Archives For Holy Week

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.

In order to be a Christian.

 

Paul’s argues in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless. Especially when it comes to Jesus’ teachings, we’re off the hook if Jesus has not been vindicated by God through resurrection.

These assertions naturally provoke pushback:

‘But you don’t have to believe in the Resurrection to be a Christian. 

You can be a Christian by following the teachings of Jesus.’ 

Yeah, well, not really.

Never mind the irritating fact that if Jesus was not raised from the dead then there’s nothing transformative and death-defeating about his teaching. It just got him killed. Death had the last word (and still does).

If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then God did not vindicate Jesus’ life, his way of life.

His teachings.

So then there’s nothing special about them, they lead only to crosses.

And then Nietzsche is right: power and will are the only sane, responsible ways to live in this world.

And then Paul is right: of all people in the world, we’re the most pitiable.

But the resurrection is a necessary belief on a less theological level too.

On an evidentiary level.

Think about it:

If I was witness called to the stand to testify on behalf of a defendant and every bit of my testimony rung true to you, the jury, until I got to the end of my story- the most important part- and I outright lied, then you would no longer trust any of my preceding testimony and you would cast aspersions upon the defendant about whom I lied.

At least, you should if you were doing your job as a jury.

To dismiss the Resurrection claim, which the evangelists believed whether or not you do, is to call them liars.

And if you think the evangelists liars about the climactic turn in their testimony, why in the world would you trust their prior testimony about the words and deeds of Jesus?

The disciples, after all, didn’t simply convert from one religion to another; they lived- suddenly- as if they inhabited a totally new world.

The disciples from whom we have received the Resurrection witness are the selfsame evangelists through whom we have received the ministry of Jesus. If they lied about the former then we’ve no basis to trust the latter.

And it really does come down to trust then, doesn’t it?

Because if you’re willing to accept the words and deeds of Jesus, as testified to by the evangelists, but not the Resurrection, as testified to by the evangelists, then you are, quite literally, picking and choose parts of the Gospel witness that you like.

Or that make sense to you. Or that fit into your a priori modernist worldview.

You’re not willing to trust that if what the apostles tell you about the sermon on the mount is true then perhaps what they tell you about empty tomb is too.

And ‘trust,’ let us not forget, is the best definition/translation for what the bible calls ‘faith.’

In many mainline congregations this Holy Week, the dominant motif with which scripture describes the meaning of the death of Jesus, substitution, will be judiciously avoided. Substitutionary atonement, it’s often said with no small amount of enlightened self-congratulation, is a medieval caricature, depicting an angry, wrath-filled God who kills Jesus- in our place- to vindicate and avenge his sin-besmirched honor.

To the extent this critique of scripture’s substitution motif is valid, it is valid only because we have narrowed the cast of characters in scripture’s salvation drama.

With the antagonist removed from the stage, humanity becomes the object of God’s wrath and, truth be told as unintelligible as it is, God the Father becomes the antagonist from whom God the Son saves us.

Such is what happens when we excise the Devil from the story.

Like Fred and Vilma, the Enlightenment tempts us to want to pull away the monster mask from the Jesus story in order to understand what’s really going on, when, in fact, it’s no longer possible to understand what Jesus thought was going on if you pull away the demons and devils from the story.

Call it what you will:

The Devil

Sin and Death, as Paul does in Romans

The Principalities and Powers, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Jesus says in the Gospels

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together. The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory.

The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.”

And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.”

When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…”

You can count up the verses.

More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist and nowhere more so than upon the cross.

Not only is Sin, as in the Power of Sin- Satan, the New Testament’s narrative glue, it is the necessary antagonist to any coherent understanding of substitutionary atonement.

If there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel.

Because, according to the Gospel, our salvation is not a 2-person drama.

It’s not a 2-person cast of God-in-Christ and us.

It’s not a simple exchange brokered over our sin and his cross. According to the Gospels, the Gospel is not just that Jesus died for your sin. The Gospel is that Jesus defeated Sin with a capital S. Defeated, that is, Satan.

