Archives For Crucifixion

Digression to Doxology

Jason Micheli —  July 30, 2018 — 2 Comments

I continued our summer sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians by preaching on Ephesians 3.1-13.

     You might’ve seen the story in the Washington Post yesterday. 

     About Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, and the allegations against him. 

     Cardinal McCarrick is yet another cause for shame in the Catholic Church’s clergy scandal. 

     Ever since November before last, opinion writers in the press have given evangelical Christians (or, at least a certain percentage of them) grief. 

     But it’s not really fair to single out conservative evangelicals as a cause for embarrassment because, as Christians, we already have ample reasons to be ashamed. As Christians,we already have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed over being Christian. 

     Christians, after all, are the ones responsible for the trite, saccharine Jesus-is-my-boyfriend pop odes to the Almighty all over the 91.1 airwaves. 

     Christians are the ones who revived Kirk Cameron’s post Growing Pains career with the straight-to-video Left Behind movies, and Christians are the ones who bailed Nick Cage out of his back taxes by watching his theatrical reboot of the same crappy film. 

     Speaking of Left Behind, did you know former disgraced televangelist Jim Baker is not only back on TV but he’s hawking 100lb flood buckets filled with freeze-dried food so that you can weather the apocalypse without cutting calories. 

     Nose around long enough and you’ll find a reason to be embarrassed about being a Christian. 

     Don’t believe me?

     Go to the Barnes and Noble over by Springfield Mall after church today and look at the shelves underneath the sign labeled “Christian Literature.” 

     On cover after cover Joel Osteen’s pearly whites and vacant botoxed eyes pull you in, like the tractor beam on the Death Star, into becoming a better you and living your best life now. 

     And next to them, 63- I counted them this week- Amish romance novels. Amish romance novels. And no they weren’t 63 copies of the Harrison Ford-Kelly HotGillis film Witness. They were 63 different Amish romance novels with titles like Game of Love, Let Go and Let God, the Brave and the Shunned, and- my personal favorite, The Amish Mail Order Bride.

     If anyone here likes to read Amish romance novels, I’m not judging you. Actually, that’s not true but my point is…we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian. 

     From climate change deniers to thanking the Almighty for every touchdown and goal-line stop to the #Blessed license plate I saw on a Tesla yesterday to Red and Blue Jesuses in the social media scrum- we have plenty of reasons to be ashamed of being Christian. 

     Christians executed Galileo. 

     Christians excommunicated Graham Greene. 

     Christians excuse Franklin Graham. 

     The reason so many insist on protesting that Black Lives Matter is because Christians for centuries pimped out their bibles to join in the chorus of those who said they don’t. 

     Matter. 

     We should be ashamed. 

     Christians have made bedfellows with colonizers and conquistadors. In whichever nation in whatever era Christians have found themselves they’ve never missed an opportunity to bless every power grab, baptize every war, perpetuate every prejudice. 

     We Christians have plenty of reasons to be ashamed. 

     Survey says we’re the ones who want to keep our neighbors in the closet, keep death row open for business, keep a wary eye on Muslims, and keep our communities closed to strangers.

     Don’t even get me started on 19 Kids and Counting.

     We have ample reasons to be ashamed. 

     But I digress.

—————————-

     I digress. 

     So does Paul.

     If you were paying attention to today’s passage, you may have noticed that the Apostle Paul loses his train of thought right here at the top of chapter 3: “This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash”

     Check your bibles if you don’t believe me. The dash is really there. 

      Paul gets sidetracked at the start of his first sentence: This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash

     And notice, that dash is 13 verses long. 

     The whole passage today is a parenthetical comment. 

     In Greek, it’s called an anacoluthon; meaning, it’s an interuppted sentence that consequently lacks a verb to complete it. Paul doesn’t finish his first sentence until he gets to verse 14. Paul doesn’t get around to putting a verb on verse 1 until he gets to next Sunday’s passage where he writes about bowing his knees in worship. 

     Next week, verse 14 begins a doxology, 7 verses of praise over the height and depth and breadth and length of the love of God revealed to us as for us in Jesus Christ. But that long doxology in the second half of Ephesians 3 is preceded by an even longer digression. 

      This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles dash…

      And then St. Paul digresses for 13 verses about the grace of God and the mystery of Christ and how that grace for them has made him a prisoner. 

     And not only a prisoner, a doulos Paul calls himself- a word your bibles translate as servant. 

     It means slave.

     The doxolgy to follow is preceded by a digression about how- why- Paul is a prisoner. 

     A slave. 

     A digression which ends with his plea to them not to lose heart over his suffering. 

     Do not be ashamed of my suffering, Paul writes. 

     In other words, what provokes this long digression is what prompts his epistle to the Ephesians in the first place. Paul knows that, in a place like Ephesus, a ministry pockmarked by suffering and shame undermined his message of salvation.  

     As St. Luke reports in the Book of Acts, the Christians in Ephesus worshipped in the shadow of the temple of Artemis Ephesia. The temple of Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the world. At 70 x 130 meters square, it was 4 times larger than the Parthenon in Athens. It was made of marble, latticed with 127 columns. Outside in front of the temple was a horseshoe shaped altar with a statue of Artemis at its center where worshippers would offer sacrifices to petition Artemis to intercede on their behalf, to rescue them from whatever suffering had befallen them. 

     Artemis’ power was such that Ephesus was the one city in the Greco-Roman world without any imperial cult, without any statues or altars to the Emperor. You see, even Caesar showed deference to Artemis Ephesia. She was a god who delivered the goods. 

     And then here’s Paul, in prison- again, writing to a tiny church worshipping in the shadow of a god against whom not even Caesar will step.

     Paul doesn’t appear to have been on the receiving end of any divine intercessions.

     He’s no better off than a slave. 

     His God hasn’t delivered him from suffering- Artemis’ forte.

     His God has delivered him into suffering. 

     And where Artemis was symbolized by raw, visceral power- those aren’t breasts on that statue, those are bull…nevermind, you can look it up when you get home- the Christ that Paul proclaimed had none, had been emptied of power. 

     The Christ that Paul proclaimed had only a cross. 

      It wasn’t just his ministry, pockmarked as it was by suffering and shame, that Paul had to double-back on, digress and explain. 

     It was his message. 

     It was his message of the cross.

     Just -pas we have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed about being Christian, St. Paul assumed it was obvious why his hearers in Ephesus (and elsewhere) would be ashamed of the Gospel. 

     Paul digresses on his way to doxology because Paul knows that what is shameful and embarrassing about his Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus.

     I’m going to say that again in case I lost you in all my digressions:

What is shameful and embarrassing about the Gospel of the crucified Jesus is the crucified Jesus..

—————————-

      To Jews and to Romans alike, our testimony about the crucifixion was shameful. 

      A disgrace. 

     Do not be ashamed of my suffering for the cross, Paul essentially says here in his letter to the Ephesians. Do not be ashamed of this shame, Paul says in his letter to Timothy. Do not be ashamed of the Gospel, Paul says in his letter to the Romans. 

     He has to say it again and again, in different ways and digressions, because to the Romans, crucifixion was shameful- so shameful that until Christianity converted the heart of the empire, nearly 300 years after Paul, the word “crux” was the Latin equivalent of the F-bomb. 

     Crucifixion was so degrading and dehumanizing- designed to be so- you weren’t permitted to speak of it, or use the word ‘cross’ even, in polite society. 

     But to the Jews, crucifixion was an altogether different sort of shame, for the Jews’ own scripture proscribed it as the ultimate degradation and abandonment. According to one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai: “…Anyone convicted and hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” 

      That’s the commandment Paul wrestles with in his Letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only the cross- being nailed to a tree- do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

     Paul digresses here in Ephesians 3 over the words that mark his ministry, words like prisoner and slave and suffering, because of the one word at the heart of his message.

     Crucifixion.

     Paul must command his churches again and again not to be ashamed of our testimony about the Cross, not to be ashamed of his suffering for the message of the Cross, because that manner of death specifically marked Jesus out under God as accursed. 

      That’s why Christ’s disciples flee from him in the end. 

     It isn’t because they believe his mission ended in failure. 

     No, they flee from him because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness. 

     They abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. 

     They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him. 

