About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."

2021/03/31

The empty tomb

The empty tomb - that is the quintessential Easter story. Female and later male disciples going or running to the tomb and finding the stone rolled away with the tomb empty and hearing from angels about the resurrection.

            Within the gospels, in their narratives, in their storylines that is the first time we hear about Jesus’ resurrection. And it absolutely makes sense. If resurrection – then we start with an empty tomb. First things should come first. - But they hardly ever do!

            Theologians have known for centuries that the empty tomb story was quite a late arrival to the Easter narratives.

            After Jesus’ horrific death, disciples started meeting with him again, and they were empowered by him, they were transformed by him, their view of the world completely changed.

            That is how it started, but at the earliest moments they did not have language to speak about it. Even the use of the word resurrection was not automatic and instant. It took some time to settle.

            By the time apostle Paul wrote to Corinthians around the year 50, the word resurrection was established. But Paul still did not know about the empty tomb. 

            The story of the empty tomb appeared for the first time about a generation later in the Gospel of Mark and quickly became the emblematic story of the resurrection as a highly evocative and powerful image.

            And so, the empty tomb is the opening part of the Easter storyline, but the latest and youngest part of the Easter Message. And that is something you might not know about the Bible and Easter Faith.

 

On this Easter Sunday in our worship we will listen to this powerful and radical message of the Empty Tomb. Join us if you can.

Harrowing the Hell

The Anastasis Fresco - Harrowing the Hell
in the parekklesion of Chora Church in Istambul

Harrowing the Hell - that is a part of the Easter message about which you would hardly ever hear from the Protestants. Yet it is present in the oldest Christian creed and also in the Bible.
            After Jesus died on the cross and was buried, he descended into hell. That is an undisputable part of the Apostolic Confession, the oldest baptismal affirmation of faith.  And it is also well founded in the biblical testimony. The Gospel of Matthew speaks about Jesus being three days in the heart of the earth. And in 1st Peter we read about Jesus preaching, after his death, to the souls in the prison. Other biblical and early Christian stories point in the same direction. And there is also an impressive ancient iconographic tradition.
            Harrowing the Hell might have been disregarded among the Protestants but this Holy Friday we want to correct it and listen to and contemplate this enigmatic Easter message and rediscover its radical, transformative and even hopeful message.

Join us on the Holy Friday at 7pm 

 

2021/03/24

Flower Sunday

This week we will celebrate Palm Sunday, the second Palm Sunday under the pandemic and the second time without real palm fronds. But you don’t need to be sad. We only need to recognize that the presence of those “Palms” at the time of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem are far from certain.
            The earliest record of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem is in the gospel of Mark (11:8) and it does not mention any palms. People were spreading their coats on a road and also some vegetation. Gospel is using a relatively rare word ο στιβας. It was derived from stepping, stomping, and walking. Later it acquired the meaning of bedding for animals in stables and also humans in a form of ancient mattress material - straw, hay, simply some soft vegetative matter upon which it was possible to rest comfortably. In the Gospel people were spreading on that road their coats and also straw, hay, and reeds creating for Jesus an improvised soft red carpet.
            Luke in his gospel probably did not know what it was and what was its purpose and so he did not mention any vegetation - people were just spreading their coats.
            Gospel of Matthew (21:8) tries to explain and also simplify. People were placing on the road their coats and also branches or shoots of trees and bushes (τα κλαδια των δεντρων). Both words indicate wooden plants and certainly not palms.
            We have to wait until the gospel of John almost a century later before any mention of palms at Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. And we also hear for the first time that people were waiving with those “the palm branches of palms”. John clearly overcompensates and uses quite awkward and unnecessary pleonasm (τα βαια των φοινικων).
            This is what less than a century of tradition can do – from straw, to branches, to palm fronds; from spreading them on the road to waving them up high; from an archaic improvised middle-eastern red carpet to exuberant celebration; from a solemn self-dedication to cheerful festivity.
            But palms were certainly not the original part of Jesus' entry to Jerusalem - and that is something you might not know about your bible and your religion.
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So don’t be sad if you don’t have palm fronds this Sunday. Use what Europeans did for centuries in their colder climate. They used budding and blossoming branches. To the point that Palm Sunday was often called the Flower Sunday. For this Pandemic Palm Sunday worship buy pussy-willows or blossoming sakura branches or just any spring flowers or any flowers. We will celebrate the Flower Sunday.