The Gospel is not just that Jesus suffered in your place.

The Gospel is that Jesus overcame the One who holds you in your place.

God’s wrath isn’t directed at us or character flaw within us called ‘sin.’ God’s wrath, out of love for us, is directed at that which holds us in bondage, the Power of Sin.

It isn’t just that Jesus died your death. It’s that Jesus has delivered you from the Power of Death with a capital D, the one whom Paul calls the Enemy with a capital E.

According to scripture, there is a 3rd character in this story. There’s a third cast member to the salvation drama. We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another.

And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan, and the battlefield runs through every human heart.

Without this third character in the salvation story, the Gospel is no longer Gospel. It’s no longer Good News.

Because when we push Satan off the stage of the salvation drama, when we cut the cast down from three characters (God, Us, and Satan) to two characters (God and Us), what happens is that we end up turning God in to a kind of Satan.

In addition to b-boxing and singing “The King of Glory Comes” and discussing the all-important theological question “Will my dog lick his nuts in the eschaton?” the guys talk Palm/Passion Sunday lections with theology professor Eric Hall of Carroll College and the author of the Home-brewed Christianity Guide to God.

All of it is introduced by the soulful tunes of my friend Clay Mottley.

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As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’ve been observing Holy Week/Eastertide this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.

A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.

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‘The crucifixion is the supreme expression of Jesus’ humanity- that is what crucifixes are for, to remind us of what human beings are, when we try to forget.

The crucifixion is the supreme expression of his obedience to the Father, of his eternal Sonship.

On the cross he casts himself simply on the Father. It is his prayer to the Father, the only prayer known to Christians, and the Resurrection is the Father’s response.

The crucifixion and the resurrection are no more to be separated than prayer and response, than two sides of a communication.

The resurrection is the full meaning of the crucifixion.

And this communication of eternal prayer and response is what the Holy Spirit is- which is why Jesus speaks of sending the Holy Spirit in history when he is united with his Father.

Just as the crucifixion/resurrection is what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father looks like when projected upon sinful human history, so the sending of the Holy Spirit is what the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit looks like when projected onto that sinful human world.

And the Holy Spirit appears in our world of course as catastrophic and destructive, as a revolutionary force making the world new, or the Church new, the individual new.

By reducing them first to chaos.

That, I’m afraid, is a very compressed sketch of what the Christian means to be saying when he or she speaks of God as Trinity. And in the end what it all boils down to is this central mystery:

God is love.’

 

Christ is Risen.

He is Risen indeed.

And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity.

I marked this Holy Week by dipping again into the work of the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe. Here is an excerpt from his essay on Easter Vigil.

In it, McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.

Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments.

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“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.

It says something permanent about God:

not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.

The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.

If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.

The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.

The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.

Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).

‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’

Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.

Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.

Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.

The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.

On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.

It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.

It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.

Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.

So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us [through the sacraments] still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’

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.

 

As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’m observing Holy Week this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.

A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.

This is from his essay ‘Freedom’ in the volume God Matters, which was published shortly after McCabe’s death.

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‘The story of Jesus is what the eternal trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected on to the screen of history, and this means on the screen not only of human history but of sinful human history.

The obedience of Jesus to the Father, his obedience to his mission, is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father appears as in history. His obedience consists in nothing else but being in history,  human.

Jesus did nothing but be the Son as human; that his life was so colorful, eventful, and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world.

We for the most part shy off being human because if we are really human we will be crucified.

If we didn’t know that before, we know it now; the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the dramatic manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, original sin.

There is no need whatever for peculiar theories about the Father deliberately putting his Son to death.

There is no need for any theory about the death of Jesus.

It doesn’t need any explanation once you know that he was human in our world.

Jesus died in obedience to the Father’s will simply in the sense that the Father will the Son to be human in our world.’

 

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:

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“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

 

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:

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“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.

