Tuesday, December 26, 2017

God's Response to Murder, from Abel to Zechariah ... and Beyond

Today in the Daily Office we read in 2 Chronicles about the killing of the prophet Zechariah. King Joash has him killed in the court of the temple, of all places. The account says, “As he was dying, [Zechariah] said, ‘May the LORD see and avenge!’” (24:22)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus refers to this incident specifically during a prolonged rant against lawyers:

Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them. Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering. (Luke 11:46-52)

When he says “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah,” Jesus gives us English speakers an extra-special gift: here is the history of murder in the Bible covering our own alphabet from ‘A’ to ‘Z.’ Of course, the main point is that it covers the sweep of Scripture from its first book to its last: the Jewish canon begins with Genesis and ends with 2 Chronicles. Jesus charges “this generation” with the murder of all prophets ever, a category he then places himself at the end of with the fat exclamation point of his own crucifixion.

But whereas Zechariah, in his dying, cries for the LORD’s vengeance, what does Jesus cry out? Luke’s gospel contains the disputed verse, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (23:34). Many early church fathers quote this verse, including Ignatius, Irenaeus of Lyons, and Hippolytus of Rome. But it appears only in Luke’s gospel, and early manuscripts from a wide distribution of geographical areas omit it. This prompts a crucial question: is its omission because it was never there in the first place—meaning that a later tradition added it? Or was it omitted later by those who did not believe it belonged there?

Leaving this mystery unsolved for the moment, we can wonder on whose behalf Jesus prays for forgiveness. In the immediate, obvious sense, it is directed at the soldiers who are nailing him and two other convicts to crosses. The soldiers are the ones most directly guilty of murder, carrying out the state-sanctioned violence that will shortly end these men’s lives. They are just following orders, of course, and they do this all the time. They are paid executioners in need of forgiveness.

Of course, the main point is the stark difference between Zechariah’s dying words and those of Jesus. Zechariah begs God for vengeance, while Jesus does precisely the opposite. Jesus has not stopped the sorry practice of murder that we humans find so necessary; he simply changes the response to it. And then he turns and forgives the repentant criminal hanging alongside him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (11:43).

Rembrandt, The Stoning of St. Stephen
There’s one more murder to look at it right now: that of Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, whose feast we celebrate today. The sequel to Luke’s gospel, from the same hand, is the Acts of the Apostles, where we find in 7:54-60:

When [the assembled mob] heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

The received Greek text doesn’t actually say that Stephen “died,” but that he “fell asleep,” reflecting the young Church’s new understanding of death as a temporary state that is not to be feared. And Stephen himself asks God to forgive his own murderers.

So back to that disputed verse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion: Did he actually say it? I’m inclined to say yes, because Stephen was apparently aware that his Lord had done so. At the very least, Luke sets up an intentional parallel. In response to Zechariah, Jesus suggests a new course of action, and Stephen picks up on it.

But please note that these are not paid executioners; they are an angry mob. So to insist that Jesus only forgave the soldiers because of their role and their ignorance is short-sighted. Stephen clearly saw the need for a wider application.

If Jesus said it, and Stephen picked up on it, then the later manuscripts that exclude Jesus’ forgiveness betray an intentional removal of the sentence. Why? I don’t think that’s a difficult question to answer: there will always be those who think forgiveness is an improper response. It’s obviously not justified. It’s one thing for the punishment to fit the crime, but what happens when the punishment is revoked completely? What of justice and future deterrence? If we all just forgave murderers, wouldn’t the murder rate skyrocket?

(For the record: while it's a discussion worth having, I don’t think that “slippery slope” argument holds water here.)

During the heyday of state executions at the Tower of London, there was a tradition that the executioner would ask forgiveness of the doomed one. In our own times, we have numerous examples of Christians forgiving those who have murdered their loved ones, whether in shootings in American schools and churches or through the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa. I cannot imagine how I would react in any of these situations, but I doubt that forgiveness could possibly be my first inclination. 

But I keep coming back to Jesus on the cross, having just recently recounted the entire history of murder from Abel to Zechariah. Even in the agony of his crucifixion, Jesus has the ability to say, “We’re going to do this differently from now on.” He demonstrates for all of us, for all the rest of human history, that God’s response to sin is simply to forgive it. Jesus does indeed charge “this generation” with the blood of all the prophets … but then, in his dying and rising, he revokes the charges.

What of the Revelation to John, the Omega of the Christian Bible? Do we not find vengeance there? Many would like to think so, and you’ll certainly find a lot of frightening, violent imagery to support their case. But the overall thrust of the book is of justice restored to an oppressed people. It does not deny that the history of murder will continue, but it concludes with the restoration of all things in Jesus Christ:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. (22:1-3a)

The tree of life makes its first appearance here since the Garden of Eden. Whether all the accursed murderers are banished or redeemed, those who suffer persecution are assured that all shall be well. In general, it's safe to assume from all this that our idea of vengeance looks very different from God's.

None of this is accomplished by our murdering each other, of course. Unfortunately, many people still need to learn this; there is a whole branch of radical Christianist thought that wants to stoke the forces of war, specifically in the Middle East, in order to actually bring about Christ’s return. Think of them as the Christian version of ISIS, just not yet living out the violence they dream of.

But more importantly, God’s goal is restoration, not “getting even.”