2021/03/11

Pseudo-Shaman's Pseudo-Prayer

 This Tuesday (the 9th of March) our Rutgers Church Session adopted by unanimous vote An Appeal to Christians against the false doctrines of White Christian Nationalism.

    When the January 6th attack on the Capitol happened, many people were shocked by the sheer violence and anti-democratic nature of that sad event. For me, the most shocking part of that dangerous escapade was actually a prayer. That prayer offered by the so-called Q-anon Shaman Jake Angeli in the very Senate Chamber, right at the Senate Dais.

     In that prayer he thanked “divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator God” for “filling that chamber with the divine white light,” and thus “sending a message to all the tyrants, communists and globalist” and “protecting America and American way of United States of America” (sic!) Those were his pleonasms, mannerisms and verbosity which he probably learned from some long-winded Arizonian evangelical preacherer.

     Even more frightening was the fact that all that noisy disheveled riffraff knew how to behave at the time of such prayers, chiming in with their loud amens and lifting up their arms in praise. Clearly well socialized (or should I rather say anti-socialized?) in that kind of church culture. 

     Observing this blatant abuse of religion for the self-serving and destructive political ends I recognized the deep and scary logic of all of that.
     And I wondered - Where is the line between corruption of one religion and the beginning of a completely different, new, foreign religion?

    And even more seriously, where is the limit when the religious zeal is so distorted that it becomes an idolatry of some other, different, grotesque god?  

      These are not academic questions. They are serious and quite consequential for all of us. Appropriately for the lent season we will ask these disturbing questions and try to reach some deeper understanding. But we will also seek and affirm the essence of our faith and affirm our commitment to our benevolent Lord. Join us, if you can, for this important spiritual quest. 

 

--------------------------
This is a link to the pdf version of our Appeal to Christians.

Here is a link to an you can also sign an online petition.

 

 

2021/03/04

Universal Human Family

Shortly after the sacking of the Capitol on the 6th of January, elder Christine Gorman asked me what are we going to do about the abuse of Christianity which was so present in that riot. At first I did not know what she meant, but after paying a little closer attention it became painfully obvious. The insurrection was not only shockingly violent, it was also permeated with and propelled by a dangerous aberration of “Christian” faith - symbols, language, and even prayers.
          For those who study right-wing Christianity it was actually unsurprising. This riot, this attempt to subvert democracy was substantially propelled by the white christian nationalism.

            That is a known, ugly, and poisonous fruit of corrupted Christian faith. I preached about it on January 17, but more needed to be done. With several theologian friends and with the help from Auburn Seminary we prepared a statement of faith - An Appeal to Christians. Rejecting on theological grounds the White Christian Nationalism. But not only rejecting it, more importantly affirming the positive message, the core values of our Christian faith contrasting it with this dangerous aberration.

            The time of Lent is a preeminently appropriate time for contemplating just these matters. So on this and the next two Sundays we will not only reject White Christian Nationalism and its dangerous ideology but in contrast also affirm central values of our Christian faith.

     1) Its egalitarian and antiracist nature,
     2) Its altruism and spirit of service,
     3) Its cosmopolitan, universal aspirations

We start with the deeply biblical theme of one universal human family.


--------------------------
This is a link to the pdf version of our Appeal to Christians.

Here is a link to an you can also sign an online petition.

 

2021/02/18

Adopted Son of God

Mark 1:11 in the Codex Sinaticus
Note the inserted verb making the sentence more regular.  

In the Greek Bible, also called the New Testament, there are several instances that indicate that Jesus became the Son of God at a certain point of his life, and actually, even after his death.

            That is exactly what we hear in the opening verses of the Epistle to the Romans. According to Romans 1:4 The Spirit of holiness appointed Jesus, through his resurrection to be the Son of God. 

            The same sentiment is shared a generation later in the Acts of Apostles 13:33. There it is a legendary rendition of the early Christian preaching - but the message is almost identical - In Jesus’ resurrection the Psalm too was fulfilled which says: You are my Son; today I have begotten you.'

            Furthermore in the Gospels we hear about at least two other occasions when Jesus is promoted and made into the Divine Son. One is on the mountain of Transfiguration which is associated with the beginning of his journey to Jerusalem. The other one, earliest in Jesus’ life, was at his baptism, when he came up from the water, saw the skies opened and heard the voice declaring him the Son of God.

            Each of these biblical instances references, or even directly quotes ancient formulas which made and inducted kings into their office. The Ancient Near East king became a king by being declared the Son of God (being adopted to the Sonship of God). And so in the New Testament we have at least three different moments when it was supposed to happen to Jesus - at the resurrection, at the transfiguration, or at his baptism.

