God Is Present and Active

"Let us go...that I may proclaim the message...for that is what I came out to do," Jesus says to his followers.  His is a loving summons; but at the same time, this call to join him on a journey is also a demand.  For the message he is proclaiming is that the kingdom of God has come near with both cost and promise:  The cost is repentance, and the promise is His presence with us then and now. God has come into our midst and remains both present and active.

The twenty-four hours depicted in today's gospel reading are a sketch in miniature of the entire ministry of Jesus.  Upon leaving worship in the synagogue at Capernaum, he enters a private home and heals Simon's mother-in-law.  Once the Sabbath is over on Saturday at sundown, the whole city appears at the door of Simon's house; and Jesus heals in public.  The next morning, before dawn, Jesus retreats to the wilderness for prayer; but Simon and others pursue him.  In response to their entreaties, Jesus says, "Let us go on to the next towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do."  The grace of God is being manifested in the ministry of Jesus.  But that grace has two sides and both involve change.  Seeing only what you and I are accustomed to see, judging our reality by categories taught us by our culture, ordering our lives by economic, class, and religious definitions, we find change costly on many levels.  We take comfort in the physical, mental, and spiritual status quo.  Yet Jesus is telling us that change is required, change that will be both uncomfortable and blessed, for we will see a new reality.  Jesus is not just traveling from town to town on an outward journey.  He is traversing an inner landscape as well, crossing boundaries of every kind then and now.  In His company we can repent of old attitudes and find grace in our lives.

The image of grace portrayed here is detailed and concise:  Jesus leaves the symbolic center of worship life to confront the forces that rule our lives, what our text calls demons.  He restores personal and social wholeness, but he will not permit the demons to speak because they know Him.  Then He goes deeper into the wilderness, to the margins where we all have been pushed at one time or another.  Knowing our own need, we search for him, traveling an inner landscape, exploring a subconscious memory of hope and trust at the center of life.  And as we explore that landscape, we encounter symbols whose meaning can only be described as poetry.

Much of Scripture is poetry, poetry that is the peninsula of language, the last point before reaching out into the vastness of being, into the endless and infinite ocean of life.  At whatever age the stories of Scripture became part of our inner landscape, there are times when you and I struggle with the poetic scenes of Jesus' ministry.  For example, for many of us today, miracles of healing are problematic.  People don't believe in miracles anymore.  But He changed people's lives.  Isn't that a miracle?  As adults we each have accumulated layers of sophistication, degrees of expertise about the world we think we control.  For some of us it is hard to admit that a vision of goodness, joy, and love touches something natal, something at the root of our being, something basic to our understanding of who we are as individuals striving to be persons of faith.  But still we remember God's story, and memory is life.

So we seek for God, but our motives in seeking are mixed, for we want gain without loss; we want self-definition and control.  Jesus' answer to our seeking is pivotal.  His response spins our motives round to consider His:  "I came out of the wilderness to proclaim a message," He says.  "When the kingdom comes," preaches Jesus, "wholeness will be the result."  In other words, Jesus confronts the powers that dominate and oppress our lives to enact the message He proclaims.  Through His words and deeds, He makes God's kingdom a present reality, not simply some event in the future.

There have been countless seekers after Jesus and His message, unnumbered thousands who have tried to analyze what it was about Him that caused people to accept His words and repent of self-absorption.  At the very least He is a man recognized by all the world's major religions as a prophet.  Some would say that Jesus was a prophet like Elisha and that only after Easter did He become the object of Christian reflection and devotion.  That analysis is the basis of Marcus Borg's writings.  A contributor to the Jesus Seminar, in 1992 Borg wrote a book entitled Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.  Borg regards Jesus as a "Spirit person, a Jewish mystic;" and he makes a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus.  Borg tries to get behind the poetry of the Bible to the history that generated its metaphors.

