Delicious Heresies or Junk Food for the Soul.

DaVinciCode

NOTE:  In 2003 I gave a talk at Saint Johns Memphis, Tennessee about the DaVinci Code the page turner by Dan Brown.  The piece below explains the adventure.  I came across this on the internet recently and thought it might be worth sharing.

I wrote this in 2006

Dear Friends

Below is an article I wrote for ExploreFaith.org. It remains topical two and a half years later.  Three years ago this November a quote from an interview I gave about the Da Vinci Code published in the Commercial Appeal was subsequently quoted by Dan Brown on his website, DanBrown.com. This citation opened a “minor career” on matters Da Vinci. Calls have come from La Monde Magazine, Paris, France, The Guardian, Sidney, Australia and even talk radio in Sacramento, California.  Now the movie is about to be released and I have agreed to respond to questions from the Commercial Appeal readers.  All this says a great deal less about my “authority” than about the ubiquitous nature of the Internet. Below you will find an article I wrote for the web page, Exploring Faith.  It continues to reflect my sense of the Da Vinci Code phenomena.

In November (2003) I led three conversations about issues raised in The Da Vinci Code. Months earlier, while browsing in a bookstore, the cover of the novel caught my eye, and because I have a long fascination with Leonardo (he is never called Da Vinci), I bought the book to read as a diversion. I found nothing new there, but it was a good page-turner.

DaVinciCode 2

Then something interesting happened. People old and young, male and female, began to ask me could it be true, as the Code contends, that Jesus and Mary of Magdala were married and perhaps even had a child. This and other questions continued through the summer with such frequency that I realized that this book provided a teachable moment.

I prepared to have a conversation about the book with interested members of the congregation I serve. A press release was sent to the local newspaper and I was asked for an interview. The resulting lead article once again indicated a high level of interest, but the turnout the night of our first gathering was completely unexpected: Six hundred people packed the pews.

What is it about Dan Brown’s novel that enticed hundreds of people into church for a conversation? When questioned by a reporter about why I thought so many people were reading this book, I replied, “It is filled with delicious Christian heresies.” Did Jesus marry Mary from Magdala and have genetic descendants? However intriguing the notion there seems to be no compelling evidence that Jesus married at all.jesus-magdalene

The idea has prompted people to ask, “What am I to believe and why?” That is a very valid and enduring question. Toward the end of that first meeting a woman stood up and said, “We are here tonight because we are searching.” One of the challenges for the searcher is the interpretation of discovery. What does a new idea or experience I have encountered mean? Is it true? If it is true how is it true? If it is true how does it apply to my life?

In an age of anxiety it is tempting to reach for certainty. If we can be certain then we can be safe. If we are safe then we are in control. However, certainty is illusionary. There is no certainty. In fact certainty is contradictory to faith. As Allen Jones, Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, puts it, “The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.”

For me at least, notions that promise certainty are suspect. For Christians faith is the posture in the face of mystery. What God has revealed in Christ Jesus is a mystery. How could the birth of one man in one moment of history make a difference for all people at all times within history? Many have found this preposterous. And yet that is the core belief of classical Christianity.

What is there to find that is unique about the classical Christian understanding of Jesus? Over centuries Christians came to believe that Jesus is fully human and fully god. I believe that he is. That is an act of faith for me but increasingly I suspect that it is true because it is not the easy way out.

Humanity likes the quick fix, the black or white option—clear cut and simple. Heresy, from the word, “to choose,” is the tendency to choose a part of a notion and carry it to a logical conclusion, thereby ignoring the complexity and richness of the fuller reality.

N Frye

Northrop Frye

As Northrop Frye writes in his book Anatomy of Criticism, “… the full metaphorical statement ‘Christ is God and Man’ is orthodox, and the Arian (the belief that Jesus was not god but the highest creation of God) and Docetic (Jesus only appeared to be god but was in fact only a virtual god) statements in terms of simile or likeness (are) condemned as heretical.” The heresy is to not be willing to live with the tension of the paradox, but rather to want reality easily understandable.

The Da Vinci Code introduces many people to the fact that there were many exotic flowers in the early garden of Christianity. There are many reasons that they didn’t become the dominant form of Christianity. In some cases they couldn’t compete in the marketplace of ideas and in others they were eradicated by the political power of the state allied with the church. The church has not always covered itself in glory by mercy and justice.

All that notwithstanding I think the principle reason that classical Christianity endures to the present is the fact that the easy way was not the way chosen. The fact that the church chose the way of paradox and ambiguity as the most authentic way to live in the mystery of God revealed in Christ is the most telling reason for the enduring power of its life and message. Even in the church there is a desire for certainty. That is the human condition. The courage to face paradox is the most authentic expression of the Christian life. I believe that this is the life for which people unconsciously search. That is why I suspect that six hundred people showed up on a Wednesday night to talk about a novel.