     To Jews and Romans alike, Paul’s Gospel about a crucified God was a tougher sell than Facebook stock. No one in Israel expected a crucified Messiah and nothing in Caesar’s empire prepared Romans to pledge allegiance to a man who had met a death so shameful they dare not speak of it.

     Paul’s message and his ministry in service to it were scandalously and profanely counter-intuitive. 

     By any standards, Jewish or Roman, you would’ve had to be insane to worship a crucified man, much less suffer yourself for one. 

     Which- pay attention- I believe remains the strongest argument for the truth of the Gospel. 

——————————

     Sigmund Freud famously argued that human religion is constructed out of wish fulfillment. 

     Religion, Freud critiqued, is but the projection of humanity’s hopes and desires.     

     Religion is the product of our deep (and maybe insecure) longing for a loving Father Figure. 

     The human heart, Freud didn’t say but would concur with Calvin, is an idol factory. We need religion. We create religion because we need our wishes to come true. 

     My wife tells me Freud was wrong about penis envy, and I’ve only thought about my mother in Freud’s way a few times (just kidding), but, by and large, I think Freud was right. 

     About religion. 

     I know the Apostle Paul would agree with him. Religion is man-made. We make God in our image, not vice versa, and then we project all our aspirations, assumptions, and prejudices on to him. 

     That’s why so often God sounds like an almighty version of ourselves. 

     That’s why so much of the “Christianity” out there in the ether shames and embarrasses us. The plastic pop songs and the Christian kitsch; the Self-Help and the Civil Religion and the Red and Blue hued Jesuses. 

     It’s all what Freud and Paul call ‘religion.’ It’s all just a means of helping us endure life and advance through it. 

     Plenty of other religions have stories about God taking human form. On those counts Christianity isn’t unique. It’s a religion like so many others. 

     And every religion has the Law. 

     Every religion tells you what you ought to do for God. 

     Every religon tells you what you must do for your neighbor. Every religion has the Golden Rule.

     But only Christianity has as its focus the shameful suffering and degradation of God. 

     The Gospel, our testimony about the crucified Jesus, is not religious at all. It’s irreligious, Paul writes to the Corinthians. 

     It’s a disgrace. 

     It’s so shameful that Paul calls it a stumbling block for religious people.  Freud was right about religion, but he didn’t understand that Paul’s Gospel is something else entirely. 

     It’s not religion at all.

It’s news. 

      No one would have projected their hopes on to an accursed crucified man. 

      Crucifixion is not the invention of wish fulfillment. 

Maybe that’s the only real argument for the Gospel. 

      Maybe that’s the only real safeguard we have against our suspicions that it’s all so much embarrassing fantasy and nonsense. 

      Maybe that’s the only hope we have that we’re not deluding ourselves with our faith.

—————————-

      If you read my blog, then you already know that I spent my final day in my last congregation burying a boy the same age as my youngest son, Gabriel. 

     He was the fifth child I’d buried in that parish. 

     And his was the third five foot long coffin I’d buried because of suicide. 

     Peter, Jackson, Neil. 

     I wish I could forget their names.

     Since I’m new here, you should know: I hate my job sometimes. 

     And since I’m new here, you should know too, just as often, I doubt the existence of the One from whom my vocation supposedly comes. To be honest, I don’t take seriously the atheism of anyone who has not thrown dirt on a child’s casket. 

     And you should know, I do respect the atheism of anyone who has.

     Peter. 

     The boy last month- his name was- is- Peter. 

      Peter had been fighting with his mom about doing his homework. 

      He was dyslexic and ADD and homework had always been hard. 

      Peter was fighting with his mom about doing his homework, the kind of fight I’ve had with my own kids a thousand times. The kind of fight, I’m sure, you’ve had with your kids. 

     Just go do your goddamned homework, Lisa had yelled at him. 

     Fuck you, Mom, Peter shouted back already climbing the stairs, I’m going to go and kill myself instead. 

     And, he did. 

     A panic rushed over his mom a few moments later. She screamed at her oldest daughter to check on him, but it was littlest sister who found him and, too late, tried to untie his belt.

     Maybe he meant to do it. 

     Maybe it was an impulsive way from an impulsive kid to win an argument. 

     Maybe he was standing on the chair waiting for his mom to rush in through the door and he just lost his balance. 

      His mom, Lisa, was stoic when I met with her, as strong and self-possessed as a statue, until she told me how she used to write letters to Peter whenever he was about to go on a trip. She’d write it and then hide it in his bag for him to discover later. 

     Her Artemis-like artifice fell apart in front of me as she sobbed: “Now he’s gone on a trip to God and he’s never coming back AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE TO HIM!”

     Watching her powerful facade crack in my lap, I felt righteously PO’d. 

     Your heart would have to be made of stone to hear a mother’s spleen-deep sobs and not feel furious.

      At God. 

      Or, 

      Feel foolish for believing in the first place. 

      It’s the nature of ministry that the doing of it thrusts upon you plenty of moments where you feel like a fool for your faith and you consider quitting not just your job, though that, but quitting this whole Christian thing too. 

      And I don’t know how to say this with the force with which I feel it (maybe that’s why Paul digresses so often and for so long) but every time- those moments where I despair that Freud’s right and we’re all just deluding ourselves; those days where I feel the faith is as unconvincing as Paul preaching in the shadow of the Temple of Artemis- it’s the shame of the cross that saves me from unbelief. 

      The disgrace of our Gospel saves me from my unbelief. 

——————————-

       The disgrace of our Gospel, that which prods Paul to digress before his doxology, it’s my hedge against unbelief. 

      The shame of the Cross, the embarassment that prompts Paul’s digression, at the end of the day I am persuaded it’s the only thing that makes doxology- praise, possible. 

     Flip the channels, thumb through your paper, scroll down your Facebook feed; fact is, you have plenty of reasons to be embarrassed and ashamed about being Christian. We’ve got hucksters like Joel Osteen and Jim Baker. We’ve got hypocrites like Cardinal McCarrick and Franklin Graham. 

     The truth of the matter is- we’ve got plenty of reasons to doubt and think Freud was right that it’s all so much fantasy.

     But in the amazing dis-grace that is the cross we have one reason to believe.

     And I believe that one reason is the only reason you require to believe. 

     Look, you know as well as I do that there’s more people not here this morning than are here. Don’t lie and tell me you’ve never wondered if maybe they’re all right and we’re wrong.

      So, here it is, just so you know we’re not all deluding ourselves:

 #1- 

The shame of the cross is such that no one- no one, certainly not a Pharisee like Paul; certainly not a Roman citizen like Paul- would’ve projected their religious wishes upon a crucified Jesus.

And, #2 –

The Judaism to which Jesus belonged did not have as a central part of its beliefs any hope in the resurrection from the dead. 

Take those two together and I am convinced that we never would’ve heard of Jesus Christ crucified for our sin and raised from the dead for our justification unless it really happened. 

      The Sunday before last when I preached I told you that I believe here in the Church the main thing needs always to be the main thing. The Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified for your sin and raised for your justification, can never be assumed, I said. It needs always to be our main message and it must always be at the heart of our every ministry. 

      I said.

      And I said it for a reason. 

      Maybe this is a lowkey note with which to end, but if it’s enough to warrant Paul’s long digression then it’s worth me putting it plain today. We can save the doxologies for another day. 

     Here it is:      

      I don’t believe the Gospel is a guarrantee to make your life happier. 

      I don’t believe the Gospel is necessarily helpful- either for you or our society. 

      But I do believe it’s true.

I do believe it’s true.

For our Good Friday service tonight, I’ll offer these reflections on the traditional Catholic stations of the cross.

Jesus is Condemned to Death 

The Gospels don’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you by letting you kid yourself that you’d ever choose anyone but the other Jesus son of the Father, Jesus bar-abbas.

Arraigned in purple majesty, crowned in thorns, his spit-upon skin in tatters just like the grief-torn garments of Caiphus who’d cried blasphemy before confessing our original sin “We have no King but the President,”Jesus’ career concludes by collapsing, betrayed by a friend, deserted by the rest, denied by the one who’d always wanted a selfie with him.

It’s the high priest who puts the titles together which the Gospel began: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ The’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.

The attendance is always light on Good Friday because we’d like to forget-

Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.

And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world.

The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst. And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good.

The chief priests’ reasoning: “It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…” is correct. It’s a perfectly rational position. It’s how we’ve arranged our world.

