Textual Dysfunction; Divine Reversal

Steed V. Davidson—April 30, 2008
PLTS Chapel


For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. Acts 17:23

For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. 1 Peter 3:17-18

This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. John 14:17

Not all lectionary days are created equal. The sixth Sunday of Easter in Year A stands as one of those odd days. Reading these texts I left to label the selection as “textual dysfunction.” These texts look irrelevant, offensive and meaningless from today’s perspective. These texts serve to underline particular Christian dogma relating to the resurrection and attendant beliefs rather than engage human life as a lived reality. But believing that God can work despite of and inspite of the intent of the lectionary framers, I stuck with these dysfunctional texts for our reflection today.

The reading from Acts reports Paul’s encounter with the multi-faith context of Athens. It demonstrates at some level Paul’s sensitivity to other expressions of faith. But no sooner do we hear the respectful note we are treated to the subtle jab that the unknown God or whatever deities are represented in physical forms are in fact the God of Jesus, resurrected and triumphant at the end of days. Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s religious superiority does not reflect the image of Paul from his letters. Nonetheless, the discounting of other religions whether clear in their understanding of a deity or not remains sadly a trait of Christian missionary activity and some contemporary practice. The suggestion in the text is that the Athenians have an incomplete faith; Paul’s faith is complete. The Athenians do not know much about God, Paul knows everything. But not only Paul, we who are like Paul, or wish to be like him will firmly announce in our various contexts we are clear about God. Such certainty leaves no room for doubts, discounts faith that dares to talk about the unknown aspects of God or even say “I don’t know” with regards to faith. The excitement some have about this text does not always fully take account of what it means to be told that you really have no god.

The second text from Peter raises the issue of suffering and commends faithful suffering to the communities in the way of Jesus’ suffering. These communities to whom this letter is addressed understand the reality of suffering, and therefore the encouragement to face suffering boldly with the hope of positive outcomes seems reasonable in the context. Yet it is hard to read this chapter of Peter without remembering the earlier advice to slaves and women to bear up under the authority of slave masters and husbands. But the larger aspects of this passage lie in the proclamation of the resurrection and the notion of the harrowing of hell. Therefore readings tend to overlook the problematic advice of simply accepting suffering as a badge of honor. According to the dogma, Jesus goes to hell to preach to those who would not have had the benefit of being alive during his lifetime so that they would be saved as well as have no excuse in the judgment. This dogma in addition to the one on baptism commends this passage as an important text for Christians. Its commendation though fails to take seriously the real experience of suffering that has no point, or point of redemption.

The third text shares aspects of the first with its exclusionary appeal of the Advocate. We know why this text appears here, it anticipates the Ascension and Pentecost. Therefore, it properly explicates Christian dogma and helps keep the flow of the liturgical calendar. These virtues can distract us from the Johannine exclusionary motif—only those who see the Spirit will receive it. Our lectionary text ends abruptly because the conversation continues with Judas asking why only us and not the world. This critical question inexplicably omitted finds an answer in a further exclusion; God, Jesus and the Spirit will live only with those who love God and keep God’s word. What a way to close the doors even to those who just want to peer through it.

These texts present a strange, yes dysfunction ending for the Easter cycle. Compared with the excitement and enthusiasm of the day of resurrection this note sounds sour. Perhaps we can attribute the textual dysfunction to the length of the cycle—finding passages of relevance to the resurrection can be difficult. Difficult as it was I could hear a Word of God from these dysfunctional texts. Easter and resurrection still preoccupy our attention, but the rest of the world has moved on to make plans for the summer. Thursday we will recall the culmination of this resurrection event in the ascension and exaltation of Jesus, but the rest of the society will be shopping for Mother’s Day cards. We will be trying to entrench the dogmatics of the resurrection beyond Easter, the theology of the trinity, some link between the flood and baptism, but most persons’ attention is fixed on the outcome of the Democratic primary race. Like the short attention spans of our communities or their preoccupation with more pressing matters of life our lectionary texts fail miserably to keep the power, mystique, and freshness of the Easter story going for the full cycle. But have they failed or are our lives so complex that these texts do not adequately speak to them?

While I think that the context of 21st century US sits poles apart from the 1st century Roman Empire, I hear in the texts of Acts, Peter and John the attempt to connect resurrection faith with the challenges of life. Luke situates Paul in the midst of Athens with its multiplicity, with its teeming philosophies, with its cosmopolitan lifestyle and resurrection has a word for that context; imperfect by today’s standards but a word that seeks to make it relevant to the lives of a diverse people. Peter writes to communities uncertain of the future wondering whether their profession of faith would mean anything in their communities and he inserts the story of the resurrection to encourage them. Resurrection functions as transformative for a marginalized people trying to retain their hold on their identity but doing so imperfectly by adding restrictions to slaves and women. Yet Peter aims to present a story of new life, new birth out of the daily grind. And John facing the possibility that many would make a choice that does not include Jesus presents the resurrection as proof of the truth of Jesus. Those who make Jesus their choice will know that they will be rewarded and they will be on the inside even if in their lives under Roman rule. They will not be left out of any benefits in God’s economy.

