Thursday, May 5, 2016

May 5 - Peter Waldo, Preacher, Voluntarily Poor, Excommunicated

Peter Waldo was very good at his job. He had amassed quite a fortune buying and selling goods in Lyons, France. He had a wife and daughters and seemed to be the kind of person that all young men would endeavor to become. In an attempt to put his money to work for him he began lending it out to the poor and needy in the community but he did so not out of charity but out of a passion to see himself richer and more influential. He charged high interest and used his money in a way that would make him richer at the gradual cost of his soul and the lives of those around him. He was happy with this life for many years and continued in his usury and ambivalence for quite some time. But in the year 1170 he finally failed to elude his own conscience and the voice of God that whispered in his ear. He went to a priest to find some way to mend his tattered soul and apply some soothing balm to his sin-ridden self.While he was in the church he heard a reading from the scripture that he had never heard before and it would be the one that changed his life and the lives of those he touched from then on. The line from the reading that stuck like dust in his eye was: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast..." Peter was suddenly shocked that he had never heard such a line before and he used his considerable wealth to hire two priests to translate Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into the vernacular of Lyons.

When Peter read what they had translated he was further shocked by the Lord and Savior he found hidden in the pages thereof. He studied these texts so thoroughly and devotedly that he could soon recite the majority of them from memory. Finally, Peter could stand the tension no longer and he did something radical so that he might freely follow after the Lord he found in the scriptures but missed in his everyday life--he gave a sufficient amount of his property and money to his daughters and his wife and then he sold the rest and gave the money away to the poor. In doing so, he understood himself to be purchasing his freedom from Mammon--from those powers that manipulated and held him in bondage for years. Once when Peter was addressing a crowd he said,"Friends, I am not out of my mind, as you may think. Rather I am avenging myself upon these enemies of my life who have enslaved me, so that I cared more for gold pieces than for God and served the creature more than the Creator." He took to preaching in the streets where anybody and everybody could observe his voluntary poverty and be convicted by his stunning repentance and steady redemption. Soon, there was a whole group of people following after Peter who took up voluntary poverty and street preaching. They called upon their audiences to abandon anything and everything that was an obstacle between them and their Creator.

The people who followed Peter soon became known as the Waldensians and they were notable for their commitments and convictions. They were orthodox in their theology (they were never found to insist upon error in their theology) and professed faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. They insisted upon voluntary poverty--it was of no value if it was coerced. They taught all who would listen not to take any oath or swear by any power because they had been so taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Finally, they forbade violence of any kind for any purpose. Peter was brought before the pope to answer for his loud preaching--he was not ordained in the eyes of the Vatican--and his voluntary poverty. They felt he was a nuisance and a distraction from the work of the Church. They commanded him to stop preaching and to stop sharing the scripture in the vernacular of Lyons. He wanted to be obedient to the Church that he loved and through which he had found God but he felt that his higher calling was to "preach the gospel to every creature"and that his higher loyalty was to God--the one who had founded the Church. So, he disobeyed the commands of the pope and he was labeled a heretic and excommunicated. After Peter's death the Waldensians would continue to suffer persecution and repression even as they continued to follow their callings to preach liberation from the powers of this world that would enslave us all.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

May 4 - The Woman with the Flow of Blood and Jairus' Daughter

Jesus had just crossed back over the lake in the boat with the Twelve. As soon as he landed, the crowds
descended upon him to hear what he might say. They wanted to be present if revolution was going to start or if was going to start healing and doing more miracles.One of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus--a very important man--came to Jesus. The crowd eased as he drew near to Jesus partly because they respected Jairus but also partly because they wanted to witness this interaction. He fell down at Jesus' feet and begged him through tears to heal his dying daughter. He said, "My daughter--my dear little girl--is standing on the doorway to death right now! I've seen what you can do.Please come right now--waste no time--so that you can lay your hands on her to heal her. I believe that she will be made well if you will come and give her life." Jesus picked him up and said he'd go if Jairus would take him there.