            Yet this uncertainty about the time is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the fact that it is mentioned at all because from the early fourth century onward claiming that Jesus became the Son of God, regardless at what point of his life or afterlife, could cost people excommunication and eventually it might cost them even their very lives.

            So here we go, even on such an important matter as the sonship of God, the Bible itself contains what the later church would declare to be a grievous error. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.        

 

And let me say one more thing - all of this might sound academic, pedantic, perhaps dull - distant from our daily reality - what’s the big deal, and who cares? But knowing this and grappling with issues like this can protect our faith and our sanity. It is theological inoculation against all sorts of fanaticisms, fundamentalisms and dangerous religious manipulations. This is why I share it with you: to keep our faith informed and healthy.

 

This Sunday, the first in Lent, we will read one of those texts about Jesus’ baptism. However, we will not discuss this issue which the church made into heresy, but we will rather concentrate on Jesus’ liberating and hopeful message.

2021/02/12

Evolution weekend

Every mid-February on the weekend closest to the birthday of Charles Darwin (the 12th of February) at Rutgers Church we celebrate the Evolution Sunday. We do it because we know and want to affirm that our Christian faith can coexist with evidence based science. We want to affirm that evolution is the intrinsic aspect of all that is alive. Thus even religious rituals and religion itself evolve and yes, even God evolves as I have preached about it in past years.
            This year the entire world is in the clutches of a deadly pandemic. We cannot avoid recognizing how evolution and evidence based science can directly inform and protect our lives and our health. The evolution is not only about the past – how plants, animals and humans came into existence – the evolution is an ongoing process and for instance, infections are evolving right before our eyes. Our understanding of this evolution is literally vital for all of us. Or taken from an opposite angle - any denial of evolution and of the evidence based science is a mortal threat to everyone.
            Interestingly, spread, development and evolution of biblical infectious illness of leprosy can lead us to a better understanding of the Bible and of our faith. It has been recognized for some time that the biblical leprosy was not fully identical with the Hansen Disease (modern scientific name for leprosy). At the same time modern DNA typing and anthropological and historical research of this disease can greatly contribute to our understanding of the Bible and the ancient sources of our faith.

            You can join us this Friday at 6 pm for a documentary and discussion of the evolution of illnesses and on Sunday at 11 for worship and celebration Charles Darwin and beneficial coexistence of science and faith, faith and science. 

2021/02/04

Not a Lunacy

The biblical message is quite unequivocal and resolute: 
       When you look up to the heavens and see
       the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven,
       do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them.
 (Deuteronomy 4:19)
Worship of heavenly bodies and any astrology were forbidden.
But then the prophet Isaiah (40:26) takes us in an exactly opposite direction:

       Lift up your eyes on high and see.
       Who created all of that?
      The one who brings out the host (of stars) in full number,
      calling them all by name;
      because of his great strength and mighty power,
      not a single one is missing.

On the surface it all looks quite orthodox. It looks just like a lovely celebration of the Creator of the splendid and awesome night sky. No problem, no conflict there, until .... Until we realize that the prophet describes biblical god with well known attributes of the Moon god - Yarikh (also transliterated as Yarih, Jarich or Jarikh).
            Behind the prophet’s words was the mythical image of the Moon god leading out each evening the flock of stars like a shepherd - that would be the peaceful version of that mythical image - or like a king leading his heavenly army to war - that would be a more bellicose image.
            And so there is no doubt, Isaiah is not the only instance in the Bible quoting this old myth. The same mythical image appears also in Psalm 147:

            The LORD determines the number of the stars;
            God calls all of them out by their names.

In Isaiah or in the Psalm the Moon God Yarikh is never mentioned by name, but YHWH is eloquently described as the moon god. And that is not a lunacy. There clearly was a time when the Hebrew god was merged and fused with the Moon god Yarikh and took over many of his attributes and functions. And this Biblical fusion of biblical god YHWH with the Moon god Yarikh is something you might not know about the Bible!


This Sunday we will observe what it might mean for our faith. Not a lunacy! But rather we can draw inspiration from our predecessors and ancestors, take it as encouragement to seek justice in our own turbulent times, and draw encouragement and hope for the future generations.  

