March 30, 2006

coping with early christian violence

The posting thus far on this passage have focused on the fear and violence present in this story. Our modern, and perhaps liberal Quaker mindset is discomforted by this. And I find myself resisting other people's resistance to this text. And I'm trying to unpack this somehow.

We very much want a clean cut peacenik of a Jesus. And while the spirit of Christ in me cries out against the violence and oppression in this world, I'm not altogether convinced that was the agenda of the historical Jesus and hence of his disciples. I know how hard the choice to uphold the peace testimony is for a white middle class North American -- and I do a miserable job of it.

But that wasn't the situation for the first Christians. It was closer to being like Nazi occupied France. And you aren't a collaborator with Vichy. You are a fully active member of the resistance. And then you advocate to your fellow resisters -- a course of non-violent action. If the Romans don't crucify you your best friend may well slit your throat.

I do not believe that we have become more spiritually evolved and thereby grown out of their errors -- because I know I haven't. I believe they found themselves called to something that was well-nigh impossible and incredibly dangerous.

I'm also not entirely convinced the story of Ananias and Sapphira is historical. If it isn't -- or even if it is -- what's it doing here?

First, it qualifies the utopian vision. It shows us that these folks were human. And some made mistakes. And just maybe, by Luke's day -- this community of goods -- of sharing and equality and mutual love -- had grown into something a little bit more pragmatic and Luke was struggling to understand why his church wasn't like their church even as he tried to witness to the faith he loved.

Second, there's a parallel story in the book of Joshua. God has commanded the Israelites to go to battle to not keep any booty for themselves but rather to destroy it. This takes away two fundamental reasons for war -- personal profit and military glory -- both belong to God not to the tribal leaders. This battle was the battle for the Promised Land. One tribal leader holds back some silver. He is in fact a major family leader -- in other words he was rich already. When it is found out God orders the death of the offending leader and his cohorts and the destruction of the silver.

How does this fit? Ananias was a landowner and therefore rich. He held back what was to be delivered to the poor. So he also dies. Instead of the community killing him on God's behalf God acts directly -- or alternately -- a word from Peter kills with divine power without need for human instrument.

In either way -- a new war for the Promised Land is taking place. But giving to the poor has replaced sacrifices on the altar. Indeed, the poor are the Promised Land and the priests of the temple and the apostles are the prophets and the warband leaders.

All of which assumes this connection with this connection with the entry into the Promised Land was in Luke's mind as he wrote -- for it is not explicit. I may be wrong.

March 29, 2006

Perfect Love Casts out Fear

(Already mentioned by Crystal I John 4:18)

That to me is the fundamental answer to the problem of Ananias and Sapphira. It seems rather clear that the church in Acts 4, notwithstanding the tremendous spiritual experiences they had undergone, was not perfect in love. Power, domination, coercion: all these things stem from fear. These two unfortunates were sufficiently infected with it to succumb.

If Peter had said that God would require their souls forthwith, he would have been mistaken IMHO; God doesn't do that. It's the fear that infects the church today that causes people to say dolorously, "It was God's will". "God called them home" is a bit better.

It's fear that causes people to say, "we have to attack Iraq in order to make ourselves safe". Only God can make us safe, and not with the weapons we spend so much on.

March 26, 2006

Just Because I'm in One of Those Moods

What Would Buffy Do?

Christian Century: What would Buffy do? - the televison series Buffy the Vampire Slayer - television program review

fear of god

One of our members (Zach Alexander, Quaker Anarchist) had (its gone now) a sub-title to his blog: Fear G-d not people. So I would rather he spoke to this issue.

Where I'm coming from is that scripture speaks of the fear of God as a positive as the beginning of authentic spirituality. I can speculate on the concept all I want. I can cite learned tomes. Experience is a tad thin.

One book: Rudolph Otto The Idea of the Holy (Das Helige). The entire book is an attempt to deal logically and in some ways anthropologically with what is basically an emotion: the sense of the numinous. What do you want? He's a German theologian/philosopher from early 20th century. The only way they know how to deal with emotion is write book length logical analyses with extended footnotes.

