Archives For Good Friday

Here’s my Good Friday sermon from tonight, using the lectionary text from Hebrews 10.11-25

     On Ash Wednesday, I suffered my monthly battery of labs and oncological consultation in advance of my day of maintenance chemo.

During the consult, after feeling me up for lumps and red flags, my doctor that day- a new one as my own doctor was on the DL for cancer of his own- flipped over a baby blue hued box of latex gloves and illustrated the standard deviation of years until relapse for my particular flavor of incurable cancer.

Cancer didn’t feel very funny staring at the bell curve of the time I’ve likely got left. Until.

Leaving my oncologist’s office, I drove to Fairfax Hospital to visit a parishioner here at Aldersgate named Jonathon.

Jonathon’s a bit younger than me with a boy a bit younger than my youngest. He got cancer a bit before I did. He’d thought he was in the clear. No.

The palliative care doctor was speaking with him when I stepped through the clear, sliding ICU door. After the doctor left, our first bits of conversation were interrupted by a social worker bringing with her dissonant grin a workbook, a fill-in-the-blank sort, that he could complete so that one day his boy will know who his dad was.

I sat next to the bed. I know from both from my training as a pastor and my experience as a patient, my job was neither to fix his feelings of forsakenness nor to protect God from them. My job, I knew, as both a Christian and a clergyman, wasn’t to do anything for him, but, simply, to be with him.

I listened. I touched and embraced him. I met his eyes and accepted the tears in my own. Mostly, I sat and kept the silence as though we both were prostrate before the cross. I was present to him.

We were interrupted again when the hospital chaplain knocked softly and entered. He was dressed like an old school undertaker and was, he said without explanation or invitation, offering ashes.

Because it was the easiest response, we both of us nodded our heads to receive the gritty, oily shadow of a cross.

With my own death drawn on a picture on the back of a box of latex gloves and his own death imminent, we leaned our foreheads into the chaplain’s bony thumb.

“Remember,” he whispered (as though we could forget), “to dust you came and to dust you shall return.”

As if every blip and beeping in the the ICU itself wasn’t already screaming the truth: none of us is getting out of life alive.

———————-

    You’re not, FYI, getting out of life alive.

When you give up the ghost, your soul isn’t going to fly away to the great by-and-by.

Your body isn’t going to become just a shell while your spirit whisks away down a bright tunnel filled with warm light.

People will stand by your grave and weep, as they should, because you are not a thousand winds that blow. You are not the diamond glints on snow.

You are there. Planted in the ground. Earth to earth. Dust to dust.

Ashes awaiting God’s final resurrection.

None of us is getting out life alive.

Someday, maybe soon maybe later, your breath will become air.

And you will be as dead as Jesus is tonight, every bit as dead as Jesus is tomorrow and tomorrow night.

If Jesus doesn’t get to Easter without going through Good Friday then neither do we. We are baptized, after all, not into a club called church. We’re baptized into death, his death.

Death is not natural. It is the enemy of God, says scripture; however, death is as ubiquitous as it is inexorable.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

And we don’t like to talk about it much anymore in churches like ours with tax brackets like yours but, before the final resurrection, you will be called before the mercy seat of Almighty God, what the Book of Common Prayer calls “…the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all our hearts shall be disclosed.” 

That line about “the dreadful day of judgment” comes from the wedding liturgy, right before the vows so that the bride and groom know the stakes before they promise not to destroy each others’ lives.

Because all of us, married or not- we are a people who actively every day do damage to the people in our lives and every day by our apathy do damage to people we never see except in the news.

We’re sinners.

And as we are, just the way we are, to stand before the Lord would be a terror not a joy. We forget- that’s why the Israelites charged Moses to go up Mt. Sinai to go before the Lord. They didn’t want to do so themselves.

That isn’t to say God is awful or angry; it’s to recognize that very often we are both, awful and angry, and if God is a refining fire then to stand before the Lord just as we are, the way we are, the sum of so many of our sins- to stand before God who is a refining fire means that there is much of us- much about us- that will get burned away by the holiness of God.

———————-

     Speaking of fire, no doubt talk of judgment sounds brimstone harsh to you.

Of course it does. You have been conditioned by a culture that has made that word ‘judgment’ the worst of pejoratives: judgmental. And if its the worst that can be said of us, it’s the last that should be said of God.

We think.

God, our culture has conditioned us to think, is like Billy Joel.

God accepts you just the way you are, which is ironic because it turns out Billy Joel didn’t love Christie Brinkley just the way she was. He went searching for something else from someone else, which maybe makes him someone who shouldn’t be accepted just the way he is either.

I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel; I know some of you love him more than Jesus. I don’t mean to pile on Billy Joel or you. Lord knows- or least my wife knows, I’m no better than most of you.

I don’t mean to smote you with fire and brimstone. Since it’s Good Friday, I mean only to point out the basic presupposition of Jesus’ Bible.

This:

You aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way you are.

The gap between our sinfulness and the holiness of God is too great. We aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. We have to be rendered acceptable. We have to be made acceptable, again and again.

That’s the thread that stiches together the Bible by which Jesus understood himself and understood his death.

———————-

     Thus does the Book of Leviticus begin with God’s instructions for a sin-guilt offering: “The petitioner is to make his offering at the door of the tent of meeting so that he may be accepted before the Lord.” 

