Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jesus in context

Acts 17:22-31; John 14:15-21

     For 2,000 years, evangelists and theologians have told Jesus’ story in a variety of ways. In the early church, it was relatively easy to speak about Jesus to Jews. The image of good shepherd, messiah, and suffering servant were familiar to Jews. It was only necessary to explain how Jesus fulfilled these roles. The gospel writers did this for their individual audiences and communities.
As the Jesus story spread out from Jerusalem, it needed to be expressed in ways that the locals could understand. In the reading from Acts, we find Paul in Athens, Greece. His audience knows nothing about Jewish tradition, so he must begin from a different place. Throughout the city, there are temples and places of worship and idols everywhere. Just in case they might have missed a god, or none of the gods was just the right one, there is an altar designated to an unknown god. Paul claims this as the starting point for his story about Jesus.
In a city known for its stone, gold, and silver idols, Paul describes Jesus as a god who is beyond solid substances. In a city where one prayed to different gods for different needs, Paul describes a god with unlimited power. In a city where people of many different heritages and ethnicities lived together and worshiped their own different gods, Paul describes a god who is the creator of all people, who gave all people a common ancestor. In a city where people occasionally worship an unknown god, Paul explains that this same god has put within them the urge to find such a god.
For all of these circumstances, Paul identifies the god they seek as his God. What’s more, his God is powerful enough to raise a man from the dead. In response to this powerful action, all of creation is now called to be aware of this unknown God and repent and worship.

I have always loved learning about other cultures. As I read theology in those other contexts, it excites me to learn of new ways of explaining who Jesus is. Evangelists and missionaries have used the Jewish origins and essential teachings of Jesus in many different ways to convey the central message of God’s love and care for us, the grace of forgiveness, the power of God over death. Here are some of my favorites.

For over 100 years, there was a mission in Africa, serving the Masai people. There was a hospital. There was a church. There was a school, which the children from the region attended, and took religion classes. But there were no Masai people who really believed in Jesus.
In 1966, Father Vincent Donovan spent a year visiting the people in the Masai villages, starting with the elders of the community. He stated his intent: to tell the people about his God. As he visited each of the six villages, he heard the same response. “If that has been your intent all along, why did you wait so many years?”
Fr Donavan began by listening, wanting to know what the Masai already believed. As he listened, he heard about their belief in several less important gods, and a belief in one very important god they thought of as the Ancestor. Father Donavan began to describe Jesus as the Ancestor. He developed rituals adapted from Masai beliefs, taught the basics of Jesus’ love and grace. Not every Masai believed, and some caused some trouble, but within a year there were many newly baptized believers among the Masai.

In Papua New Guinea, pigs are very important, and treated like royalty. When it comes time for a pig to be slaughtered, it’s the woman’s decision when and which pig to slaughter, and the men’s job to do the cooking and carving.
When missionaries wanted to introduce Jesus to the people, they needed to consider the culture. There are no sheep on the island, so the familiar image of God as Good Shepherd would have made no sense. But the images of God as Pig-herder made it very clear who Jesus was.
What’s more, there is a ritual among the Papua New Guinea people that when there is a dispute between families, or between clans, one family offers a pig as a peace offering, and all share in the cooking and eating. When pastors speak about forgiveness, they remind folks about the forgiveness pig and call Jesus the Pig of God. – I imagine good Jews rolling over in their graves, but it works for the Christians of Papua New Guinea. J

Since the 1980s, Christian Asian women have been seeking a theology that expresses the reality and presence of Jesus for them. They begin with wondering where Jesus has been during all their struggles. In their male-dominated world, female fetuses are often destroyed after amniocentesis. Female children are more poorly fed, less educated, and overworked when compared to male children. Asian women’s bodies are controlled by men and their labor is exploited.
Asian women seek liberation form this oppressive culture, and endure continued oppression as they seek freedom. Asian women have suffered and lived in pain, so their understanding of Jesus must start from that point. Their Jesus must bring healing and wholeness. One of the emerging images of Jesus is as a mother, because of his compassion. They especially cite a tragic legend.
In the 8th century, the King of Korea wanted a bell cast to honor his devotion to Buddha. Time after time, the bell that was made had no sound. A monk suggested that in order to get a pure sound, it was necessary to sacrifice a pure young woman. Such a child was found and thrown into the molten metal. This bell had a beautiful tone, and everyone praised the sound of this bell.
Everyone, that is, except the mother. Every time the bell rang, the mother’s heart broke. For many Asian women, Jesus is like the mother, and his heart breaks when he hears the cries of humanity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

What is the point in telling you all this? First, in all of these places and images, the essential Jesus remains: loving, forgiving, powerful, divine and human. Second, there is no single right way to understand Jesus. Third, the essential Jesus needs to be shared in a way that the audience can understand and come to believe.
As we seek to grow our congregation in numbers, we will do well to understand the culture around us. Some of the folks in our area grew up abused. Some of the folks in our area grew up depending on social services to bail them out. Some of the folks in our area were not taught right from wrong as children, or that actions have consequences. Some of the folks in our area have suffered from the economy through no fault of their own. Some of the folks in our area are in poor health.
Some of the people in our area grew up in the church and continue to worship. Some of them grew up in the church and were offended by some action, some decision, or some person, and left the church disillusioned. And there are many folks who have never had any connection at all with God, Jesus or the church and see no value in such a connection.
As we reach out to different types of people, we can seek to understand the culture they live in. We can seek to show the community that we are trustworthy, and that we offer Jesus with no strings attached. As we seek to share Jesus with our neighbors, we may need to find an image of God and Jesus that will help them believe in his power to love, forgive, claim, and rescue them.
We pray for the people in our community; as we pray for them, we also pray for ourselves. We pray that we are able to reach out to our neighbors in love. We pray that some folks will be drawn to us by the Holy Spirit. And we pray that the Holy Spirit will send us to those who are ready to hear about Jesus’ love.
Perhaps there is someone for whom you pray, that they will come to know Jesus. Pray also that God will lead you to help them, that God will give you the right words, the right image, at the right time, with the right amount of love. And then trust in the Holy Spirit to do just that.

Please pray with me: Holy Spirit, you know the faith in our hearts. But there are so many who don’t know you, who don’t trust you, who don’t think they need you, who don’t know you love them. Help us find the ways to reach them for you. In Jesus’ name, amen