The resurrection paves the way for the Spirit of God to encourage, plead for, support and uphold otherwise dispirited and dejected people. Resurrection faith in these texts lies not in dogmatics but in lived experiences. Resurrection faith does not serve to construct a theological edifice to prove one side right and the other incorrect. Resurrection faith is already certain of its validity, of its power, of its transformative ability, of its energy and its relevance to the life of God’s people. So we need to ask how are we commending and living this resurrection faith on the eve of the Ascension? What happens to us because we read these texts, what happens to us because we observe these events or believe in the resurrection?

This day, these readings, these days remind us so firmly that resurrection faith is a struggle. Resurrection faith is a minority faith. The spectacle of Easter can lull us into thinking that this faith makes sense and that everyone is on board with it. But put into the rough and tumble of daily life and resurrection faith faces challenges to survive. Resurrection faith calls us to dare to believe in transformation and reversal, challenges us to think that the weak can indeed become strong, that those left out can be included. What does that song say but that like the little lily pushing back the mighty sod, resurrection faith demands that we believe in the unbelievable. But when life gets going resurrection faith can be a challenge and a struggle to hold on to. Luke, Peter, and John understand this struggle and in their own crude ways they challenge their communities to keep this faith. They know that the whole world is not on board with this faith; they know that their position is a minority position; they know that they are marginalized. But resurrection faith refuses to stay in corners or on the edges of the lives of people when it really matters. No doubt these textual dysfunctions reveal the struggle we face today with resurrection faith.

This struggle played out before our eyes these past days as Rev. Jeremiah Wright took to the public to vindicate his ministry and teachings. In good and not so good ways Wright refused to be quiet or to apologize for challenging this nation to be its best self. What Wright preached and continues to preach is the heart of the resurrection faith—reversal. His stinging critiques, his mockery of certain values, or his fearless pronouncements remain motivated by a conviction that inequality, injustice, and racial superiority are not the last words but God could reverse these realities. That is resurrection faith—reversal. But when you are on the top you want resurrection faith to deal simply with the mysteries of the empty tomb and nothing else. When you benefit from an unjust social order resurrection needs to be confined to Easter Sunday and no further. Wright’s plight demonstrates so starkly to us the struggle contained in resurrection faith because this faith comes up against principalities, powers, rulers, systems and institutions that think everything is fine the way it is. Even more telling for us is Barack Obama’s response to Wright. From a political point of view a necessary move. Seen with all its implications, Obama’s response to Wright is deemed necessary because it will appease white working class people who will only accept a candidate on their terms and not his. I don’t know that these monolithic white working class people say and do what these experts claim. But those who speak for them are telescoping clearly the dominant culture will not embrace change if it is in any way connected with those ideas of reversal that Wright preaches. Change from Bush to something else. Change from economic stagnation to vibrancy. Change from people taking us as fools to one who inspires us. But do not touch the social order. Do not talk about inequalities, especially racial inequalities. The ideas of reversal will not be embraced by this culture. Win or lose, it seems to me that Obama was supremely humbled by a dominant culture that does not want to hear the challenge of resurrection faith—reversal. Resurrection faith is a struggle. People would prefer to be preoccupied with buying Mothers’ Day cards than to receive the message of Pentecost. Resurrection faith is a struggle. People will prefer to have the nice times of Easter prepare them for spring than hear of the potential of such faith to change the world and their lives. Resurrection faith is a struggle. People would rather be on the inside of the culture than inside the dubious claims of God’s kingdom.

Do not be fooled by Easter Sunday. Do not be deceived into thinking that the whole world embraces resurrection faith. Do not even fall prey to the notion that life becomes easier as a result of Jesus coming back from dead. Rather to believe in resurrection signs you up for the struggle. Resurrection faith enlists you in the proclamation of the essential message of reversal. This proclamation lies not simply in dogma or odd lectionary selections but in the rough world of people’s daily lives. On the eve of Ascension we are all too aware that this proclamation is up to us. This proclamation takes place in the streets, in the cultures, in the cities, in the halls of power, in the homes, in the struggles and fears of people to the ends of the world. In this struggle, the Spirit energizes, motivates, encourages, leads and does not accept excuses from those called to this proclamation.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8