From Jerusalem

SJF • Easter 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

You have to be careful sometimes what you read on the subway or an airplane. People will look over your shoulder, and often feel free to offer a comment on what you are reading. I studied Hebrew when I was in seminary, and one day on the subway I was reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, when an Orthodox Jewish man sat next to me. After a few moments, he leaned over and asked, with some astonishment, “Do you understand what you are reading?” I resisted the temptation to say, “Why, that’s just what Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch when he saw him reading Isaiah in his carriage.” Instead I explained I was studying Hebrew in seminary. We went on to have a good conversation about Christians and Jews and their points of agreement and difference. I didn’t get much studying done, but this may have been a blessed opportunity for something more important!

In a similar fashion, one stormy night, an evangelist was flying to Philadelphia, when the man sitting next to him discovered he was a Christian — the evangelist was reading his Bible, and not just because it was a bumpy flight. After learning that the evangelist was a minister, the other man immediately launched into a recitation about how he didn’t feel the need for organized religion. (I guess he liked disorganized religion — which just goes to show he hadn’t checked out many churches, as I think if fair to say we get along being about as disorganized as anybody!)

Anyway, he was one of those who took this life easy, and thought the life to come would be easy too. He wasn’t an atheist, he just didn’t have use for any particular religion, and took the view that there were any number of ways to salvation.

As the plane bumped along its stormy course, the man expounded on this comfortable theology. “Anyone who lives a good life here and now will have a good life in the world to come.” He said, “There are many ways into heaven. I mean, here we are traveling to Philadelphia by plane. But we could have taken the train or bus, or driven if we’d felt like it. I think it is the same way with heaven.” The evangelist listened to all of this patiently.

Then the voice of the pilot announced the final approach to Philadelphia. Because of the severe weather the landing would be delayed, and the pilot asked people to be patient and endure the bumpy ride. Naturally people were nervous, including the minister and the man in the seat next to him. As the pilot concluded his message, the preacher turned to his seat-mate and said with a smile, “I’m glad the pilot doesn’t share your theology!” “What do you mean,” the other asked.

“Well, right now the pilot is getting precise instructions from the control tower in Philadelphia. They are sending out a radio beacon to guide us to the landing strip. If he departs from the beacon by even a single degree, we’ll miss the landing strip. I’m sure glad the pilot isn’t saying, ‘There are many ways to get to Philadelphia; I can take any approach I like. I can turn the radio off if I want to.’ I’m glad the pilot is saying, ‘There is only one way I can land this plane safely, one radio beacon to follow, and I’m going to stick with it!’”

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Today’s readings turn our attention not to Philadelphia, but to Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of two thousand years ago, and to particular events that happened in that certain time and place, events which we believe have a bearing on all times and all places. For it was in Jerusalem that Jesus was crucified; it was in Jerusalem he was raised from the dead; and it was from Jerusalem that the word began to go forth, proclaimed by Peter and the other disciples, teaching and preaching that there is salvation in no one else than Jesus; that there is no other name given among mortals by which we must be saved. Through the storm and the night, there is one sure and certain means to salvation, just as through that stormy late-night flight, there was only one beacon to guide to a safe landing.

This is what theologians call the “scandal of particularity.” Many people think it harsh to say that there is one way to salvation, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who rules over heaven and earth, one incarnate Lord who died and was raised to life again. But the Christian faiths responds, That’s the way it is. Or rather, That’s Who the Way is!

If you think about it in terms of your own life you will see that particularity is not so strange after all. Each of us is particular; each of us is unique. There are many, many people in the world, but there is only one me, only one of each of you. There may be people who look like me, or have the same name as me, but they are not in fact me. There other Tobias Hallers out there — both “Tobias” and “Haller” are common names in Germany, where my father’s family came from generations back. I know, through the courtesy of Google, of at least two German Tobias Hallers: an ethnobiologist and a rock-climber. Believe me, we have very little in common but our names! And speaking of family history, generations back, in Frederick Maryland where my ancestors lived, two sons of my many-times-great-grandfather both had their own sons about the same time, and perhaps through a lack of communication, each gave their son the name Tobias. So it was in that one small town there were two Tobias Hallers running around, two cousins, who in later years. to tell them apart, people always referred to them by their trades: Hat-maker Haller and Mason Haller. I’m descended from the mason, by the way, not the hatter — which may explain my interest in restoring our buildings! But apart from that interest, which I share with my ancestor, and the name I share with all of them, this handful of Tobias Hallers than our shared name, and in one case a bit of our genes, some of our DNA. Each of them is or was him, and I am me, each of us totally unique people. And we’ve got the name tags to prove it! I’ll say more about that at announcement-time; but they’re downstairs waiting for everybody.

To put this into the context of our readings, in a more geographical sense, there are many cities in the world; there is even another Philadelphia — at least it went by that name in the days of the apostles — now Amman in Jordan. But even if there are other cities that bear the name, there is only one ancient Jerusalem.