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“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

16th-St-Baptist-Ch-WalesScot McKnight, who hosts the popular Jesus Creed blog, has invited me to post a series of reflections during Lent on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of JesusFleming Rutldge BandWhite

I want to give Scot the love and force you to read it over on his site so here’s my teaser:

The spiritual intuition of god in your garden will never lead you to submit to a naked, homeless, cheek-turning, executed Jew.

Perhaps more importantly, ‘spirituality’ will never compel you to identify with the world’s forsaken as a necessary implication of your faith.

Vague spirituality, untethered from orthodox tradition, certainly won’t require you to identify with the world’s forsakers.

But the cross, where Christ dies for the ungodly, demands exactly that, as offensive and counter-intuitive as it is to all our natural religious and moral impulses.

Okay, whistle wetted, read the post here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/02/12/fleming-rutledge-and-the-atonement-by-jason-micheli/ 

 

This is my friend, Janet Laisch. I was last week so didn’t get to post it on Holy Thursday. Better late than never…

 

In AD 200, the birth of Christian art represented the new covenant through abstract references to the Last Supper where Christ commanded us, ” to Love one another as I have loved you.”  Christians began making art on the very walls of the catacombs where they buried their dead and among the first brush strokes they painted were grape vines and leaves to express their belief in an afterlife and their belief in Christ’s new commandment. During the second half of the third century, artists began to depict Christ and His disciples reclining at the Last Supper and other agape feasts.  Ancient Christians blurred the lines between eschatological agape feasts and the Last Supper believing that all feasts celebrated agape love as commanded by Christ.

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In the Gospel of John, for theological reasons, John put the Last Supper before the Passover feast from John 13:1; Jesus was killed at the same moment the lambs were sacrificed in the Temple—making Christ the new Passover sacrifice. In Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels, the Last Supper is explicitly identified as the Passover meal from Matthew 26:17, Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7. Early representations corresponded more closely with the Jewish practice of conducting Passover meals round low tables, or no tables at all, with diners semi-reclining on low lounges. The Gospel writers explicitly reference reclining at this meal.  This catacomb fresco (above) shows Christ beardless and young surrounded by disciples and like later Last Supper paintings it represents the moment when Christ says one of you will betray me as the disciples respond to Christ by pointing at themselves and saying is it I? Mark 14.

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At Sant’Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, a sixth century Basilica, mosaics (above) depict men and women processing toward the altar with communal offerings for the Eucharist.  These images reenact communion as it was celebrated at this church and others like it in the sixth century. Just above these processional mosaics are scenes from Christ’s life including an image of the Last Supper where Christ and his disciples recline together in a communal meal with fish and wine on the table.  Christ is the only figure shown with a halo. Just as a typical Roman feast featured diners reclining on couches—propped up on their left elbows—around a central table or a few smaller tables in a dining room or triclinium, early Last Supper representations depict Christ and the disciples reclining as described in the synoptic Gospels: Luke 10:39. Food was generally served in a few communal dishes, in which diners would dip their bread or eat with their hands. Wine flowed freely and was served in bowls.

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 In 1305 Duccio painted this image (above) as part of an altarpiece originally placed in the Siena Cathedral. Beginning in the early Renaissance, artists preferred to represent Christ and the Disciples sitting upright along a communal table with Christ in the center and an elaborate Passover dinner including lamb lay out on the table. Last Supper images continue to reflect traditions of when they were painted rather than Christ and disciples from first century Palestine and Christ and the disciples look more Italian than Middle Eastern.  Judas the betrayer is most likely sitting opposite Christ with his hand reaching toward Christ’s outstretched arm.

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In the Renaissance artists begin to distinguish Judas the betrayer more explicitly from the other disciples as seen in Fra Angelico’s example from 1450 (above).

By the middle Renaissance Last Supper images moved from churches to monasteries as this one by Fra Angelico decorates the Monastery of San Marco in Florence. Fra Angelico’s painting makes clear what Renaissance artists sought to achieve: a clear parallel between the Last Supper and Catholic mass. Disciples sit at the table where only a white table cloth and the Eucharist cup remain. Here, the disciples kneel as Christ distributes the communal wafer and holds a common cup. In the foreground on the left a woman kneels probably the blessed mother, Mary while on the right, Judas is depicted as the only disciple wearing a sinister black halo.