2021/01/28

Demons demythologised

I still vividly remember one of my early seminary colloquia in the NT theology. Our New Testament professor was an internationally recognized scholar and that day he challenged us to take seriously the biblical world-view teeming with demons.
            At first, we students wanted to dismiss it as an outdated superstition. He agreed with us that demons were part of the ancient mythological world-view but he also wanted us to approach it more creatively. He pointed out that ancient people were not stupid, they were just as intelligent as we are. They perhaps did not have modern laboratories, and modern science, but they were keen observers. They experienced rapidly spreading infections and they quite correctly surmised an influence of some kind of invisible agents which were hopping from one person to another. They called them demons while these days we called them bacteria and viruses.
            But he went further and talked about demons causing what we would call mental illnesses. In that instance our professor quoted his wife, a clinical psychologist, and soon to be a psychology professor at the Charles University. He proposed to us that the world-view with demons responsible for mental illnesses was in fact very benevolent, gentle, kind and gracious.
            That ancient perspective was benevolent because it allowed a clear distinction between the person and the demon. The possessed person was not evil to the core, evil behavior was caused by the demon which controlled him or her. Only the fully developed and most mature psychology, psychiatry, and sociology were able to reach this level of insight, sophistication and humanity recognizing influences of environment, physiology, family history, and personal or societal trauma.
            I am thankful to my professor for this lesson, for showing us this example of constructive Bultmanian demythologisation, this respectful interpretation of an ancient world-view.

            We do not need to truly believe in demons or engage in magical exorcisms to appreciate their deeper and still relevant lessons leading us to a more humane way about illness and people in distress. 

 

 

 

2021/01/21

Fishing adynaton

 A spoon lure - a shiny metal disc used for sport fishing.
Some fish are clearly attracted to glittering objects
yet it is highly unlikely any fish would swallow a coin and then another hook.  

Humor is a very efficient way of resisting and even subverting the unjust status quo. Jesus was a master of this technique. Many of his parables tell that story and are gems of humorous observations and social commentary. Sometime, he went even further employing absurd humor.
            Here I need to give you a little bit of an introduction. Disciple Peter, we are told was accused that his master Jesus did not pay the temple tax. Peter lied claiming that Jesus did. Jesus probably overheard it, afterward took Peter aside and talked with him. He asked him whether children of a king paid taxes to their father. Under feudalism the answer was self evident - Of course not! Then Jesus gave to Peter a very bizarre instruction. Take a fishing rod, catch a fish, find a silver coin in its mouth and pay with it taxes for me and you.
            The pious commentators twist themselves into knots interpreting this bizarre instruction and firmly asserting an even more bizarre and unique self serving miracle. Well, the miracle is actually not reported. Commentators just infer it - if Jesus commanded it, it must had happened that way!
            Oh, how very pious and at least, according to my opinion, how very wrong! Can you imagine fish with a large silver coin in its mouth being caught on a hook? And that was exactly the instruction. I am not a fisherman and I know it is an absurd situation.
            It was an Adynaton - sarcastic hyperbolic figure of speech. When hens grow teeth, When cats grow horns, When fish build nests on the poplar trees, On the second Thursday of the week! Those are all modern European examples of this type of expression. And we know that Jesus used that figure of speech before - do you remember threading a camel through the needle’s eye?
            In our English speaking world with not that many fishermen among us I would interpret Jesus’ instruction this way: Peter, go to a forest, catch a flying pig, sell it and pay our taxes.
            Jesus had a keen sense of humor and resisted unjust taxation with biting sarcasm. And that is something you might not know about the Bible.

 

This Sunday we will hear about Jesus calling fishermen what he offered them and what they provided back to him. And why it is still relevant for us today. 

 

2021/01/15

Gate and road logion (new reading and interpretation)

Enter through the narrow gate;

for the gate is wide and the road is easy

that leads to destruction,

and there are many who take it.

For the gate is narrow and the road is hard

that leads to life,

and there are few who find it.

 

Gospel of Matthew (7:13-14 quoted here from NRSV) preserved for us this saying of Jesus with clear signs of Semitic parallelism. Gospel of Luke has an abbreviated version (13:24). It is therefore highly probable that this logion was preserved in the Q source (A presupposed Early Christian collection of Jesus’ logia).

     Often it is being interpreted along the lines of Christian ethical or moral exclusivism. I would like to suggest a different reading based on the historical context and how ancient city gates and roads were built and how they functioned.

 

The Hellenistic walled cities, and sometimes even cities without walls, had what can be described as a ceremonial gate - a main entrance to the polis which was used for different processions and for welcoming dignitaries and imperial or royal messengers. This main ceremonial gate was built on a main road leading to the city. Besides this main entrance, the city often had several side entrances connecting it to the countryside either in the form of postern gates, if the city was walled, or just streets extending to surrounding farmland.

