in pink; those that seem like Jesus but are probably not his own words are gray. All sayings in black are considered as creations of his followers. While I find the project of trying to verify these sayings foolhardy, this edition provides thoughtful commentary and useful notes that explore the historical and literary aspects of given passages.

Despite the misguided efforts of the Jesus Seminar, there is much to admire in the Third Quest overall, a broad movement where Jesus emerges in a variety of forms, coming off as a millennial prophet (E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier, Dale C. Allison Jr.),  as a revolutionary teacher (Marcus J. Borg), or as a political rebel wishing to overthrow both Herod Antipas and Rome (Richard A. Horsley, Reza Aslan). In other accounts, he becomes an itinerant rabbi who promulgated Kabbalah, a mystical form of Judaism (Bruce Chilton), or a radical Jew (Geza Vermes, Daniel Boyarin), or a master of ancient spiritual wisdom (Thich Nhat Hanh, Cynthia Bourgeault). In the many books by John Dominic Crossan, Jesus becomes a peripatetic Mediterranean peasant influenced by the Cynics – an early Greek school of philosophy that traced its origins back to Socrates; Crossan, in fact tends to discount the historical nature of the gospel narratives, preferring to focus on their deeper meanings. In a recent study of the parables, for example, he concludes: “The power of Jesus’s parables challenged and enabled his followers to co-create with God a world of justice and love, peace and nonviolence. The power of Jesus’s historical life challenged his followers by proving at least one human being could cooperate fully with God.” (14) 

Finally, there is. N. T. Wright, a former Anglican bishop who has written voluminously on the life and teachings of Jesus, notably in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996) and, more recently, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008). In a dialogue with Marcus J. Borg, Wright has gone to the center of his project as a scholar and Christian where he argues that historians are “not disembodied. He or she lives in the created world, the sacramental world, the human world, the political world, the world of a reality simultaneously mundane and shot through with glory.”  Once we have widened our horizons to include all this, he argues, “we will find, I believe, that the tension supposed to exist between history and faith is much more oblique, much less of a problem and more of a stimulus. (15)  In effect, the problems dissolve as Jesus comes into view as an exemplary life, the human face of God, a mythic figure who lived in real time, transcending time.

The Meaning of Christ

That scholarship about Jesus should prove complicated, even contradictory, should surprise no one. Jesus was, and remains, a challenging figure, a voice that sounds through the centuries, calling us to attention, confronting us with hard truths as well as comforting words. He asks us to follow him. But the cost of discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer has shown us, is often high. In Bonhoeffer’s case, the cost was his life itself: he died a martyr to the ideas he lived by. But he understood Christianity as not simply a set of doctrines, a list of “beliefs” that one must check off in order to be “saved.” That wasn’t Christianity at all. As Bonhoeffer writes, Jesus made it clear from the start “that his word is not an abstract doctrine … but the re-creation of the whole life of man.” (16)

That we can’t quite grasp the full meaning of this message – the core message of Jesus – should come as no surprise.  What does it mean, in fact, to call him the Incarnate Word, the logos, except to suggest that “God was in Christ” (II Corinthians 5:19), which is to say that the spirit of God moved in Jesus’s life in order to accomplish God’s purpose. The Incarnation, in other words, suggests that there was a spiritual presence in Jesus that was unique, bringing redemptive words into being, ushering forward deeds culminating in both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. That such matters should prove difficult to comprehend with ordinary human intelligence should not surprise us.

Anything of real value requires an effort of understanding as well as dedication. But it’s worth recalling that Jesus never meant to found a formal church with rituals and organized practices, to ordain priests, or to issue doctrinaire statements that formed a rigid program for salvation. Other than “follow me;’ his only commandment was “to love one another as I have loved you.” He also asked us to break bread in his memory as a way of creating community, of extending the mystical body of Christ into the world at large. Most crucially, he wished for us to experience a change of heart – metanoia – a term which, as noted earlier, suggests a shift into a larger consciousness, a life-enhancing awareness of the mind of God, a deepening into fundamental layers of awareness that transforms and transports us, brings us into contact with profound realities. Jesus offered an  invitation to everyone – to an awakening, to a sense of God-consciousness. This kingdom lies within us, in the soil of our creation.

I don’t pretend to know more about Jesus than any well-disposed Christian who has spent a good deal of time reading about him, studying the Bible, trying to learn from his example and absorb the desert wisdom of his teaching. The place for anyone to begin their journey of faith is certainly with the gospels, including the Gospel of Thomas, with their rich layers of teaching and counsel, and with the letters of Paul, as well as other writings that have acquired sacramental value – as you will have gleaned, considerable portions of my own knowledge of religious ideas come from poetry itself, not only biblical poetry but a wide range of literature.

Revelation is active and ongoing, a lively stream that bubbles up from the ground of being. And the good news that Jesus hoped to spread continues to generate an endlessly active and emerging creation. As R. S. Thomas wrote in “Emerging” –

We are beginning to see
now it is matter is the scaffolding
of spirit; that the poem emerges
from morphemes and phonemes; that
as form in sculpture is the prisoner
of the hard rock, so in everyday life
it is the plain facts and natural happenings
that conceal God and reveal him to us
little by little under the mind’s tooling.


