Job Opening When we last left the disciples, they had been gawping at the empty sky and then wandering back to wait on the Holy Spirit, pray, and seek guidance from God. There were more than just the eleven, something along the lines of 120 men and women including members of Jesus’ family. Somewhere amid their praying and seeking God, Peter stands up to address an issue that apparently needed to be dealt with. He tells them that certain scriptures needed to be fulfilled regarding Judas which meant that someone would have to take his place as one of the twelve. It would have to be someone who had been with the group from the time of Jesus’ baptism all the way to the ascension. This person was to be an apostle, sent to be a witness to everything Jesus taught as well as the resurrection.
Replacing Judas was an emotional and symbolic need. It was emotional in that someone trusted by Jesus himself to be among the leaders of their movement had betrayed both Jesus and the others. “This [Judas’ betrayal] happened even though he was one of us and received a share of this ministry,” says Peter in Acts 1:17. Scholars have debated Judas’ reasons and cited everything from greed to desire to see Jesus go nuclear in a moment of pressure to Satanic possession to a God inspired/directed plan. Peter, in verses 17-20, reasons that it was a divine plan. The truth is, neither we, nor they, knew for certain. Judas decided for his own reasons and that decision caused great pain and distrust within the movement. They needed to restore trust in their leadership and begin healing the hurts it caused.
It was symbolic in that the early followers of Jesus were Jews following a Jewish rabbi and their worldview and orientation toward who Jesus was and why they should follow him was decidedly Jewish. That symbol is found in Luke 22:28-30,
You are the ones who have continued with me in my trials. And I confer royal power on you just as my Father granted royal power to me. Thus, you will eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones overseeing the twelve tribes of Israel.
The symbol here is the connection of the twelve apostles with the twelve tribes of Israel. Each of the apostles is set aside as a judge over a tribe in the Kingdom of God after the return of Jesus. With Judas gone, they were missing a judge for one of those tribes. Jesus has ascended to heaven, and the apostles and disciples now inherit the leadership and responsibility of carrying on with the ministry Jesus started. They are tasked with teaching what Jesus taught, living as Jesus lived, making disciples, and doing it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the promised teacher. They do this to bring the hope of Jesus’ message to those who, oppressed, hold no hope for themselves.
With all that in mind, the disciples gathered had two candidates (same party in this case) named Justus and Matthias. Both men were capable and had proven themselves to be men worthy of the leadership position that was being filled. The process of choosing the new apostle was a combination of prayer and casting lots. In this sense, leadership is based on qualifications and divine choice. I imagine the prayer part was what led them to the two candidates and from there, with either man able to do the job, the lots came in. Casting lots is an interesting practice and one that goes back to ancient Israel. In this case, the name of the two candidates was written on a small piece of wood and added along with other blank pieces to a container. The container is shaken and the name that falls out, Matthias, becomes God ordained choice.
Sounds like a fun way to do committee nominations for next year. Maybe I’ll just put the name of every church member on a small piece of paper, put them in a Mason jar, and shake them out one at a time, going down the list of positions that need to be filled. The committee can take the year off and we’ll let God decide by lot. Somehow, I don’t think the church will go along with this.
The man sittin’ next to the man When we look at where we might go from here, one thing we will need is good leadership. I’m not just talking about from the pulpit, although that is certainly part of it, I mean from and for the entire congregation. As United Methodists, our greater church body sends pastors to local churches for a season and then sends them on to other places. So, the leadership of the local church is critically important, maybe more so in some ways than the pastor. We need to have godly, Spirit-led leaders to keep the mission of the local body going pastor or not. How do we find them? The same way the early church did, they let the Holy Spirit point them out. For us, we have a bit more to go on than they did in Acts 1. I see three things we can use for identifying leaders: the right Spirit, the right gifts, the right calling.
The right spirit The first thing that comes to mind is that we need to have the right spirit to connect to the right Spirit. What I mean by that is that we need to have the right mindset and right viewpoint on life and living to connect with the Spirit of God so that we can hear the voice of the Spirit speaking. I think there are two good places to look to get started with this: The Great Commandment and the fruit of the Spirit. If we are people who can truly love with everything we have and love neighbor as self and if we learn to do that by being people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, I would say we are well on our way to having the right spirit. In fact, I would say the practice of these things, even if we have not or never completely master them, is good starting place.
The right gifts All of us are gifted in some way or another. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 12-13 and especially in verses 4-11. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, powerful acts, speaking truth, discerning spiritual things, and speaking in other languages and their interpretation, although I have a feeling that we need to brush up on what those things meant in their time and place to really understand them. I think the issue is to recognize that we all have something, some gift to contribute to the work of the church. Not only that, but as we said previously, that work has to be done in the right spirit. Though the next chapter is often used in weddings, it actually was meant to say that if we use the gifts we have in the wrong spirit – any spirit other than love – we are wasting our time. The right gift is the gift given by the Spirit of God and used in the spirit of love.