The worshipper, instructs God to Moses, should offer a male from the herd, a male without blemish; he shall offer it at the door of the tent of meeting, what becomes the veil to the holy of holies when the temple in Jerusalem is built.

God instructs Moses that the sinner is to lay his hand upon the head of the offered animal and “it shall be accepted as an atonement for him.” 

For him. On his behalf. In his place.

The offered animal, as a gift from God given back to God, is a vicarious representative of the sinner. The offered animal becomes a substitute for the person seeking forgiveness. The blood of the animal conveys the cost, both what your sin costs others and what your atonement costs God.

 God intended the entire system of sacrifice in the Old Testament to prevent his People from thinking that unwitting sin doesn’t count, that it can just be forgiven and set aside as though nothing happened, as though no damage was done.

Those sacrifices, done again and again on a regular basis to atone for sin, were offered at the door of the tent of meeting. Outside.

But once a year a representative of all the People, the high priest, would venture beyond the door, into the holy of holies, to draw near to the presence of God and ask God to remove his people’s sins, their collective sin, so that they might be made acceptable before the Lord.

Acceptable for their relationship with the Lord.

After following every detail of every preparatory ritual, before God, the high priest lays both his hands on the head of a goat and confesses onto it, transfers onto it, the iniquity of God’s People.

And after the high priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the godforsaken wilderness; so that, now, until next Yom Kippur, nothing can separate them from the love of God.

———————-

     It’s easy for us with our un-Jewish eyes to see this Old Testament God behind the veil as alien from the New Testament God we think we know.

It’s easy for us to dismiss this God behind the tent door as aloof and unapproachable.

It’s easy for us to miss that it’s God who gives his People the instructions for all these sacrifices; that is, God himself gives his People the means for the ongoing restoration of their relationship with him.

In Jesus’ Bible it’s true we’re not acceptable before God just the way we are but it’s God himself who gives us the means not to remain just the way we are.

God gives his perpetually wayward People the means to stand before him unburdened and unafraid. So these sacrifices in the Old Testament are not the opposite of the grace we find in the New. They are grace.

As Christians we’re not to see them as alien rituals or inadequate even. We’re meant to see them as preparation. We’re meant to see them as God’s way of preparing his People for a single, perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 7).

—————————

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single answer to the question “How does the death of Christ save us?”

The Gospels, after all, exposit Jesus’ crucifixion but they never explain it.

The creeds require us to profess that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, but the creeds do not ask us to agree on what that death accomplished or how.

Through the centuries the Church has offered possible answers.

On the Cross, God in Christ defeats the Power of Sin and Death. On the Cross, God in Christ transforms our hearts by demonstrating the love in his own. On the Cross, Jesus suffers the punishment owed to us, setting us free from our debt of sin by paying it in our place.

And so on.

     Preachers and theologians like to point out how the Church never settled upon a single explanation for Christ’s death.

Except, that’s not exactly true.

The Church did decide to include in the New Testament canon the Book of Hebrews. Not only is it one of the longest books in the New Testament, it is the only book in the New Testament devoted entirely to describing the meaning of Jesus’ death.

And it does so exclusively by framing Jesus’ death in continuity with the sacrificial system of Jesus’ Bible.

But get this- all the sacrifices of the Old Testament they were to atone for unintended sin. There is no sacrifice, no mechanism, in the Old Testament to atone for the sin you committed on purpose. Deliberately. Not one.

By contrast, the Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as the sacrifice for sin. All.

One sacrifice. Offered once.

For all.

For unwitting sin and for willful sin.

A sacrifice not just for God’s People but for all people.

———————-

     Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, isn’t a victim of our wrath. He isn’t a ransom paid to the Devil. He isn’t the punished in your place or the debt that ameliorates God’s offended honor.

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, is our Great High Priest.

He’s our Great High Priest not through lineage like those other high priests but “through the power of his indestructible life.” 

Jesus, says the Book of Hebrews, bears the stamp of God’s own nature. He’s the heir of all things and through him all things were made.

But-

But he was made like us in every respect. This priest was made like his people in every way.

Just as we are tempted and weak, he was tempted and weak. Just was we hunger and thirst and fear and feel forsaken, so too did he hunger and thirst, fear and feel forsaken. He suffered just as we suffer. And, he died just as we die.

 Just as none of us is getting out of life alive, neither did he.

His death, in other words, isn’t the death we had coming to us.

His death was a death that comes to us all.

His death isn’t a penal punishment but the product of his having been made like us in every respect.

He died the way he did because of the way he lived, but he died because he lived, because he was made like us in every respect.

And because he has been made like us in every respect, not only do we have a Great High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness we have a priest who when he enters the presence of God he does not go alone.

Aaron all the other high priests from the tribe of Levi they went beyond the veil alone and they came back alone.

But this Great High Priest in his flesh, his flesh of our flesh, he carries all of us- all of humanity- to the mercy seat of God, says the Book of Hebrews.

He draws near to the Holy Father and, in him, all of us draw near too.

And there this Great High Priest offers not a ransom or a debt.

    This Great High Priest offers a gift.

    Not a calf or a goat or grain but a gift so precious, so superabundant, as to be perfect.

    A gift that can’t be reciprocated it can only redound to others.

His own life. His own unblemished life.

We choose to put him on a cross, but this Great High Priest chooses on it to gift himself as sacrifice, to sprinkle his own blood on the mercy seat of the cross, to make atonement.

