Monday, May 5, 2014

Athanasius, Emmaus & Jesus

This past week the church celebrated the feast day of Saint Athanasius. Athanasius lived during the majority of the fourth century and was the bishop of Alexandria. He was a starch opponent of Arianism, a theology that differed with segments of the church on the understanding of how Jesus came into being. As a matter of fact, Athanasius was so stubborn in his mission to defend his beliefs that he was exiled numerous times during his life and felt the scourge of many, inside and outside of the institutional church. The Christian church has long sung the praises of Athanasius for defending, what it typically believes to be, the most pure version of the Gospel and the best way to theologically understand the one named Jesus of Nazareth. Eastern Christianity calls him, "The Father of Orthodoxy," which I personally find to be a bit off putting. I would prefer to see God alone as the creator of ultimate truth, truth that is continually being revealed and understood in the light of each new day. Many others, especially in Protestantism, prefer the title, "Father of the Canon," and once again I hesitate to jump on the 1,600 year bandwagon because I believe the canon, the oral and written story of God's people, is being continually revealed in our experiences and trials and successes and failures.

Of course, Athanasius would no doubt find many issues with our community here and with much of Progressive Christianity. We dare to freely question some of his very own creedal statements. We do not find ourselves to be outside of God's grace if we happen to differ with his understanding of who Jesus was and is. Each week we contemplate the Scriptures, but never solely through the lens of any one man or teacher. Instead we call upon tradition, reason, our own intellects, scientific understanding and modern day sensibilities to explore what God might be telling us. Our purpose is to grow, to learn, to explore; never to simply carry on someone else's rhetoric, no matter how ancient or beloved it may be.

Athanasius was a man of purpose and a man of stubborn beliefs. A man who would have been willing to die to defend his understanding of faith and Jesus, had it been required of him. We might praise these attributes or we might take great issue with some of them. I leave you to decide for yourself when, or if, your faith should require of you the borderline hatred of other belief systems and complete self-denial. Unlike, many churches or priests, my desire is not to inform you how to live out your faith, perhaps better called "your doubt," depending on the day, but to show you blessed possibilities. Then with the love of God, as our sure foundation, we will journey as a community exploring how to best live our lives in the belief of Divine inclusive grace.

While we may differ in belief with some of Athanasius's unquestionable absolutes, this doesn't diminish all the beautiful reflections and words he left for us. This is the beauty of religious tradition, both inside and outside of Christianity, this amazingly ancient tapestry of thoughts and considerations and personal experiences is woven together for us to explore. Often this historical and present day tapestry reflects a rainbow of thoughts on what being human and being Divine might mean to us. I would like to share with you a quote of Athanasius, found in the religious tapestry, on his defense of Jesus, a man of the flesh, being simultaneously God fully manifested. He says:

"The Lord (Jesus) did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering people. For one who wanted to make a display, the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders. But for him who came to heal and to teach the way was not merely to dwell here, but to put himself at the disposal of those who needed him, and to be manifested accordingly as they could bear it, not diminishing the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it."

Ultimately, Athanasius shared these words to defend his stance that Jesus was both God and man, pre-existing and eternal with the Father, begotten not made, one in substance... If you are scratching your head already, take a breath. I am not concerned with the fancy creedal phrases I just mentioned. Instead, I find something much more beautiful and simple in the quote we just heard. I hear Athanasius telling us that Jesus did not come, he was not born nor he did not exist to make a spectacle or to gather attention to himself; rather Jesus existed (and exists) to serve and to heal others. This is a teaching much of Christianity would do well to remember. In a culture where "church" has become a production of epic proportions seeking to create great numbers and dazzle its beholders with its supposed awe, and oftentimes dread fear and manipulation, we are told Jesus never operated as such. Jesus was one of the people, Jesus was willing to meet people exactly where they were and reveal to them, in that moment, the Divine presence or manifestation of God.

Athanasius reminds us Jesus manifested God's glory "accordingly as they could bear it." This speaks to me of a gentle man, one who took into consideration his surroundings, one who carefully considered his audience and only then gently revealed healing and love as was best for the people. Jesus didn't offer a "one-size-fits-all" approach to God; instead he became what people needed in the moment. Do we do the same for others? Are we gentle in our approach as we seek to give God's love away to the world, as we seek to be the presence of the Risen Christ for others? Or do we beat others over the head with our faith superiority complex? Far too often I think we find ourselves being guilty of, as Athanasius says, "exceeding their capacity to receive it."  In other words, we become so excited in our personal faith and beliefs and dogmas we forget the capacity of others and how they might best understand. We forget that not everyone speaks our “church language,” nor does everyone have a desire to learn it! And guess what? They don’t have to...God doesn’t require it. Jesus didn’t require a primer on theology before he ministered to others and neither should we.