Notes to Chapter 8 – The Afterlife of Jesus

1. Rudolf Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings, ed. and trans. Schubert M. Ogden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 163.

2. The addressee, one Theophilus, remains unknown; but his name in Greek means “lover of God:’ so it’s possible that this was a generic address, composed with a wry smile, a wink of acknowledgment to those who consider themselves lovers of God. Here as throughout this book, I use my own versions of the New Testament, except where the King
James Version (KJV) is so well known that it seems pointless to erase it. With quotations from the Old Testament, I generally use the King James Version, except where clarity is at stake.

3. Bauckham, 6.

4. Allison, 48.

5. John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1976), 13.

6. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, trans. W. Montgomery (London: A & C Black, 1954),401.

7. Rudolf Bultrnann, Jesus and the Word (London: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1935), 14.

8. See Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology. See also History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity (New York: Harper and Row, 1962).

9.  Bultmann, New Testament and Mythology, 5. For a full description of Bultmann’s idea of demythologization, see Robert C. Roberts, Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology: A Critical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, I976).

10. Bourgeault, 3-4.

11. Gunter Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth (New York Harper, 1960), 1. Originally published in German in 1956.

12. Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant (New York: Viking, 2.006), xxv.

13.  The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus, trans. with commentary by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar (New York: Macmillan, 1993).

14. John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (New York: HarperCoIIins, 2012).

15.   Marcus J. Borg and N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 227-28.

16.  Bonhoeffer, 62..


© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

The literature on Jesus is daunting, and I refer to more books and articles in this book than I cite below. But the following are the books that I kept close at hand while working on this project. Many of them have been old friends over many decades. Some are recent additions to my library. I referred to them often as I wrote this study. 

 Jay Parini


Allison, Dale C. Jr. Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.

Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Knopf, 1993.

The Bible: A Biography. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007.

Barnstone, Willis and Marvin Meyer, eds. The Essential Gnostic Scriptures. Boston: Shambhala, 2010.

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.

Beilby, James K. and Paul Rhodes Eddy, eds. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Bond, Helen K. The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T & T Clark, 2012.

Borg, Marcus J. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. New York: Harper-Collins, 1994.

— with N. T. Wright. The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. New York: Harper-One, 1998.

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind a New Perspective on Christ and His Message. Boston: Shambhala, 2008.

Boyarin, Daniel. The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ. New York: The New Press, 2012.

Brown, Raymond E. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

Bultmann, Rudolf. Theology of the New Testament. New York, Scribner, 19S5.

New Testament & Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Trans. Schubert M. Ogden. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Charlesworth, James D. Jesus and Archaeology. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006.

Chilton, Bruce. Rabbi Jesus: The Jewish Lift and Teaching that Inspired Christianity. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Crossan, James Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Jewish Mediterranean Peasant. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.

Drury, John, The Parables in the Gospels. New York: Crossroad, 1985.

Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. New York: Macmillan, 1993.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969.

Levine, Amy-Jill, Dale C. Allison, Jr., and John Dominic Crossan, eds. The Historical Jesus in Context. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Meier, John P.  A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol 1. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Mentor, Message and Miracles, Vol 2.  New York: Doubleday, 1994.

— A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Companions and Competitor, Vol 3. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

— A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: Law and Love, Vol 4. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2.007.

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy. Trans. John W. Harvey. New York: Oxford University Press, 1923.

Pagels, Elaine: The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.

— Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. New York: Viking, 2012.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Ratzlnger, Joseph (Pope Benedict XVI). Jesus of Nazareth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007.

Sanders, E. P. Jesus and Judaism. London: SCM, 1985.

Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1952..

The Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row, 1957.

Vermes, Geza. Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels. London: Collins, 1973.

— Jesus in the Jewish World. London: SCM, 2010.

Wills, Garry. What Jesus Meant. New York: Penguin, 2006.

What the Gospel; Meant. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Wilson, A. N. Jesus: A Life. New York: Norton, 1972.

Wright, N. T.  How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne, 2012..

— Jesus and the Victory of God. London: SPCK, 1996.

The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.

— Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Victory of Christ. New York: HarperOne, 2008.

Who Was Jesus? London: SPCK, 1992.

© Jay Parini, 2013.  Reproduced by permission.

Wrestling with God

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel – Rembrandt
Genesis, chapters 25-50

Jacob wrestles with God

  • Jacob’s story: Jacob’s story takes up 25 chapters in Genesis.  (It’s a family saga, and it’s also a Biblical soap opera.)
  • Today’s reading: Jacob is still traveling, and preparing to meet his brother Esau again; even after many years, he’s still afraid of what Esau may do to him and his family. (Whatever Esau chooses to do, Jacob knows he deserves it.)
  • Wrestling with fear: Jacob doesn’t sleep, but wrestles all night with the unknown future that waits in the morning.  (But there’s Someone else there along with the dangers – Someone who won’t let him go.)
  • Wrestling with God: It turns out Jacob is meeting God again; first it was the dream of a ladder joining heaven and earth (Genesis 28); now, it’s a God who won’t let him go (Genesis 32).