For us.

A gift exceeding all cost such that no sacrifice ever need be offered again.

——————————-

     Jonathon died this evening.

None of us is getting out of life alive.

But none of us need fear. None of us need to fear death, fear that day when the secrets of our hearts will be disclosed.

We need not fear because, after he gifts himself as a perfect once for all sacrifice, this Great High Priest never leaves the Father, because he draws near and stays near, because he sits down at the right hand of the Father permanently, says the Book of Hebrews, he intercedes for us.

Perpetually.

He intercedes for us. Perpetually. He prays for us. Without ceasing.

He confesses for us.

Perpetually.

So that-

Although we know we are not acceptable before the Lord just as we are, we need not fear.

We need not fear that God will make us more than we are.

We need not fear that the secrets of all our hearts one day will be disclosed and God will render us into something other than what we are now.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we can trust.

We can trust that when we die and our breath becomes air and the dust of our bones returns to the dust we will experience the refining fire of God’s holiness.

We will.

But we will not experience it as the wrathful heat of hell.

We will experience it as the warm light of God’s love.

Thanks to our Great High Priest we will all become as the Burning Bush, ablaze with God’s refining fire.

But not consumed by it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A colleague recently advocated altering the traditional serving words for the eucharist (The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.) to: ‘Christ is here, in your brokenness. Christ is here, bringing you to life.’ Or, ‘Christ broken, with us in our brokenness. Christ’s life, flowing through our lives.’

Such redactions just won’t do the heavy lifting if one is committed to taking seriously the language of scripture. While the traditional imagery of blood sacrifice may make some squeamish as Fleming Rutledge insists:

It is “central to the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, and without this theme the Christian proclamation loses much of its power, becoming both theologically and ethically undernourished.”

Mainline Christians frequently express disdain for the blood imagery of scripture. We judge it, snobbishly Rutledge thinks, to be primitive; meanwhile, we let our kids play Black Ops 3, we fill the theaters for Fate of the Furiousand we refer to those innocents killed by our drones as ‘bugsplat.’ That is, if we care about the droned dead at all.

We exult in gore and violence in our entertainments, but we feign that we’re too fastidious to exalt God by singing ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

In our disinclination towards the language of blood and sacrifice, treating it as a detachable option in atonement theology, Christians today could not be more different from the writers of the Old Testament who held that humanity is distant from God in its sin and atonement is possible only by way of blood. Viewed from the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, we make the very error Anselm cautions against in Cur Deus Homo. We’ve not truly considered the weight of sin.

Editing out blood sacrifice commits the very act is intended to avoid, violence. It commits violence agains the text of scripture by eviscerating the language of the bible.

Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ 3 times more often than it speaks of the death of Christ.

Such a statistic alone reveals the extent to which blood sacrifice is a dominant theme in extrapolating the meaning of Christ’s death.

Scripture gives the witness repeatedly:

God comes under God’s judgement as a blood sacrifice for sin.

Put in the logic of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system: something of precious value is relinquished in exchange for something of even greater gain. Blood for peace.

We might find such language repellent. Many do. Perhaps we should recoil at it considering how its an indictment upon our own sinfulness. We might wish to alter the words we say when handing the host to a communicant. What we cannot do is pretend blood sacrifice is not the way scripture itself speaks.

Not only is blood sacrifice a dominant motif in scripture, its a theme upon which many other atonement motifs rely, such as representation, substitution, propitiation, vicarious suffering, and exchange. Something as simple as switching from ‘The blood of Christ shed for you’ to ‘The cup of love’ effectively mutes the polyvalence of scripture’s voice.

And what does lie behind our resistance to blood sacrifice?

I can’t help but wonder if the popular disdain for blood sacrifice owes less to our concern for violence and more to do with our contemporary gospel of inclusivity.

Along with the mantra of inclusivity’s charitable appraisal of human nature and its ever progressing evolution.

The self-image we derive from American culture is that I’m okay and you’re okay. We translate grace according to culture so that Paul’s message of rectification becomes ‘accept that you are accepted.’ God loves you just as you are, we preach, Because of course, God loves us. How could a good God not love wonderful people like us?

As Stanley Hauerwas jokes, we make the doctrine of the incarnation ‘God put on our humanity and declared ‘Isn’t this nice?!’

The governing assumption behind blood sacrifice could not be more divergent. ‘The basic presupposition here [in Leviticus],’ says Rutledge,

‘is that we aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. Something has to transpire before we are counted as acceptable…the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings is assumed to be so great that the sacrificial offering has to be made on a regular basis.’

The self-satisfied smile we see in Joel Osteen is a reflection of our own. Our glib view of ourselves is such that we cannot imagine why God would not want to come near us. Scripture’s sober view of us is that we cannot come near God, in our guilt, without God providing the means for us to live in God’s presence. Another life in place of our own, a blameless and unblemished one.

Whatever our reason for spurning blood sacrifice, our disdain for it raises an even more pernicious problem.

If we refuse to interpret Christ’s death as a blood sacrifice, ruling such imagery as out of bounds, what connection remains between Jesus and Jesus’ own scriptures?