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The special position of Jerusalem was announced long ago by the prophets. Jerusalem, a particular city built on a particular hill, would one day become the center of the world. And this is where we begin to turn from the scandal of particularity to the gift of universality. This is where we begin to see that the uniqueness of Jerusalem, and of Jesus Christ, is what makes the them accessible to all, what makes the kingdom of heaven accessible to all.

The prophet Micah said that one day the mountain of the Lord’s house would be raised up above all the other hills, and that peoples would stream to it. He foretold that many nations would come to it and would turn to the God of Jacob, to learn to walk in his paths. Isaiah and the other prophets echoed this message: all the world would come to Jerusalem.

And in Jesus Christ the prophecy came true, as he promised that everything written about him in the law of Moses, and in the prophets and in the psalms would be fulfilled. Through one person salvation was made available to all people. As Paul would say, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” Instruction did go forth from Jerusalem, carried by the voices of the apostles, teaching that Jesus was risen from the dead, and that in him new life and salvation lay, available to all. Those who were witness to the resurrection would carry that word to the ends of the world, beginning from Jerusalem. The word would be preached to all people everywhere, starting from a tiny group or people somewhere, from the particular to the universal, from the unique center to the infinite multiplicity of points on the edge of the circle, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth — which though it has many places on its surface, but only one and exactly one center.

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So it is, my brothers and sisters in Christ, that the word of salvation has come to us. There is one signal being broadcast, but many can tune into it. There were, that stormy night in Philadelphia, no doubt many planes that landed safely, all guided by that signal from the single control tower, that radio beacon. There is one key to the door that leads to salvation, but once the door is opened anyone can enter through who chooses to. As Saint John the Divine wrote at the dictation of a voice like a trumpet, to the ancient church in that other Philadelphia: “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut.” That door stands open still — one door through which many may enter. And that is only bad news to those who seek another way, or ignore the invitation.

There is one center to a circle, but an infinite number of points on its edge, each and every one of them exactly the same distance away from the center. There is one savior, Jesus Christ; his salvation is available to all who turn to him, to all who place their trust in him; he is equally close to all who seek him who is the firm center to anchor our compass.

As we continue our journey through the storm, through the night of our earthly life, may we remain attentive to the beacon, the shining light to keep us on course, the center point that will keep our circle true. That signal was first sent out, beginning from Jerusalem, from the little hill called Golgotha, outside the city walls, and then proclaimed more fervently from the heights of Jerusalem itself, proclaimed to its people to bring them to repentance, and then from holy Zion instruction went forth, out into the ends of the world, to the nations who dwelt in darkness; and the beacon is beaming brightly still, as Zion continues to publish glad tidings. All who tune their receivers to it can hear it, all who turn their hearts to the one who speaks through the ages and in all ages, can have their hearts warmed and spirits strengthened at the sound of his voice.

As we are buffeted by the winds of temptation, or tossed by the storms of sin and grief, when the darkness appears and the night draws near, and the day is past and gone, may we keep our hearts fixed on the one true signal of salvation that is beamed towards us from the heart of Jesus Christ our Lord, to bring us safely home.+

The story about the evangelist is freely adapted from an account by Tony Campolo.


Particularly Clean

SJF • Epiphany 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Naaman the Syrian asked, Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?

There are two things about the Christian faith that often provoke controversy, sometimes even within the church. The first is the claim that Christ is unique, the sole assured way to salvation. This doctrine is embodied in Jesus’ statement that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him. The second is the observation that what God demands of us through Christ is neither complicated nor difficult, but simple. And this is embodied in Jesus’ statement that his yoke is easy and his burden light.

We can find a foreshadowing of both of these doctrines in the story of Naaman the Syrian warrior — and leper. Naaman hears of a cure of his illness from a young slave who was kidnaped from her home in Israel. He sets off loaded with treasure, expecting some kind of grand royal reception. What he gets, however, is a message from the prophet Elisha to go and wash in the Jordan seven times. And the Scripture describes his anger at what he perceives to be off-handed treatment.

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Naaman’s anger has two aspects, which reflect the two Christian doctrines I mentioned a moment ago. First, he finds it is absurd that there should be anything special or unique about the River Jordan. Aren’t there rivers back in Syria that are bigger and better? What’s so special about the River Jordan? Second, the Syrian general expects an elaborate healing ceremony, some kind of a ritual where the prophet will come forth and call on God by name and wave his hands over the diseased spot.

But the general’s servants know better, and they give him very good advice: if the prophet had asked for something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? How much easier simply to do as he says, to wash and be made clean? And so he does, and is healed, and comes to realize that the power of God is at work both in its particularity and in its simplicity. Only God can save and heal; and what God asks is simple, as simple as the faith to do as you are told.

