Saturday, March 31, 2012

Easter without Jesus

Just. Flipping. Unbelievable!

That was my reaction as I read Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's Easter 2012 Message: “Give Thanks for Easter.”

My second thought was, I can recommend two excellent books for her: The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey; and the brand new (February 2012) The Jesus We Missed, by Patrick Henry Reardon. (I am very keen on Reardon's book and highly recommend it to anybody.)

But the three aspects of this "Easter Message" I found so unbelievable are that it: (1) never once mentions Jesus, (2) seems to speak of Resurrection as merely a concept and not an event, and (3) once again hypes the Millennium Development Goals instead of (or, as though they were) the Gospel.

I say "once again" because the MDG's were the focus of the Presiding Bishop's Lenten Message a mere six weeks ago.

This emphasis on the Millennium Development Goals led to a stinging rebuke from the Archbishop of Kenya, Dr. Eliud Wabukala, according to a March 29 report by Anglican Ink editor, George Conger:
The Archbishop of Kenya has criticized idolatry of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) saying faith in Christ, not works performed in his name, is the path of salvation.

The 22 February 2012 letter written by Archbishop Eliud Wabukala on behalf of the Gafcon primates chastised Christians who in the pursuit of social and economic change, lost sight of the centrality of the cross and the primacy of repentance and amendment of life. “While it is obvious that such good things as feeding the hungry, fighting disease, improving education and national prosperity are to be desired by all, by themselves any human dream can become a substitute gospel which renders repentance and the cross of Christ irrelevant,” he said.

Reprising the theme of her Lenten message, Dr. Jefferts Schori's message for Easter begins:
One of my favorite Easter hymns is about greenness. “Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain.”

It goes on to talk about love coming again. It’s a reminder to me of how centered our Easter images are in the Northern hemisphere. We talk about greenness and new life and life springing forth from the earth when we talk about resurrection.

"Now the Green Blade Riseth" is an Easter hymn from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 that uses the sights of spring as metaphors for the true Resurrection of Christ. But it seems that the gist we are supposed to get out of this Easter Message and the Presiding Bishop's reference to this hymn is that being a church member is about being green (in the eco-political sense); and, therefore we must support the Millennium Development Goals.

The Presiding Bishop continues:
As we began Lent, I asked you to think about the Millennium Development Goals and our work in Lent as a re-focusing of our lives. I’m delighted to be able to tell you that the UN report this last year has shown some significant accomplishment in a couple of those goals, particularly in terms of lowering the rates of the worst poverty, and in achieving better access to drinking water and better access to primary education. We actually might reach those goals by 2015. That leaves a number of other goals as well as what moves beyond the goals to full access for all people to abundant life.

In this Easter season I would encourage you to look at where you are finding new life and resurrection, where life abundant and love incarnate is springing up in your lives and the lives of your communities. There is indeed greenness, whatever the season.

She then concludes:
Give thanks for Easter. Give thanks for Resurrection. Give thanks for the presence of God incarnate in our midst.

As Christians we do not so much give thanks for Easter. Rather, Easter is a time when we give thanks for the Resurrection of God's only begotten Son, who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, lived a life like ours, except without sin, died for the sins of the world, and rose bodily from the tomb three days later, thereby assuring us of his victory over sin and death and of the hope of a resurrection like his for all who follow him by faith.

This is what Christianity has always believed, and it never quite ceases to be shocking when a senior cleric dresses up in episcopal garb and utters all the usual expressions—and means something totally different by them!

It would be easy to assume orthodox meanings to "give thanks for Resurrection" and for "the presence of God incarnate in our midst," except that, in the context of Dr. Jefferts Schori's theology, resurrection is not the event of Jesus rising from the tomb so much as it is the concept of always finding new life through God's activity in the world. Similarly, "the presence of God incarnate in our midst," is not a reference to the literal Incarnation of Jesus, but a reference to God being embodied in the world in a panentheistic way, a concept she borrows from theologian Sallie McFague, whom she has quoted in her book, A Wing and a Prayer and in various addresses and interviews.

When I say that I found this Easter message unbelievable, it is because, as I was reading it, I had the sense that Dr. Jefferts Schori's religion is not merely liberal religion, it is a caricature of liberal religion by someone who may not even grasp the extent to which that is true.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is the BBC series, Yes, Minister, and the sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, a situation comedy that is a political satire on the inner workings of the British government. One episode, "The Bishop's Gambit" parodied Liberal Christianity and politics in the Church of England. The Prime Minister thinks that the church is a Christian institution; but his advisor, Sir Humphrey, informs him that most of the Anglican bishops do not believe in God, and that a theologian's job is partly to make it possible for agnostics or atheists to be church leaders.

Imagine what the creators of this series could do with the Episcopal Church: senior clerics whose use of religious terms bears no resemblance to the conventional meaning of those terms. Clergy who are simultaneously Episcopalians, Buddhists, and Muslims. A leader whose Gospel is really a United Nations social program! The mind reels.

To draw an analogy from another sitcom: This Easter Message from the Presiding Bishop may well be the Episcopal Church's "jumping the shark" moment. This is an election year, a time when candidates are talking about the things that matter most to the American public. Have you heard one candidate—even one secular politician—mention the Millennium Development Goals? I haven't either. And it seems to me that to take as your main message, on the Church's most important day, something that no one else considers important is the very definition of irrelevance.

And we wonder why the Episcopal Church is shrinking.

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