No Skyworld Passport

The church at Philippi was the Apostle Paul’s first founding in Europe during his second missionary journey.  Much earlier, in 358 BCE, King Philip II of Macedonia had taken the ancient town of Crenides, refounded and renovated it, and renamed it as Philippi.  It was to be useful to him.  The Romans had it beginning in 168 BCE; Rome unified the province of Macedonia in 146 BCE.  A century later (42 BCE) a cluster of battles pitted the forces of Brutus and Cassius against the armies of Octavian and Mark Antony.  In the end, their armies defeated, Cassius and Brutus killed themselves using their own swords.  The battles of Philippi, important as they were at that moment, only cleared the way to the sickening storm of relationships and rivalries that ended in Octavian’s triumph over Mark Antony at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Antony, with Cleopatra, died months later in Egypt.

I have skipped over the fascinating, abundant details, but only to get to a first point: Octavian is the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he alone is left to claim rule of Rome–Lepidus, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony–all are gone.  And as imperator, emperor, Octavian as Augustus Caesar holds the keys to the Sky-World, the Overworld of Roman pagan culture.  In his book The Fruit of Lips, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy refers to the European emperors (Christians after a point in time who changed their primary allegiance!), evoking their status beginning with Augustus:

Because the emperor was the cosmocrator, he was lifted into the hub of the wheel to unite night and day, to reconcile the north where the sun never shines, with the south to which the polar stars of midnight never move.  The emperor, the Son of Heaven as he was called in China, was the prime mover of a reconciled, a non-panicky, non-chaotic heaven and earth.  His knowledge and compliance with the stars shielded the people from the panic of catastrophes.  When the people of our days hold a President of the United States responsible for a world-wide depression, they follow in the footsteps of all ancient nations who believed that the eternal cycles could be perfected by a human being lifted into the hub of the wheel.  The incense burned before the emperor’s statue was a means to enliven his nostrils so that he might smell the harmony and beauty of the universe.  He who did not burn incense, who did not say Heil Hitler, destroyed the skyworld.  He must die.  (Fruit of Lips, 59)

My second point is that the Christian apostles, the Gospel writers, and the Apostle Paul preached, wrote, and lived in opposition to the “skyworld”.  As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it in reference to the Gospel of Mark (and the Gospels), “It was written by men who denied the emperor’s claim, and who, therefore, plunged those for whom they wrote the Gospel into imminent danger of death for high treason against the welfare of the empire.” (Fruit of Lips, 60)  This statement helps us to comprehend the apocalyptic passages in Mark’s Gospel: the Christians defied and denied citizenship in such a Skyworld, and its true citizens spared no effort to eliminate or disable the opposing life-power of Christianity.

I am writing here about the antithesis (the opposition of Maranatha and pagan Anathema) that drives the battle between “the domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13): “the rulers,” “powers,” “world forces of this darkness,” the “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) and the “authority and power and dominion” of the Christ (Ephesians 1:21).  I want to emphasize that the same authority the Churches have invoked against the Caesars of any era, against Hitler and Stalin and Mao is the same authority that says confidently, “And He [God] put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” (Ephesians 1:22)

So, back to the main discussion:  that same Paul the Apostle writes to the church at Philippi a century or more after the Roman generals contended for the chance to take charge in the Skyworld.  Whether he or the Phillippians were thinking of this, I do not know.  But I see the contrast and must speak about it.

In the Philippian letter, Paul writes, most probably from Rome, as a prisoner for Christ.  He is among the least significant of persons.  But in his humiliating circumstances he actually is identified with his Master, the selfsame servant who suffers.  Paul shares the life of Christ–in chains.  He had shared that life in many other painful, challenging ways.  He reminds me of dozens of Baptists in England and North America during the 1600s and 1700s–Baptist “jailbirds” who were criminals, and for what?  They were prosecuted and punished, as criminals, for preaching without “license” — without permission of the government, the authorities, and the state churches who took part in that scheme of authority through statute law.  These Baptist jailbirds wrote letters, sermons, poetry, hymns, theologies, and other works, in and out of jail, and so we know about them now through their preserved works.  To read more about them, take a look at Keith Durso’s book No Armor for the Back: Baptist Prison Writings, 1600s – 1700s.