To jettison blood sacrifice is to unmoor Jesus from the bible by which he would have understood his own deeds and death, making it unclear in what sense it makes any sense to say, as we must, that Jesus was and is a Jew. Disdain for blood sacrifice becomes a kind of supercessionism. Desiring to cleanse our view of God of any violence we unwittingly commit a far worse sort of (theological) violence: cleansing God of God’s People.

Which begs the question,  if progressive Christians in America today are substantively different than the Christian European sophisticates of the late 19th century who viewed the ethnic, cultic faith of the Jews with similar disdain.

If we profess the conviction that a crucified Jewish Messiah is Lord, then we must submit to understanding him according to the terms by which he would’ve understood himself.

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.

 

descentMany of ‘theories’ of the atonement rely upon a literal reading of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis to which probably Jesus himself, being a Jew and Rabbi, did not subscribe.

That’s not the only problem with how we often speak on Good Friday.

To many Christians, the crucifixion is the means by which God solves the problem incurred by Adam’s Fall. Not only does this ‘solution’ seem much worse than originating problem (fruit of the tree vs. torture and execution of an innocent man), it seems to miss the (obvious) extent to which the crucifixion is an intensified instance of the first sin: the rejection of God’s love.

Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who died a decade ago, enjoyed subverting the conventions of popular piety. In the excerpt below, McCabe meets head-on the challenges posed by Darwin et al to any literal understanding of the ‘Fall.’

By first concurring that social science suggests humanity’s ‘Fall’ was up not down, McCabe locates what Christians mean by ‘original sin’ not in a mythic, primordial Garden but in the historically concrete case of the crucifixion:

“I can remember a time, it seems quite long ago, when it was definitely not respectable to talk about original sin. The notion plainly belonged to some depressing and pessimistic version of Christianity…the other thing that made original sin less respectable was its connection with the whole Adam story.

It seemed ludicrous that one man’s failure should somehow infect everyone else.

And, any way, how many people could still possibly believe in anyone called Adam?

But it seems reasonable for us to try in terms of our ways of thinking to answer the question ‘How come human society is the way it is?’

I would say that the answer is that human beings ‘fell’ not down but up.

That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control…

I would also like to propose a Pickwickian sense in which the occasion on which original sin was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus- that this finally gave meaning to this state of Sin.

In the crucifixion of Jesus it is finally manifested that the maladjustment of man amounts to a rejection of God’s love.

The sin of the world comes to a head in the crucifixion, shows itself fully for what it is. And, of course, in coming to a head is simultaneously conquered.

The Cross is both the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world, and the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God. It is just as we realize our death that we find life. It is only when it appears as sin that it can be forgiven…

To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves.

The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.

The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”

 

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.”

 

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

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.”

Holy Week is nearing and again preachers and pew-sitters will be pondering the great Paschal mystery.

One thing on which the historic creeds of the Church keep silent is the Cross. The creeds name Jesus’ mother, single out Pontius Pilate for blame and cite forgiveness as one of the effects of Easter.

The creeds do not ever attempt to say exactly what happens on the Cross, what transpires between Christ and God or between God and us. The creeds do not supply or single out a ‘why’ to the Cross.

Much like the New Testament itself, the Church has spoken of the atonement (how Christ makes us at-one with God) in a variety of metaphors.

Today, however, contemporary Western Christianity has tended to privilege one understanding of the atonement to the exclusion of all the others: Jesus suffered the wrath of God meant for you.

There are other, better I think, ways of speaking and thinking about the Cross.

So in shameless self-promotion-

I encourage all of you who will be preaching or reflecting on the Cross these next weeks to download my eBook: Preaching a Better Atonement. 

DESIGN copy

In it, I try to unpack the various ways the Church has understood the work of Christ on the Cross and for each perspective I offer a few sermonic illustrations.

One fellow pastor in Virginia had this review, which is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me:

“Better than anything Adam Hamilton or max lucado puts out.”

A review on Amazon scores it thus:

“It’s like a snarky, Italian Jon Stewart writing theology.

Fantastic introduction to atonement theories – i.e. what does the cross mean?

Incredible accessible, funny, poignant, but also theologically sound…

Perfect balance between serious theological study and lay understanding.”

Click here to buy it and I will send the proceeds on to the Guatemala Toilet Project.

 

imagesThis Good Friday we broke the worship service and sermon into thirds with each segment narrating a piece of Nicodemus’ story as told by John. An actor in the congregation played Nicodemus, speaking the bolded lines below. The altar table was piled with several dozen loaves of bread which Nicodemus ‘spoke’ to during the first two parts and later wrapped in linen and buried in the final segment.

You can listen to the audio here or in the iTunes Library under ‘Tamed Cynic’ or under the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog- however you may not be able to pick up Nicodemus’ lines.

I. Born from Above: John 3

[Nicodemus enters down center aisle, carrying a lit candle]

     The first time he met him it was Passover about three years ago.

     All that week the man from Nazareth had been performing signs and miracles. He’d even stormed through the Temple courts one day with a whip in hand, shouting that they’d turned his ‘Father’s’ house into a market.

That got people’s attention.

     The city was filled with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for the Passover Feast. It was easy for the man from Nazareth to attract a crowd. Many of those who listened to him and watched him, believed in him, believed on his name, believed he was from God.

Some had quite opposite reaction. Still others stayed silent- and safe- on the sidelines.

The first time he met him it was Passover, three years ago.

It was long into the night. The streets and the sky were dark. Dried blood still marked the doorposts of the places where the feast was celebrated.