The crowd could smell the impending miracle on the air and wondered--some out loud--if Jesus was up to this task.They pressed around him so that the walking was slow because they didn't want to miss a single word or moment. As Jairus tried to hurry to his home and his dying daughter a woman was sliding between members of the crowd so that she could get close enough to Jesus to touch his cloak. She had spent every last coin she had on physicians for a bleeding condition that still persisted. She was unclean because of this constant flow of blood and she was getting much worse. She had heard about Jesus and so she drew near to him thinking that she would be healed if only she could touch the clothing of such a wonderful worker of miracles. She didn't want to delay Jesus on his trip to save Jairus' daughter and so she meekly reached her hand out to grasp his cloak for a moment trusting that she would be made well by this act. When she touched him, she immediately knew she was cured and, content to remain anonymous, she began withdrawing from Jesus and back into the crowd.

But Jesus knew immediately that somebody had touched him because he could feel the surge of life that had left him and crushed the woman's disease. Jesus stopped the crowd and asked, "Who just touched my clothing?" The woman's heart must have skipped a beat as he began looking into the faces of those around him. The disciples tried to convince him that it could have been anybody and it was somewhat silly to ask who touched him when he was surrounded by an interested crowd pressing in on him. Finally, the woman came forward and with a trembling voice admitted that it had been her. She fell down at his feet and told her whole story. Jesus listened to every word and then picked her up and said, "Daughter, it is your faith that makes you well. Go in peace and be healed."
While all this was happening, some of Jairus' servants drew near to him to share bad news with him. They didn't want to embarrass their master so they tried to whisper to him that his daughter had just died. They advised Jairus to slip away and leave Jesus alone. But Jesus heard their well-meaning but faithless advice and looked into Jairus' eyes and said, "Don't fear. Trust me." From that point on, Jesus only let Peter, James, and John come with him as they followed Jairus to his home. There were people weeping outside of Jairus' home when they arrived and Jesus asked them, "Why are you crying? Don't you know that the girl is only sleeping?" Through their tears they laughed at Jesus because they knew death all too well and were uninterested in hearing the words of a reputed healer who didn't seem to get it. Jesus ordered that all of the mourners, friends, and family--except for Jairus', Jairus' wife, Peter, James, and John--be removed from the house. When they were gone, he took the dead girl's hand and said, "Come little girl, it's time to get up." She opened her eyes as if awakening from sleep and the people there were shocked to see death forbidden and undone with a few words. Jesus told them not to spread the story and that they should give the girl something to eat because she was hungry.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

May 3 - James of Jerusalem, Martyr, One of the Twelve, Pillar of the Church

The scribes and the Pharisees--the religious elite of Israel in the year 62--came to James knowing that his word would be powerful to the assembled crowds. They were worried about the prevalence of Christians in the crowd and the seemingly contagious quality of what they were preaching and teaching. They must have known that James was a Christian because he did not make it a secret but, perhaps, they thought that he would bow before their influence because he spent his time among the Jews.They didn't need him to deny his faith but simply to offer a weak witness of it before the assembled crowds. So, they met him at the temple and said to him, "James, we're begging you to restrain those people! They've gone too far with their thoughts about Jesus. James, they even claim he was the Messiah!So, do us a favor and convince those in the crowd--the ones who have come here for Passover--about Jesus because they'll listen to you. We all know what a good and righteous man you are and we all know that you are impartial. So, go out there and tell them the truth about Jesus. They'll listen to you. In fact, why not go up to the top of the temple where everybody will be able to see and hear you. Everybody is here and they're ready to listen to you."

So, James climbed the stairs to the summit of the temple thinking about what he would say when he arrived there. While he climbed those stairs there were many thoughts flooding through his mind. He must have wondered why they thought he would try to convince the people not to follow after Jesus when he himself was a Christian, as well. He thought back to that night in the garden of Gethsemane when he, Peter, and John had been unable to stay awake long enough to watch after Jesus while he prayed. The words from that night echoed in his mind: "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Did it feel now that his flesh was weak as he climbed the steps knowing that he would very likely soon be tested? He thought to that awful and beautiful night when Jesus had died upon the cross and been buried. He thought about the doubtful but undeniable hope that had spread through him when he first heard that Jesus had risen and how it had bloomed and overwhelmed his mind when he first laid his eyes upon the risen body of Jesus. He remembered that stand he had made on behalf of Paul when there had been the dispute about who it was that they should reach out to: Jews or Gentiles.James had given his opinion knowing that it would almost indubitably end the conversation. Peter, James, and John would continue reaching out to the Jews and Paul and his men would reach out to the Gentiles knowing that the converts need not become Jews to become Christians. He had insisted that, "we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." All these thoughts flew through his mind as the steps he climbed--and the remaining seconds of his life--became less and less.