 

A network of the Roman imperial roads is not necessary to introduce. Romans inherited and perfected earlier similar networks which were built by preceding empires (Hellenistic kingdoms, as well as Persian and Assyrian empires). It is also well understood that these imperial roads were built for easier and more efficient administration but primarily for military purposes of communication and easier movement of armies. On the other hand local roads were formed by local communities to serve their immediate needs of local commerce and farming.

 

Based upon these observations I would like to offer my dynamic equivalence translation of this logion:

 

Always take a narrow gate.

            The main ceremonial city gates

            and straight Roman roads

            are built for armies and lead to destruction.

But the narrow gate and the twisty roads

            are for civilians and lead to life.

 

This reading (interpretation) clearly goes beyond the narrow moralistic exclusivism and offer richer and deeper context, anti-imperial outlook, and theology which fits well with the rest of Jesus’ message. 



2021/01/14

Choose life

Several years ago, while talking about the biblical beatitudes, I also mentioned that the Bible contains lists of curses. I will never forget the surprise of one of our dear members!
     Of course, there are curses in the Bible. When it comes to important matters in life you cannot have blessings without complementing curses. Actually, there are entire lists and even solemn cursing liturgies.
     Here is a sample from the Book of Deuteronomy:

"Cursed be anyone who moves a neighbor's boundary marker."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

"Cursed be anyone who misleads a blind person of the road."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

"Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice."

And all the people shall say, "Amen!"

 

      Hebrew Prophets often composed litanies of woes and prophetic invectives. Here is just a verse from one of the litanies in Isaiah: 

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,

who put darkness for light and light for darkness,

who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!

     In the New Testament Jesus' famous beatitudes are complemented with what can be described as his rant of woes against religious and political hypocrites. Here is an example.

Woe to you, religious teachers and leaders, you hypocrites!

For you proudly give religious tax even of mint, and dill, and cumin, while you neglected what really matters to God, justice and mercy and humble faith.
     There are clearly times and situations when matters are truly serious and present us with a stark choice between blessing and curse. Just as Moses of Deuteronomy reminds us:

     "Today I have placed before you choice between life and death, blessings and curses. And I call on heaven and earth to witness your choice. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your children might live!

2021/01/08

Our renunciation

John the Baptist, as his epithet suggest, baptised people and with it he preached repentance. There is quite a widely shared and deeply rooted confusion what he actually meant.
     For John and in the Bible - repentance has little if outright nothing to do with guilt feelings or displays of self-affliction or self-denigration. The New Testament was written in Greek (Hellenistic Koine) and repentance in Greek is METANOIA μετανοια that literally means a thorough reorientation of thinking, of outlook on life. But John the Baptist did not speak Greek - his language was either Aramaic or Hebrew. In Hebrew repentance is TEŠUVAH תשובה‎ . This word is derived from root ŠVB שוב which means turning around, going one direction and then ŠVB turning 180 degrees and going back - that is repentance - redirecting of our life. No melodramatic outpouring of our inner spiritual feelings and our yearning for personal salvation. True repentance is a down to earth practical reorientation of our individual and communal lives, eventually an ideal  redirection of the entire society.  

For that reason in the past four years at Rutgers we adopted in our worship at least once a month this litany of renunciation and acceptance.


We renounce falsehood, lies, deceitful words, and actions.

   We take up truth, honesty and openness.

We renounce anger that leads to harm with words and actions.

   We take up words and actions that help create peace.

We renounce egotism, selfish grasping, and stealing.

   We take up honest work and care for others.

We renounce racism, nativism, and dividing people to us and them.

   We take up divine love which embraces all people.

We renounce insults, slander, and evil judgment of others.

   We take up what encourages, comforts, and offers hope.

We renounce bitterness, violence, and the desire to cause harm.

   We take up kindness, gentleness, and work for divine justice and peace.


We do it, because we want to live out biblical repentance and its true original meaning and ethos. Depending on the socio-political context it can be quite a radical part of liturgy. The more dire situation we live in the more radical it feels. 

And that was also the situation of John the Baptist and what he had in mind when he preached repentance - reorienting lives to be in harmony with God’s will. And conducting baptism - through baptism opening up a new realm - welcoming people to God’s future.


On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday we want to do just that. Reaffirm our Baptisms and commit ourselves to God’s will and God’s future.