The Aramaic Stratagem


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Our Sunday morning service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community. Rev. Victor H. Floyd spoke about Gentleness: Not to curse but to bless – that’s why Jesus came! – to show us  how much God loves us. The Jesus message is gentle, timeless, transformative, yet always revolutionary.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

John 3:12-17

[Addressing Nicodemus, Jesus said:] “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

 

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The Limits of Language

Last Wednesday afternoon, I tuned in to KQED and I heard the announcer say, “The World will continue until 3 o’clock this afternoon.” It turns out “The World” ends every day at 3 p.m. It’s a news program, but, for the moment, I took what was said at face value. Language is, at best, an inexact representation of ideas, a series of symbols, easily misinterpreted, especially when experienced out of context.

Sola scriptura, or the Bible alone, is the formal principle of Reformed theology, along with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. [1] The Bible is all words, a modern translation of a once oral (extemporaneous) tradition. Yes, I am a Bible-believing Christian, but understanding the Bible requires context, lest we go around repeating, out of context, “the World will end at 3 o’clock.” Can Presbyterians change the world by wielding the Bible with gentleness and to the glory of God? The way I read the Bible, that’s how Jesus did it.

The Spirit’s gifts, or charismata, are the topics of the sermon series we’ve been featuring at Calvary. I used to think that the gifts of the Spirit were only spontaneous, wild and surprising. As one who has done church work for several decades, I have learned that the Spirit also blesses preparation and planning, checks and balances. [2]

Today’s gift, on this Trinity Sunday, is Gentleness.

 Not Just Another Trinity Sunday

Every week we sing two short songs of praise to the Trinity, the God from whom all blessings flow, since the year third century[3] known as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” [4] These are our words, our finest tradition, at summing up the mystery of God. Richard Rohr says “If actually encountered and meditated on, the doctrine of God as Trinity breaks down the binary system of the mind. For a Christian who lives in a Trinitarian spirituality, it makes either-or thinking totally useless. …the trinity is a blessing, to make us patient before Mystery and to humble our dualistic minds.” [5]

God Outside the Box

Rather than march lockstep, the Trinity invites us into a waltz with ever-changing dance partners. God inhabits our traditions but outgrew the Trinitarian theology box before we could get our heads around the Three-in-One, ever-living Father/Mother/Creator that flows into the Son/Beloved One/Divinely Human/Logos expression of love that flows from the Holy Breath/The Sustainer/Wisdom Sofia/The Spirit/the Act of Loving. This is the same God that appeared to Moses and spoke through the burning bush, the God whose substance shall never be reduced to a dualistic yes-no, 0-1, spirit-flesh.

Draw Your Swords!

My hometown was situated amidst the Appalachian foothills. In the summer, the sun warms those Georgia clay[6] hills, and they radiate heat all night. How to pass the sweltering summer months and not die of heatstroke or boredom, those were our problems.

So my mother enrolled me in not one but two Vacation Bible Schools, each a week long. The first was at Unity Baptist Church, and the second was at Fellowship Baptist Church, both had air conditioning. One can only imagine why a small church would split in a town of three-hundred, but there were over a half-dozen churches in Plainville, Georgia, one church for every forty or fifty people. My Aunt Gretna started her new church when those liberal United Methodists ticked her off one time too many.

Now, Calvary Camp this August is a modern, San Francisco, Presbyterian Church (USA) version of Vacation Bible School, but our rural, Southern Baptist Bible Schools in the 1970s were evangelical, but I was related to most of the women who ran them. It is partly true what they say about small Southern towns: my family tree is actually more of a wreath.

I always wondered which church was right. Which one of these churches had the hotline to the Almighty? Surely God liked one of them better than the rest, but non-dualistic God doesn’t takes sides, especially when it comes to worship wars. [7]

Aunt Gladys was my favorite Bible School teacher. Now, I called her my Aunt because she told me to, but she was not my official aunt. Gladys was a member down at the Holiness Church—Holiness, as in Holy Roller. [8] They practiced faith healing and live like the Second Coming is always moments away. I still admire their ecstatic devotion to Jesus: hands in the air, crying, taking on, but, like anything, it can go too far. [9]

One evening, under the spreading oak tree in the parking lot and cement picnic area of the Fellowship Baptist Church, Aunt Gladys led us children in a Bible Drill. We lined up, eager young recruits for the Lord’s army, with our King James Bibles in our left hands. Aunt Gladys called them our “swords.” She would call out, “All right now, attention!” and we’d got very excited. Then, “Children, draw your swords! OK… Ezekiel 37:5!”

The first child to find Ezekiel 37:5 jumped out of line and read aloud: “Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live.”

Gladys would then expound, “That’s right children, the Lord will send his Spirit right into you when you’re tired and ready to give up, and God’s breath will make you alive again.”

And then back to the drill.

“Alright. Attention, children.” Pause. “Draw your swords.” Pause. “OK! John 3:17!”

Well, being from the Methodist Church, where we were fond of book-learning, I knew I had this one. I didn’t even need my sword. Like a young Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, wielding my closed Bible all Ninja-like I said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Aunt Gladys pursed her lips and smiled, “Well, almost, but honey that’s John 3:16.”

And I thought, “Well, who in their right mind would choose John 3:17 when everybody knows John 3:16. We learned it in Sunday School. People hold it up at ball games. Nobody gets a tattoo or does needlepoint of John 3:17. Trick question.”