Now the movie opens and questions abound.  I don’t think that this novel threatens anything. It’s existence provides a teachable moment and as Christians we should be in words of the Apostle Peter be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15). We must be about the business of our Lord and the culture is prepared to talk. That’s a good thing.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John Sewell

This affirmation of the resurrection has become very important to me over the many years.  It became a go to remark at funerals. It speaks to the hope in us that nothing in all creation or history can “trump” resurrection and grace.

Frederick Beuchner writes, “The New Testament proclaims that at some unforeseeable time in the future God will ring down the final curtain on history, and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ.  In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.”

In hope in spite of the facts.  John

WEDNESDAY OF EASTER IV

May 15, 2019

commodities-sheep-meat.html_PHOTO

 

JOHN 10 Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

 

The Feast of the Dedication (Hanukah) commemorated national deliverance from the pagan Syrians. The Feast and buildings filled with meaning by prophecy would be a great place to launch the revolution. Some of his detractors could have become supporters if he played to their fears and ego inflation. He turned his back on variety of revolution when the Devil first suggested it back in the Wilderness.

Jesus passed on starting the popular revolution. Those who longed for violent revolution never understood what Jesus was about. These are the Sheep deaf to the Shepherd’s voice. There were sheep who did learn the language of the Kingdom. These Jesus knew and cherished. Granted many sheep did not clearly hear the Shepherd’s voice until after the resurrection. But they that did hear his voice followed (and do so today). What we do know for sure is that our self-absorbed egos do need to die. When we die to self-absorption it is amazing how clearly we can hear the voice of the Shepherd.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

 

TUESDAY OF EASTER IV

May 14, 2019

jesus-and-the-pharisees

The Pharisees Confront Jesus – James Tissot

JOHN 10:22-30 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

Why are you keeping us in suspense? What they should have said was, “Ok, we didn’t buy what you told us. That was ridiculous! Try again.” “Actually, I did tell you,” Jesus said.  Your problem is that you do not believe.”

Not believing is a problem. I’m concerned by what is meant in our own day. To believe is to assent to the truth of some fact about someone, something or an event.

Washington exhibit

George Washington Madame Tussauds

For example,
I believe in George Washington.
I believe that George Washington lived from 1732-1799.
I believe that George was a pretty good man.
I believe that George was the “Father of his country.”
If I am in Virginia, I might go to Mt. Vernon and see where he lived and is buried.
I might go to the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
I even carry a few copies of his picture around in my wallet.
I can take George’s name in vain and say “By George” in conversation but such talk is cheap.

 

BUT, that doesn’t have too much to do with how I live my life in 2019 or any other year.. My point is that I can be culturally Christian in much the same way. I can believe all sorts of things about Jesus without being transformed, without living in the Resurrection. No wonder people do not take us seriously. We believe the doctrine of faith, while people seek a way of life. I’m hungry for that myself. Let’s have the manners to pass the bread, having eaten some first.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

EASTER IV

May 12, 2019

JOHN 10:22-30 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.

The Temple proper was not as big as one might think.  Surrounded by vast courtyards, the outer perimeter was anchored by enormous columned porticoes. While silence was deep, full and complete in innermost Holy of Holies, everywhere else there was bedlam.

Multitudes of animals were slaughtered.  Huge pipes drained the blood away. Burning carcasses gave off clouds of smoke. At the same time choirs sang psalms and canticles, while in the porticoes classes gathered. Famous Rabbis held forth. The Temple only accepted a unique currency minted in house. Foreign coins had rulers or gods engraved on them and thus were unacceptable.  The exchange rate was very lucrative as people exchanged profane money for kosher money which they promptly donated.   Jesus cleaned that out one time.  There is really nothing like it in our time. Imagine a huge barbeque, choir festival and graduate school housed at an historical site drawing tourists by the myriads of thousands: all at the same time.

Jesus walked the portico accompanied by his disciples, as did many Rabbis, lecturing as they walked. I doubt Jesus was particularly notable, among the multitude the avoiding the rain and the cold.  His opponents had no trouble finding him, demanding a straight, unambiguous answer.  Yes or no, are you Messiah or not?

Simeon

Over thirty years earlier, the ancient Simeon recognized Jesus in Mary’s arms for who he was.

Malachi 1:14b “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

 

The massive complex existed to worship the Holy One of Israel.  No one noticed Simeon greeting Messiah and no one is prepared to accept him almost thirty years later.  Why?  It didn’t fit the Messiah of their understanding.  They wanted something else, refusing in their certainty to entertain the idea that perhaps Jesus was who he said he was.