So we let the theologians and preachers console us with theories and, worse, explanations, but what the Gospels give us is the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among people like us.

Deep down, we prefer a God up in glory who watches down from a safe, comfortable distance.

Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the other Jesus bar-abbas, every time we would shout “Crucify him, and every time some other Pilate will wash his hands of it and push God out of the world on a cross.

Jesus is Made to Bear the Cross

     “The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. The mystery with which the New Testament wrestles is not the fact of Jesus’ death but the manner of that death. It’s the way in which Christ died, on a cross, that proved foolishness to the irreligious and a stumbling block to the religious. The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it. The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.

The shame is the point.

During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind.

To us, God bears a cross and hides behind suffering.

God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man.

Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Later, when the dying Christ declares “It is finished,” he’s ending any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than a bloody tree.

Jesus Falls the First Time 

He stumbles because he’s scared.

Sometime last night or early this morning, the Gospels tell us, “Jesus began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.”

In the second century, a famous pagan named Celcus wrote a diatribe against Christianity, one of his chief points of attack being: “How could someone who claimed to be the divine Son of God mourn and lament and pray to escape the fear of death?”

And stumble on his way to death.

St. Paul says that “For our sake God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no Sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

If sin is separation from God, then Jesus stumbles because he’s stepping closer to the edge of the only literal abyss where there is only the deafening lonely sound of God’s absence.

Jesus Meets his Mother

She’d taken her boy to Jerusalem every year for years to celebrate the meal which remembers God’s rescue of them.

But now, the sacrifice is her son. The mother’s boy is the lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And she has to watch as we put those sins on him.

Standing amidst an angry mob, her lips trembling and tears welling up in her eyes, as she watches her boy outrage the chief priests and elders for the last time, watching on as he stands with torn clothes and a bloody face and tells Pilate that he’s actually the One with power and wisdom and authority. I bet Mary will wish she never taught her boy that song:

“He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones/and lifted up the lowly.”

Simon Carries Christ’s Cross

Is it a brave, noble deed?

Or is Simon just getting the condemned man off his sidewalk?

St. Paul says we’re a mystery to ourselves. Our sin deceives us; such that, what we want to do we leave undone and what we want not to do we do.

Sin, St. Paul says, seizes an opportunity in us and elicits the opposite of what we intend. If so and if our sin is in Christ, then who’s to say whether Simon helps to carry Christ’s cross out of simple charity or out of sin? As an act compassion or as an act of cowardice, wanting to get the whole mess over with as quickly as possible and far away from him?

Simon couldn’t be sure about Simon’s motives any better than we can assess Simon’s motives. The truth of himself is in the cross he helps to carry. The cross to which Christ is condemned is the cross from which Simon is freed from no longer pretending he’s anything other than a sinner in need of the righteousness that God will credit to him from Christ’s account alone.

Veronica Wipes Jesus’ Face 

It’s a wasted gesture, wiping his bloody face when very soon it will be flowing from his hands and his feet and his side. The word “lose” is the same word in Greek for “waste.”

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” Jesus had said. “For those who want to save their life will waste it, and those who waste their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew uses that same word ‘waste’ when Jesus visits the house of Simon the Leper. Two nights before he dies, Jesus goes to Simon’s house for dinner. They’re eating dessert and drinking coffee when in walks a woman.

She doesn’t have a name but she does have a crystal jar filled with expensive oil- about $35,000 worth. This woman, she break the jar and she pours the oil over Jesus’ head and body and his face. She anoints him.

And Jesus, he praises her for not holding back, for sparing no cost in pouring out her love on him, for her waste of a gesture. Meanwhile the disciples look on in anger, and all they can do is grumble over all the ‘good’ they could have done with that much money. They estimate the number of hungry that could’ve been fed, the count the naked who could’ve been clothed, the poor they could’ve served. If she hadn’t wasted it.

Yet it’s her faith that Jesus praises.

The disciples look at her and they get angry at the ‘waste.’ Jesus looks at her and sees a holy waste, an example of how we too should pour ourselves out in love for one another. With Jesus all the ‘good’ we can do isn’t the point. It’s not an End in itself. It’s just what happens when we pour ourselves out completely, when we waste everything we have, for someone else.

Jesus Falls Again 

St. Paul says that in Christ God emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.

And in Gethsemane early this morning, Christ emptied himself even of that,

pours all of himself out such that Martin Luther says there’s nothing left of Jesus now. There’s nothing left of his humanity.

Jesus isn’t just a substitute. He doesn’t become a sinner or any sinner. He becomes the greatest and the gravest of sinners.

It isn’t that Jesus will die an innocent among thieves. He will die as the worst sinner among them. The worst thief, the worst adulterer, the worst liar, the worst wife beater, the worst child abuser, the worst murderer, the worst war criminal.

He is every Pilate and Pharaoh. He is every Herod and Hitler and Assad.

He is every Caesar and every Judas.

Every racist, every civilian casualty, every act of terror and gun violence.

He is everything we scream at each with signs.

He has become all of it.

He has become Sin.

     St. Anselm argued that those who dispute Christ’s substitutionary death in our place “fail to consider the weight of sin.”

It’s the weight of sin, all of our every sins, upon him that causes Christ’s knees to buckle a second time.

Jesus Consoles the Women of Israel 

     The Book of Revelation calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world.’ According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ cross makes visible ‘what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.’ The blood of Jesus, says Luke, ‘makes up for the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.’

And St Peter, in his first letter, writes that we are ransomed by the blood of Christ and all of this was ‘destined since before the foundation of the world.’ St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that everything that unfolds in Christ from cradle to cross is “in accordance with the scriptures.” The New Testament is unanimous: there is nothing impromptu or ad hoc about what happens on the cross. When we arrive at the foot of the cross, the Gospels want to confront you with the claim that all of this was planned before the foundation of the world. The comfort Christ offers his mother and the women of Israel, whilst bleeding and dying, is the comfort longed for by the prophet Isaiah. Finally, God is comforting his comfortless people. Only, it’s the cold comfort of the cross. Only a death paid in our place by the Son who is the suffering servant will ransom captive Israel.

Jesus Falls a Third Time

Once for every time we deny him, Jesus falls carrying his cross where he’ll die nailed up like a scarecrow. He falls whilst we deny him to the tune of the cock’s crowing, hiding like Adam behind a fig leaf with fruit stuck in his teeth.

In falling with the cross religion and justice have handed him, Jesus makes clear the Fall need not refer to Eve and Adam in a garden. To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, we make the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of ourselves. The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular people revealing their inhumanity to man. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The cross is our fall.

The cross is our original sin.

Jesus is Stripped

Like the lovers in the Song of Songs, Jesus is naked, absolutely vulnerable before us. The Church has always read that erotic Old Testament poem as a parable for Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church, the people joined to his body by their baptism into his death.

Like scorning, unfaithful lovers, we betray him with a kiss and strip him bare, but all God needs is nothing to do anything and God takes the naked shame of Christ’s cross and by the baptism of suffering and death he makes us his betrothed.

Jesus is Nailed to a Tree

We boast in the cross, Luther says, because in nailing him to the cross God has nailed all our sins there once and for all. They’re forgotten in his body. ‘He has born our grief.’ ‘He has carried our sorrow.’ ‘Laid on him is the iniquity of us all.’

Jesus Dies

He could not die because it’s impossible for God to die.

He ought not to have died because Death had no claim on him.

Were you and I not in him, he’d have no sin in him. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly. He dies with the ungodly in him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism- the baptism of his death and resurrection- they may be made what the former baptism could never make them: righteous.

In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. In Christ, you’re crucified, Paul says. You’re Buried with him in his death.

Good Friday is your funeral.

You’re condemned with him because you’re in him who is the pardon of God; therefore, after tonight there is now no condemnation.

His Body is Taken Down

St. Paul calls Jesus the Second Adam, the first fruit of a second creation.

Adamah, is the name of the dirt from which God made the first Adam.

When Jesus finally dies, and all of his friends have fled in fear or shame and even his mother is gone. It’s Nicodemus who had lurked in the shadows who steps from the safety of the sidelines to take his body down from the cross and bury him in the plain light of day.

The priest who had scoffed at his teaching about being born again is the one who lays his body like a seed in the adamah of a garden as though he is who were always meant to be.