This morning the third graders received Bibles with an insert from Miss Alison that reads “This summer, spend some time with your parents finding these verses in the Bible,” our version of Gladys’ Bible Drill, but without swords. The Bible is not a sword. Miss Alison lists over thirty verses, among them John 3:17. Just when you think the church is done for, God breathes new life into our weary bones. Thank you, God, for Alison Faison!

Contextualizing John 3:16

They say that John 3:16 is the Bible verse by which all others are measured. [10] Everything you need to know about being a Christian, it is said, is summed up in it. It’s on page 864 of your pew Bible. How many people here know it from memory? It’s what Jesus said to a well-to-do religious authority, Nicodemus, who came to Jesus under cover of night. (The original “Nick at Night”) Let’s say it together, reading or from memory: “For God so loved the world, that God gave the only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Now some of us use King James’ wording because that’s how we learned it. Jesus did not use the King James Bible. Some of us say it thinking of the red words we remember on the page, because in some Bibles the words of Jesus are set apart in red. Some of us are reading it for the first time, and I envy you. What does this mean for how we am to live our lives? Many Christians use this verse to shame people, saying “if you don’t believe in him, you won’t have eternal life.” That’s sound like condemnation.

That day, thanks to Bible drill sergeant Gladys, I learned that John 3:17 is just as important, if not more. John 3:17 Jesus says plainly, “Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Echoing the words of Paul to the Romans, “There’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” That’s what I learned from Aunt Gladys, the Holly Roller, someone who worships completely different from me, someone the media tells me I am incompatible with because of the worship wars and the culture wars and the gay agenda and the list goes on. Thank God for Aunt Gladys and her Bible Drill.

The Aramaic Stratagem

One other thing they don’t highlight in Vacation Bible School is this: Jesus did not speak English. He spoke an ancient form of Aramaic, which shaped his theology. (Theo=God, + ology=words; Theology = God words) In other words, Jesus prayed differently from us. His Aramaic mother tongue implied many layers of meanings and strands of context from culture and from nature. Mystic linguist Neil Douglas-Klotz works with the words of Jesus in an Aramaic context, taking into account culture and many possible meanings, and he does not adhere to Catholic tradition. Douglas-Klotz offers this following possible translation, one of many, using his Aramaic strategy for John 3:16.

“For Unity so loved Diversity,
all the worlds of form,
that it brought you a child of Unity,
fulfilled in all aspects of self,
so that whoever would have
the same confidence in their own fulfillment,
like the earth underneath supporting all,
would not fade with their form,
but continue, from world to world,
with and in the ever-living Life.” [11]

Off the Hook

We don’t have to get God right to make God love us. The Diversity (World) that Unity (God) “so loves” is holy and made whole through God’s grace.

Today’s closing hymn celebrates: “the Inner Light [as] ultimate religious authority.” [12] Rev. Grubb, the author of our closing hymn, a Quaker, a hundred years ago, wrote that we must choose to follow “the example of Christ; and to act with justice and compassion to all human beings as bearers…of the divine spark of the Inner Light.” Presbyterians might concur, remembering that “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” [13]

Author Rachel Held Evans sums up what I have long-suspected: “The very condition of humanity is to be wrong about God.” That’s a pretty good way to read your Bible: Adam and Eve (get it wrong), Cain and Abel (get it wrong), King David (don’t get me started). She continues: “The moment we figure God out, God ceases to be God. Maybe it’s time to embrace the mystery and let ourselves off the hook.” [14]

Amen.

[1] “Formal and Material Principles of Theology” accessed online at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formal_and_material_principles_of_theology> (May 28, 2015)
[2] Kenneth Samuel, Stillspeaking Devotion, accessed online at <http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_just_checking?utm_campaign=dd_may30_15&utm_medium=email&utm_source=unitedchurchofchrist> (May 30, 2015)
[3] Nicene Creed, history accessed at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicene_Creed> (May 30, 2015)
[4] Book of Confessions (Creeds) of the PC(USA), accessed online at <http://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc2014.pdf> (May 28, 2015)
[5] Richard Rohr on the Trinity, Home Blog, Anglican Diocese of Oxford, accessed online at <http://www.home-online.org/2011/08/rohr-on-the-trinity/> (May 27, 2015)
[6] Plainville profile accessed online at <http://georgia.gov/cities-counties/plainville> (May 28, 2015)
[7] Worship Wars page, Christianity Today, accessed online at <http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/topics/w/worship-wars/> (May 27, 2015)
[8] International Pentecostal Holiness Church, accessed online at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Pentecostal_Holiness_Church#Fire-Baptized_Holiness> (May 30, 2015)
[9] Snake Handling, accessed online at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snake_handling> (May 30, 2015)
[10] “Quote John 3:16 for an oil change” CNN Belief Blog, accessed online at <http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/10/01/quote-john-316-for-an-oil-change/> (May 28, 2015)
[11] Neil Douglas-Klotz, The Hidden Gospel: Decoding the Spiritual Message of the Aramaic Jesus (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2001), 123.
[12] Street Corner Society, “Quaker Thought and History (Edward Grubb)” accessed online <http://www.strecorsoc.org/grubb/title.html> (May 26, 2015)   HYMN #278 “Our God to Whom We Turn”
[13] from the PC(USA)’s constitution, explained at <http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/today/lord-conscience/> (May 27, 2015)
[14] Rachel Held Evans, author of Searching for Sunday, Facebook update for Trinity Sunday, accessed at <https://www.facebook.com/rachelheldevans.page/posts/10153062213454442> (May 29, 2015)

 

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