The Gospels tell us that we will meet Jesus somehow in the faces of the poor.  Not what we have in mind, but that does not change the text (Matthew 25:40).  I invite you to join Saint John’s Servants of Christ at Manna House some Thursday morning.  There you will, when you least expect it, encounter the Lord of resurrection in what Saint Teresa of Calcutta called, “one of his distressing disguises.”

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

SATURDAY OF EASTER III

May 11, 2019

LUKE 24:30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33 That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34 They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Laughing Jesus barry moser
Jesus Rabboni – Barry Moser KJV Bible 1999

For several days we have mediated on the four ritual movements of the Eucharist. Today, let’s look at the fifth.  He took, blessed, broke and gave bread to them. They ate and they went.  The last words of a Eucharist is the dismissal by the waiter (deacon), “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” “Thanks be to God,” we say as we head for the exits.  As I often say, “We are to be for others what we have received at the table.  In other words,

“If you have been fed, be bread!”

 

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John Sewell

THURSDAY OF EASTER III

May 9, 2019

LUKE 24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Our Lord took, blessed and broke the bread.    In the Second Rite for Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer [page 364], the rubrics (stage directions) are emphatic on one point.  After the bread is broken,

The Breaking of the Bread
The Celebrant breaks the consecrated Bread.
A period of silence is kept.
Then may be sung or said
[Alleluia.] Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us;
Therefore let us keep the feast. [Alleluia.]

emmaus 5

Although this is more often than not ignored, rushing as we are toward lunch, I believe it the most solemn moment of the service.  Why?  On a good day, humidity willing, an audible cracking is heard.  This action, called the Fraction, is the moment when mystically the broken body of Jesus becomes one with all the brokenness in us.  The words of the Prophet Isaiah (53:5) are fulfilled (or filled full), “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

In the face of such love and sacrifice, all we can do if fall into a length of silence. It is my practice at Saint John’s to pause for 10 or so seconds. Speechlessness is the only response to the magnitude of just what God has done for us in the resurrection.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

 

 

 

WEDNESDAY OF EASTER III

May 8, 2019

LUKE 24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Jacek Malczewski - Christ in Emaus.

After he took the bread, he blessed it. What is it to bless? What it is not, is a baker sprinkling powdered sugar on the loaf emerging from the oven. To bless is to give, not just sweetness on the surface but deeply in the molecules, even the DNA of that bit of creation. Blessing is more concrete than abstract. To enjoy life having survived a day longer. That is blessing.

Fr. Matthew Fox entitled a book, ORIGINAL BLESSING, contending that blessing was the intention of the Creator, existing long before sin, enduring long after the “stain of sin” disappears from the fabric of humanity.

Claus Westermann instructs us, “God in the Bible relates to humans by deliverance and by blessing.” BLESSING IN THE BIBLE AND THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH. The Eucharist ”re-presents” the resurrection as both. . While there is a lot of “Junk food” for the soul to be had, Eucharist is the most important meal you eat all week. It’s good for you, nary one empty calorie

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

TUESDAY OF EASTER III

April 7, 2018

emmaus

 

LUKE 24:28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

It is no accident that at supper that night in Emmaus, Jesus performed the four ritual acts of the Eucharist. This would not have been lost on any who heard Luke read in the early church to now.

He took the bread. The Word took on flesh, mortality and morbidity. He took on cold, fear and the slings and arrows of human sexuality. He as much as we, felt deeply. He cried, chuckled, and anger was familiar. Yet he did not sin. Suffering was his companion and death his foe. He died and pulled the fangs of meaningless dying.

All this and more, he took on when he took the bread.

In hope, in spite of the facts.

John

MONDAY OF EASTER III

May 5, 2019

Emmaus Debbie Salt

LUKE 24:17 And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” 19 He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him..

Jesus said, “That was quite a debate you just having.  What were you discussing?” With grief, most anything is a trigger and sadness leapt to their faces. Cleopas looking up over his glasses asked, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem not to know what happened this week? You don’t get out much?”  “What things?”  Seeing Cleopas’ exasperation,   Symeon interjected, “Jesus of Nazareth, who was prophet in deed and word before God and all the people…”

The consequence of a drought of prophets in Israel from Malachi to John the Baptizer was spiritual hunger.  There is never any lack of people wanting to order people around, while telling them exactly what the Holy One would do or say, if only God had all the facts. John, the Baptizer was cut from a different bolt, actually a bolt of lightening not camel-skin.

Acabas Emmaus

Of course God has all the facts.  The important thing to know about Jesus is not that he is like God.  The important thing to know is that God is like Jesus.  “If you have seen me,” said Jesus, “You have seen the Father.”  The Incarnation revels the identity and face of the Creator. That turned out to be good news.  Good News in deed.  Not only that, we are invited to call God, “father.” That’s amazing when you think on it.

There are many amazing things yet to come!  I have it on good authority.

In hope, in spite of the facts.  John

 

J