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lstsupMore often Last Supper images like this one by Leonardo da Vinci from 1495 (above) decorated the refractory or monk’s dining room wall throughout the Renaissance.  Artists rendered the figures life size and at eye level so monks could imagine participating in the meal along with Christ.Viewers became so familiar with this drama-charged image and so accustomed to the iconography of Christian art, that they would hardly remember it as a cross-cultural art work. They might even need to be reminded that the Last Supper was an event which involved Jewish people and occurred in Palestine. Judas sits beside Christ and rests his hand on the table as referenced in the Gospel that the one who betrays me rests his hand on the table. Through a carefully delineated under drawing and one point perspective where the vanishing point meets at Christ’s head, Leonardo da Vinci achieved serenity in this scene. This painting marks the calm before the storm of the Reformation, before Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg church door in 1517 (below).

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In newly-Lutheran parts of Germany, Protestant iconoclasts, sometimes in mobs, physically stripped and defaced countless works of church art. By 1522 Martin Luther recognized art as a valuable educative tool and artists once again created art to instruct viewers.

 

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The German Reformation painter, Luis Cranach the Elder painted this Last Supper in 1547, (above) replacing Leonardo’s long bench with a round table. Jesus is not even placed at the center, but appears on the far left, consistent with the Lutheran practice of distributing the bread and the wine from the side of the altar. Cranach depicts Martin Luther at the Last Supper. Luther symbolized everyman and is taking part in the meal as he receives the cup of wine from a servant.

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As the Counter Reformation warred throughout Catholic Europe, Veronese a celebrated Venetian painter was called before the Inquisition to defend his choices for this rendering of the Last Supper in 1573 (above).  Venice long a trade crossroads attracted people of diverse cultures, so unlike earlier paintings, in addition to Last Supper participants, Veronese decorated the foreground with “foreign” people, a young dwarf holding a parrot, a man with a bloody nose and a dog. When questioned Veronese explained that he liked to adorn with figures of his own imagination to fill any left-over space in the picture. After being asked to remove the dog depicted in the center foreground, Veronese decided instead to rename the image Feast in the House of Levi which ended the controversy.  This Inquisitorial hearing inspired a hilarious Monty Python sketch:
 

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The Pope commissioned works of art as part of the Counter Reformation and Poussin found the Pope and a circle of patrons in Rome interested in stoic philosophy commissioned canvases like this one (above).  Similar to catacomb paintings and early Basilica mosaics, Poussin painted the Palestine tradition of Jesus and the disciples reclining during the Last Supper meal as referenced in the Bible. Poussin’s objective as a classical antiquarian was to study and depict ancient traditions. Washing feet before a meal is an ancient tradition and though not explicitly stated in the synoptic gospels is an understood tradition of the Jewish Palestine. In John 13 , he explicitly states that Christ washes the disciples feet as an act of love and purification. A copper bowl and clean bare feet figure prominently in the foreground referencing Christ washing the disciples’ feet as a way of demonstrating His love for the world. At the Last Supper Jesus gave his disciples a new command to love one another as I have loved you, so you must love one another. One way Jesus demonstrated His love at the Last Supper was to wash his disciples’ feet and take the role of the servant.

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Hundreds more Last Supper images fill the pages of Art History books, many adhered to Leonardo’s format. In 1955 Dali painted the Last Supper (above) in a unique and poignant way where Judas is not included at the modern low stone table. A single glass cup and broken bread adorn the table as the remaining 11 disciples bow their heads in prayer rather than eating or gesturing as commonly depicted in earlier portrayals. Dali created a hologram rendition of Christ who both sits at the table and floats in the baptismal waters below. Christ gestures as if speaking. He points to His body and to the heavens symbolizing his two natures: completely human and completely divine. A third aspect of Christ hovers above to complete the trinity: the Holy Spirit is present above the communion table. As in the Bible the meal takes place in the second floor of a home though all the furnishings are ultra modern and a glass enclosed space reveals a lake and canoes below referencing also when Christ first called the disciples from their fishing jobs to be fishers of men. The placid nature of the water and the color palette give the scene an other-worldly feel. Dali painted in an ultra realistic classical manner that appears almost like a photograph yet he includes many dreamlike impossible details to create a style called surrealism. Dali paints this image as a way to recall Christ’s memory and as a way to depict his view of heaven so it is both an image of the Last Supper and an image of the agape feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.