Contemporary spirituality wants us to see God as a close relation Father-Mother-Brother-Friend -- and the teachings of the gospels encourage this. But this is only a part of the story. The story of Annanias and Sapphira speaks to another approach to the divine. And while I'm not sure I fully understand it I'm not ready to dismiss it as contamination from more primitive religions either.

The numinous happens when we have a sudden awareness of how infinitely small we are before the majesty of God and how infinitely unworthy we are before the holiness of God. The closest experience to this I can witness to was one day waiting for a bus. A low lying storm cloud passed overhead. It was dark and foreboding and it was close enough you could see the edges seethe like they were boiling hot. There was a yellow-green tinge to the sky -- which sometimes marks tornado sightings. I was fascinated with the storm cloud but also felt fear at the same time. And not just of the storm cloud. This was an encounter with God as well.

What do I do with this?

See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand.(Deuteronomy 32:39)

Blows that wound cleanse away evil; beatings make clean the innermost parts. (Proverbs 20:30)

The experience of the ancient world was that healing was painful. And in healing the spirit wounding the spirit may very well be the first stage of growth. Spirituality in traditional mystical literature speaks of three stages: purgation: getting rid of the spiritual toxins (sins) -- exposing them and abandoning them; illumination: growing in virtues and enlightenment; union: union with God.

Dante went through the inferno, and then purgatorio, before getting to paradisio. With the exception of those fundamentalist folks stuck on the Purgative Way -- with the mea cuplas and the Jesus save mes -- most moderns want the illumination and the union without the purgation. You can't get a rotten tooth yanked without being well dosed with novacaine and laughing gas.

So we have these warm fuzzy experiences and call this the presence of God. And this may very well be so. But when we have those negative fearsome experiences. God is there too. Closer than hands and feet, but also wholly other and Holy Other and what do we do? Turn on the stereo. Have another beer. That image of God is pathological now. And instead of inspiring us to deeper spiritual life -- it drives us deeper into sin and what Pascal called divertiment -- escapes.

Rudolph Otto is out of print. Modern day spiritual directors light scented candles to make us feel welcomed by God's holy spirit. I may be mourning a spirituality I never have had. And can never claim for myself.

I do not have answers here. I only sense I'm asking questions in an area others on the spiritual path aren't asking.

Ananias and Sapphira

When both Ananias and Sapphira died after church members accused them of lying to and deceiving God, it is as though God’s wrath against sinners Ananias and Sapphira killed them. Understandably this shocked the other believers. The point here seems to be two-fold: 1) to lie to and to attempt to deceive the church is to do the same to the God, and this is looked upon as a grave sin, and 2), sinning like this may put your very life in peril.

As I read this, I got the feeling that this message deals with the power and control of the church – a story as a means to control the behavior of the parishioners. Wow! Don’t lie to the church or God or it will cost you your life. This message is in sharp contrast to another message I hold dear – and that is that God is a primordial goodness that is eternally present, regardless of what one does or does not do – a goodness and love bestowed upon each of us that is neither earned or deserved. We are all beloved to God, and God is forgiving and merciful.

March 25, 2006

Acts 5:1-11 - Holy mackerel!

The sin of Ananias and Sapphira did not consist in the withholding of part of the money but in their deception of the community. Their deaths are ascribed to a lie to the holy Spirit (⇒ Acts 5:3, 9), i.e., they accepted the honor accorded them by the community for their generosity, but in reality they were not deserving of it.

Above is the NAB's explination of the events in our reading ... for some reason, I still feel pretty disturbed. I'm not the only one ... the lectionary for the Catholic Church leaves out this reading ... it's never used in Mass. As I read at the American Catholic site ...

Interestingly, while the Easter season readings emphasize this ideal picture of the early Church, Acts hints at times that all was not perfect. The framers of the Lectionary left out the curious story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). This married couple withheld from the common pot proceeds from the sale of some property. Peter confronts them and denounces their selfishness. Their punishment seems rather severe, for upon Peter’s interrogation about their evil deception, they both drop dead! Little wonder that this reading did not make it into the Lectionary! The message of instilled fear in the Church (Acts 5:11) goes counter to the hope-filled, joyful message of the Easter season. Yet perhaps the reading interjects a note of realism, namely, that it is not easy to fulfill the idealized vision of Church life presented by Acts.