We all wrestle with God

  • I believe every human being wrestles with God, whether they believe in God or not.  There is Something – or Someone – who calls us, accompanies us on our way through life, Someone or Something who won’t let us go.
  • Andy’s story: For many years, as he struggled with mental illness, our son Andy was haunted by the kind of Christianity that pictures God as judgmental and even eternally condemning.  After he died, his last journal was sent to us, and we found notes he’d written while listening to a radio sermon about Jacob.
  • God never lets us go: There were pages of notes from this sermon that captivated Andy, but the bottom line was this:  Jacob was a ‘schemer’– and so was Andy – but God loves them anyway, and will never let them go.
  • Face to face with God:  In listening to this sermon, Andy had come face to face with the loving God of Jesus.

Finding the Face of God in the Bible 

  • Each of our lessons today reminds us of a time when someone came face to face with God.
  • Jacob wrestled with God in the desert, and learned that God was with him every step of the way. (God left his mark on Jacob, a wound he would carry for the rest of his life.)   Genesis 32
  • Moses wrestled not just with God, but with the people of Israel – Jacob’s descendants. (God gave Moses the Commandments, and afterwards his face shone with the intensity of the encounter.)  Exodus 34
  • Jesus wrestled with God’s call (not just with the devil!) in the desert;and for the rest of his life he followed the direction God had given him.  (On the mountain, the disciples came face to face with God’s presence.)   Luke 9
  • Paul never met Jesus in the flesh, but he met him on the road to Damascus: in a blinding light, Paul came to understood he was moving in the wrong direction.    Years later, Paul would write, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”  Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 13
  • This is the God of redeeming love that Andy finally met again at the end of his life – seen through Jacob’s story, read in the light of Jesus.

Our culture wrestles with Jesus – or at least wrestles with ideas about Jesus 

  • Some ask, “Did Jesus really exist?”
  • Others ask, “Was Jesus really the Son of God?
  • Some say, “You must believe in Jesus (my version of Jesus) to gain eternal life.”
  • Others say, “Jesus a great teacher, but his lessons were meant for a simpler world.”
  • Many Christians believe Jesus is still a window into the nature of God.
  • I believe that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of unending love and compassion.

What do you see when you wrestle with Jesus?

 Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos
August 6, 2017



Surely the Lord is in this place

by Rob and Donna Ross – July 23, 2017

O Lord, hear our  prayer….


This Sunday and next, Jesus tells parables about seeds (see Matthew 13:1-32).   In these parables, some seeds land on barren pathways; some seeds are thrown among rocks and brambles; other seeds crowded out by weeds. And some seeds fall into good soil, becoming great trees strong enough to support the growing kingdom of God.

This Sunday and next, the lessons begin with Jacob’s story (see Genesis 25:19-33:17).  We can hear Jacob’s saga as one of Jesus’ “good seeds”.  His story has it all – the barren land, the rocks and brambles,  and plenty of wicked weeds.  But Jacob  – in spite of himself – also turned out to be “good soil”  where the promises of God can start growing into the kingdom.

The saga begins by telling us that Jacob and his brother Esau were twins, and were in conflict even in their mother’s womb.  (Esau was born first, but Jacob came out holding onto his brother’s heel.)  Things got no better as they grew up.  As grown men, they continued to compete, and when their father was dying Jacob even connived to steal the blessing that was meant for his brother Esau.

Then, wisely, Jacob ran away from home and fled into the desert.

Don’t glorify that desert in your imagination.  Jacob’s desert was as desolate as the Mojave, as barren as the vast wastes of Nevada – the last places you would expect to find God’s comfort and promise for the future.  (And don’t glorify Jacob, either.  He was a rascal.  But this rascal’s story shows us that whatever our faults, God loves us and stays with us, and God’s promises to us will bear fruit, if only we – like Jacob – learn to listen and love.)

Genesis 28:10-17, in St. John’s illuminated Bible

Jacob came to a certain place and stayed there for the night,
and he dreamed there was a ladder set up on the earth,
the top of it reaching to heaven.
The angels of God were ascending and descending on it…

Jacob’s Dream, by Marc Chagall

And in the dream the Lord stood beside Jacob and said,
“Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…” 

For at least 3,000 years, Jacob’s story has been a favorite.  As adults we’ve seen his story in great art, and as little children many of us learned all the verses of “Jacob’s Ladder”.

Jacob’s story is a favorite because it reminds us that God meets us in many places… and some of those places are very ordinary.  Like so many people, whether wandering in strange lands or close to home, Jacob found the presence of the Living God in an unexpected place, in a place where he wasn’t even looking.  And so Jacob said,

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…

In the crowd at the Paris airport


Last month I went on a pilgrimage to holy places in France.  One was Taize, a modern pilgrimage site, where thousands of young people come each week to spend seven days.