Ironic, isn't it? It seems to me, in this quote, Athanasius paints for us an understanding of Jesus that is inclusive, humble and considerate. However, for the last 1,600 years people have been using Athanasius as a way to eliminate the consideration of others’ opinions and to deny the need to approach all gently and with open understanding. The church has typically found people to be at their disposal: those who don't agree are carried out with the trash, but Jesus on the other hand came to be at the disposal of the people.

Our Gospel reading today paints a picture of Jesus being at the disposal of the people. We heard the account of another post-resurrection meeting with Jesus, this time in the Gospel of Luke. Contrasted, with last week's story where everyone seemed to quickly recognize Jesus, this week the audience is completely unaware of who is with them. We have two men journeying along reflection on the horrifying events of the past few days when Jesus decides to pop in. Jesus just loves to pop in and out after his resurrection, this is partly why many in the early church questioned exactly what the state of his resurrection was and it's why we allow ourselves to still do so. Regardless, of how Jesus was appearing the heart of our reading remains the same. Two men are ignorant that the person they mourn is walking and talking beside them, and they remain so until Jesus breaks bread in their presence. After breaking the bread, Jesus pops out again. I am tempted at this point to quit preaching and have a joyous round of "Pop Goes the Jesus," but I will resist.

Jesus remains unknown until bread is broken and then suddenly the two men are made aware of the presence of God in their midst. People often wonder why it is that a loaf of bread and a cup of wine became so prominent in the Christian faith. It wouldn't be unwarranted to say some groups quite literally worship the bread and cup. I believe the bread and the cup became the preeminent act of Christianity, not only because Jesus made a similar act shortly before his death, but also because it is so very human and tangible. So much of faith often seems far removed and ethereal, even ungraspable. Faith often becomes a constant "pie-in-the-sky" ideal that floats above our heads. But the bread and the cup are right there, in front of us. We can actually see, feel, taste, touch and smell them if we get close enough. The broken bread affects all our senses. I think those two men on the Road to Emmaus were ignorant of the presence in their midst until something they could actually experience was placed before them. 

Jesus, the incarnation of Divine love, places himself at their disposal, by taking bread, breaking it and saying, "Here I am for you, take and eat." God's incarnate love continues to do the same for all of creation at every moment of every day. However, most of us are able to best interact with God's love when it is accessible and tangibly present for our disposal. We catch a glimpse of God on the table, in the crumbs of the bread we share and in the cup of wine we drink. On the altar, the place where all are reconciled and made new, the possibility of God is revealed. This is why we celebrate an open table here at Bloomington Inclusive Eucharist, because we believe Jesus teaches us to make God's grace completely disposable and accessible to all. In doing so we do not diminish its value whatsoever but rather we reaffirm it! To allow this table to become inaccessible or reserved for only a select few, would be diminishing God's value and God's gift by making it incapable of reception.

Disposable literally means something is free or it is fully available. God's love is available in this place. It doesn't matter what religion you are, it doesn't matter if you are a believer in the Athanasian Creed or if you have no idea what that even is. I dare say it doesn't even matter if you believe Jesus was God, a man, both or somewhere in between. After all, St. Justin Martyr, a saint from the second century predating Athanasius once said, "There seems to be seeds of truth among all men." Notice, Justin could only say, "there seems to be," but I think his point is conveyed, truth is not relegated to Christianity alone nor to one specific interpretation of Christianity. All that truly matters is that you desire to experience the possibility of God in an authentic and tangible way. If you seek to experience love and challenge yourself to love others...this is the table for you. It is an open table but with it comes great blessing and great responsibility

Our Epistle reading reminded us, "Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth...have genuine mutual love, love for one another deeply from the heart." What is obedience to the truth? It is obedience to the ultimate ideal of incarnational love, for many of us here that incarnated love is best found and revealed in the one called Jesus. However, if you find this Divine love best understood and revealed in another way, the outcome is still the same. We are obedient to truth, to sacrificial love, and therefore let us love one another deeply from the heart! We will experience this deep love in just a few minutes as bread is broken and together we proclaim, "God's presence is revealed!" We will share this love with one another in the tangible signs, the symbols, the sacraments of bread and wine and each and everyone of us will be invited to the possibility of beholding the Divine in our midst. 

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