Whether we like that solution or not, we are left to wrestle with it as the history of murder continues.

Henry, Part 2: A Christmas Homily

homily preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
Christmas Eve, Sunday, December 24, 2017 (4:00 p.m.)
Isaiah 62:6-12; Godly Play Christmas pageant

My wife, my daughter and I had a very old cat named Henry. Henry was a real piece of work, and he died this year on Ash Wednesday.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because you were here one year ago tonight when I last talked about Henry, our overweight, arthritic, cranky, borderline-incontinent old cat, our cat who demanded and annoyed and got in the way, who loved us, and whom we loved back, even when the warm feelings of love were far, far away. Henry sure could keep me warm when I was lying on the couch for a nap. In March, we buried Henry’s body in our garden, and we miss him.

Last year I told you that God came to be with us, embodied and physical. God tasted and touched, laughed and sang. Last year I told you that because of Jesus, I know that God understands how it feels to be human.

Last year I told you that it’s not our good qualities that help people love us. It’s our limitations. We are totally dependent on one another to sustain our lives, and we are totally dependent on God as well.

Tonight I want to challenge an idea that has probably been in your head ever since you first began to hear people tell you about God. It’s in the Nicene Creed, the core statement of the Christian faith. It’s the notion that Jesus “came down from heaven.” Now, it’s not bad theology to say that “Jesus came down from heaven.” To “come down” means to give up power. It means to stoop to our level. In that sense, “coming down” describes exactly what God did in Jesus.

The problem is that “coming down” implies that God is “up there,” in a galaxy far, far away, and that he “came down” because he wasn’t with us before. To put it that way is nonsense. God is here. God has always been here. God will always be here. I read a book recently that suggested we think of God as being not “up,” but “down”—like an iceberg in the ocean of creation. The water line is our level of sensory awareness. Most of the time, God is the part of the iceberg that’s under the water, where we can’t see it. The iceberg is still there, just going unnoticed.

And then there are places where part of the iceberg juts up out of the water, into our consciousness. There was about 30 years in history when that iceberg shot up to its peak height, when Jesus was God walking about on the earth with us, laughing and joking with us, calling and teaching and healing us. Christmas is the celebration of the iceberg coming up out of the water to its highest point.

The iceberg comes up out of the water in other places, too, and even more often, it becomes visible just below the water line. Maybe you’ve seen it. I know I have—not as high into the sky as that time in Palestine 2000 years ago, but I’ve seen it many times. I’m sure I saw the iceberg make an appearance in that wonderful old cat, Henry.

Henry is gone now, back deep below the water line, back into the eternal iceberg. (I know the metaphor kind of falls apart here, so I’ll drop it!) I miss Henry. For months after Henry died, I would come home, open the door, and say out loud, “Henry, you should be here right now.” Sometimes I still come home, open the door, and almost say, “Mrow!” in greeting. But maybe that’s not a mistake.

You know, at Christmas we begin to tell a story: the story of the life of Jesus, God-with-us. We tell the story by reading it out loud in church or at home, and maybe even by putting on costumes and acting it out. It’s a story of a historical figure from ancient times, but it is also our own story. The story is about us waiting for God, us receiving God, us being called and taught and healed by God, and then entering a time of wilderness. Henry died on Ash Wednesday. That’s the first day of Lent, a time of wrestling with death and life and doubt and trust, a time for being honest about where we have failed and where we are uncertain.

Lent leads to Holy Week, the time when the grown man Jesus rode into Jerusalem in triumph. He urged us to trust that God loves and forgives us, no matter what. He said that no matter how much disaster there is in the world, God will be there with us through it. For that matter, God will save us all through the very disasters we fear the most, even tragedy and death. We will come out the other side because that’s the way the universe works. Jesus said these things, and they were too much for the powerful people to accept. So they arranged to have him killed.

And then, then! Jesus showed us that what he’d said all along was true. It was through the very disaster of Jesus’ death that he saved all the rest of us. He could not be removed from creation. He came back above the water line in the season of Easter, just long enough to say, “I’m still here—and you will be, too. I’ll go ahead of you.” He made death safe for us. And then he returned again, the Holy Spirit come to be with the church on Pentecost, to help us keep reminding the world that God is never absent, and that death is the only way to true life. That iceberg keeps showing up, both inside the church and outside the church. The church’s job is to keep pointing beneath the water line, to keep us noticing!

Christmas only begins that story, and we’re going to keep telling it here, so I hope you’ll listen with me. It’s a story I need to hear and to share. How about you? I need it because I miss Henry, but I will always have him with me. I need it because life is precious and short, and today is the day to hug those you love and enjoy them in all their quirky imperfections. That time will end—and, surprise! Resurrection means that time will begin again in a new way.

I have a challenge for you and for your family and friends. This Christmas, tell stories. Tell family stories that everyone has already heard many times. Tell them again. Tell new stories, and tell stories you’ve waited too long to tell. Tell stories of joy, and stories of tragedy. Tell stories to adults, and tell them to children. Tell stories about cats and dogs and people, both the living and the dead.

And as you’re telling your stories, look for that iceberg, that unmistakable sign of the God who created all things, always present among us. Notice and point out the times when you’ve been aware of that iceberg just below the surface. Encourage one another with these words, because the time is at hand—God in Christ is born in you! You are an expression of God’s joy, sharing God’s love with the world. Merry Christmas!