Paris traffic

My pilgrimage really began with a taxi ride from the Paris airport.  I was badly jet-lagged, but struck up a conversation with the driver, who had emigrated from Mauritius 20 years ago. My French is pretty minimal, and his English was only slightly better,  but we managed.    As we approached downtown Paris, the traffic slowed to a crawl… I noticed a sad man holding a piece of cardboard  saying that he was a Syrian refugee.

Refugee beggar

Promptly, my driver rolled down the window and gave him some coins.  At the end of our ride together, I told him that I was moved by his generosity and gave him much more than the usual tip — suggesting that perhaps he could give some of it to other refugees. He responded with a broad smile and a hearty handshake.

Clearly, my pilgrimage was not just to churches.

Three days later, our group of 16 pilgrims, led by three Presbyterian pastors and a Roman Catholic priest, climbed into two vans and headed south for Vezelay, which has been a pilgrimage site since the 11th century.

The next morning, we were led into the chapter room of the basilica for a deeply moving service in which we were formally commissioned and given medallions which we would wear for the next two weeks.

After three days based in Vezelay, our next stop was Taize…where each week thousands of pilgrims, mostly young, come through the gate to spend a few days.

Pilgrims arriving at Taize

Several times each day, people gather with the brothers in their large worship space….
to sing Taize chants, to listen to Scripture, and to pray.  But Taize’s method  is much more than music and prayer.

Pilgrims at worship

When young people come to Taize, they gather for prayer three times each day, singing chants and praying with the brothers, yes…

…but they also gather every day for Bible Study/Reconciliation.  The young pilgrims are assigned to groups where not everyone speaks the same language.  Perhaps you speak French, and also some English and German.  Others speak German, and just a little Polish.  (Some are American, and speak only English.)  To talk with each other, they have to listen hard, they learn to translate for each other, and they have to struggle to share their own thoughts and beliefs.  Through these daily conversations they are not only speaking their own truths, but learning to listen to each other…. that is, learning the languages the others speak.

Sharing groups


Years ago, when we were in Oberlin, we began an evening Taize prayer service.  Many college students came to the service, where they learned and loved the Taize chants.  Eventually, two of those students decided to go to Taize to experience it for themselves.

Several weeks later, in the complete darkness of midnight, we heard people singing on the sidewalk below our bedroom window.  The student pilgrims were back, singing “Jubilate Deo!” in a joyful round.

The next day, the pilgrims told us more of what Taize is really all about.  Both were the children of divorce, and neither had been in contact with their fathers for years.  But while at Taize, in the midst of the sharing circles, struggling to communicate with others who didn’t speak their language, singing and praying in worship, both decided to try to contact their fathers, and try again.  Over the next year, that contact happened for both of them, and the family began to talk to each other again.

And so we learned that Taize is not just singing, but a Way:

A way of singing, a way of praying, and a way of reconciliation.     

Saturday vigil


Most who come to Taize spend a week there, from Sunday afternoon through noon the following Sunday.

Worship for each week follows the pattern of Holy Week, leading up to Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  Our pilgrimage was planned so that we could worship at Taize  each of these three days.

On Friday, our first day, most of our group huddled together next to the wall, yearning to be fully a part of this worship experience, but reluctant to sit on the floor in the midst of hundreds of youngsters.

On Saturday we split up and moved towards the center. Part of the Holy Saturday worship is having a candle you are holding lit by a neighbor, and then passing the light on.  I noticed that several people behind me did not have candles. Beginning to feel confident about this place, I went to get them some. Having found that the candle bin was empty, I gave them mine. A tiny gesture, but meaningful to me.

Brother Roger, the founder of Taize, wrote:

The heart of worship at Taize, as at Taize-style worship around the world, is meditative singing.  Songs so simple that they are easily memorized.  Short songs, repeated many times, so that the singer can enter a meditative state.  Songs in many languages, so that all will be included.  And in the middle of the songs, silence.

Brothers and Muslim refugees

After worship on Sunday, our group met with Brother John, one of three American members of the Taize community.  He told two stories that showed how Taize continues to develop new modes of reconciliation.

Brother John’s first story was about the Muslims coming to France from the Middle East. Like religious communities in many countries, Taize began by housing several refugee families on their grounds. Slowly, the numbers grew.

Then, in November of last year, the French government called:  They were closing a refugee camp at Calais, on the English Channel, and would Taize be a reception center for unaccompanied minors?  Taize did and, as with their earlier refugee residents, helped them integrate into French society.

Then the brothers began to study Islam to better understand their new neighbors, and created a three-day program to enable Christians and Muslims to pray together and work on reconciliation. This has been warmly received by the French Muslim community, and will continue.

Ferguson, Missouri

Brother John’s second story was about St. Louis, Missouri, from which he had just returned after spending several months there. Following the violence in Ferguson in the summer of 2014,  the local archbishop had asked the brothers to come to St. Louis, to help with reconciliation between the black and white communities.