The right calling The final thing I would say is that each of us has a particular gift to go along with our spirit and gifts. We can get an idea of this by looking at the lives of the apostles and especially Matthew. In the call story of Matthew, Jesus asks Matthew to be one of his disciples and Matthew throws a party to celebrate and show his friends the new rabbi he is giving up everything to follow. Though the bible does not say it for certain, I imagine Matthew would be able to reach quite a few Jewish tax collectors. He would understand their pain at being ostracized from their community and people while being looked down on by the Roman empire they worked for. He would be able to connect with them in a way that others might not even begin to know how to. We too have those around us that we know who ‘get’ us and whom we ‘get.’ This is our mission field, our people to invite to the party.
What do we do with that? From all this, we see that we need good leadership in the church, not just in times of crisis but all the time. We need to be able to trust in God and allow the Holy Spirit of God to guide to those who have the spirit, the right gifts, and the right calling for the circumstances. This begs some questions for each of us. What kind of spirit do I have? What are my gifts that god has given to be used in the service of Kingdom? What have we been called to do?
Whaddaulookinat The resurrected Jesus is standing on the Mount of Olives with the disciples—the eleven specifically called along with several women and Jesus’ brothers—giving them a few last-minute words before he leaves. For the past forty days, since the resurrection, Jesus has been teaching them, “working in the power of the Holy Spirit,” the same Holy Spirit promised to those gathered. Despite this teaching, the disciples are still having trouble wrapping their heads around what is going on, still hung up on ideas that were common to their Jewish cultural understanding.
“Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” asks one of them.
Jesus does a verbal head shake at this telling them, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, it’s none of your business, doesn’t concern you. He goes on to tell them what will concern them and that is, they will be infused with power when the Holy Spirit fall on them, and they will be witnesses of the life, work, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the lands of the earth. After that, Jesus ascends into a cloud and out of sight. A couple of angels show up, kind of like spiritual beat cops. “Nothing else to see here. Move it along.”
In all of this, I think the key is found in verses four and five, “While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” I think this is what the story of Acts rests on, the idea that everything they are going to do will be done through the Holy Spirit. The movement that the disciples will continue in the name of Jesus will be a movement led by the very Spirit of God, the Spirit that empowered and led Jesus in the gospel stories and in the first few verses of Acts.
You can’t get anywhere without directions When we talk about the Holy Spirit, quite often we really don’t end up saying very much. Outside of Charismatic circles, teaching about the Holy Spirit and emphasis on Spirit led Christianity as opposed to doctrinal Christianity seems to me to be minimal. According to the United Methodist Member’s Handbook, “The Holy Spirit is God’s present activity in our midst. When we sense God’s leading, God’s challenge, or God’s support or comfort, we say that it’s the Holy Spirit at work.” In biblical language, it is literally the breath or breathing of God, something we cannot see but feel in a way that sometimes is beyond our ability to express in words.
I think that for many people the reason it is harder to understand the Holy Spirit than say Jesus or God is that doctrines are easy. Doctrines are statements about things that define them, statements about a thing we believe or don’t. The Holy Spirit is beyond statement. It is experiential. Learning to listen to or understand the Holy Spirit, to hear the Holy Spirit over the din of our own thoughts, preconceptions, ideologies, and other noise takes work. I think it requires a level of surrender that is hard to develop and harder to give ourselves over to.
And yet, this giving over to, this surrender to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit, is exactly what Jesus told the disciples they would do, and they did it. “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem—a sabbath day’s journey away. When they entered the city, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter, John, James, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James, Alphaeus’ son; Simon the zealot; and Judas, James’ son—all were united in their devotion to prayer, along with some women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” And they did what he said for them to do in verse four—they waited.
I think the key to our relationship with the Holy Spirit is the same key the disciples learned to unlock as they waited on what would come to be Pentecost—patience. In the world of today, I think we could sum up our general stance of patience of any kind in an old adage I remember hearing a long time ago in a sermon, “Lord, I need patience and I need it now.” Our instant message, Prime shipping, immediate gratification world has no time for patience and certainly not for spiritual things that cannot be had in a half hour podcast or twenty-minute sermon. Does this make our culture a bad thing or technology a bad thing? Of course not, just often poorly prioritized and misused.
The bible has something to say of patience. The Letter of James defines the origin of patience this way, “After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance (patience). Let this endurance (patience) complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing.” So, according to the writer of James, patience is necessary for complete maturity in the faith. Paul says something similar when he writes that, “We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance (patience), endurance (patience) produces character, and character produces hope.” So from Paul we understand that patience leads to character and eventually to hope.