It's a sad commentary on human nature that this reading ends with a line that's meant, I think, to reinforce our faith .... And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. I prefer the line from 1 John 4:18 .... There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.

- The Death of Ananias by Raphael

Acts 5:1-11 (NRSV)

I don't know how I got the last passage wrong like that: I put Acts 2:1-10 in as title and yet got the right passage -- Acts 4:32-37! Gaak! I musta bin asleep at the switch. Not that anyone noticed (or decided to point out to me the error of my ways . . .

But a man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God." When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, "Tell me whether you sold the land for so much." And she said, "Yes, for so much." But Peter said to her, "How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Hark, the feet of those that have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out." Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.

March 23, 2006

Celebration Touched by Sadness

Pause a moment. Give thanks for the rescue. Give thanks for the faithful witness. Pray for the comfort of the families.

Remember the estimated 1500 Iraqi nationals also held hostage but invisible to international attention.

And a country ripped apart by criminals, terrorists, foreign occupying armies.

ABC News: Three Christian Activists Rescued in Iraq

March 21, 2006

Son of Encouragement

This was the name given to Joseph (who became Barnabas). A few chapters onward we'll read about the encouragement Barnabas gave Paul, leading to his missionary calling.

Barnabas is a type I seek to emulate. To encourage others in the exercise of their spiritual gifts is better than exercising them yourself. For one thing there's less danger of inflation, which is so prevalent for those with outstanding gifts. Barnabas did not put himself forward; his ambition to do the Lord's work was not wrapped up with his ego.

Re the communalism we'll very shortly read of one of the disastrous consequences of that practice. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try it; it only points out one of the dangers.

March 18, 2006


Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

This brings to mind the book by Thomas More, Utopia. The book, which was somewhat based on Plato's Republic and which was said to be the inspiration for Marxism, depeiced a communal, democratic, religiously tolerant and pacifist society that has done away with poverty and persecution ... they were also much influenced by the fact that Christ had encouraged his disciples to practice community of goods.

That Utopia had its problems, of course, and in its own way was as tyranical as the meieval European monarchies to which it was it was compared. As one page about Utopia put it ...

It is an insidious kind of tyranny which works by persuading the people that it is all for their own good, and proceeds almost to enslave them to the state and remove as many elements of choice as possible ... Religious toleration exists, so long as you don't want to be irreligious. You may travel wherever you please, so long as you get permission ... You may train for more than one job, and, once trained, may do whichever of them you please, except when one of them is more necessary than the other. You are quite free to hold political opinions, except that the penalty for discussing affairs of state away from the `senate' is death ... And Shakespeare, less than a hundred years later, understood that a system which allows no flourish, no splendour, and, ultimately, no beauty, could never be a spiritually rich one: Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man's life's as cheap as beast's, cries King Lear, and it is hard not to agree with him.
- source

Why did the communism of the early church fail? On the one hand, a working example of communal life does exist ... religious orders. Within those orders there's still excellence, diversity and individulaity alonside love of others and a cummunity of goods. But I'm not sure this kind of lifestyle would work in the greater world where people live as families ... the desire, almost compulsion, to protect and perpetuate oneself may contradict the desire to perpetuate the community as a whole.

everything they owned was held in common

I'm open to suggestions here. But really don't see how you can possibly be a biblical literalist and not admit that the church left Christianity behind sometime around the endorsement by Emperor Constantine.

Let's be cold clear about this. Luke believed that the first Christians practiced communitarianism -- voluntary non-state socialism. The whole tapestry of Christian history is a record of the faith -- like Jonah's response to the call from God -- doing a major about face running as far and as hard from this truth as humanly possible. And the cold consequence is of running from God's revelation is to get swallowed live and to find yourself in the belly of the beast.

Now the evidence is not univocal. Luke does in fact speak in past tense here. The common purse may have been less common by the time Acts was written. And in fact Acts is brutally honest about what kind of mess that common purse became. And the clean-up solution to that mess was the three-orders of ministry -- deacons, priests, and bishops (or elders if you prefer).

The other side of the coin if you will is what we are to do about it. In the face of Luke's witness that Jesus' teaching and the proclamation of his resurrection demands a common purse, how then are we to live out a Christian faith in today's world?

And I'm not entirely convinced I want to live THAT alternative of a life style. No, I am not rich. But what I have I'm rather fond of. And I still hold out some hope life might get better -- someday. Whatever else wealth is -- its power. And I seriously doubt that I'd be victimized by the stupidity and malice and prejudice of others in a socialist world than in a capitalist one.

So you see -- I too live in the belly of the beast.

March 16, 2006

Act 2:1-10 (NRSV)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement"). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet.

March 14, 2006

Charisma / crystal

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

An interesting aspect of the catholic church that I'm not so familiar with is touched on by this passage ... the charismastic renewel movement. It began in the late 60s at universities like Notre Dame - a kind of catholic penticostalism that emphasizes the charisms of the holy spirit.

At the present time in the Catholic Church, these "charismatic" gifts are usually experienced in the context of a prayer meeting ... Most of the meeting consists of praising God with spontaneous prayers and with singing. These periods of prayer will be punctuated by scripture reading, sharing, and prayers for the particular needs of individuals. During the meeting the charisms will be exercised, although they do not always play a part. The typical meeting follows St. Paul's directive: "When you assemble, one has a psalm, another an instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or interpretation. Everything should be done for building up." [1 Cor 14:26]
- The Catholic Experience of Renewal, Fr. Thomas Foster, S.J - link

While a couple of Popes have embraced the movement, the church wants it clear that discernment is important and that one should not "seek the gifts of the Giver and not the Giver of the gifts."

I'm not sure how I feel about all of this. It's confusing ... does the holy spirit dwell within us all the time? If so, why does it seem like we are filled with it sometimes, and not others? Why do some people have charisms and others don't? Why can I believe (mostly) in the passage from Acts in which the apostles are "filled with the spirit" yet not only doubt that people nowdays can have the same experience, but find the idea kind of weird?

March 12, 2006

enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness

First -- apologies for my absence -- or rather my lack of energy to engage the discussions here.

This reading is basically a prayer. Faced with opposition and threats of persecution, the disciples now apostles do not pray for their opposition to be broken or to win the fight but rather for the courage and strength to fight the good fight.

Indeed, and maybe this is because of my own experiences in ministry playing out here, but the apostles are actually asking for a gift that has already been given them. This passage happens before the prayer:
They were astonished at the fearlessness shown by Peter and John, considering that they were uneducated laymen; and they recognized them as associates of Jesus; but when they saw the man who had been cured standing by their side, they could find no answer.

And after the prayer we read:
After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

On a number of occasions I have stepped forward to take on ministerial roles. There have been discernment of gifts and calling -- it seemed like I was moving forward in both faith and faithfulness. And at some point I found myself used up and floundering. As I reflect now on taking on such a role again (and even -- with this group and my blog -- whether it may be happening to me again) I struggle to understand why -- so I may be a servant faithful to the end.

Quakers have a notion for this. Outrunning your Guide. Pursuing the ministry beyond the bound of the vocation. And maybe there has been some of that.

But possibly another understanding is shown forth in this scripture. After I am given the gifts to do the task I stop asking for them. In the course of any ministry that extends in time -- snags happen. Opposition from sources unexpected or in a force and kind unprepared for. Sometimes such opposition stops me in my tracks. More often I face it and overcome. And yet, the battle sucks strength from me. I come away discouraged and face a much lesser challenge not with confidence but despair. And then I am undone.

I have not learned -- or rather need to constantly relearn -- the lessons of the manna in the desert. Give us this day, our daily bread.

Filled with the Holy Spirit

Does the Spirit come and go? My personal experience suggests that he/she does.
Instance: years ago as a pastor I went to a conclave of fellow pastors. There was much deep sharing, and I was on the very mountain top.

The weekend over, I returned to my parish to find a man I had labored with intensely for some months had broken over and became as drunk as a lord. All my poise left me; I made the same mistakes that people tend to do in such circumstances. I felt like the Spirit had left me.

Is that what happened? or did I leave the Spirit. These first Christians must have (to some degree left the Spirit after Pentecost, because we read that once again they were filled with the Spirit.

This may not describe the life of most people, but it sure does mine. For moments, now and then....

Acts 4:23-31 (NIV)

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: "'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. ' Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

Supplementary Texts

Consider also:

Luke 23:6-12. On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends-- before this they had been enemies.

John 19:8-12. When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. "Where do you come from?" he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar."

Psalm 2:1-2. Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One.

March 04, 2006

Authority / crystal

Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, "Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges."

Like Larry, I found the most interesting part of this reading to be the above line. It touches on the problem of discerning ... how can you correctly interpret your religious experience and what if that experience contradicts the teachings of your church? This probably is not much of a problem for Quakers, as their respect for the individual's personal connection to God is very strong, but in the Catholic church, well, it's maybe a good thing that the Inquisition's in the distant past :-).

An example might be the conflict surrounding the alleged sightings of, and "secrets" given by, the Virgin Mary by six young people of the village of Međugorje. I have no personal opinion about the validity of the apparitions, but the subject does raise questions of how the church decides whether a person's religious experience is "truth".

- Our Lady of Medjugorje: The Burning Bush by Fr. William McNichols, SJ

We Must Obey God, not Men

Re: 'You must judge whether in God's eyes it is right to listen to you and not to God. We cannot stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard.'

For the title I've taken a statement of Peter's recorded in the 5th chapter, which fits this discussion quite well.

And it's just as timely today as it was in the first century. We are continuously enjoined to 'obey men', whether it's the TV ads, the political propaganda, or the religious authority. Against that we have the voice of God speaking to us as it did to Peter and the others. Can we stand up against the conventional pressures the way Peter did?

Acts 4: 1-22

While they were still talking to the people the priests came up to them, accompanied by the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees. They were extremely annoyed at their teaching the people the resurrection from the dead by proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. They arrested them, and, as it was already late, they kept them in prison till the next day. But many of those who had listened to their message became believers; the total number of men had now risen to something like five thousand.

It happened that the next day the rulers, elders and scribes held a meeting in Jerusalem with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, Jonathan, Alexander and all the members of the high-priestly families. They made the prisoners stand in the middle and began to interrogate them, 'By what power, and by whose name have you men done this?' Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, addressed them, 'Rulers of the people, and elders! If you are questioning us today about an act of kindness to a cripple and asking us how he was healed, you must know, all of you, and the whole people of Israel, that it is by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, and God raised from the dead, by this name and by no other that this man stands before you cured. This is the stone which you, the builders, rejected but which has become the cornerstone. Only in him is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved.'

They were astonished at the fearlessness shown by Peter and John, considering that they were uneducated laymen; and they recognised them as associates of Jesus; but when they saw the man who had been cured standing by their side, they could find no answer. So they ordered them to stand outside while the Sanhedrin had a private discussion. 'What are we going to do with these men?' they asked. 'It is obvious to everybody in Jerusalem that a notable miracle has been worked through them, and we cannot deny it. But to stop the whole thing spreading any further among the people, let us threaten them against ever speaking to anyone in this name again.' So they called them in and gave them a warning on no account to make statements or to teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John retorted, 'You must judge whether in God's eyes it is right to listen to you and not to God. We cannot stop proclaiming what we have seen and heard.' The court repeated the threats and then released them; they could not think of any way to punish them, since all the people were giving glory to God for what had happened. The man who had been miraculously cured was over forty years old.

March 02, 2006

The Name of Jesus

"it is the name of Jesus which, through faith in him, has brought back the strength of this man whom you see here and who is well known to you. It is faith in him that has restored this man to health, as you can all see". One should first understand that the name is never meant to be used magically. As a 5 letter word Jesus has whatever connotation a person puts on it.

In Bible Tools we read that "In biblical thought, a name does not merely identify; it expresses the essential nature of its bearer." It was by living the 'essential nature" of Jesus that the power to heal came through Peter.

He made it clear that this healing faculty is present with anyone who has been able to "live into the essential nature of Jesus". Unfortunately the faithful almost uniformly ignore this promise:
"Who, me? Little me?" That's the usual response of the 'faithful' when such a thing is mentioned. We don't try to 'live Jesus' nature' because we don't believe that God has the power to put those kind of gifts within our ability. We're not belittling our own power; we're belittling his.