When he reached the top, the group that had begged him to make a statement stood just behind the doorway so that they might not be seen and the crowd might not suspect that this was a manipulated speech by James. James cleared his throat and surveyed the crowd full of Jews and some Gentiles. He thought of how each of those men and women were part of a calling and how it had been his own calling to reach out to them with truth and hope even if it cost him everything. People stopped their business and their walking to turn and look at the man standing on the temple. At first, it was one or two people who saw him by accident but soon every eye was on James as he spoke to them about Jesus and gave a loud voice to his testimony that Jesus was God and Savior. He testified to Jesus' death and resurrection and, finally, one of the crowd behind the door jumped out and pushed him off the temple. He fell and was badly injured. The assembled crowd--and his executioners--assumed he must be dead after the fall but he struggled to his knees so that he might pray: "Lord God our Father, I beg you to forgive them because they don't know what they're doing." The scribes and the Pharisees--and those loyal to them in the crowd--picked up stones and stoned James until he was dead.

Monday, May 2, 2016

May 2 - Athanasius of Alexandria, Patriarch, Opponent of the Arians, Repeatedly Exiled

When Athanasius became the Patriarch of Alexandria (a territory that included the area we call Egypt and Libya) it was greeted with loud cheers and the general approval of the crowds who heard the news. He had been the secretary of the previous Patriarch--Alexander of Alexandria--and had established himself as one of the most highly respected theologians within the Faith while serving the Church in that position. Alexander had died and Athanasius was the logical successor. As Patriarch, Athanasius did something surprising but important: he traveled constantly through his territory to build relationships with priests and lay people wherever he might find hospitality. He became intimately connected with the people he had been called to guide and shepherd and this strengthened his ability to speak truthfully and powerfully to them. They listened to Athanasius because he had demonstrated his love for them and not simply his enjoyment of power and privilege. In fact, it was the case--and it seemed to be the case to the people--that Athanasius was more interested in the pastoral care responsibilities of his position than in any influence or status that the position gave him. His love for the people and their love for him was well known and attested to. So, when he was exiled from Egypt by Constantine it came as a surprise.

Athanasius had disputed with some Arians about the nature of their theology and what he saw as a theological defect that might lead to moral or spiritual corruption. They had agreed to take measures leading toward reconciliation at the First Council of Nicaea but they had failed to produce any effort or growth toward Church unity. When he criticized them for it rumors began to spread that Athanasius was threatening them with their lives and livelihoods and was even going so far as to threaten to hold the Roman empire hostage by refusing to let grain and food out of his territory. This was a lie but it was persuasive and soon the emperor Constantine responded by signing an order commanding the exile of Athanasius from Alexandria and the related territories. He fled to Rome where he found refuge under the western emperor Constans. An Arian bishop was appointed in his place and for many years he continued to write letters to the congregations he had been forced to leave behind. He had been unwilling to compromise on promises of reconciliation and unity and it had cost him the ability to do what he loved: loving the people entrusted to his care. The congregations of the  west tended to support Athanasius strongly and he ended up back in Alexandria on more than one occasion when an emperor or rule would die and his exile would be forgotten or unwritten. Yet, it only took a little while after his return for him to be exiled again by a new ruler or emperor who favored the Arian cause.

Near the end of his life he was able to return once again to Alexandria to be the official Patriarch. He was welcomed by the people of the Church and so he continued his pastoral care among those who had missed him in his exile. Instead  of using his regained power to punish those who had hurt him, though, Athanasius convened a council focused on establishing unity among Christians even if they differed theologically. He could have done what many before him had done and convened a council with a carefully selected guest list to banish, punish, exile, and hurt those who had hurt him. Instead, he took the first step toward reconciliation because he knew that the burden for peace and unity rested squarely on his shoulders as Patriarch. This council was instrumental in beginning the process of defining the Trinity and bringing peace between groups of disagreeing Christians. Ultimately, Athanasius was willing to agree to a more relaxed definition of the Trinity than he personally professed because of his own eagerness to find peace amid turmoil and unity amid strife. Shortly after the council he was again exiled--first by Julian the Apostate and second by Valens--but he only went so far as a little ways north into the desert to be with the monastics--including Pachomius. He died in the territory he had been called to shepherd still writing letters and caring for those that God had entrusted into his loving arms. His many theological writings and treatises earned him the status of Doctor of the Church and remain widely read even today.