As varied as these art images of the Last Supper are and as varied as the descriptions of the Last Supper in the synoptic Gospels and John are, we know that Christ invited us all to the table. As Christ said about the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me…I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine in the Kingdom of God.” Christ invites us all to partake in the meal as a foretaste of the feast to come.

chagallIf I could offer you a choice: between a savior who tells you to return hate with love, or a savior who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil- if I could give you a choice, which one would you choose?

If you could choose: between a savior who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a savior who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains- which one would you choose?

If you had a choice: between a savior who promises you a better life and the end of suffering, or a savior who promises you a life of cross-bearing- which one would it be?

Who would you bet on?
A savior who refuses to be a victim, or a savior who refuses to be anything but?
A savior who promises to liberate the poor or a savior who becomes poor?
Which one?
A savior who promises to turn the clock back to the time you were most happy, or a

savior who speaks of a future where everything is new and unfamiliar and turned upside down?

Which one would you choose? Which one really?

If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, the raw reality of Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could turn within and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either criminals or freedom fighters. At least one of Jesus’ twelve disciples was a Zealot, Simon.

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The Zealots believed a time was coming when God would break into history and rid the Promised Land of the Roman invaders. And they believed their violence was in harmony with the violence God was about to wreak very soon.

Barabbas is a Zealot, and the fact that his crimes were famous probably means he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover. It’s likely too that Barabbas’ name and deeds were better known in Jerusalem than Jesus’ own. It’s even possible that Barabbas had a larger following than did Jesus of Nazareth.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices available to him. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Alternatively, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds. Usually, Pilate did both.

That Pilate even offers to release Barabbas, a known revolutionary, shows that Pilate doesn’t actually expect the chief priests to push the charges against Jesus any further. Zealots like Barabbas wanted to assassinate the Jewish elites too.

Pilate expects the chief priests’ jealousy of Jesus to be outweighed by their fear of violent radicals like Barabbas. That the chief priests refuse to relent on Jesus shows that they understand how Jesus poses a different kind of threat.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

They’re both named “Jesus,” which means ‘God saves’ or ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means ‘son of the Father.’ The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.
They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.
They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be free. Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two ‘Jesus-es.’

‘Which would you choose?’ Pilate asks them.
Which ‘Savior’ do you want?
Barabbas promises he can change the world by changing who’s in charge of it. Barabbas promises everything will be better if only we get rid of Pilate and the

Priests and Rome.
Barabbas asks his people to take up arms.

Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus. The reality is that they probably didn’t have to try very hard.

If I gave you a choice…

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Would you choose a savior who butts in on your marriage and your money, who forces you to look into the mirror and own up to your own brokenness, who says you have to try and understand those you don’t like, who says you’ve got to love those who don’t like you, who says you’ve got to forgive and forgive and forgive.

Or, would you choose a savior who promises to leave the rest of your life alone and just answer the one prayer you have in your life?

Which would you choose?

A savior who will change only the pain in your life and leave the “good” alone, or a savior determined to change everything?

Which?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesus-es. Pick one, Pilate says.

Barabbas says ‘I can give you the life you want.’
But Jesus says ‘I can show you the life God wants.’
Barabbas believes governments and their armies are the tiller of history.
But Jesus believes the future can be moved by a Cross and the hearts that are changed by it.

Had Pilate known the crowds would choose Barabbas, he probably never would have given them a choice.

But the choice is with us all the time.

lightstock_60074_small_user_2741517Unbeknownst to many Christians who invited him into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior, Jesus couldn’t be more political.