St. Louis Pilgrimage of Trust

Modeled on Taize’s usual process, in St. Louis there was much singing, talking and praying in small groups. But the reconciliation process involved much more; as in Taize itself, the citizens of the St. Louis area had to learn each other’s languages.  (Not only did blacks and whites have to work with each other,  but Catholics had to learn how to listen to Protestants, and vice versa.)  And to more fully express the hopes and dreams of the black community, Gospel music was added to the usual Taize chants.

(Did you know that “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder”  is an African-American spiritual, and that the very last verse says, “Do you want your freedom”?  Growing up white, we thought we knew every verse of “Jacob’s Ladder”, but we never heard that last verse.)

In Jacob’s dream, the Lord told him,     

You shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north
and to the south; and all the families of the earth
will be blessed in you
and in your offspring… 

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said,

Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…

And he said,

How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God,
and this is the gate of heaven.

And so Taize has become one of God’s many gates to heaven,
and a potential blessing for all the families of the earth.

We truly believe that all around the world, we can learn to do the same, because…
wherever there is charity, and love…God is there….


The Dance of Trinity

Today’s Scriptures all point to the Trinity, even though the word itself isn’t in the Bible.

Genesis 1:1-2:4    Six centuries before Jesus was born, an unknown poet-priest imagined God at the beginning of time: hovering over the void, creating life out of chaos.  Sun, moon, and stars are born; the earth is formed, with its mountains and seas; plants spring up, animals begin to roam the earth, and human beings are created.   When we read this particular verse (Genesis 1:26), we hear God saying that we are made in the divine image – but we often fail to notice that God is speaking in the plural voice: Let us make humankind in our image.  Here, in the first chapter of the Bible, is the God of Trinity.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13:13  In the first century, St. Paul used a powerful metaphor to describe the church – he called it the body of Christ, where each member of the body contributes to the life of the whole.  But there’s another metaphor in this passage, a metaphor which may be even more helpful to us as we try to understand the Trinity: Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries, but the same Lord; and there are different energies, but the same God, operating in everything.  The Greek word Paul used was energeia  (which is the root for our own word “energy”).  Paul can use the metaphor of the body, and speak of the divine energy that flows through it, because the Corinthians are already experiencing the energy of God’s Spirit moving through them.  This passage ends with its most famous sentence and its major point:  Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)   The word for this energeia, in every language, is Love; and the Christian word for the energeia of Love is Trinity. 

The early church:  By the fourth century, Eastern theologians had found another metaphor to describe how God’s energy works: perichoresis  (a word we can loosely translate as “circling around”, and the root for our own word, “choreography”).   If you ever saw the movie, “Zorba the Greek”, you’ve seen a perichoresis because modern Greeks still use the same word for their ancient folk dance.  In perichoresis the dancers join hands and move in a circle, stepping faster and faster as the music speeds up –  until, watching from the sidelines, by-standers can no longer see individual dancers, only the moving energy of the whole circle.  Searching for a metaphor to describe God’s nature and activity, the Eastern theologians looked at perichoresis and said, “That’s what the Trinity is like.”

The Trinity is a harmonious set of relationships bound together by the energy of love.  But the Trinity is not consumed by its own life and relationships; Trinity moves in the world, and acts on the world, sharing its energy with the world.  So look again – within this relationship of love within the embrace of Creator, Spirit and Jesus –  there is more room.  There is space for everyone, even for a whole cosmos. No one needs to be on the sidelines of the Trinity – all are invited to join the dance.

There’s room for all of us here….

Everyone who has ever loved someone knows this dance of love.  Whenever we love, whoever we love – whether a baby, a parent; a beloved friend, a spouse; a neighbor or co-worker – we are connecting deeply with that person.  We share our life’s energy with them; we dance alongside them.   And often, when we love, our love becomes so deep and so full that it spills over into the lives of our families and friends, and they dance along with us.   Whenever we truly love, we invite new people into the dance.  That’s perichoresis, and that’s how the Trinity works.

Come join the dance!

There’s an Episcopal Church in San Francisco that feels in many ways like a Greek church, and it has a Greek name – Sr. Gregory of Nyssa.

St. Gregory’s is never empty.  Around its upper walls of St. Gregory’s there is a parade of saints, each participating in the never-ending dance.  These saints come from every century of the church.

On Sundays at St. Gregory’s we find the congregation, today’s dancing saints, circling the altar as they worship. These saints come from every part of San Francisco, and beyond.

On Fridays at St. Gregory’s we find members of the congregation again, now circling the altar to distribute food to the neighborhood.

What a powerful demonstration of God’s love for all – and what a powerful metaphor for the God of Trinity!

But you don’t have to go to San Francisco to join this dance. The dancing God of Trinity is found wherever there are communities of people joined together in the dance of love, moving together, using the energy of love for peace, harmony, and justice.