Yet another attempt to enter the events of the past and test them by Modern, Enlightenment criteria was made in 2000. That year Bruce Chilton published a book entitled Rabbi Jesus in which Chilton attempts to read behind the texts of Scripture to sketch a picture of the Jewish character of Jesus' teaching.  But Chilton contends, without substantiating his surmise, that Jesus was illiterate, ignoring chapter four of the Gospel according to Luke which clearly states, "[Jesus] went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.  He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written...."  Then Jesus proceeds to read.  Chilton bases the remainder of his argument on the supposed psychological effects of Jesus' illegitimacy.  Unfortunately, Chilton's reconstruction of Jesus' education and mind-set cannot be verified by documentation.

In 2002, Pulitzer Prize winning author Jack Miles, a former Jesuit and professor of humanities, put forward another solution to the interpretation of Jesus' message and meaning.  In a book entitled Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, Miles postulates that God made a mistake, that the Devil trapped God into wrecking His own creation--first in the Garden of Eden and then in the torturing of Job; and Jesus is the solution to God's mistake.

Miles resolves the question of evil and the crisis in the life of God by summarizing the inevitability of judgment and significance of the cross with these words:  "God becomes a human being," Miles writes, "and suffers the consequences of his own confession [of guilt]."[1]  End quote.  Miles' answer is not a satisfying one, for he leaves us no alternative but to replace hope with courage.  His may be a scientific analysis of the words of the Scriptural text, but his interpretation relies on human self-interest rather than the risen One who is known in the present.  Let me say that another way:  Miles may be correct about the text he reads, but what he says is not true to what we know about the Person to whom the text witnesses.

To say that the kingdom of God was present in the words and deeds of Jesus when He walked the earth and that God is present and active now is to make a claim for continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.  What's more, if the so-called pre-Easter Jesus and post-Easter Jesus are NOT one and the same, we stand in danger of worshipping a projection of our own fantasies, an idol made in the image of ourselves or our favorite ideologies.  The problem with the analyses of the Jesus Seminar, Chilton, and Miles is that their agenda is to make Scripture a tool they can manipulate, to get behind this text of memory and hope to explanation.  They give the impression that their priority is to seek to know ABOUT God, rather than to KNOW God.  And one cannot know the living Lord of the present solely by investigating events sealed up in the past.

You and I cannot escape the fact that we have the words of Jesus only as the disciples remembered them.  But whoever thinks that the disciples completely misunderstood their Master or, worse, consciously falsified His picture, is giving imagination free reign.  If we are not to substitute fantasies for the biblical record, how are we to discover the God known then and now as human and divine?

You and I perceive only a fraction of the reality of God.  We hold dear that fraction that has come down to us in Scripture because we believe that Scripture mediates or acts as a go-between from God to us, that Jesus clothes Himself in the words of Scripture.  But certainty, authority, and power reside in the person of God, not in a book.  Jesus is what He does.  He enacts the message He proclaims, and that enactment begins with His own baptism.

From the very beginning of Christianity to the present there has been one constant among all the variations of this religion.  That constant is that in order to be a Christian, one must be baptized.  We are baptized into the life and death of Christ.  Like Jesus we go down into the water, into death, and rise transformed.  The death symbolized in baptism is the death of the idea-centered ego, a repentance of the instinct for self-preservation that holds Jesus at arms length to examine Him in the third person.  Our rising to life again from baptism is our transformation into an "I and Thou" relationship with a living Being in whom we believe.  We are Christians, and our religion is dedicated to transformation, to wholeness, to living in the Kingdom NOW.  God in Christ comes to us saying, "I am transformation, I am resurrection, I am life."  That is the message He brings, the message He enacts. He gives...Himself.

So hold in memory the miracles by the Sea of Galilee, for memory is life.  Holding that memory lifts us momentarily beyond ourselves to the edge of awareness.  Briefly we encounter something we know to be true: the sacred, a fuller, enhanced existence that will complete us; and we dream in league with God of God's present and coming Kingdom.

Let us pray.  Set us free, O God, from the bondage of complacency and contentment with the status quo and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.


[1] Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (New York: Vintage Books, 2002) 109.