The Apostle Paul also reminds me of another Baptist letter-writer, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also stood up to the dominant authorities of the day.  Surely Christ was with him, too, in the Birmingham jail, eloquently declaring and grieving that the churches of America had failed, and asking, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?”  On the matter of racial injustice and segregation, the church was now “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound,”  a quiet thing functionally comforting to the Jim Crow establishment and the status quo, a hollow thing to repudiate in a new generation.

For Paul, “to live is Christ” meant to live in bondage–to service, to suffering, to others, to truth, to God’s continuous calling and presence.  “To live is Christ” is to live in a bound condition, like Christ, to be bound tightly, to live within the limitations God imposes, and in that place, within those limitations, to be radically free.  Others may see that kind of freedom as the worst kind of restriction, but no!  In that kind of freedom I, and others, know who we are in relation to God, to ourselves, to others, to the world.

There are the walking prisoners, and there are those who walk free.  There are none who walk entirely on their own.  There are the prisoners who live in cells of steel and concrete, there are prisoners who dwell in dungeons of their own and others’ making–negativity, denial, dishonesty, classism, racism, violence, addictions, hatred, murder, theft, envy, demagoguery. There are those, most of the global community, who live in bondage to the dominant powers of the time and place–and of the Skyworld.

Powerful though he was, Augustus, and all others like him, were prisoners of a world system representing all that most men would pay heavily and struggle mightily to get. Please do not misunderstand.  I do not agree with Augustus that the struggle of world systems–the struggle for empire–is a “zero-sum” game.  I do believe, however, that only with the victory of “the children of light” is there the promise of any enduring, liberating future–or fulfilled present (Ephesians 5). Any other victory promises only degrees of a bondage that allows no true freedom.  In the end, the Skyworld has no friends, only subjects and victims.

Heartless Paganism

I follow up here on a previous posting with a challenging quotation that caught my eye — or should I say it caught me between the eyes?  Yes, it’s the Rosenzweig connection again, but it has to do with the struggle of the believer, certainly of Christian and Jew, and perhaps others.  The quotation is from the Koren Sacks Siddur 4th edition (citation below):

The prophets were critical of the sacrificial system. They reserved for it some of their most lacerating prose. Yet none proposed its abolition, because what they opposed was not the sacrificial act, but the ma’aseh without the kiyum, the outer act without the inner acknowledgement that gives the act its meaning and significance. The idea that God can be worshiped through externalities alone is pagan, and there is nothing worse than the intrusion of paganism into the domain of holiness itself. Then as now, the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion in the dealings between the worshiper and the world.

O Dear Reader, check THAT out against the teaching of Jesus, and you will know why I have that pain between my eyes! “. . . the sign of paganism is the coexistence of religious worship with injustice and a lack of compassion . . . .” What did Jesus say? (Let us remember that the Christ was of the Jews and emphatically of the Father.) Let me make a blanket statement here in saying the “Sermon on the Mount” is a full-blown commentary on the believer’s tendency to paganism (but then, so is the Bible entire). For example, after providing examples of exterior religion and profession versus interior purity of response to God, Jesus exclaims that not all who claim him as Lord will enter his Kingdom, but only those who do the will of the heavenly Father. (Matthew 7:21) His simile of the wise man’s house built on the solid rock and comparison to the fool’s house built on sand sums up the difference between true belief and paganism. (Matt. 7:24-27) And then, to conclude the sermon section, Matthew’s Gospel reads, “When Jesus finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed by his teaching, because he taught them like one who had authority, not like the experts in the law.” (Matt. 7:28-29, NET Bible)

The Gospel accounts of Jesus illustrate and validate his identity as Son of God and Son of Man, and in him no hint of the divided mind, the selfish heart, the deceptive intention, the hidden agenda, the need to manipulate. He stands apart from all other human persons for he is holy, uniquely God’s Son, yet fully and honestly human, and so, human in the best way.