But patience is also not simply being still and doing nothing. It is preparing for what is coming next, knowing that something is coming next. What did the disciples do after Jesus ascended? They “all were united in their devotion to prayer.” Prayer, as I understand it, is a conversation with God, a dialogue. I like to think of it as two parts listening, one-part speaking. The speaking part is where we offer praise and thanksgiving and recognize with God the difficult things going on in our world and our lives. These difficult things are not unknown to God so we are simply acknowledging with God their difficulty and asking for divine intervention where we can do nothing or divine direction where we can.
And then comes the hard part for us—listening. This is the patience part, where we wait and listen for God to speak to us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus told the disciples, “The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.” In other words, the Holy Spirit offers refresher courses in the teachings of Jesus and guidance for understanding those. I think if you aren’t listening, you aren’t hearing. Listening requires silence. Silence requires patience.
In the day and time we live, facing the things we are facing, so many people are reacting, reacting out of fear, out of frustration, out of entitlement in some cases. But I see the need to act out of patience, out of listening to and waiting on the Holy Spirit to speak to us. I see the need to be a people waiting in prayer to hear the Holy Spirit, staying connected to God but doing so in a way that is more listening than talking, more awareness. I see the church on the other side of this time of crisis as a church that is contemplative and out of that contemplation, that time in the presence of God, we become active but in a way that is fruitful for the Kingdom of God rather than the institution of religion.
My encouragement to you as disciples is this: be patient. Learn to pray as listeners to God, hearing more than you say. Out of that, consider the things of Jesus that the Spirit is teaching you and do them. Above all, be people of the Spirit, responding not the whims of culture and trends but to the guidance of the Spirit.
This morning we come the end of our series on Living the Resurrection. I hope that you have been blessed by interacting with the stories of each of these people: Moses with the resurrection of his identity, Ruth the resurrection of her circumstances, and Paul with the resurrection of his life’s purpose. And now we come to the final person in our series with the Apostle Saint Mary Magdalene. Now that I have your attention, we can investigate the life of this very misunderstood but important person in the life of Jesus and his followers.
Mary of Magdala, or Mary Magdalene, has shown up in extra-biblical texts, sermons, books, television, films, and musicals from the first century through today. She has been beatified, canonized, vilified, and generally dragged through the mud. She is seen by some as a champion of women’s rights and is given the title ‘apostle to the apostles.’ In the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran Churches, she is considered the patron saint of apothecaries, contemplative life, converts, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, people ridiculed for their piety, perfumeries, pharmacists, reformed prostitutes, sexual temptation, tanners, and women. With all that in mind, I plan to tell her story and look at how she was impacted as the first witness to the resurrection and the resurrection of her heart.
Most of what people know and think of Mary Magdalene can be found in a sermon and two books. The sermon, offered by Pope Gregory I in 591, said that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the repentant sinner in Luke 7 are all the same person. This misidentification, one that scholars now generally agree was a misidentification, made Mary Magdalene a prostitute in the eyes of the church. The problem with this is these are three different people and the woman in Luke 7 is a sinner not a prostitute. First, the fact that Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus, is identified as being of Bethany which means she was not of Magdala. Names that had your town of origin were specific in those days so she could not have been from Bethany and Magdala. These are two different people. Second, the woman in Luke 7, someone completely different is not identified. The writer of Luke tried to be careful with names and dates and where people had names, he used them. If the woman in Luke 7 had been Mary Magdalene, the writer would have said as much. She was well known to the disciples and would have been easily identified. Finally, the woman in Luke 7 is identified as a sinner not a prostitute. The word used is hamartilos meaning simply one who has missed the mark. People have conjectured that she was a prostitute from what they see as a sensual act in touching Jesus’ feet with her hands and hair but the point of the story is about her lavish and humble worship of Jesus not some hypersexualized display. She could have been a labeled a sinner for anything from walking too far on the Sabbath to speaking with a man in public.
The other two things contributing to Mary Magdalene’s modern reputation are the two books Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code. Whether or not Dan Brown plagiarized Holy Blood, Holy Grail or not is a matter for us to debate today but both books promote some bad scholarship and assumptions on the idea of Mary Magdalene as Jesus wife. Whether Jesus was or was not married, whether the Catholic Church covered it up, we simply do not have the proper evidence to definitively say one way or the other. It makes a lovely conspiracy theory and a great fictional story, but it really doesn’t hold water when you look at the actual documentation and fragments we have available. The closest verse that could make a case comes from the Gospel of Philip and says that Jesus was the companion of Mary and that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples. It also has a broken fragment that says Jesus used to kiss her on her and then a blank space. So, there is no real proof here. This is all speculation and poor scholarship for the purpose of entertainment and book sales. Dan Brown writes good fiction and in this case it’s just that, fiction.