One of those who’d seen Jesus among the crowds, came knocking. At an upper room. Jesus was asleep when he heard the sound at the door- it would be a while yet before his Father’s will kept him up all night.

Nicodemus knocks on the door. The city was filled with travelers and pilgrims; he would’ve had to ask around to find the right address, or he would’ve had to follow Jesus and wait in the shadows.

Nicodemus knocks on the door and waits to step inside the threshold before he pulls his hood down. No one’s awake but why chance it.

     The first thing the man from the shadows says is: ‘Rabbi.’ 

     As in, ‘Teacher.’ 

     As in, ‘you know something I don’t.’ 

     Still standing in the entryway, he says to the groggy-eyed Jesus: ‘Teacher, we know you’re from God. You couldn’t do the signs you do were you not.’

Teacher, we know… We know. He doesn’t say ‘me.’ He doesn’t say ‘Teacher, I know.’ Jesus notices that beneath the cloak his visitor is wearing the robes of the ruling priests. He’s come by candle light, in the dead of night- not an official visit, Jesus guesses.

     ‘Teacher, we know…’

Jesus can see there must be more to it than that. This priest didn’t come all the way out here in the middle of the night just to say that.

So Jesus rubs his eyes more awake and motions to the table for Nicodemus to sit down. He lights some candles and notices how Nicodemus sits in the shadows with his back to the window.

Jesus breaks a piece of leftover bread and pours a cup of wine and offers it to him. Nicodemus says no thank you.

     And Jesus can tell by looking at Nicodemus’ anxious, edge-of-your-seat eyes that there’s something about Jesus that reveals something about Nicodemus.

     Something that is empty.

Incomplete.

Even though Nicodemus has it all.

The truth is, Jesus tells him, it’s one thing to see what I do, to listen to me teach. It’s another thing to see what I point to: the Kingdom of God.

To see that, to experience that- it’s like…being born all over again.

 Something in what Jesus says strikes a threatening chord.

Nicodemus hears the challenge in it: ‘The life I have now isn’t enough? I’ve got to be born again, a second time, from above?’

Nicodemus, he’s a teacher of the law. A Pharisee. He knows what Jesus meant. It’s not that complicated. He just doesn’t want this to be about him so he pretends to not understand. He asks questions, poses qualifications. Clergy are good at that.

How can this be? You can’t mean that… What are you saying? 

    ‘You’re not listening,’ says Jesus. And Jesus tells him that for someone to enter God’s Kingdom, you’ve got to learn how to live all over again.

All Nicodemus can think to say is: How can this be? 

     Jesus goes on to say something about how much God so loved the world and how no one will really believe until the Son is hoisted up for everyone to see.

Nicodemus goes on pretending he doesn’t understand.

Except, he really doesn’t understand. It was still night when Nicodemus went home.

He left without ever asking what he’d come to ask, without ever confessing what it was he secretly believed

II. Let Anyone Who Is Thirsty: John 7 Visit-of-Nicodemus

[Nicodemus enters from behind pulpit, carrying palm leaves and empty pitcher]

     Nicodemus didn’t see him again until later that fall.

     The leaves had turned, the air had cooled and the harvest was in. Once again thousands of pilgrims had returned to Jerusalem, this time for Sukkoth. The Festival of Booths- the holy days when Jews gave thanks for the harvest.

     For the week long festival, make-shift booths were set up all over the Temple grounds and in every nook and cranny of every side street. The pilgrims slept in the booths to remember the forty years Israel had wandered in the wilderness and how the Lord had satisfied their hunger and their thirst.

Every day during Sukkoth, bulls would be sacrificed. Every day prayers for rain offered, and even prayers for the Resurrection of the Dead.

At night, there’d be dancing around fires as worshippers waved palm branches and called upon God to send a Messiah.

‘Hosanna!’

Jesus had just fed the multitudes with a few loaves of bread. He’d just told them that he was Living Bread, Bread from Heaven.

So Jesus comes late that year for Sukkoth, about the fourth day. As soon as he arrives he starts teaching in the Temple.

     Some in the crowds, like Nicodemus, press him by asking: ‘How do we know you’re from God?’ 

     And the man from Nazareth responds bluntly that ‘if you were doing the will of God you’d see that I’m from God.’

Others in the crowd conclude that the Messiah himself could not do more than this Jesus can.

The holiest day of the week long festival is the seventh day.

Day seven comes and inside the Temple priests (priests like Nicodemus) process around the altar, carrying basins filled with water from the well at Siloam.

[Nicodemus processes around the altar table with the pitcher of water]

     Seven times they process around the altar and on the seventh turn around they pour the water over the altar to praise the God who never lets his People go thirsty.

That’s inside the Temple.

     Outside the Temple, on the seventh day, refusing to go away, Jesus declares to the crowds: ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’

That gets people’s attention.

The priests and the Pharisees send the Temple police to arrest Jesus, but the police, at least for now, are afraid to touch him. They come back empty-handed, and the Pharisees go through the roof, screaming Jesus is a fraud and anyone who listens to him is accursed.

Nicodemus is there when the police come back empty-handed. Biting his lip and not meeting anyone’s eyes, he just listens to their rage.

     After a few moments, finally and hesitatingly, he speaks up and asks his fellow priests: ‘Doesn’t the Law require us to give this man from Nazareth a fair hearing?’