His Body is Laid in a Tomb

He was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome.

He wasn’t even the only one crucified on Good Friday.

The names of all the others are unknown to us. Only his name abides.

And the Jewish people to which he belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. Take those together and I am convinced that we would not be here tonight with him in his death had God left him there.

13267779_1598247963837157_8683614937225097742_nHere’s the second half of our most recent conversation with guest Fleming Rutledge, author of The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.

 

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteFleming Rutledge, if you don’t know her, is the best damn preacher in the English language. It’s most appropriate that she should be guest who breaks the Crackers and Grape Juice glass ceiling.  I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…

Fleming recently published a magisterial book on the cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.  I believe its the sort of book that every preacher must read and every lay person should read, both, if they do, will find themselves not only grateful but emboldened.

Teer and I enjoyed a long conversation with Fleming about preaching, the satan, what makes for a ‘good’ sermon, and inclusivity. Here’s the first part our conversation with her.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

13267779_1598247963837157_8683614937225097742_n

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  March 26, 2016 — Leave a comment

descent     Here’s the Good Friday sermon. Texts were Mark 15.25-34 and Galatians 3.10-14.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. Or, you can download the free Tamed Cynic App.

     I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel one Lenten morning when I was a student at Princeton. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day- my teacher and Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra- drew an unnerving parallel between the death of Jesus upon the cross and the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay teenager who was beaten savagely and then tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die, humiliated and alone, in the Wyoming winter.

Matthew Shepard, one of his neighbors noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

It was Holy Week when I first heard that sermon. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked.

On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at what they took to be an ‘unreligious’ story getting equated with the Passion story. The preacher’s parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar, excrutiating pain entailed by crucifixion.

‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was gay so he definitely wasn’t without sin…’ I remember someone at the lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

My liberal colleagues, on the other hand, who typically had less enthusiasm for the cross, applauded the sermon that day, seeing the mere mention of a gay person from the pulpit as an important witness for social justice.

They saw both Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ as victims of oppression against which Christians called to minister.

Where conservatives saw Christ’s cross as unique, they saw it as symbolic of the unjust sacrifices humanity repeats endlessly.

Both groups of hearers- and I honestly can’t recall where I fell among them that day- received the preacher’s message according to the reified political and theological categories we had brought with us to chapel that morning and, in doing so, we unwittingly underscored St. Paul’s insistence that the message of the cross is deeply offensive to the religious and ill-fitting to the assumptions of the secular.

The religious, says Paul, will forever conspire to mute the cross’ offense while the secular will always prefer more palatable notions of justice, not to mention more charitable appraisals of humanity.

Only recently have I been able to grasp the word the preacher was likely attempting to proclaim that day in Holy Week in Miller Chapel.

The preacher was not announcing that Christ died a martyr’s death, a victim of injustice in solidarity with other persecuted victims. Nor was the preacher suggesting that Christ’s death was archetypal rather than absolutely singular.

The preacher was focusing, as we should do tonight, not on the fact of Christ’s death but on the manner of it.

The manner of Christ’s death, the impunity of it, is what proved to be a stumbling block to us students every bit as much as the Corinthians.

The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it.

The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.

Like Matthew Shepard, Jesus’ death was primarily one of degradation and abasement.

When we proclaim at Christmas that ‘God became human so that we might be with God’ we’re not telling the whole story or, even, the critical part of the story.

God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.

No, God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.

To say that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death. But neither does supposing the point of the passion is the pain suffered.

It’s the manner of Christ’s death not merely the fact of it with which we must contend. The question Christians so often ask this week ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.

The better question- the right question- to ask is ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’

Anything we say on this Good Friday must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.

When United Methodists actually open their bibles and try reading them, they’re often surprised to discover how spare the gospels are in narrating the grisly details of crucifixion. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t do what Tyler Perry did in The Passion: Live on Fox.

Little is said by the gospel writers about the cross because little needed to be said. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost not a painful means of torture but a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, an image every bit as irreligious as Matthew Shepard hanging like a sodden scarecrow on a barbed wire fence.

The one certainty the disciples don’t need to puzzle out on their walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus is the scandalous nature of Jesus’ end.

The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end, isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure.

No, they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.

The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.

No one, in other words, expected a crucifixion. In no way did anyone in Israel expect the Messiah to meet with such a shameful death.

God, so far as the disciples could surmise on that first Good Friday, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment.

Consider this, one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai:

“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”

– Deuteronomy 21.22-23

Paul takes up this commandment in his letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only this particular method of death, being nailed to a tree, do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.

 

According to Jesus’ own scriptures:

“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”

Again, it’s not sufficient on Good Friday to ask why Jesus died.

Just as it would be offensively dismissive to say, blithely, that Matthew Shepard died from exposure, to take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law?

Why did God choose for Christ a manner of death that signaled to his own People the ultimate shame before God?

Why a manner of death that marked Jesus out under God as accursed?

It’s not enough tonight to ponder ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder: ‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’

Why a death that made him exactly what he cries out with anguish: forsaken?

You see-

Heard agains the backdrop of the Torah, Jesus’ cry of dereliction expresses not just his existential anguish or his physical pain. It narrates something objective that transpires upon the cross.

God puts God’s self voluntarily into the position of greatest accursedness on our behalf.

God forsakes God for us. In our place.

Which means-

Our enslavement to Sin, our unrighteousness before God, is such that it can only be rectified by God choosing the one manner of death singled out in the Old Testament as being degrading to the point of eliminating the sufferer’s humanity?

——————————-

Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism ‘we have been united in a death like his.’

His accursed, godforsaken death.

You can’t sit with a mystery like that for long before you start asking other troubling questions.

Does it mean that we, with Christ, are put in a position of grave accursedness? Does it mean we should identify ourselves not with someone like Matthew Shepherd, degraded and left to die a shameful scarecrow’s death, but that we should identify ourselves with those attackers who left him there?

Does it mean we’re more like the victimizers than we’d ever admit? Does it mean, as religious as we are, that we’re actually the ungodly?

And perhaps the most troubling question of all on this night when good and religious people like ourselves push God out of the world on a cross:

Is God’s ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ itself also God’s ‘No’ to us?

By getting so close to us, in the flesh, does God, in fact, reveal our distance from him?

I leave it to you, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Holy Thursday is often called ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin word ‘mandatum.’

Thought most Christians mark the day by recalling the Passover meal Christ celebrated with his disciples, ‘Maundy’ instead recalls John’s scene of Christ washing his friends’ feet and then giving them the ‘mandate’ to wash one another’s feet as a sign of love.

Consequently, Maundy Thursday is a day when Christians give a lot of lip service to the word ‘love.’ However Christians often exhibit little awareness of how impossible love is- especially when we speak of God’s love for us.

The late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote much on the impossibility of God’s love. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity with the seriousness it deserves, McCabe works out a response that mines the riches of the ancient Christian tradition.

I’m marking this Holy Week by again reading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:

1024px-Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix

“From one point of view, the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world- it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.

From another point of view, it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.

Love requires a relationship of equals.

To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself to another, but this other must share equality with you (or, as in the case of parents and children, the potential for equality) or it is not really love you share…

You will, I know, recognize immediately that this presents a problem about God.

God is evidently incapable of loving us simply because there cannot be this relationship of equality between God and his creatures.

In one very important sense then the Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love.

The Father can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love.

That is why any unitarian theory, or any Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss.

It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense, it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a god may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves- even if they are well-treated slaves.

This is exactly the idea behind the rejection of Christianity made (rightly) by Nietzsche.

If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to join Nietzsche in rejecting the idea.

For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved.

But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son.

It is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love we call the ‘Holy Spirit.’

God loves us because we are in Christ and share in his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals, which is the Godhead.

Nietzsche was absolutely right. God could not love creatures; he still can’t love creatures as such, it would make no sense.

But Nietzsche omitted to notice that we are no longer just creatures: by being taken up into Christ- whom the Father can and does love- we are raised to share in divinity, we live by the Holy Spirit.

To trace the line of the argument again:

 

  1. God the Creator cannot love creatures as such. To think he could is not to take love seriously. It is like speaking of someone loving his cat- except even more so.
  2. But God, as the Gospels continually affirm, loves Jesus. Therefore Jesus must share equality with God. There cannot be two individual Gods any more than one individual God.
  3. Jesus came forth from the Father as it is said in the New Testament: ‘the Father is greater than I.’ He is sent from the Father both in his mission in history and in the eternal procession that that mission reflects.
  4. We can say this only because we have been taken up into the mystery itself, taken up into the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.

Or have we?

If we have not, we have no right to say any of this, no right to say that God is love.”

God Matters

 

I’m marking another Holy Week by reading the work of the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe.

Here, McCabe cautions against any understandings of the cross that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

chagall

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

 

I’m marking Holy Week again by reading the work of the late Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who had a gift for articulating the ancient Christian tradition in concise, clear, crisp prose.

ecce-homo-antonio-ciseri

“In the first place, it seems to me that Jesus clearly did not want to die on the cross. He was not crazy, he was not a masochist, and we are, of course, told that he prayed to his Father to save him from this horrible death. Matthew, Mark and Luke all picture him as terrified and miserable and obviously panicking in the Garden of Gethsemane.

He came through this terror to a kind of calm in accepting the will of his Father, but he is quite explicit that it is not his will- ‘not my will but thine be done.’

He did want to accept his Father’s will even if it meant the cross, but he most certainly did not want to the cross itself.

Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified?

And, if so, why?

The answer as I see it is again: No.

The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.

Any minimally intelligent people proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering and disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they wish is that they should be fully alive, be human.

And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid upon him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to the Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human is to be crucified is not something the Father has directly planned but something we have arranged.

We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not lead to suffering and crucifixion.

Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience and his obedience was to the command to be fully human.

Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, Jesus, not Adam, was the first human being, the first member of the human race in which humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love- and this is what beings are for.

The aim of human life is to live in friendship- a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends upon a friendship God has established between ourselves and God.

When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate with him because he shows the humanity that lies more hidden in us- the humanity of which we are afraid.

He is the human being we dare not be.

He takes the risks of love which we recognize as risks and so for the most part do not take.”

– Good Friday: The Mystery of the Cross

IMG_05932This Sunday is Palm Sunday, perhaps the most political Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Here’s a sermon from the vault from Luke’s account of the triumphal entry.

At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

And establish peace.

The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

 ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.

Amazing Dis-Grace

Jason Micheli —  February 23, 2016 — Leave a comment

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-Wales

I’m blogging during Lent over at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. 

Here’s a snippet from the latest post.

I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day drew an unnerving parallel between Jesus’ death upon the cross and Matthew Shepard’s death, beaten and tied to a barbed wire fence in the Wyoming winter. Shepard, one observer noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’

The season for that sermon was Lent I believe. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked. On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at an ‘unreligious’ story being equated with the passion story. The parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar pain entailed by crucifixion. ‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was…a sinner’ I remember someone at a lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.

To read the rest, click over to Scot’s site:

Amazing Dis-Grace (by Jason Micheli)

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesThere’s a saying (cliche) that’s floated around the United Methodist Church for as long as I can remember: ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words.’ 

Despite how often people quote this, it’s facile. It ostensibly excuses a lack of boldness that is the very opposite of the New Testament’s own preaching of the Gospel.

It’s attributed to St. Francis of Assisi but frequency of citation has made it almost a Methodist slogan of sorts. And, like all cliches, there’s some wisdom once you dig to the bottom of it. In this case, our actions and way of life with others should be in concert with what we believe about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

Sounds good and obvious, right?

However, it’s a cliche that depends upon bad, unhelpful theology. On a very basic level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies on the assumption that the Gospel is primarily about things we do to achieve salvation, in which case communicating the Gospel can be done without words.

The Gospel’s not a message of things we must do. The Gospel’s a message about what we can not do for ourselves. The Gospel’s a message about what God has done for us, once and for all. And that’s not a message that’s self-interpreting or self-evident.

Perhaps on a more fundamental level, ‘Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words’ relies upon the misunderstanding that at the core of the Christian faith is the ministry of Jesus.

That is, the cliche implies that Christianity is fundamentally about the things that Jesus did (which we’re called to replicate in our actions) rather than the thing that God did in Jesus Christ (which we could never replicate but only announce with resort to words). It goes against the grain of much of mainline Christianity today, but here goes:

Christian faith is created not through the teachings of or stories about Jesus but by Jesus himself.

And, on this the New Testament is consistent, Jesus is made known and present, by the action of the Spirit, through the preaching of the word of the cross. ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ was the message that converted the world.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteAs Fleming Rutledge puts it:

‘This proclamation of Jesus as Lord arose not out of Jesus ministry, which after all can be compared to the ministry of other holy men, but out of the unique apostolic kerygma (proclamation) of the crucified and risen One…

It is essential to remember that it was the preaching (kerygma) of the apostles and early Christians that created the church in the first place. Men and women did not forsake their former ways of life because they were offered spiritual direction or instructed in righteous living: they became converts because of the explosive news that they heard. The apostolic preaching makes up most of the New Testament. The new faith pivoted on the cross/resurrection event. The overwhelming impression given by the apostolic kerygma is that of a revolution in human affairs…

This is not the result of Jesus’ teaching in and of itself. The cross, incomparably vindicated by the resurrection, is the world-changing act of God that makes the New Testament proclamation unique in all the world.’

– The Crucifixion

So then, the Gospel requires words even more so than actions because it’s the word (the kerygma) of what God has done in Christ, through cross and resurrection, that makes Jesus present today. And Jesus alone is the author of faith.

What’s more, this kerygma is so shocking and counter-intuitive, what Paul refers to as ‘foolishness,’ that it will always require interpretation, for the word of cross in no way coheres with our natural religious impulses.

Indeed if the word of the cross is true, then any loving actions towards others attempted apart from or without words (derived from the kerygma) will never be the Gospel.

They will be instead religious actions; that is, they will be projections of humanity’s needs and wishes.

While the cross, Paul reiterates, is the very opposite of religion.

 

Untitled101111I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

Cancer has gotten me off writing these for a few months now but, back by semi-popular demand, I hope to get back in the swing of things.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

13. Do You Have to Believe in Original Sin to be a Christian?

Of course.

We can’t intelligibly consider ourselves Christian and not believe in original sin.

Of course, by calling it ‘original sin’ we do not refer to the origin of humanity- as though we believed Adam was a real, historical person or as though we failed to realize that mythology was the methodology of the first authors of scripture.

Instead by calling it original sin we name the sin in which we are all implicated, by which we are impaired from our very beginnings as creatures and from which we could not hope to be immune even were we raised by angels.

In other words, the term original sin characterizes the sinfulness we have by virtue of being persons in the world.

From the start.

Making sin not so much something we do but, firstly, something we are all in.

Original sin, then, points not to something chronological or biological but existenstial; that is, the human condition within which we come into being but also the precondition for our individual sinful acts and choices and they damage they incur.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”

– Romans 3.10

14. Do We Believe in a Literal, Historical Date for Original Sin?

Absolutely.

Christians call it Good Friday.

For if ‘sin’ refers to our deprivation of the divine life through our rejection of God’s love and goodness then- obviously- the occasion sin on which original was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus.

Good Friday marks the occasion of original sin not in the sense that sin did not exist prior to the incarnation but in the sense that sin had no meaning before it.

The crucifixion of Jesus finally gave meaning to what we mean by the word ‘sin.’ The crucifixion of Christ is not just another of humanity revealing its inhumanity; the cruficixion is humanity making the most ultimate sort of rejection and, in doing so, rejecting itself.

“They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

– Ephesians 4.18

Of the disciples fleeing Jesus’ execution, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

‘The disciples have not yet understood the radical character of Jesus’ Kingdom that would challenge the violence of the world by refusing to respond to it on the world’s own terms…What they failed to understand was that Jesus is more radical than those who rebel against Rome or other empires using the force of arms. Rome knows how to deal with those who oppose it on its own terms. What Rome and all empires fear are those who refuse its terms of battle.

Jesus has more time than Rome to engage in the world of calling into existence a people who have learned to live trusting in the righteousness of God.’

Faithfulness, Hauetwas argues, is fundamentally about patience, a commitment to work in this world confident that, in Jesus Christ, God has already disclosed to us the way of the world.

My friend, Brian Stolarz, knows about patience; consequently, whether he’d own up to it or not, he knows more than most about faithfulness to God’s righteousness. He also knows, thanks to yours truly, that in scripture righteousness is just another word for justice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that I count Brian one of those gifts with whom cancer has given me the chance to nurture a deeper friendship; he’s been there for me.

Just as he’s been there for others:

As I’ve blogged about before, Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

You can read the previous posts about Brian’s work and watch our dialogue sermon from last summer here here and here.

 

Since the analytics tell me that many of you followed the story on the blog, I’m happy to post that Brian sent me giddy texts yesterday afternoon letting me know his patience had finally paid off. After having his conviction dismissed earlier this year, Texas finally released Alfred to his family last evening.

CHBQGvrUkAA4tXH1

And what’s amazing, and fitting to Hauerwas’ observation above, is that Alfred is not angry. Despite the time lost for him and the time sacrificed by Brian, God has given us more time in resurrection to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.

You can read last night’s story about Brown’s release here.

The reporter for the Houston Chronicle, by the way, who helped bring publicity to Alfred’s case by relying on Brian’s work, won a Pulitzer this year.

Here’s a video of Alfred’s release. If you understood Hauerwas’ quote above, then you’ll know it’s an Easter video.

 

5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesusMy theological muse, Herbert McCabe, cautions against any understandings of Good Friday that are insufficiently historical, that is, those ‘atonement theories’  that are exclusively religious or theological.

The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:

“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’

One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.

Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.

If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.

Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.

Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.

It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.

This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.

It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.

timothy-radcliffe

Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…

Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.

If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.

And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.

I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.

Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.

He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.

In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.

In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.

In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…

This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.

And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”

Untitled30

The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#14: The Centurion’s Confession

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

(Mark 15.39 NRSV)

Adam Lewis Greene is a graphic artist who specializes in book design. Greene recently began a kickstarter campaign to produce an elegant, readable, novelized version of the Bible.

‘Bibliotheca’ as he calls it struck a chord, quickly exceeding Greene’s initial fundraising goal of $30K by almost $1.5 million.

Evidently others saw in the Bible what Greene sees: an unreadable book.

As a book designer, Greene notes that the encyclopedic format of most Bibles, with thin pages, small fonts, tight margins, lack of white space, unfriendly chapter breaks, distracting verse and footnote citations obscure what scripture fundamentally is: a narrative.

A story.

Meant to be read as you would a novel or a memoir from the beginning to the end.

Reading John’s Gospel, say, in one sitting from start to finish can reveal more about John’s message than any scholarly commentary.

We miss something of the original intent, Greene argues, when we divvy John’s Gospel up into discrete units that we then bloodlessly cross-reference with a hundred other small units of scripture.

The Bible’s encyclopedic form lulls us into forgetting that the evangelists weren’t writing numbered verses. They were creating art; that is, they composed their narratives in such a way as to have an affect upon us.

The bad design of most editions of the Bible, encouraging us to read scattershot as we would a reference book, leads to bad readers of the Bible.

Perhaps no verse of scripture makes Greene’s point as clearly as the centurion’s ‘confession’ at the end of Mark’s Gospel:

‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’

399px-cranach_calvary2

Crucified, Jesus has just cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’ which itself is a verse from Psalm 22, a prayer the Roman centurion would not have known.

Seeing the would-be King nailed naked to a tree and ostensibly crying out in anguish, this soldier says ‘Obviously, this was the Son of God!’

Son of God? Based on what exactly?

As far as he knows this rabble-rousing rabbi has died an indignant death, abandoned by his followers and by his God, with his movement in tatters.

What would compel a Roman centurion suddenly now to see Jesus as the Son of God?

It doesn’t jive with what Mark’s just told us nor with how he’s unfolding his story.

In spite of the incongruity, Christians persist in interpreting this soldier’s statement as a noble, sincere profession of faith. The centurion thus becomes the Gospel’s first reader, modeling the reaction we should have to encountering the crucified Christ.

On a baser level, the centurion becomes exhibit A for how even a Gentile can see what the Jews do not see: ‘Duh, this was the Son of God.’

Such an interpretation, I believe, reduces Mark’s sophisticated narrative to the kind of unsubtle ‘art’ you’d expect of a Kirk Cameron movie.

Instead the centurion’s ‘confession of faith’ in 15.39 is yet another instance of the irony that thematically unites Mark’s entire Gospel.

Take Adam Greene’s advice.

Read Mark straight through, it’s short. You’ll see: irony abounds.

Only demons recognize Jesus’ authority.

The man who can exorcize demons is accused of having one.

The blind see what the seeing cannot.

He says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but he’s just implied everything belongs to God.

The mock title above his head (‘The King of the Jews’) turns out to be true.

The ones who charge him with blasphemy commit it in doing so.

When he cries out to God, the crowd thinks he’s soliciting Elijah.

God condescending to be God-with-us in Christ results in us condescending to sin so that we can be me-without-God.

The ‘vindication’ of resurrection results in fear that produces a final failure when Mark concludes his Gospel by telling us the Easter witnesses ran away scared and didn’t say anything to anyone.

There’s a good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but the simpler reason is just to read Mark, from start to finish.

“You are the King of the Jews?” Pilate sneers at Jesus.

“Hail, the King of the Jews!” the soliders taunt.

“So, you are the King of Israel?” the bystanders mock and laugh at the Cross.

And “Truly, this was the Son of God” says the centurion.

Marc-Chagall-1887-1985-Apocalypse-en-Lilas-Capriccio-194547

In other words:

“Yeah right, this was the Son of God” is the better interpretation.

“Truly, this was the Son of God…Not” best captures how Mark thinks the world  responds to the foolishness of the Gospel.

The centurion’s comments are part and parcel of a story festering with cynicism and sarcasm.

The centurion’s ‘confession’ at the foot of the Cross is but another instance of the irony Mark employs in telling a Gospel that he believes can only be received properly as a scandal and offense.

That we persist in hearing the centurion’s confession as sincere only implicates us in the irony.

inigo_montoya

Does God abandon his People, Israel? That’s the question running through the entirety of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s also a question Marc Chagall, a Jew, struggled with in his art during the horrors of the 20th century.

For a recent sermon on Romans 8, I invited friend and art historian, Janet Laisch, to bring Paul’s wrestling to light by bringing Chagall’s artwork of the Crucified Christ to light.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Like the Psalmist using words to pray for God’s protection and forgiveness, Chagall one of the most famous modern artists and a Russian Jew used his art to pray to God for protection and forgiveness.

Like Paul in Romans 8, Chagall asks—through his art and poetry—if God has abandoned has abandoned the Jews.

chagall02

This is Chagall’s Vitebsk a pen and ink on paper show the Pale of Settlement or territory on the outskirts of Vitebsk, within the border of Tsarist Russia where Jews like Chagall were forced to live.

Chagall was born July 6, 1887 and created art until the night before his death in 1985.

On the right, Chagall is holding a paint palette and is out of proportion—too large—for the space. In real life, Chagall was too “large” for the Pale and eventually move to St. Petersburg to study art, then Paris, is exiled in USA and returns to France until his death.

The church dominates the horizon in this drawing and in real life even for Jews like Chagall, the church dominated his life. The church led anti-semitic pogroms where Christians raped and even murdered Jews that Chagall witnessed growing up in the Pale. The state condoned the church.

rain-1911

 

This image, Rain, 1911, charcoal and oil, shows the compound where Chagall lived with his large family of eight surviving children; he was the oldest and his mother doted on him. Compared to Christians outside the Pale, their clapboard home was modest though compared to other Jews living on the compound, Chagall’s family lived well. His mother ran a grocery—foreground right—which supplemented his father’s job as factory worker. They rented out huts on the compound for extra income which enabled Chagall to attend school with Christians.

This led to an artistic awakening. After he first saw a classmate drawing, Chagall decided he wanted to become an artist. His mother accepted and his father gave-in to Chagall and they paid for art lessons and for him to move to St. Petersburg. He became so successful there that a benefactor paid for Chagall to move to Paris.

3chag

 

After moving to Paris, Chagall painted I am My Village (1911) and is characteristic of his work. It has bright colors, expresses joy through whimsical symbols—two small figures in the center show one upright and one upside down– and folk references: Vitebsk town and a woman milking the cow. He ignores rules for realistic color and proportion in favor of whimsical designs. His friend Picasso complimented as one of the best modern artists other than Matisse and of course, Picasso himself.

RNS-CHAGALL-PAINT a

However, Chagall’s art and prayers become more sad between 1933-52 coinciding with German Aggression, WWII and the Holocaust. Like Psalm 44, Chagall paints lament poems and prayers. This photograph shows Chagall painting Solitude.

After Chagall returns from Israel, he focuses on Old Testament and other bible scenes. Chagall wrote about Israel, “I walked the very streets Jesus walked.” Thus, Chagall, a Jew, follows Christ’s footsteps.

solitude_chagal

 

This image is Solitude, an oil on canvas from 1933. It marks the year Hitler becomes Chancellor. The painting like Romans 8 seems to ask God if he has abandoned the Jews. Vitebsk, in the background, is recognizable by the church steeples. In the foreground an Hasidic Jew, perhaps even Chagall, wears a prayer shawl or tallit and clutches the Torah. He looks very depressed. The fiddle beside him, if it were being played might console him. Beside it, a white cow, the original title of this work, and also a reference to Israel herself from the Old Testament. The depressing answer—Chagall feels- is given away by the angel in the night sky flying away. Chagall feels abandoned but continues to pray.

This Russian icon represents the work Chagall would have remembered and loved from sneaking into Christian churches. Chagall wrote, “for me Christ has always symbolized the true type of Jewish martyr. The symbolic figure of Christ was always very near to me, and I was determined to bring him out in my young heart.” Crucifixion_of_Jesus,_Russian_icon_by_Dionisius,_1500

Between 1938-52, Chagall painted a series of crucifixion images. He is not the first Jewish artist to paint the crucifixion. In the late 1800s artists responded to Theologians who sought to remind Christians that Christ was a Jew. Chagall was the first Jewish modern artist though. And other followed. None painted as many. Some said he was obsessed painting more than 30 crucifixions in a span of 14 years.5-marc-chagall-painting-of-jesus

White Crucifixion from 1938 is the first in the series. Chagall painted it in response to the Nights of the Broken Glass where Christians did almost nothing to stop Jews from being murdered. It is also Pope Francis’ favorite work of art.

Here Chagall juxtaposed Christ’s suffering with contemporary Jews’ suffering. Chagall painted a complex theology. In the center, Christ is the Christian Messiah—with a halo and the white light descending from the top of canvas represents divine light like a Russian icon.

Also, Jesus is a Jew.

He wears a tallit, the acronym INRI is written in Hebrew, “Jesus of Nazareth—King of Jews”

Above the cross, Old Testament prophets replace Christian angels and at the base of the cross the candles may reference Yom Kippur. Chagall repeatedly included symbols of Yom Kippur in the crucifixion images.

Circling Christ are the atrocities committed again Jews. A Nazi soldier is burning and desecrating a synagogue. Other recurring images: wandering Jew—who Chagall identifies with himself—refugees: woman clutching a baby, man clutching a Torah, a man with a sign “I am Jew, a boat of refugees, a burning town with a small cow, and Communists soldiers carrying the red flag march forward. We know that the communists were no better friend than the Nazis to the Jews.

 

Chagall paints these images as a prayer pleading for help from God and help from Christians.

Persecution_Chagall_600

Another Crucifixion image, Persecution from 1941 coincides with Chagall fleeing France and escaping to America before the Nazi invasion. Chagall feels guilt that he is safe while is brothers and sisters are not.

Again, Chagall emphasizes that Christ is a Jew. He wears a tallit and the chicken at the base of the cross is a symbol of Yom Kippur.

After fleeing to USA, Chagall refers to himself as the wandering Jew, “The man in the air in my paintings…is me.. it used to be partially me. Now it is entirely me. I’m not fixed anyplace.” In Medieval Christian legend, the wandering Jew who was present at the crucifixion was doomed to wander the earth forever until he accepts Jesus as Messiah.

6a010536b72a74970b0120a596a44d970b-800wi

This photograph captures an ancient Jewish folk custom that Chagall practiced. The chicken is whirled three times above their head and sins are symbolically transferred to the chicken so they are free of sin for the new year

20-Descent-from-the-Cross-resize

 

Another crucifixion from the war years is Descent from the Cross 1941. Here Chagall identified himself with crucified Christ. The INRI acronym is replace with Marc Ch. He is dealing with the guilt of being safe in USA while his brothers and sisters suffer. A man with a chicken head helps Chagall down—the chicken head symbolizes Yom Kippur that Chagall will be forgiven. An angel flies in from right and hands the artist a paint palette and brush—symbolizes a resurrection. Chagall wrote a poem about this and other paintings where he painted himself as a crucified Jesus.

 

The gift of painting is from God. Chagall’s prayers are answered. God does not abandon him.
chagall

 

Yellow Crucifixion from 1942 is Chagall’s response to Nazis “Final Solution.” Newspapers disclose that Jews were being moved from ghettos to concentration camps for extermination. The yellow background symbolizes the yellow star of David—labeled Jude—which Jews were forced to wear. 
The yellow smoky background may symbolize the poisonous fumes of extermination—the Jews like sheep to slaughter.

The Divine Christ—halo—is a Jew. He wears the prayer bands on arm, phylactery on forehead and at the base of the cross the ladder is a symbol of Yom Kippur—as are the green torah scroll, the candle and horn.

Chagall juxtaposes suffering Jews with Christ’s suffering. On the left, the ship sinking, a drowning man and two struggling in the water may reference the tragedy SS. St. Louis—the refugee boat that after landing in Cuba only disembarked a few Jews—sending the majority back to Europe and back to the Nazis.

Next, the Holy Family on a donkey may reference their flight into Egypt and their escape from Herod who murdered Jewish babies.

A man with a sign “I am Jew” wanders while a village burns.

Chagall wants the viewer to equate the suffering Jews with Christ. They are from the same stock. They need our help—he prays and pleads.

18-The-Crucified-resize

 

This image, The Crucified from 1944, depicts a horrific nightmarish street scene where three crucifixions line the streets and three more Jews die in the snow. The only living person is the fiddler on the roof. It coincides with the German occupation of Chagall’s boyhood home, Vitebsk. Chagall is very explicit. Contemporary Holocaust victims are suffering like Christ suffered. Like Christ they are innocent.

Marc-Chagall-1887-1985-Apocalypse-en-Lilas-Capriccio-194547

 

Chagall painted Apocalypse (shown above) in 1945, the same year when pictures of concentration camp victims were published. Like the title implies Chagall saw the Holocaust as great battle between good and evil. He seems to pray that God must see Jews on the right side? Christ is naked. He is completely exposed and humiliated like the victims. He is no longer shown divine but Jewish. He wears phylactery—mini prayer book—on his forehead, his tallit is nailed to the cross. The Nazi soldier like a monster from the apocalypse has a tail. Chagall laments the loss of humanity—that nothing was done.

exodus-1966

This crucifixion image is much more hopeful. Exodus from 1952 captures the postwar return of the Jews to what is left of their homes. The flame on the bottom, left indicates that homes do not offer much. They are still in need of our help. Christ as a Messiah—with halo—lights the way. The crowd moving looks happy and hopeful. Some smile and talk. At the top right, a rooster—symbolizes forgiveness. The Jews must move forward with their lives. The woman in a wedding dress is Chagall’s beloved wife and Moses—Chagall’s birth name– at the bottom right may be the artist himselfreuniting with his fellow Jews.

the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1

 

After the war, Chagall continues to explore religious Old Testament stories and crucifixions though the colors are brighter and more cheerful. In Romans 8, Paul referenced the sacrifice of Issac as an Old Testament event that prefigures the crucifixion. The subject is hopeful. God does not abandon us, the angel intercedes before Abraham sacrifices his son.

Chagall also designed many stained glass images for Cathedrals throughout Europe and America.

IMG_2543

Chagall’s stained glass offers a beautiful expression of God’s love. Chagall depicts the crucifixion on the top left. In the center, a couple embraces and is surrounded by flowers. Chagall in this image designs a crucifixion image as Christians understand it—God’s ultimate sign of love. Chagall here creates an answer to his prayers.

God never abandons his people.

images“I knew Alfred Dewayne Brown was stone cold innocent the moment I met him. I am from Northern New Jersey and was a Public Defender with the Legal Aid Society in Brooklyn, New York, so I have developed a strong “bullshit” meter. I can usually spot a lie better than a polygraph. When I first met Dewayne on Death Row in Livingston, Texas, 60 miles north of Houston, I knew the man was 100% innocent. 

I had absolutely no doubt. When I walked out of Death Row for the first time, I did all I could to fight back tears and keep from being sick because I was so excited and nervous at the same time. I was also scared as hell and worried whether it was too late to save his life and that I was going to be there at the prison watching him die right in front of me.”

– One Big Setup: The Alfred Dewayne Brown Story 

To my mind, other than the Cross itself, the most compelling reason for Christians to oppose the death penalty is that it commits what belongs to God alone (the taking of life) to a system which is vulnerable to human error and moral corruption.

To insist that system is immune to such error risks violating the first commandment, as it places a degree of faith in the criminal process that belongs to God alone.

Or, in Pauline terms, it values our justice system over God’s justice.

What scripture calls ‘idolatry.’

images-1My friend and parishioner, Brian Stolarz, begins his forthcoming memoir with the above confession.

Apparently not everyone’s BS radar is as well-calibrated as Brian’s, for Alfred Dewayne Brown (pictured below) was sentenced to be killed by Texas without any physical evidence to corroborate the charge of murder, despite having an IQ which- by law- should’ve precluded him from capital punishment and in the face of the fact that the state’s only witness had been bullied into perjuring herself.

Even a BS radar half that of Brian’s could’ve sniffed out Alfred’s innocence, or, if not his innocence, at least detected sufficient doubts to give his lynch mob pause on their way to Calvary. brownalfred

Last week Arizona botched the execution of Joseph Wood, who died nearly 2 hours  after the supposed ‘lethal’ injection administered by his executioners.

Joseph Wood gasped and struggled for nearly 2 hours before he finally died. Who’s to say how many seconds or minutes or hours Wood’s killing fell shy of qualifying as ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’

Wood’s botched execution provoked outrage and incredulity among most of the public, callous, satisfied jeers among some of it and promises of (not independent) ‘review’ among the public’s officials.

What’s truly outrageous and, I believe, sinful is how the chair or the syringe or the noose is only 1 example of how the capital punishment apparatus is fraught with corruption and prone to error.

In Alfred Dewayne Brown’s case, the hold-it-in-your-hands evidence that would’ve supported his alibi all along (a phone record) was- all along- HIDDEN in the garage of a homicide detective.

Before you utter ‘What the…’ to yourself, wait:

Alfred’s IQ, which marks him as mentally retarded, was ginned up by the state’s doctor so as to nudge Alfred a nose past the qualifying line.

BTW:

Let’s not forget the moderately salient point that the grand jury’s foreman, whom transcripts unambiguously identify as leading a pile-on against Alfred’s girlfriend, was a retired cop.

A retired cop.

In a cop killing.

Jury of his peers.

The aforementioned doctor has been censured.

The cop with the garage and the prosecutor who turned the blind eye?

Not sure.

The girlfriend bullied and jailed to induce her to perjure herself?

She’s since changed her testimony.

Back to her original testimony.

Alfred Dewayne Brown?

Still on death row.

Despite consensus of his innocence.

In a twist of irony only Pontius Pilate could appreciate, all-but-exonorated-Alfred sits on death row while Texas decides whether or not it will grant him a ‘new trial.’

Brian shared his story of working for Alfred’s life in a sermon earlier this summer. You can watch it below.

You can read the latest stories about the grand jury’s foreman and its treatment of Alfred’s girlfriend here, here, here and here.

What happened to Joseph Wood on the table in Arizona happens to innocent (usually black) people in interrogation rooms and jury rooms more often than most of us would like to confront.

To turn a blind, blithe eye to such injustice, however, places us under St Paul’s auspicious words:

“I have great sorrow and anguish. For I testify of them that they may have great zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own form of justice, they did not submit to the justice of God.

For the Messiah is the aim of all law so that justice may be based on loyalty to him.” 

– Romans 10.3-4

(Theodore Jennings, trans)

The more internet outrage and chatter Alfred’s case generates the quicker Texas will be compelled to give him a new trial or, even better, his freedom.

So leave a comment, ‘like’ it on Facebook, retweet it or forward it on to a friend.

A small gesture towards God’s justice that could go a long way. Do the right thing.

 

 

 

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

hobby_lobbyWhile corporations are now considered people- religious people- under the law (I hope all corporations start tithing now), prisoners on death row continue to be deemed less than creatures under the law.

They can be killed.

To teach us that killing is wrong (let’s hope they were guilty).

For profit entities that bring you cheap wicker baskets made possible by child labor (not to mention population-control policies which incentivize abortion) are now more of a ‘person’ than the flesh-and-blood people behind bars, the former eliciting more of our empathy and moral outrage than the latter.

“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison a morally afflicted CEO and you came to visit me.”

You wouldn’t know- at all– from the media coverage, but while SCOTUS handed down the Hobby Lobby decision activists, Christians and clergy gathered this week on the front steps of the Court to protest the death penalty.

Chances are you’ve heard plenty about the Green family who owns Hobby Lobby and how they’ve been praised for taking a principled stand for Christ.

RNS-CLAIBORNE-COLUMNChances are you haven’t heard anything about this Christian quietly walking across Texas to show his solidarity with those his state plans to kill in the coming months and years.

That you might have only heard about the protest here speaks volumes about the holes in our Christ-centered compassion.

Christian culture is sex-obsessed, singling out a few discrete issues around which to hoist the banner of ‘life.’

Protestants would do well to learn from our Catholic friends who insist that disparate issues like abortion, poverty , healthcare and executions all belong to a single ‘seamless garment’ of life.

My own United Methodist tradition nears schism fighting over our official language labeling homosexuality as ‘incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Little commented upon is the fact that our Discipline also views the death penalty as black-and-white at odds with the Gospel, for the death penalty

“denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.” 

Translation:

In the death penalty we stop God from doing what God wants to do in people.

Change them.

That half of all United Methodists and many of its clergy support state-sanctioned killing in violation of our Discipline receives not one iota of the indignant moral outrage these days reserved for clergy presiding at same-sex unions.

Pastors aren’t brought up on charges for supporting the death penalty in the face of church teaching.

Sex is just sexier.

Plus, it requires less of us where Jesus’ requisites are concerned: that we love sinners.

Or at least begrudgingly admit that Jesus loves them.

On the front steps of the Court today you’ll find people who hold many moral and legal reasons they oppose the death penalty:

There is no way to remedy mistakes. 

There is discrimination in the application of the death penalty. 

Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary 

The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. 

Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. 

The death penalty is an expression/confession of the absolute power of the State. 

Even the guilty have a right to life. 

CrucifixionThe reasons are many but for Christians there’s a single primary motivating view.

It’s a view, I would argue, that cuts closer to the quick of the Gospel than do the drivers behind the other competing issues which preoccupy Church and Culture:

The New Testament teaching that we do not put sinners to death because Christ has already been put to death for every act of human sinfulness.

It is in the face of Christ that we see the full extent of how God’s mercy meets God’s righteousness.

God says in the Old Testament that vengeance belongs to him.

Only in the New Testament do we see how literal God meant it.

For in Jesus Christ God bears the full penalty of our rebellion against God and neighbor on the cross.

Here’s my sermon interview with a friend and death penalty attorney, in case you missed it:

 

16 CARAVAGGIO 02 THE SERMPON OF STEPHEN

 * The Stoning of Stephen

Judith_beheading_holofernes

* The Beheading of St. Paul

Caravaggio-Crucifixion_of_Peter

* The (Upside Down) Crucifixion of Peter

lorenzolotto_christandthewomantakeninadultery

The Woman Jesus Refuses to Condemn to a Legal Execution

(aka: The Woman Caught in Adultery )

St Andrew Apostle

* The Whipping and Crucifixion (on an X-Shaped Cross) of Andrew

religion-facts-christianity-james-the-just

* The Stoning (and Clubbing) of James, Jesus’ Brother

images-1

* The Execution (by Arrows) of Jude

archbishop-romero-death-630x420

* The Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

 

gallows

* The Hanging of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

tumblr_mw2ydbozLD1qbhp9xo1_1280

God’s Mercy for Cain by God (Following the First Murder)

 

chagall-the-white-crucifixion-1938

* The Execution of Jesus (aka: God Incarnate)

* = Lawful executions of innocents carried out by the official governing bodies of the time