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Let’s look more closely at these two attributes of God’s power and working. First, God’s power and working are particular. God could have chosen to settle his people Israel by some other river than the Jordan; he could have taken them up to Syria to settle by the Abana or the Pharpar. For that matter, when they were in captivity in Egypt, he could, instead of bringing them to the Promised Land, simply have wiped out Pharaoh and kept them comfortably settled by the Nile — a far more impressive and significant river than the Abana, the Pharpar or the Jordan. Or, choosing instead when he led them forth from Egypt, in forty years of wandering he could have led them to the Tigris or Euphrates or even the other way on up north and into Europe. God could have led his people to the Rhine or the Seine or the Thames. Or, he even could’ve inspired them to build boats, and bring them to the Hudson or the Mississippi! Why, God could even have settled his people by the shores of the Bronx River running through the Botanical Garden just a few blocks away!

But he didn’t. God settled his people in Israel by the Jordan, and that was where the slave-girl came from who told Naaman about the prophet, and that was where the prophet lived, and that was where Naaman went, and that is where he was healed. There; and no where else.

In the same way, God could have chosen to become incarnate in fifth century BC India, or in twelfth century Japan or fifteenth century Mexico. But he didn’t. God chose to be incarnate, “God in Man made manifest,” in the person of Jesus Christ, born in a suburb of Jerusalem in the reign of Caesar Augustus of Rome and Herod the Great of Palestine. This Jesus would be a man of a particular height, speaking a particular language, of a particular complexion and build, and most importantly, and particularly and uniquely and most importantly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.

The uniqueness and particularity of Christianity after all doesn’t lie in its content but in Christ himself — personally. Other religions have creeds and scriptures, liturgies and teachings and moral advice, many of them similar to Christianity in many respects. But only Christianity has Christ, the Son of God. It is in him that the Christian faith finds its uniqueness and particularity.

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So it is that Christians believe God’s power and working to be particular. And God’s power and working are also simple and direct. God could have commanded the prophet Elisha to put on a big show for Naaman the Syrian, something to impress him with thunder and lightning and spells and incantations, wavings of the arms and high drama. Instead he simply told him to take a bath, seven dips in the river.

In the same way, Jesus could have healed that leper that approached him, in the Gospel we heard this morning, with an elaborate ritual. He could have placed upon him some complicated act to perform after he was healed. Instead he simply touched him and spoke the word, and told him to do no more than what the Law of Moses already asked, a simple offering to the priest to certify the cure.

The simplicity of Jesus’ teaching is given in his own summary of the ancient law of Moses: to love God and one’s neighbor. That is the simplicity of Christian duty, simplicity so simple that sometimes it is hard! How many Christians down through history have afflicted themselves with terrible penances instead of simply doing what Jesus asked, to love God and their neighbors! And even that love takes a simple form — to do to others as we would be done by.

This is so simple and so fair that even a child can understand it — perhaps better than many an adult. Perhaps that is why Jesus said we had to become like children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven. For children know what fairness is — believe you me. If you don’t think so, just try a little experiment with two children: sit them side by side and give one of them a dish of ice cream and the other a bowl of oatmeal, and you see if they can’t tell the difference! Of course, it takes a bit longer for the child to learn that fairness also means giving up something. I’ll be if you tried that experiment you might find a child ready to share the ice cream. It takes a while to learn that sometimes, but children do often grasp it, and you can see them, especially if they don’t know you’re watching, sharing, giving up his or her own toy, or learning to share it with another — that takes a while, sometimes; and sometimes we forget, too soon.

And yet children often seem to grasp that spirit of generosity to others that can put many an adult to shame. And perhaps that is why Jesus said “come to me as a child does” — with a clear sense of what is fair, but also a willingness to be generous, a willingness to share with others.

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After all is said and done, Jesus does not ask heroic feats of us. He has done the heavy lifting for us. He bore the cross for our salvation, and he asks us each to take up — each of us — our own cross, not his. He carried his cross, and he only asks us to take up our own, and follow him. This yoke of our own cross is easy and the burden light. For even given his unique and particular power, he asks of us only a simple task. He does not expect us to do anything more than to accept his love: to love him and to love each other just as he has loved us.

And to help us on our way he touches us in the sacraments and he speaks a word to us in the Scriptures, and he says to us, Be made clean. Be made clean from the false self that seeks only itself, and turn to the true self that gives itself for others. Be made clean from the burden of guilt so that you may accept the yoke of service. Be made clean of the elaborate show of religion so that you can experience the simplicity of faith. Be made clean of running about in confusion and aimlessness after this or that way to salvation, so that you can run the true race with your eyes fixed on the finish line, where an imperishable crown awaits you.

The way lies before us, as particular and clear as a lane marked out on the 400-meter track; the task lies before us, as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. All we are asked to do is follow: to run with perseverance the race that is before us, led by the one who goes before us to prepare a place for us: the one who has touched us in Baptism; the one who has spoken to us in the living word of his Scriptures; the one who has washed us clean in his blood; and the one who has fed us with his own body at this holy table: even Jesus Christ, our only mediator and advocate, to whom we offer our praise and thanksgiving, now and for evermore.+