     All eyes pivot to Nicodemus and they snap at him: ‘Why, are you one of his disciples?’

Standing there in the light of day with all eyes on him, Nicodemus says…nothing.

Not one word.

Whatever he thought about Jesus, whatever he believed about Jesus, he kept it to himself. He kept it private.

He still didn’t understand what Jesus had said about being born again.

[Nicodemus walks away down center aisle, stops and looks back as though filled with regret]

  St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (fresco)III. I Will Not Be Silent: John 19

[Nicodemus enters down center aisle, stopping middway, just watching, cowardly, recognition gradually coming over him]

     The third and last time he sees Jesus it’s Passover again.

     The city’s filled with the same familiar strangers. This time Nicodemus doesn’t come knocking in the dead of night.

And that week when his fellow Pharisees try to trap Jesus with questions, Nicodemus doesn’t rise to his defense.

When a plot is hatched and Jesus is arrested, Nicodemus is certainly there and presumably says nothing.

When Jesus is put on trial, Nicodemus doesn’t speak up, doesn’t step out, doesn’t risk the life he has for a new one.

     I don’t know where Nicodemus was exactly when they crucified Jesus, but I wonder if he was there.

I wonder if, when they nailed Jesus to his Cross, Nicodemus remembers and suddenly understands what Jesus had meant when he told him that many will believe when the Son of Man is lifted up for all to see.

Or, when Jesus cries out in agony, I wonder if Nicodemus begins to understand what Jesus had meant that God so loved the world that he gave…

Or when the soldier spears Jesus’ side and water rushes out, I wonder if Nicodemus is there and remembers the man from Nazareth saying: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me.

I wonder because when Jesus finally dies, all of his friends have fled in fear or shame. Even his mother is gone.

To do anything but leave Jesus’ body hanging there on his Cross was to out yourself: as a follower, as a believer, as an enemy.

     I wonder because it’s Nicodemus who steps from the safety of the sidelines to bury Jesus in the plain light of day.

[Nicodemus walks up boldly to the altar rail, carrying flask of holy oil] 

 The perfume he purchases to bury Jesus costs the equivalent of seventy-five years’ worth of wages.

And surely when he drained his savings account someone would’ve asked what all the money was for and Nicodemus would’ve said: ‘Jesus. It’s for Jesus the Messiah.’

And the size of the perfume, 100 pounds, would’ve been eye-catching and sensational and would’ve required help to move.

And again, someone would’ve asked ‘What’s all this for?’ and Nicodemus would’ve had to say a second time: ‘For Jesus. I’m doing it for Jesus.’

[Nicodemus starts to form loaves of bread into shape of a body and wrap the body in linen]

     Only a few hours have passed since the trial. The crowds would’ve still been angry and lingering as Nicodemus bore his awkward burden down the same streets and up the same hill that Jesus had carried his Cross.

     It would’ve taken time to bury him, and in the light of day anyone can could have found him out.

Anyone could have watched as he and Joseph pulled the twisted nails out of wood and bone.

Anyone could have seen them as they gently carried his broken body down and, with the attention of midwives, wiped his still raw wounds and cleaned his body and combed his spat upon hair.

Anyone could’ve spotted them anointing his body with a 401K’s worth of perfume and spice.

Anyone could’ve watched as they respectfully wrapped his naked body in linen and then buried him, rock by rock, all the while singing psalms of lament.

 [Nicodemus starts to sing…What Wondrous Love]

     Singing like they didn’t care who heard them or how different this would make their life now.

Singing like they knew faith in this Jesus can be many things but it can’t be PRIVATE.

Singing like they knew faith in this Jesus can be practiced in many ways and in many places but NOT IN SECRET, NOT IN YOUR HEART.

     There in the open, in the light of the fading day, anyone could’ve listened as Nicodemus, this priest, performed the funeral rites over Jesus‘ grave and then prayed, as Pharisees did, for Resurrection.

     That day, Good Friday, is the day Jesus died, but I think it’s also the day Nicodemus is born.

     Again.

[Nicodemus takes a few more minutes to ‘wrap’ the body, then in silence lays it at the foot of the cross]

imagesForgive them- that sounds like Jesus, alright.

But: ʻThey donʼt know what theyʼre doing?ʼ Really?
Itʼs not like Jesus to get something so wrong.

Maybe it would help it all go down a bit easier. Maybe it would help us hear Lukeʼs Gospel with a little less dis-ease.

Asking ʻwhere am I in the story?ʼ would be a lot less incriminating if we could just say:

ʻThey didnʼt know.ʼ
ʻThey didnʼt know what they were doing.ʼ

But they knew exactly what they were doing.

Judas knew.
He was selling a friend out for money.
For thirty pieces of silver.
You canʼt get more straightforward than that. He waited to do it. He bided his time.

He chose the day and the time to walk out on the people whoʼd been his family.

And betray the person he loved.
Donʼt tell me he didnʼt know what he was doing.

Peter knew.
He was afraid.
So he turned his back on all the promises heʼd ever made.
Maybe he didnʼt mean it the first time.
But it wasnʼt just the first time.
It was three times: ʻJesus? Whoʼs that? I donʼt know him.ʼ
Maybe it adds insult to injury, Jesus. Maybe it hurts you to think so, but Peter knew. He knew what he was doing. He was saving himself.