Even the words ‘Lord’ and ‘Savior’ come out of the Hebrew Bible dripping with political overtones.

Perhaps no other day in the Christian year is as thoroughly political as tomorrow, Palm Sunday.

Jesus rides into town on a donkey to shouts of ‘Save us, King’ and waving palm branches- all of it calculated, political street theater designed to mock Pontius Pilate and the Caesar who sent him.

Here’s an old Palm Sunday sermon from the vault:

chagallThis Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday, the day which kicks off a week’s attention to the passion story.

There’s a sense in which the Gospels themselves are extended Passion stories. That’s certainly true of Mark and John’s Gospels.

And yet for all the attention given to the cross, the Gospel writers do not make anything about the cross self-evident.

There’s no neon footnotes shouting ‘This is what IT means.’

The confusion gets compounded by the fact that the Passion stories are layered with biblical allusions and imagery.

So it’s not surprising that the cross would provoke questions.

This weekend for my sermon I will use a format I’ve affectionately termed ‘Midrash in the Moment.’ 

Midrash = commentary on scripture.

 I want to tackle some of questions people have about the cross, Jesus’ last week, Christ’s passion and the atonement. 

So email me a question by 5:00 PM EST at jamicheli@mac.com.

Or leave one in the comments section below or submit a question via the Speakpipe on the right of your screen.

I’ll put all the questions in a bingo tumbler and tackle them at random during the sermon time. 

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. 

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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]

IMG_0593– Matthew 27.15-26

If I could offer you a choice: between a savior who tells you to return hate with love, or a savior who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil- if I could give you a choice, which one would you choose?

If you could choose: between a savior who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a savior who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains- which one would you choose?

If you had a choice: between a savior who promises you a better life and the end of suffering, or a savior who promises you a life of cross-bearing- which one would it be?

Who would you bet on?
A savior who refuses to be a victim, or a savior who refuses to be anything but?
A savior who promises to liberate the poor or a savior who becomes poor?
Which one?
A savior who promises to turn the clock back to the time you were most happy, or a

savior who speaks of a future where everything is new and unfamiliar and turned upside down?

Which one would you choose? Which one really?

 

I have a friend; he likes to think of himself as something of a prophet, an activist, an agitator. He’s the sort of guy who can string together words like proletariat, bourgeois and globalization and do so with a straight face.

He’s the kind of guy who’s always talking about the Revolution coming.

In terms of appearance, he is equal parts Che Guevara, Rob Reiner and a leprechaun. He’s the kind of righteously angry activist that in earlier generations would’ve been called a hippie, a bohemian, a Red. Today, you’d just say he’s a coffee-shop kind of guy, MoveOn.org/Occupy Wall Street kind of guy.

He likes to hang out in eccentric coffee shops and smokey, out-of-the-way pubs, and between sips and drags- and with his balding white head wrapped up in some sort of scarf- he likes to talk about the Revolution coming.

About the poor rising up. About leaders being ousted.
About the system being taken back.
You all have friends like this too, right?
Every conversation with him is the same. At first you’re impressed by the authors he can quote, by his grasp of issues and by his diversity of knowledge. And always at some later point in the conversation you start to wonder exactly what newspapers this guy reads and exactly what’s in that cup he’s drinking from? What’s he smoking?

He’s eccentric. But once you know him his perspective is easy to understand. He does humanitarian work in the developing world. It’s the kind of vocation that has frustration and tragedy built into it. And that, I think, explains his frequent rants and bull-sessions.

Every day he sees what doesn’t work and every day he’s reminded of who doesn’t care. He works in places where the system is broken, where ideals give way to brute reality and where good intentions don’t go far enough.

One of my conversations with him, not too long ago- the smoke hung heavy in the air between us. Some kind of world music was beating in the background around us. We’d both just been lamenting the many ills in the world, and my we had been ranting about how hard it is to get people’s attention, how hard it is to get people to care.

When suddenly in a critical tone of voice my friend said to me: ‘It must be hard for you…being a pastor.”