The old Christian hater, Saul of Tarsus cum Paul the Apostle, having met the glorified Christ en route to Damascus, certainly speaks from experience when he challenges the Jews, “. . . you who teach someone else, do you not teach yourself?” He questions whether, though they “rely on the law and boast of your relationship to God and know his will and approve the superior things because you receive instruction from the law, . . . ” and despite teaching these things to others, they actually put them into practice.  Paul quotes from Isaiah 52:5, for immediate effect, I think, but also with a much deeper allusion or implication in mind.  “The name of God is being blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” or, “my name is being constantly slandered.”  (See Romans 2:17-24) In Romans he moves immediately to discuss circumcision as a primary evidence of adherence to the Law.  In Isaiah 52, captive Zion (Judah, Jerusalem) is in exile at the hands of Cyrus of Persia, but the special servant of the Lord (call him Israel who can be understood as fully representing the Lord God) will complete the Lord’s will as redeemer and deliverer.  His activities fully match the presence, power, and glory of the LORD who is king, who consoles, who displays his power to all the earth, who goes before the people, just as he did when he led Israel from Egypt and through the wilderness. (Isaiah 52:7-12; compare Isaiah 42:1-7; and see 43:14-21)

These are only parts, but important parts, of the vision of Isaiah. But they proceed to the astonishing vision of Isaiah 53 (actually beginning with 52:13). We can hardly read that one without immediately projecting forward to the suffering servant, Messiah, Jesus Christ, so that we leave the immediate historical context behind. Yet that context is important because it suggests hope that the “ideal servant” sacrifices every desire, every prerogative and honor in order to be a healer and redeemer for the people and to serve the will of the Lord God completely.

Paul writes in the context of his example of circumcision, “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision something that is outward in the flesh, but someone is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart by the Spirit and not by the written code. This person’s praise is not from people but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29, NET Bible. Compare Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16, Jeremiah 4:4, Ezekiel 44:9.)  The Romans letter takes us beyond the teachings of Jesus, yet only by illustrations suitable to the demands of the day and situation Paul addressed, not only to the Roman church, but to all of the churches of Christ. Jesus’ instruction holds firm as revealed truth. Elsewhere, in James and the Petrine letters for example, that instruction holds firm in its application in the earliest church. Paul writes out of a background that includes the prophets, Isaiah included here, who looked not to the sacrificial system or the outward trappings of religion, but to the heart of his people in Zion in response to the redemptive work of the sovereign king, through his servant Israel, but only that servant whose heart and intention was completely obedient to his will and intention; with that his name could be praised.

There is no praise in paganism, whether in superficial Jewish life and practice, or in skin-deep Christian life and practice, for there is in that superficial religion and worship no turning of the human heart, the core of God-given personhood, to the creator who alone is to be worshiped–as Jesus said, “in spirit and in truth.”

I think this connects with the Koren Sacks quotation in this way. If someone hurts, or needs, or suffers to the point of hopelessness, he or she does not want to hear from anyone who does not have a firm hold on a true source of hope. The hungry do not want to hear “bless you” while they are left with an empty bowl. The impoverished do not want to hear “Oh, you’ll work this out eventually,” because if they could have done so, then they would have already. Victims of injustice here and elsewhere cannot get the liberation and hope they need from others’ apathy and claims “there is nothing to be done.” Rarely is a person’s problem simply “a problem” but a complex of problems.  That is why the connection of life and worship is so important. It is why discussions about changing communities has been so important. It is also a good reason not to lose faith in our churches–that is, to lose our resolve to make, or keep, our churches significant in the right ways.

Citation: Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (UK), “Understanding Jewish Prayer,” The Koren Siddur, 1st Hebrew/English ed., Jerusalem: Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd., 2009), xxxviii.