The dancing God of Trinity leads us to pour out our love for each other, just as the Creator, Son and Spirit share their mutual love.   When the God of Trinity leads us in the dance, every member of the community has equal worth and equal place. No one is left out, and others are always invited in.

If God is a dancing community, so is St. Benedict’s, Los Osos!  The dancing God of Trinity –  joyful, dynamic, interactive, sharing, loving, serving –   provides the model for our own dance.   Every Sunday we come together to practice perichoresis.  When Sunday’s music comes to an end, we are sent forth to dance in the world –  to bring healing and hope to others, and to invite others to join the dance.

So once again, as we do every Sunday, let’s join the dance of Trinity:

Come, join the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun –
the interweaving of the Three: Creator, Spirit, Son.
The universe of space and time did not arise by chance,
but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.

Come, see the face of Trinity, new-born in Bethlehem;
then bloodied by a crown of thorns outside Jerusalem.
The dance of Trinity is meant for human flesh and bone;
when fear confines the dance in death, God rolls away the stone.

Come, speak aloud of Trinity, as wind and tongues of flame
set people free at Pentecost to tell the Savior’s name.
We know the yoke of sin and death, our necks have worn it smooth;
go tell the world of weight and woe that we are free to move!

Within the dance of Trinity, before all worlds begun,
we sing the praises of the Three: Creator, Spirit, Son.
Let voices rise and interweave, by love and hope set free,
to shape in song this joy, this life: the dance of Trinity.

Text: Richard Leach, 2001  Music: Kingsfold

To hear the music:










Reflections on the reading – chapter 13

Closing wisdom from Richard Rohr:

Wisdom about “falling”….

Most people think that the second half of life is mostly about getting old – but the whole thesis of Falling Upward is the exact opposite.

What feels like “falling” can also be experienced as falling upward and onward.
This kind of “falling” is not about a loss but a gain; it’s not losing but actually winning.

God knows that all of us will fall somehow.  The genius of the Gospel is that it includes the problem inside the solution:

Falling becomes standing;
stumbling becomes finding;
dying becomes rising.

But our small selves cannot see these truths easily.  (This is exactly why we need elders who will mirror life truthfully for us.)

Wisdom about our need for “mirrors”….

True elders mirror back the goodness they find in us. These intimate relationships are the greatest mirrors of all, because they can lead us to our True Selves.

(Not-so-mature people will mirror their own un-lived and confused lives onto us; only those who respond to the real you, good or bad, can help us in the long run.)

By the second half of life, other people have less power to infatuate us or hurt us. Now we can tell the difference between who we really are and how others see us. And so we begin to step out of the hall of revolving and self-reflecting mirrors.

But we can usually do this only if we ourselves have had a true mirror – at least one loving, honest friend to ground us (even the accepting gaze of the Friend).

 Wisdom about the “second journey”….

The second journey is ours to walk or to avoid. If we don’t want to go on that journey, it’s our choice.

That means no one can keep us from the second half of our own life except ourselves. Nothing inhibits the second journey except our own lack of courage, patience, and imagination.

Some falling apart on the first journey is necessary for this to happen – so do not waste a moment of time lamenting…  Pain is part of the deal.

God will always give you exactly what you truly want and desire. 
So make sure you desire deeply – desire God, and desire your True Self. 

All your emptying out is only for the sake of a Great Outpouring. 
God, like nature, abhors all vacuums, and rushes in to fill them. 

As we finish “Falling Upward”, I’m remembering Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day”, which we read after discussing the first chapter.  What does the poem say to you now?

The Summer Dayby Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?


Reflections on the reading – chapter 12

Richard Rohr writes,

It is rare to really absorb the deeper meaning of the Gospel in the first half of life.   When we were building (and then protecting) our ‘containers’, we may have settled for the answers our families and churches passed on to us.

But when we move into the second half of life, we can become impatient with institutions, including the church.  We know that every institution needs to be concerned about practical things like membership, policies, and principles, but we’re now aware that most of these concerns are ego needs, not soul needs.

Now our intimate circles may be growing smaller.  We may bless others who are doing what they feel they must do for a group, but we may no longer be able to join them.

As we distance ourselves, we may feel a certain loneliness.  But that loneliness can be accompanied by a new ability to be alone – and even to be happy alone.

We all tend to move towards a needed introversion as we get older. Such introversion is necessary in order to unpack all that life has given us and taken from us.

Now we can begin to engage in contemplation.

Dualistic, ‘black-and-white’ thinking helps us by making comparisons.  The dualistic mind compares, competes, conflicts, conspires, condemns, cancels out any contrary  evidence (and at times can even crucify).

But dualistic thinking doesn’t help us in most real-life situations.  We’re meant to see in wholes, not in parts.

The most important issues in life need ‘both-and thinking’.  Split people see and create splits in everything and everybody.  Whole people see (and create) wholeness wherever they go.

Where will we find others who will join us in the contemplative life?

Jesus defined church not as an institution but as those places “where two or three are gathered in my name” (Matthew 18:20).  

