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May 8, 2005 (Easter VII)

Pastor Fritz Fritschel

Ezekiel 1:26-2:1; Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11

The first reading for the day is a much-neglected description of an important vision of the prophet Ezekiel. Recall that he has this experience while being a part of the exiled Jewish community in Babylon. In the vision he says that he saw the heavens opened and he saw visions of God. In Babylon, he is far removed from Jerusalem and the temple, surrounded by Babylonian culture and stories. There are many striking things about the description of this vision. But two I want to mention now.

First, this vision is "of the one seated above the likeness of a throne was, as it were, one in the likeness of a human form." How is it that this vision emerges in this setting, by the river Chebar while exiled in Babylon? Why a human form? Perhaps because the challenge to Ezekiel and his audience was that they were expected to become human. That was their task.

The image of being human is a real image, but it is not yet actual. We may know what it means to be human in the sense of an ideal hope and aspiration, but hopes and aspirations need to be actualized concretely. There is an important distinction between what is real and what is actual. And now Ezekiel has insight into the divine realm in which the human image becomes central. That can be contrasted with the images of Babylonian and Egyptian deities who appear in some animal-like or composite animal/human forms. Why is this image of God that appears to Ezekiel in human form?

There is a second thing in the text that is worth noting. That is the fact that the setting, the Babylonian empire, is the dominating power of the day, with its own culture and founding mythology. For instance, in the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma Elish, the god Marduk, who becomes the major local deity, slays Tiamat, the dragon that represents the chaotic forces of the sea. Some order is established, but the gods of the Babylonian pantheon still realize that they have no one who will make bricks and build their cities. They need people. And from the blood of one of the slain generals, Kingu, they make people who can work for them. Their entire account of creation emerges out of an atmosphere of violence--the violence of the original epic battle with Tiamat; the violence of the shed blood of Kingu used as the material for fashioning people.

Contrast that with the story which is familiar to us from the first chapter of Genesis. The account of Creation in Genesis 1 was most likely written at the same period of time as Ezekiel's vision, the 6th century BCE. Indeed, there are those who think that the writer of the Genesis account must have been influenced by this vision of Ezekiel. For you remember the words in Genesis, "Let us make humankind in our image, in our own likeness. Let us make them male and female in our image." Ezekiel and the writer of Genesis 1 offer an important counter version to the Babylonian culture of violence. Humans are fashioned with deliberative care that they should bear the image God. Being made in the image of God which as it were has the appearance of a human, the human task is now to become really human.

But let's jump ahead to another imperial setting---the Roman empire. It spread across the entire Mediterranean area and further. When Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE, his funeral rites last for many weeks. The report is that a comet was visible in the sky during that period of mourning. The interpretation was that Julius Caesar [whose initials happen to be J.C.] was being taken up in the realm of the gods, the pantheon, where he was to be welcomed. He was being deified, a practice that Romans began to borrow from territories to their east.

When Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, became Caesar, he too was given accolades of divine status, although he may have tried to downplay that. In 31 BCE he defeated the rival forces in the battle of Actium. Peace was established. It was called the Pax Romana. The Peace of Rome. Octavian, now known as Caesar Augustus, was called the "bringer of peace, the savior, a son of god." Certain Roman coins pictured the image of Caesar with the words "Dominus et Deus"--Lord and God. You remember the words that Thomas recited on the week after Easter, when he saw Jesus and said, 'My Lord and my God.'

On inscriptions throughout the empire, the good news of Rome's accomplishment were etched in stone. One inscription from 9 BCE, found in present-day Turkey, includes this statement:

"The most divine Caesar...we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things...for when everything was falling into disorder...he restored it once more and gave to the whole world a new aura. Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times...and whereas, finally, the birthday of the god [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of good news [euangeliaon, gospel] concerning him. Therefore let a new era begin from his birth."

And so Caesar Augustus takes his place in the Roman pantheon. The cult of the emperor expanded throughout the empire. Cities and temples were built in his honor; statues of Augustus were situated everywhere.

Compare that mode of Roman imperialism with the style of the Kingdom of the Jesus movement.

Rome's peace came at the price of threat, fear, intimidation, oppression, occupation, exploitation, force and control. An event in 4 BCE illustrates their mode of domination. The Roman general Varus had been assigned to the area of Syria and Palestine. In 4 BCE the infamous Herod the Great, a Roman puppet king, died. The Judeans thought this was an opportunity for revolt and liberation from oppression. General Varus silenced that threat by gathering, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, 2000 of the people, and crucified all of them at the same time.

The Jesus movement on the other hand was characterized by understanding, compassion, liberation, peace, forgiveness, non-violence. The Roman mode was an external show of force, controlling and deterring revolt by fear and force. The Jesus movement spoke about the kingdom as internal motivating power--"the kingdom is within you [or among you]" (Luke 17). Such a spirit encourages one to stand up and become really human. At times imperial language may sound like language of the Jesus movement, but there are entirely different connotations and consequences.