You canʼt tell me the religious leaders- the scribes and the elders and the Pharisees and the chief priests- didnʼt know.

Didnʼt know they were smearing another for their own gain.
Theyʼd been after him since he first sat down at the wrong dinner table. Since he first touched the wrong kind of person.

Since he first spoke to the wrong kind of woman.
Since he first healed on the wrong day of the week.
Theyʼd plotted for just this sort of thing. This is what they wanted. Theyʼd orchestrated the entire event.
They contrived the indictments against him.
They whipped the crowd into a lynch mob.
Surely, of all people, Jesus knows that.
Knows that they know what theyʼre doing, that they have no alibi and no excuses.
No right to forgiveness.

 

The soldiers knew.
They canʼt hide behind their uniform.
They canʼt say ʻwe were just following orders.ʼ
No one ordered them to blindfold him and punch him and tease: ʻYouʼre a prophet, guess who just hit you?ʼ
No one ordered them to put a Kingʼs robe on him and mock him.
No one told them to take the time to fashion a crown of thorns for his head, or

to roll dice for his bloodied clothes, or to carve and nail a contemptuously ironic sign above his head that said ʻKing of the Jews.ʼ

 

They just did it for laughs.
They knew what they were doing.

And certainly Pilate knew.
He was choosing expediency over responsibility.
He even washed his hands of the whole sordid matter.
Literally.
Jesusʼ crucifixion was just a matter of course for him.
Jesus, for him, was just another peasant to make an example of.
His cross just one of hundreds that stood along the roadsides of Jerusalem. As a warning.
A deterrent.
He knew.

And so did the crowds gathered there that day to listen to his trial and watch him die.

Of all those gathered at his Cross only Mary and Mary and 1/12 of his disciples are weeping.

Everyone else is there to exult in his suffering.

To stare at the wreckage and feel a bit better about their own lives when compared to his fate.

Thereʼs no other reason for them to be there except that they know exactly what theyʼre doing.

Do you still want forgiveness for them, Jesus?

Everything Iʼve ever done, I knew what I was doing.
Every lie and half-truth ever told.
Every betrayal.
Every time Iʼve compromised my convictions just because that was the easier

thing to do.
Every person Iʼve hurt.
Every word spoken in anger.
Every good Iʼve taken for granted.
Every grudge Iʼve clung to and every decision Iʼve made based solely on

whatʼs best for me. Sure I knew.

Maybe I didnʼt always know what the outcome would be. Maybe I didnʼt always understand the consequences. Maybe I didnʼt always intend the damage done.

But I still knew what I was doing.

And yet-
Jesus says to the Father: ʻ…forgive them, they donʼt know what theyʼre doing.ʼ

Last summer I spent a week with a group of Aldersgateʼs college students at a monastery in the French countryside. The monastery weekly welcomes thousands of Christians from around the world.

In many ways, the monastery is just what youʼd expect: monks in oatmeal- colored robes, chanting, simplicity and silence. We worshipped four times a day at the monastery, and most of the services were nearly identical in structure.

Except on Friday night, every week of every year, the monks celebrate Good Friday, the day of Jesusʼ death on the Cross.

Worship at the monastery is different in that the brothers donʼt explain or introduce anything- at best theyʼll flash a digitized song number on the wall.

Itʼs not like Christmas or Easter at Aldersgate where our instructions for communion take longer than the sacrament itself. The brothers just expect you to stumble along until you eventually fall into the rhythm of their worship.

That was true of their Good Friday service as well.

Most of the service was the same as all the others that week. We chanted songs like ʻIn the Lord Iʼll be Ever Thankfulʼ and ʻCome and Fill Our Hearts with Your Peace.ʼ There was 20-30 minutes of absolute, unguided silence.

But on Friday near the end of the service, as we were singing, the monks all stood up off their knees and shuffled down the aisle, stepping over all the people who were sitting on the floor. And for moment or two the brothers disappeared into a little room near the front of the sanctuary.

Just as everyone began to sing ʻJesus Remember Meʼ in French, the brothers reentered the sanctuary carrying a large cross on their shoulders. The cross was flat, about 6 feet tall and painted like a Medieval icon.

Because there were so many people crowded into the church and because we were sitting on the floor, I couldnʼt really see what they were doing with the cross. I saw them carry it into the middle of the sanctuary but then they dropped from my line of sight.

We kept singing ʻJesus Remember Meʼ over and over; the chanting was a constant ebb and flow, like the sanctuary itself was breathing in and out. After a few minutes I could see groups of people near the front of the sanctuary getting up off their knees and walking towards the middle of the room and forming a line.

It went on like that for a while. We must have sung 3 or 4 songs while a steady stream of people stood up and lined up, and still I didnʼt know and I couldnʼt see what it was they were doing.

Eventually the people around us started getting up and stepping over towards the line and so our group did too. I was only standing in line for a minute when everyone in line in front of me dropped down to their knees.

I still couldnʼt see what was going on. The aisle was twice as long as the one here at Aldersgate, and there were hundreds of people in front of me, all on their knees, inching forward on their knees every half-minute or so.

We were singing ʻWith God There is Fullness, Fullness and Joyʼ but we were singing it in German and I was tripping over the awkward melody and my knees were starting to ache and my back was cramping up and then after a very long time I could see.

The brothers had laid the cross flat on top of four terra cotta blocks so that it was about a foot off the floor. A dozen or so people were kneeling around the cross, bent over it with their foreheads pressed down against it. They were praying.

I crawled up to the cross when it was my turn.

I fit my shoulders in between two other people and I leaned over and I laid my forehead down on the cross, just about on the spot where Jesusʼ wounded side wouldʼve been.

The woman next me was praying ʻFather, Father Fatherʼ in desperate, pleading German.

A teenage boy on my left was sniffing and whispering ʻIʼm sorryʼ over and over in Spanish, and, with my shoulders touching his, I could feel his back heaving as he cried.

Everything Iʼve ever done, I knew what I was doing.

You know what I thought about that night, with my forehead pressed down against the cross? You know what hit me like a wound somewhere deep inside me?

That every lie Iʼd ever told, every insult or injury Iʼd ever done to someone I loved, every resentment, every angry word, every sin…that I hadnʼt just done it to the people I love, the people in my life…Iʼd done it to Him too. To God.

That every time I make a mess of my life, the person I hurt the most is the One who gave me that life.

And suffered for it.

Maybe it sounds strange for a pastor to confess, but I donʼt often think that way.

ʻForgive them,ʼ Jesus prays.
ʻThey donʼt know what theyʼre doing.ʼ
No, they know, but they donʼt GRASP what it is theyʼre doing.
Judas doesnʼt grasp that itʼs not just a friend heʼs betraying. Itʼs God. In the lesh.
Peter doesnʼt grasp thatʼs itʼs not just his rabbi heʼs denying. Itʼs his Lord. Pilate doesnʼt grasp that in the lowly criminal heʼs condemning all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Every one of them.
They know.

But they donʼt grasp-

That all the lies weʼre willing to tell.
All the betrayals weʼre willing to make.
All the promises weʼre willing to forget.
All the hypocrisy and violence and shame and cruelty weʼre willing to tolerate. That, when all is said and done, our true victim is God.

And heʼs the One praying for our forgiveness.

The woman at my right was pleading ʻFather, Father, Fatherʼ and the boy on my left was praying ʻIʼm sorry.ʼ

Meanwhile the words that came to me were Davidʼs words: ʻAgainst you, you only only Lord, have I sinned.ʼ

Words we pray on Ash Wednesday.

Words I donʼt think I ever really understood until I said them on my knees with my head pressed against Godʼs wounded side.

And the feelings those words conjured in me: Smallness. Shame. Guilt

But you know- when I got up off my knees, not one of those feelings came with me.

They stayed there. At the cross.

And I think thatʼs the paradox of the cross that only Christians can truly understand: that as much as the cross is confirmation of the very worst about us, itʼs that much more a sign of the goodness of God.

When I left the cross and found my place back on the sanctuary floor, the monks and the weekʼs pilgrims were all singing ʻWithin Our Darkest Night You Kindle a Fire that Never Dies.ʼ

And I can tell you- if I hadnʼt been a Christian already, I wouldʼve become one that night.

 

When Were You Saved?

Jason Micheli —  March 21, 2013 — 2 Comments

IMG_0593     A couple years ago I was the guest preacher at an evangelical church in Northern Virginia. I arrived early to get a sense of the sanctuary and the congregation’s expectations. Before the service began, as people entered the lobby area and came and went, I loitered around the hallways looking at the church’s flyers, posters and bulletin boards.

While I was milling around, a lay woman came up to me and introduced herself. She asked for my name. The second piece of information she asked for-with a smile- was:

‘When were you saved?’

Before proceeding, I should offer the caveat that, though I’ve no doubt about the sincerity of her question, I hate such questions.

I think its unavoidable for them to lead to reductionistic, overly individualistic takes on the Gospel. 

Now, I could have told her about the first time, as a teenager, I felt the presence of God in prayer or the pull of the Spirit. I could’ve told her about the first time the cross made ‘sense’ to me and in response, like an altar call, I walked forward to receive the eucharist.

‘When were you saved?’

Because I don’t like those questions, and because I didn’t expect to ever meet his woman again, I was feeling surly.

     ‘Oh, I was saved the same time as you’ I said.

She frowned, probably noting the difference in our ages and how unlikely the simultaneity.

     ‘I got saved on Good Friday,’ I said, ’33 AD.’

She frowned again, like in her evangelical church she wasn’t used to having people misunderstand her question.

     ‘Well, I guess Easter saves too,’ I said, ‘so I guess I got saved that whole weekend.’

     ‘But when did you first believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior and get saved?’

The reason I hate questions like hers (even though I wish more Methodists were sufficiently bold even to ask such questions) is because I think too often they make my personal ‘belief’ more determinative than Christ’s cross- as though Jesus doesn’t really accomplish anything in 33 AD until I invite him into my heart in 20111.

Just imagine that first week Good Friday in the first century- what if no disciples were netted after it. Would we then say nothing had happened?

While the New Testament does not decide upon only one way of expressing what Christ’s work accomplishes, the New Testament is unambiguous that what happens on the cross happens for all time and all people.

     It’s perfect. 

     It’s complete. 

     It’s cosmic. 

     It’s finished. 

Without settling on any single way of explaining the Christ’s work on the cross, the New Testament is clear that Jesus’s cross is efficacious by itself. Jesus accomplishes something separate from and regardless of my own individual belief.

     Salvation is something God does.

     It’s not something I do.