And I thought at first he was baiting me to defend my faith or Jesus or all of Christianity but he wasn’t. He was pushing me to defend you. Christians.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

And he said something about how most Christians just want a savior who will bless them or comfort them or answer their prayers. But they don’t want a savior they have to follow very far.

“So you don’t think Jesus is relevant?” I asked.

And with a philosopher’s air he said: “No, the problem’s not with Jesus. The problem’s that so many Christians choose something else.”

 

If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, the raw reality of Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.

If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think Herod.

Instead of collaborating, you could turn within and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.

A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.

Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either criminals or freedom fighters. At least one of Jesus’ twelve disciples was a Zealot, Simon.

 

The Zealots believed a time was coming when God would break into history and rid the Promised Land of the Roman invaders. And they believed their violence was in harmony with the violence God was about to wreak very soon.

Barabbas is a Zealot, and the fact that his crimes were famous probably means he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover. It’s likely too that Barabbas’ name and deeds were better known in Jerusalem than Jesus’ own. It’s even possible that Barabbas had a larger following than did Jesus of Nazareth.

Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices available to him. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Alternatively, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds. Usually, Pilate did both.

That Pilate even offers to release Barabbas, a known revolutionary, shows that Pilate doesn’t actually expect the chief priests to push the charges against Jesus any further. Zealots like Barabbas wanted to assassinate the Jewish elites too.

Pilate expects the chief priests’ jealousy of Jesus to be outweighed by their fear of violent radicals like Barabbas. That the chief priests refuse to relent on Jesus shows that they understand how Jesus poses a different kind of threat.

So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.

They’re both named “Jesus,” which means ‘God saves’ or ‘Savior.’

The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means ‘son of the Father.’ The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’

They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.
They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.
They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be free. Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two ‘Jesus-es.’
‘Which would you choose?’ Pilate asks them.
Which ‘Savior’ do you want?
Barabbas promises he can change the world by changing who’s in charge of it. Barabbas promises everything will be better if only we get rid of Pilate and the

Priests and Rome.
Barabbas asks his people to take up arms.

Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.

Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus. The reality is that they probably didn’t have to try very hard.

 

One morning we were sitting down drinking coffee together. My friend was only half paying attention. He was rattling off his litany of the world’s ills while doing some kind of Tai Chi in his chair to music that was playing only in his head.

You all have friends like this, right?

Distracted, he was talking about the need for Revolution, about the need to change the System- to get rid of the people at the Top, to throw out the people in charge. Sensing that we were heading down a familiar rabbit hole- one I didn’t want to venture down that particular morning- I asked him, something that for some reason I hadn’t asked him before.

“Then why do you choose to do what you do?”

His arms didn’t stop their Tai Chi movements back and forth, but he cocked his head to the side, like he didn’t follow my meaning.

“If you’re all about Revolution and changing the System, then why do you do what you do? Small business development, advocacy, community organizing: these things take time. They’re small steps. You spend all your time with people on the bottom.”

And he smiled, like I had just outed the man behind the mask.
And he said: “Because just changing who’s at the top doesn’t really change anything.

If you really want to change the world, people need to be transformed.”

 

If I gave you a choice…

Would you choose a savior who butts in on your marriage and your money, who forces you to look into the mirror and own up to your own brokenness, who says you have to try and understand those you don’t like, who says you’ve got to love those who don’t like you, who says you’ve got to forgive and forgive and forgive.

Or, would you choose a savior who promises to leave the rest of your life alone and just answer the one prayer you have in your life?

Which would you choose?

A savior who will change only the pain in your life and leave the “good” alone, or a savior determined to change everything?

Which?

Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesus-es. Pick one, Pilate says.

Barabbas says ‘I can give you the life you want.’
But Jesus says ‘I can show you the life God wants.’
Barabbas believes governments and their armies are the tiller of history.
But Jesus believes the future can be moved by a Cross and the hearts that are

changed by it.

Had Pilate known the crowds would choose Barabbas, he probably never would have given them a choice.

But the choice is with us all the time.