Recall just a few key incidents in Jesus' ministry. The picture I get of Jesus, contrary to what Pope John Paul II said, is the he is very much a political rebel. Or perhaps it would be better to say that he wanted to restore a sense of human community. Remember the exorcism in Mark 5 when Jesus expels demons from a man by the name of Legion. We know what a Legion is--a battalion of Roman soldiers. It's as if Legion takes upon himself and into his own body the oppression and occupation of the Roman troops. And Jesus says, "Get out!" He drives them away. Now that is not the simple act of healing an individual. It is a community action. It is an attempt to humanize the community. Reread the story for the startling reaction of the community. And---it is a subversive political action. It is ordering the Roman occupiers to leave.¹

Now when Jimmy Castro, Jim Cartwright, and Jeannie Castello [all of whose initials are J.C.]--when they come to the healing station, it is not only for their individual health and well-being. For health is more than individual--it is communal. We come for the healing of relationships and communal ties. In fact, at times it could be a political action, symbolically pleading that good healthcare be a universal right for all in our country.

Consider again that many of Jesus' parables were directed in subversive fashion against the actions of landowners and merchants, who were exploiting and destroying human community. One might want to say today that the value of such human community has been sacrificed to greed, profiteering, and outsourcing. I believe that some of Jesus' stories were so pointed and critical that they provided the motivation to have him killed.

Or remember the story in Mark 2, a paralytic is lowered through a roof into the presence of Jesus. Some bickering goes on when Jesus announces that the man's sins are forgiven. Only the priests and temple authorities have the power to forgive. Jesus is undercutting their authority. Or rather--he says something like--"in order that you may know that the Son of the Man has the authority to forgive sins." That enigmatic phrase, Son of the Man, both personal and collective, now is suggesting that the power to forgive sins is within the human grasp. You and I, as human beings, are called to become more human by practicing forgiveness that is characteristic of the one who sits above the throne.

And now, the narrative of Jesus' ascension in the book of Acts, coming after all the counter activity and teaching that Jesus has done, begins to appear to me like a coup d'etat. It is not the Roman Caesars who sit near the center of being, but the human Jesus. This movement of Jesus is not a vertical movement into some higher stratosphere. It is a journey into the heart, not of "darkness"²--but a journey into light, into Godhead. Not so that Jesus can be deified, but that God might be humanized. That God might be seen with a human face. If I were to go a step further, I might even suggest that the Jesus movement is a mockery or a satire on Roman imperialism, on Roman militarism and force, on Roman exploitation and control. The movement is an ascension into a real imaginal realm, and that image is challenging and coaxing us to become more human. Images are real, but they need to be made actual.

God appears & God is Light
To those poor souls who dwell in night
But God does a Human Form display
To those who Dwell in Realm of Day.

William Blake

Jesus has infiltrated Godhead, and now we are challenged to bear the image of God, of full humanity, within our own lives. I can't do that by myself. I need help, of course. The image of Jesus is there to support and guide us.

"It makes them more human." That's what the teacher said of some of her students. She is a drama teacher and she thought that when the students in a play took on a part and role of a character in the play, that they learned something about empathy. They learned what it might feel like to be another person, what it might be like to have the attitude and experiences of someone else.

That may be one way to become more human. Or consider the experience of Paul Farmer. I recommend the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder. It is the story of Paul Farmer's life, an extraordinary person who has demonstrated something about being more human. After an unusual childhood of growing up in a trailer court, a converted-bus, and a questionable boat, Paul went to Duke University and later to Harvard to study anthropology. He went to Haiti to study a population oppressed with poverty in the Central Plateau region. He walked among the villages, listened to people's stories. Then he decided that he couldn't just be an anthropologist. These people needed medical help. So he went back to Harvard to study medicine. Not that he was in class most of the time, because he was most likely to be found in Haiti. Yet he maintained high marks in medical school and saw countless examples of illness that he would never have seen in Boston.

In one of the last episodes in the book, Farmer makes a house visit to one of his patients. It takes him 7 hours to make that one house call--4 hours there, 3 hours back over the hills. Mountains beyond mountains. He does this out of a driving passion that people deserve healthcare--because they are human. And they are in need.

His program has extended to Lima, Peru, to Mexico City, and into the prisons of Russia, where tuberculosis, his specialty, and HIV/AIDS are rampant.

Not everyone has to do it the way that Paul Farmer does it. One of his most important sources of inspiration is the thought of liberation theology, a movement that worked with the notion that God has a preferential option for the poor. Perhaps it is in poverty that the threat of dehumanizing people is the most severe. And our task is to become human.

We all have some kind of edge, some chink, some feature-which, if we were to move it further ever so slightly, we might say that we too are becoming more human. Living in the image of God, that is our task, to become more human.³

Notes:

¹ Of course the modern distinction of church and state, religion and politics did not exist in Jesus' day. What Jesus was advocating was a liberated, egalitarian, faithful community. To call him a political rebel is a bit misleading.

² An allusion to Joseph Conrad's [ J.C.] Heart of Darkness.

³ Walter Wink's book, The Human Being (Fortress Press, 2001) is also important background for much of the material in the sermon.


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