In his parable of the seed, Jesus reminded his disciples that every seed needs receptive soil before it can grow (Matthew 13:4f).

Receptive people help us grow.  These people are the ‘good soil’.  Two or three people, gathered in Jesus’ name and seeking deeper truth, can create whole new levels of dialogue and friendship.

Could such people support you as you practice the contemplative life?  Could they also support you as you move from prayerful contemplation to constructive action?

Some questions from the Companion Journal:

Could ‘both-and’ thinking help you (or your loved ones) when facing suffering and/or death? (p. 159)

Could ‘both-and’ thinking help you deal with issues at work, in your community, or in political debates?  (p. 160)

Could ‘both-and’ thinking help you respond to a troubling world with courage and compassion?  (p. 160)

Could ‘both-and thinking’ help you move from prayerful contemplation to constructive action?  (p. 160)




Reflections on the reading – chapter 11

The Shadowlands

Spiritual maturity is largely a growth in seeing – but learning to see fully seems to take most of our lifetime.

When we are young, we all identify so strongly with our personas that we become masters of denial – and we l earn to eliminate or deny anything that doesn’t support our self-image.

By the second half of life, we’ve all bumped up against our shadow selves; regular contact with our shadows gradually detaches us from the personas we worked so hard to construct in the first half of life.

Neither our persona nor our shadow is evil in itself; they just allow us to do evil and not know it.  (Remember, hypocrite is a Greek word that simply means “actor”, someone playing a role rather than being “real”.)

Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, and what we don’t want others to see.

Our persona (which is Greek for “stage mask”) is what we choose to identify with, what other people want from us – and reward us for. This “stage mask” is not bad, or necessarily egocentric; it is just not “true”.

So our self-image nothing more than that – an image – which isn’t worth protecting, promoting, or denying.  Our self-image is not substantial or lasting; it is just created out of our own minds, desires, and choices – and other people’s choices for us!

As Jesus said, if we can begin to “make friends” with those who bring us challenging messages, we’ll begin to see some of our own shadow.  But if we aren’t willing to see our shadow, we’ll miss out on much-needed wisdom, and end up “imprisoned” within ourselves or “taken to court” by others:

Make friends with your opponent quickly while he is taking you to court; or he will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and the officer will follow you into prison.  You will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)

The “opponent taking us to court” is a telling metaphor for what we allow inner stories to do to us.  We can create entire and self-justifying scenarios of blame, anger, and hurt – toward ourselves or toward others.  But Jesus is saying, “Don’t go there!”

Moving to second-half-of-life wisdom comes through healthy self-critical thinking, including necessary shadow work.  Gradually, we learn to see ourselves beyond our own shadows/disguises.

Shadow work in humiliating work, but properly so.  And I am sorry to report that it continues until the end of life, the only difference being that we are no longer surprised by our surprises or so totally humiliated by our humiliations!

The saints learn and grow from encountering their shadows.  A saint is someone who no longer has an “I” to protect or project.  They saints learn they will never be perfect – and they’ll never be perfectly right; so they just try to live in right relationships.  In other words, they try above all else to be loving.

The reason that mature or saintly people can feel so peaceful – so accepting of self and others – is that there is not much hidden shadow self left.  (There is always and forever a little more, however!  No exceptions.  Shadow work never stops.)

Shadow work is almost another name for falling upward, because the closer we get to the Light, the more of our shadow we will see.   Lady Julian of Norwich put it best of all:  “First there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall.  Both are the mercy of God!”


Reflections on the reading – chapter 10

Luminous darkness

There will still be darkness in the second half of our lives. But as we grow spiritually, we developed greater ability to hold the darkness creatively and with less anxiety.  (This is what St. John of the Cross called “luminous darkness” – deep suffering and intense joy can coexist within us.)

In the second half of life, the boundaries of our container have been enlarged by the constant addition of new experiences and relationships.  (We are like expandable suitcases, and our lives have stretched us, almost without knowing!)

In the second half of life, it is good to be a part of the general dance; we no longer have to stand out on the dance floor.  We are able and eager to generate life from our own abundance and for the benefit of following generations. (This is what Erik Erikson called the “generative” stage of life. )

In the second half of life, we’ve learned to fight things only when we feel directly called and equipped to do so.  We have learned ever so slowly, and with much resistance, that most frontal attacks on evil just produce another kind of evil in ourselves.   (And we now know that daily life requires prayer and discernment more than knee-jerk responses.)

And, ironically, in this second half of life we’re more able than ever to change people – but we don’t need to, and that makes all the difference.  Now we can aid and influence other people simply by being who we are.  In the poet’s wonderful words, we’ve found that:

…  nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose


Walking the Way of the Spirit

The road through Death Valley

The First Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2017

Last Sunday, we stood on the mountain of the Transfiguration, looking ahead to the light of Easter.  This Sunday, we are standing with Jesus in the desert, looking ahead to Pentecost…

But why Pentecost?  It’s still three months away!  