So, what do we know about Mary and how does that speak to the idea of her heart’s resurrection? One, she was from the seaside village of Magdala on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. She was, according to Luke 8:1-3, healed of seven demons, or to say it another way, completely healed of possession. Some scholars think this may have been another way of saying she had been suffering from mental illness. She was independently wealthy whether from family money or that of a husband. According to the writer of Luke’s gospel, Mary Magdalene used her wealth to support Jesus and the disciples financially.
Most importantly, she was present, according to all four gospels, at Jesus resurrection. In the Gospel of Matthew, she holds a vigil over Jesus grave with “the other Mary”. In the Gospel of Mark, she was witness to the crucifixion and later, is going to the tomb to embalm Jesus with spices along with Mary the mother of James and Salome. The writer of Luke records her bringing burial spices with Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women. John’s gospel also shows her at the crucifixion with Jesus mother, sister, and a woman named Mary the wife of Clopas. When the morning of the resurrection comes around, the gospel writer offers no explanation as to why she is there, but it is the one gospel where she speaks with the risen Jesus, only recognizing him after he calls her name. Though the men come later, it is always Mary who is at the tomb to see the tomb empty and hear the good news as to why. She is the apostle to the apostles, the one sent first to tell the good news of resurrection.
Like much of scripture, this can get reduced to details about something written about in the past or theological points to be debated. But I would like for you to imagine yourself for a moment as Mary Magdalene. I’d like for you to think about what it must have been like to be completely delivered from possession or mental illness whichever you prefer. Imagine the incredible weight lifted, the relief of being able to return to a normal life. I’d like for you to imagine being so grateful, so overjoyed that you hear with a willing heart the message of Jesus under whose ministry you were delivered. You not only come to believe in the message you believe in the man and his mission, so much so that you begin to put considerable financial resources into helping them. Not only that, but you become one of many who follow Jesus across the Galilean landscape, proclaiming his message of the Kingdom and learning at his feet. You follow him no matter what, even in the end, to the foot of his cross, where Jesus is executed by Roman authorities. Think of the journey she has been on from desperation to healing to discipleship to dread to heartbreak. Think of yourself sitting in a home in Jerusalem on Saturday, knowing you cannot honor the rabbi by caring for his deceased body; no ritual cleaning, no anointing of spices, nothing. You simply sit there, dazed, shocked, helpless. You are nothing less than completely heart broken. After everything you have experienced, everything you’ve seem, you can do nothing but sit there in the pain.
Morning comes and you wander toward the tomb. Feeling nothing but the numbing cold in the air and your heart, you take one heavy step after another toward the rock wall that hold the body of the rabbi. Your hope is gone. Your strength is gone. You are running on nothing more than sheer determination to honor the rabbi. But something is different when you get to the tomb, something out of place. It’s then that you see: the stone, the giant gravestone blocking the tomb’s entrance is rolled aside.
You run back to the place where the others are staying and breathlessly tell them what you have seen, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” You run back, terror stricken at the thought of this desecration, thinking of the dishonor done. Peter and the beloved disciple get to the tomb ahead of you and go in. You stand outside, bending over to look inside the tomb, a trickle of tears turning to wracking sobs. And then, angels, messengers from God alight on the slab of stone where the body was laid. They speak to her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
Why am I crying? Why am I crying?! Rage becomes the undercurrent to your grief as you cry/scream the words at the angels, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”
You feel a presence behind you, and you turn to see a man. “Woman,” he asks you, “why are you crying?” This again? You ask where the man has carried the body of Jesus away but there is something strange about this man, something familiar. You don’t realize what it is until he looks into your eyes and says, “Mary.”
That voice. That voice, his voice. That’s him, that’s his voice. You start shaking and reach out to grab his sleeves, “Rabbouni?” Hope returns and the heart that was broken begins to mend.
Mary Magdalene, no matter how you might choose to see her through the lens of popular culture, was a devoted disciple of Jesus who experienced all the profound heartache of loosing her friend and spiritual teacher and all the joy of knowing he was resurrected. In the same way, when we embrace the Way of Jesus, we too are embracing healing of heartaches, the restoration of our true selves and our being. We are experiencing, as she did, the resurrection of our hearts from a broken way of living to a resurrected way of living.
As we continue in our series on the resurrections of various biblical characters, let’s do a little recap. Two weeks ago, we talked about Moses and how he went through a series of different identities to become what God had in store for him, each of which led him to a different place and relationships and resurrected his personality along the way. Last week, we talked about Ruth and how she went through various circumstances and how God resurrected and altered her life through those circumstances. And this week we come to perhaps the most important figure in the New Testament outside Jesus himself: Paul and the resurrection of his life purpose. Many things have been said and written about this apostle to the Gentiles, some by what appears to be his own hand, others in accounts written about him later on, but one thing we know for certain: Paul had a profound change of heart that changed the face of Western Civilization. But before we get into that, let’s talk a little about the man himself, what we know about him, and how this might have led to his conversion or maybe calling.
Paul was born outside of Jerusalem, into a Greek speaking Jewish family. They were part of something known as the diaspora or dispersion of Jews from Judea. The diaspora happened over the course of years going back the time of the Babylonian Exile and going forward. Jewish people were scattered about the Mediterranean region and Middle East, living all over the region in what were the Babylonian, Persian, Greek-Seleucid, and finally, during the time Paul was born, Roman empires. These various empires had what were now term pagan religions, meaning that they were not monotheistic or connected to the God of the Jewish people. They worshiped not just one god but many and saw this as a normal way of life, in contrast to Judaism and the offshoots of Judaism. This sort of exclusivism in religious practice (one god, one revelation through a sacred book, one place of worship) put the Jews at odds with the pagan peoples that lived around them and put Paul, I would think, at odds with those around him as well.
As he grew into adulthood, Paul apparently took his faith seriously. He says in Philippians 3,
If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: 5 I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. 6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church. With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
Also, in Galatians 1,
13 You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors.
I imagine that growing up in a pagan environment where Greek and Roman gods were seen as “superior” may have meant that Paul felt a need to prove his faith beyond a shadow of a doubt if to no one else, himself. Notice how he saw himself: a righteous keeper of the law, devoted to Judaism to the point of defending it physically, violently if necessary, advancing in knowledge and understanding further than those of his generation. And eventually, Paul becomes a Pharisee.
A side note about Pharisees; they may not be what you think they are. Pharisees, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, sought keep and uphold the Torah (the instructions) and the ‘traditions of the elders.’ They were the conservative force behind Judaism, strictly adhering to the Torah and the traditional teaching of the people to the best of their understanding. In truth, if they believed in Jesus and live now, they would make great conservative Christians. We know from his writings that at some point after the Jesus movement started and probably after Jesus himself died, Paul sought to fight against the followers of Jesus. By his own admission, he tried to harass the church and destroy it because of his militant stance about the traditions of the elders. The writer of Acts places him as witness and potential instigator at the stoning of Stephen, regarded as the first martyr of the Jesus movement. And of course, a chapter later, he is facing the risen Jesus who asks him, “Saul, why are you harassing me?”
Another little interesting tidbit, did Paul answer a call or convert? There are several ways that people have looked at this topic, but from what I have read and seen, Paul was not becoming part of a new religion anymore than any other Jew who followed Jesus did. They were simply Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Like Peter, Andrew, James, and John before him, Paul saw in Jesus the anointed of God (another way of saying Messiah or Christ) sent to usher in the Kingdom of God.
I think this is important as we look at this idea of resurrection. Paul’s purpose, his reason for being, was resurrected on the Damascus Road. He went from being one who fought against the Way of Jesus and by extension Jesus himself, to being one who embraced it and became one of its greatest defenders and advocates. The change was so profound, so completely out what had been Paul’s character, that during the immediate time after his recognition acceptance of Jesus, many followers of the Way were skeptical including Ananias, who was used by God in our passage today to restore Paul’s sight after being blinded by the resurrected Jesus on Damascus Road. Paul was the same man – focused, intent, zealous – but now all those things for the Way of Jesus and the early church. The resurrection, the change in his purpose, led Paul to truly repent of what he had done to the church (literally change his attitude toward the church) and become one of the great missionaries and church planters of all time. This was truly a resurrection, a rebirth of mission and purpose.
Thinking about Paul brings me to a question: what does our resurrected purpose look like? Many people have, from a Wesleyan perspective, experienced prevenient grace (God calling us) and justifying grace (us answering that call and realizing the need for change), but have we engaged with a resurrected purpose? Before you answer that with a hearty amen or affirmative of any kind, think about your life both where you have been and where you are. Is it any different than the life you had before you experienced justifying grace? For that matter, is it any different than the life you experienced with prevenient grace? To have a resurrected purpose is to have a profound change in attitude and action. It is not just saying the words and thinking the thoughts of The Jesus Way but it is living out The Jesus Way in every moment of every day. It goes beyond thinking to being and doing.
In that case, what are you being and what are you doing?
Given how difficult it was last week to try to sum up and characterize the life of a major biblical figure, you would think I should have learned my lesson. As usual, I didn’t. Once again this week, I am going to look into the life of someone from the bible with the intent of summarizing their life into a small, bit sized, simplified, digestible chunk and hopefully be out of the way enough for the Holy Spirit to unpack that in your heart and mind and spirit. Last week, we talked about how Moses went through a series of identities as God worked in and through him over the course of his life and how those identities changed the character of the great leader of the Exodus. We looked at how he started as a slave and became a prince to become a shepherd to become the leader and prophet of a soon to be nation. In all these things, God worked to shape the identity of Moses to the task and calling of his life. This week, we look a small little book with a familiar story that has some not so familiar things floating beneath the surface, the story of Ruth.
This story begins in a specific time and place and with a specific circumstance: During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. Another way of saying that might be, “During a time of upheaval and chaos.” The reason is that if you look at the end of Judges – chapter 17 to 21 – you will find a phrase that keeps coming up. The phrase is “there is no king in Israel.” There were bad things happening – people starting their own versions of the Levirate priesthood, people attacking people in the streets, people looking to have priests bless the killing of their families – all because, according to the author of Judges, there was no king, no one to enforce the laws of God and man. It is in this chaos, this trying time, that many scholars think the story of Ruth takes place. This story is a story of circumstance and providence, how the people walk through certain difficult, often heart wrenching circumstances and find the providence of God working along side of that.
The story, as we have said, begins during the time of the Judges and during a famine no less. The famine is ironic for this family because it is in Judah, specifically Bethlehem which in Hebrew means, house of bread. So, the house of bread has no bread. Because of this, the family of Elimelech, which consisted of his wife Naomi and sons Mahlon and Chilion, left the land of Judah for the land of their enemies, the land of Moab. Moab was a land often at war with Israel over territory and resources as well as cultures and ideologies. But famine is famine and food is food, so when there is no bread in the house of bread you have to find some bread. And for Elimelech’s family, that bread was in Moab.
When they come to Moab, tragedy strikes: Elimelech dies and Naomi is left in a foreign land with her sons. It is not complete tragedy however, because both sons marry Moabite women. The two women, Orpah and Ruth, are favorable enough women that even though they are not Hebrew, Naomi gives her blessing for the sons to marry. Interesting side note: in many stories in the Hebrew bible or Old Testament, the names have important meanings. Of course, we have already mentioned the irony of Bethlehem and its meaning of “house of bread.” Elimelech means “my God is king” and Naomi means “sweet, pleasant.” The two sons’ names Mahlon and Chilion mean “sickness” and “failing,” which sounds promising if you read this in Hebrew, right? The women they marry are named Orpah meaning neck as in stiff-necked and Ruth meaning restore or replenish. Suffice it to say, the names here are not chosen accidentally.
In time, the two sons, as their names might suggest, die and Naomi is left a woman in a foreign land with no protection, no family, no one to look out for her. In the days of ancient patriarchy, a woman’s security was in being part of a family group and having either a father, brother, or son to take care of you. With no one to look out for her, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem, where the famine had apparently ended. At first, both daughters begin the journey but then Naomi tries to send them back. Eventually, Orpah decides to go home to her family in Moab but Ruth stays, and we get the oft quoted at weddings, “Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” Naomi relents. The women return and Naomi claims to have changed her name to Mara, which means bitter in Hebrew, because she sees God as having “dealt bitterly with her.”
If we read past the text today, we would find that the story is not as dire a story as it seems it might be. Ruth and Naomi find a place to stay and Ruth goes to the fields to find grain that she might pick up after the main harvest has passed. Unknown to Ruth, there is a divine law that the Israelites must leave a portion of the field to be available for widows, orphans, the poor, and the sojourner. As a foreigner or sojourner, Ruth can glean from the grain left. When she does, she is noticed by Boaz the owner of the field. Breaktime rolls around, Boaz meets her and is impressed enough to invite her to eat their midday meal, a gesture of familiar recognition. The gesture is a little shocking considering that she is from Moab and throughout the story is referred to as Ruth the Moabite. Nonetheless, she goes home with arm loads of grain and Naomi is shocked, even more so when she finds out that the field where Ruth was belonged to a kinsman, someone who could potentially be asked to honor the Levirate laws of marriage and marry Ruth so that his kinsman’s family line of descendants would continue.
We of course know the story from here, even if we do not always get the nuance. Ruth follows Naomi’s instructions on what is essentially the Israelite way to propose a marriage contract to Boaz. He accepts here daring offer and we get a lot of rituals involving kinsman redeemers and witnesses and giving you shoes to your cousin a few times removed. Boaz and Ruth marry. Naomi becomes a grandmother of sorts and according to the writer of the story, the family line of Ruth and Boaz connects to that of David. Ruth goes from foreigner to family and the story is held up for many reasons not the least of which is the idea of a redeemer that gets quite often tied in with theology about Jesus.
Resurrecting our Circumstances
There is so much going on in this story, so much more that we could dig into. The big things, though, are about how God works through the circumstances of the lives involved and how we can connect to that by seeing this as our story as well. Some theologians say the main idea in this story is the idea of chesed, a Hebrew word that get translated as faithfulness or loving-kindness but means much more. The meaning is more of several ideas connected: faithfulness, grace-filled love, loving kindness, all within a relational context that is like an ongoing conversation. It has some similarities to the Greek word agape in that the relationship is one of self-sacrifice but in chesed, the parties involved don’t necessarily agree all the time and work through the relationship while growing together.
If you look at the story in Ruth, you can see this in how Naomi goes from being sweet and pleasant to bitter to joyous in her relationship with God. In chapter one, she is convinced God has abandoned her. By the end of chapter two, she has begun to hope again. By chapter three, Naomi is excited for the future and by the final chapter, she is at peace. Ruth, in similar fashion goes from a woman with a potential in a future family, to a woman giving up her family and country for what might be nothing to a woman who not only has a new family but ends up being the ancestor of a king. Throughout this story the circumstances change and at each change the people involved are seeing their connections to God and one another change in response to their faith actions. Throughout the circumstances, the providential Spirit of God guides and encourages so that each person in the story can grow in the way they best need to.
What does this say about our life, our faith actions in relation to the world we live in? Quite a bit actually. Right now, we live in our own world of upheaval. And the story of Ruth is a human story, so it is relatable to our time and place, our own humanity. We have faced catastrophes. We have all felt betrayed at times by God or someone else. We have all dealt with personal reversals of some kind. We have all felt desperate over circumstances and situations. We have been Naomi or Elimelech or Ruth or Boaz to someone and have had people who those characters to us.
It is a story about walking into the unknown. In the long tradition of Abram, Moses, the Exodus, the disciples, and many or most other characters from the bible, the people in Ruth are walking on faith into a circumstance that is limited in vision. All these stories from the bible, Ruth included, are stories about how people lived into faith action, not just thinking things about God but doing things with/for/in response to God. They are true sojourners answering the call to walk to new places, see new things, and live into new lives of service, love, and sacrifice.
Finally, it calls to that part of us that may have gotten tired, gotten distracted, or just stopped walking in our faith. It calls us to rise from the circumstance we are in, good or bad, and continue in the journey. It says that the next bend may lead up to a mountain, down to a valley, off in green pastures, or out into a desert. No matter where it leads, no matter the circumstance, we walk with God in our ongoing relationship of chesed, experiencing the ongoing faithfulness, grace-filled love, loving kindness conversation within the relationship we have with God.
So, whether you are on your way to the house of bread or the land of the enemy you do not go alone. You go with the Spirit of God leading your providentially to the circumstance that will help you grow into maturity in Jesus and the Way.
All resurrection is change from one kind/state of being to another. If there is no change, there is no resurrection. But as we see in the life of Jesus, Peter, the other disciples, and our own lives, there was and is indeed, resurrection that has and does take place. Last week we talked about the resurrection of Jesus and Peter and, by extension, about our own resurrection. So, after the resurrection, what do you do?
We could spend a few weeks looking at the early church and see what they did and quite often, if you follow the lectionary that is exactly what many ministers do. But I am curious about the idea of death and resurrection throughout the Bible, the other places where a person has found a dramatic change in life and direction after dying to a way of life and embracing another. So over the next four weeks, we’ll look at the lives of several people – two Old Testament, two New Testament, two men, two women – and see how death and resurrection idea played out in their stories and how it might relate to our stories. And we start with someone whose life was all over the place, quite literally, Moses and the quintessential story of salvation for the Jewish people.
The story of Moses places his birth in hard times for his people. Joseph, the Hebrew slave turned Egyptian prince, has passed away and within a generation or so, so has the favor of the Egyptian rulers. The problem? The Hebrews were growing as a people within Egypt and were beginning to outnumber the native Egyptians. The rulers were afraid that they might revolt and take over the country. So, one of the Pharaohs who had come to power, one who had long forgotten Joseph, enslaved the Hebrew people. Despite this, the Hebrew people continued to multiply to the point that the Pharaoh ordered all the male children to murdered by midwives as soon as they were born. The midwives of course, refused and claimed the Hebrew women were too quick to give birth, not giving the midwives time to get there. Eventually, Pharaoh ordered all male children born to be thrown into the Nile, midwives or not.
And now we come to Moses. The baby was born to a Levite family, the family that would eventually become the tribe that all Israel’s priests would come from. The woman fearing for the child’s life came up with a shrewd plan to place the baby in a basket and hide him at the edge of a patch of reeds where Pharaoh’s daughter often bathed in the river. The hope was that she might find the baby and want to keep him as her own. The baby’s older sister was sent to watch from a distance and help the process if needed.
And it worked. The princess saw the child’s basket and when she heard him crying took pity on him. When it appeared that the princess would keep the child, the older sister offered to get a Hebrew woman to nurse the child if the princess wanted. Of course, that woman that nursed the baby was his own mother and in time, the child was brought to the princess and raised as a prince in Pharaoh’s court with the name Moses. Rising from slave child to prince before he left childhood.
The story goes on from there in familiar fashion. The boy grows up in Pharaoh’s court, eventually sees a Hebrew being beaten and decides to punish the Egyptian who did it by killing the Egyptian. Fearing the wrath of Pharaoh, Moses ran to the land of Midian where he saves the a group of women from some greedy shepherds while the women were trying to draw water and becomes a part of the family, marrying Zipporah and starting his own family.
Then, it happens. He is watching his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep one day when a bush catches fire. Noticing that it doesn’t burn up, Moses goes to see what is going on with the bush. It’s then that a voice begins to speak from the bush, a voice that apparently knew his name. “Moses, Moses,” the voice calls. When Moses answers, the voice introduces itself as the “…God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob…”
From there, we get a back and forth conversation that starts with God laying out the plan for Moses to go to Pharaoh and demand the release of the Hebrew people and Moses refusing. “Who am I to appear before Pharaoh,” Moses asks. “Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?” I imagine Moses is remembering that a previous Pharaoh wanted him dead for killing an Egyptian and Moses may not have been certain that he would be welcomed back in any pleasant sort of way.
Back and forth Moses and God debate.
Who am I to go and do this? Don’t worry I’ll be with you.
By whose authority do I say that I am doing this? Tell them the I AM, the God of their ancestors sent you sent you.
What if they don’t believe me? I’ll perform miracles like this one, turning your staff into a snake.
But I don’t talk well in front of others. Take your brother and let him do the talking.
Eventually, Moses runs out of excuses and goes to Egypt. The story follows that he leads the people out of Egypt and into the wilderness where God weeds out the generations not prepared to enter the promised land of Canaan. For forty years, the people wander with Moses as leader, moving slowly toward the promised land. Just in sight of it, Moses dies, and Joshua leads the people into the new land.
But all along this journey, Moses is living into a new, resurrected life and new identity. Walk through the roles of his life and how he changed: born a Hebrew slave, he is rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and becomes a prince. As a prince, he kills and Egyptian and is reduced to becoming a fugitive shepherd. Comfortable in the life of a shepherd, he ends up called to confront a great world leader and lead an enslaved people out of bondage. Leading them into the desert, he is called on to be prophet and leader of a fledgling people and in the process is physically changed (his face and shines, reflecting the glory of God when he comes down off Mount Sinai the second time) by his encounter with God.
What we see in the story of Moses is the story of a resurrection, a resurrection of identity. Identity is simply who we are at the deepest level of our being, our truest self. One aspect of resurrection is that it is a change in identity. Jesus went into the tomb as an itinerant preacher, healer, would be revolutionary political leader. He came out of the tomb as all those things but also as redeemer, restorer, and example of the complete change that comes with following God through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. According to the resurrection stories in Matthew and Luke, he was real yet not perceivable as himself. He was a new creation in the words of Paul.
Moses undergoes this too. His journey is one that leads him to be changed little by little, painstakingly until the person he was is unrecognizable from the person he has become. The Moses who murdered an Egyptian in rage over the man’s treatment of a fellow Hebrew is not the same Moses who timidly tries to avoid going before Pharaoh’s court or the one that comes of Mount Sinai having to wear a veil to protect the people from the glory of God on his face.
In truth, each of us whose life is resurrected by our encounter with God through Jesus by the guidance of the Holy Spirit finds we are not able to remain the same person we once were. The encounter with God puts us in a place to have to confront the old person with the person God is showing us, helping us become. We cannot be resurrected and unchanged. We are either one or the other. Resurrection reorients our identity and places it squarely in the Way of Jesus with the expectation that we walk in that way. If we let it and don’t fight the change, it quite literally alters our spiritual DNA to create (as Paul says) a new being, fashioned after the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
What of your life? Is it a resurrected life? Does it need to be? If it does, give yourself over to the work of the Holy Spirit to make it so, to alter your spiritual DNA. Quit fighting against God and allow God to create a resurrected life within you.