On Pentecost we’ll remember how the Holy Spirit came to Jesus’ disciples. There they were, gathered in the upper room, waiting as Jesus had told them to do.  But they felt abandoned and they were afraid.  They were afraid that Jesus was never coming back.  But suddenly the Spirit came upon each of them –  reassuring them that Jesus was still with them, and giving them courage for the future. (see Acts 2:1-4)

Did you think that they remembered Pentecost because it was such an exciting spiritual experience?  I don’t think so –  they remembered it because they knew that Jesus, the man they had known so well, was now present through the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit has Jesus’ personality, which points constantly to a compassionate and loving God.  (In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is even called “the Spirit of Jesus”. See Acts 16:7)  

That Spirit would now work through the disciples, by pointing the way forward.  Even today, the same Spirit who pulled Jesus into the desert, who filled the disciples with courage,  is pulling us into the future.

The God of Relationship

The God of Relationship, the God of compassion is also the God of Becoming, the God of dynamic change, who is calling us to become  co-creators of the future.

Can we  – you and I – really help create the future?   On Maundy Thursday we’ll remember the Last Supper, when Jesus began to tell his disciples about the coming Spirit. And he said to the disciples (who didn’t believe it any more than we can believe it about ourselves), “Because of the Spirit, you will do greater things than I…”  (see John 14:12)

How the magnet works:

In his book, The God of Becoming and Relationship, Rabbi Bradley Artson tries to explain how prayer works.  He remembers when he was a very little boy, playing in the field behind his house.  He’d take his magnet out in his pocket, sit down on the ground and begin to run his magnet through the dirt.  All the bits of iron, that were resting in the soil, unseen by human eyes, began to cling to the magnet.  The magnet took on a “tail” of filings, each of which was being oriented internally to the pull of the magnet.

For Rabbi Artson, this is what happens whenever we pray: God is pulling us forward, the Spirit is shaping us internally, and we are being pointed towards God.  Process Theology calls this pull the “lure” –  God calling us forward, into acts of love, compassion, and justice.

Lures in the desert:

Fish swimming in a river look up and see food floating above them.  But not all the “lures” above them are actually healthy food.  Some of the “lures” have been cast there by fishermen, hoping to catch their own dinner.

The Spirit “lured” Jesus into the desert.  We might even say, as Mark’s Gospel tells us, that the Spirit “drove” – or even propelled – Jesus.  That’s the same Spirit that came to the disciples on Pentecost!  (See Mark 1:12). 

But there were other “lures”.  the Tempter also “lured” Jesus in the desert, with offers of bread to satisfy his hunger, political power over the world, and spiritual power that would draw all eyes to him.

How did Jesus resist the Tempter?  His life had already been shaped by the faith passed on to him by his parents, by his village synagogue, and by his reading of Scripture.  Notice how Jesus responds to each of the Tempter’s offerings: he quotes Scripture:

We do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.  (Deuteronomy 8:3)

Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Deuteronomy 6:16)

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God. (Deuteronomy 6:13)

Now, in addition to his faith and his Scriptures, Jesus is also being guided by the Spirit, who takes him to the desert to show him the direction God has for him.

With faith, Scripture, Spirit, Jesus knew the direction towards God – and he knew when he was being “lured” in the wrong direction.

There are lures all around us:  We are called forward by God, and we are also tempted –  how will we know which “lure” to choose?   We need the ”magnet” – to be lured, pulled, and shaped by the Spirit

So many choices, so many “lures”

Do you know about the “lures”on your smart phone?  First, make sure that your screen – with all its attractive “apps” –  is on; and make sure that your sound is off!

Then look at all those choices before you:

  • You could play Solitaire…
  • You could look at Facebook…
  • You could text a friend…
  • You could surf the net…
  • You could turn on your timer to see how long this sermon is going to last….
  • Or, tomorrow morning around 5 a.m., you could use your cell phone to send out your latest “tweet” – so all the world will be talking about you, and glory and honor will abound for you all day long.

Did you know you have a compass on your phone?

  • Find your compass…
  • Now find “North”….
  • Now imagine that “North” points you to Jesus…
  • Now imagine that this “app” will lead you through Lent and all the way to Pentecost.

There are “lures” all around us

Last night I was explaining this wonderful sermon illustration to my husband Rob, who was looking at me with that look I’ve known for more than 60 years – which says, “You’re off base, but I’m too polite to say so.”

But humoring me, Rob looked at his compass – and suddenly he found that his “North” wasn’t pointing in exactly the same direction as my “North.”  Now he was interested –  depending on where he was standing in the room, “North” was swinging back and forth.

What was going on?

Whenever Rob came near something metal the compass wavered.  And when he came near the iron étagère, his compass really started swinging…. And he finally told me, “Well, cell phone compasses are notoriously unreliable!”

Rob’s right – a cell phone compass is not the most reliable way to find “North”, and we couldn’t use a cell phone compass in a desert where there’s no service.

Fortunately, we don’t need modern technology to walk the Way of Jesus – we only need what Jesus had:

  • the scriptures,
  • a faith community,
  • and the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus.