Archives For Why the Cross

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The Lord says it is too light a thing that you should be my servant.  You will be a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end, reach to the end, reach to the end of the earth.  I have labored in vain.

The Lord says kings shall see and stand because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel.  Sing for joy, 

O heaven and earth for the Lord has comforted his people, has comforted his people.

Bring Jacob back, bring Jacob back.  Bring Jacob back.  I have labored in vain.

Bring Jacob back.  My Lord has forsaken me.  Bring Jacob back.  My Lord has forgotten me.

Isaiah 49:  1-13

Thursday night of Holy Week ends where Jesus’ last week began: at the Mt of Olives, where the prophets promised the Messiah would appear. The story of salvation begins where the story of creation began: in a garden.

Peter- and probably the other disciples too- brings a sword with him to the garden. Even now Peter expects Jesus to turn out to be the sort of Messiah they’d all wanted. A Messiah worthy of palm branches. A Messiah who provokes and leads a war. A Messiah who deposes Caesar as handily as God disposed of Pharaoh.

Peter wants to sing a victory song as badly as the Israelites had wanted to sing.

Peter brings a sword and Jesus rebukes him: ‘Do you think I couldn’t appeal to the Father and he will at once send me twelve armies of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled?’

In the garden Jesus prays: ‘Let this cup pass from me.’

John Howard Yoder says this is Jesus wrestling with his final temptation. This is Jesus struggling to believe that the only way to defeat the power Sin is to suffer the very worst it can do.

“I have labored in vain” Isaiah foreshadows.

Here’s a question for tonight: 

Does Isaiah imagine Jesus speaking those words, as the darkness creeps all around him and defeat seems certain. 

     “I have labored in vain” is this Jesus speaking?

     Or does Isaiah imagine those words spoken by you and me? 

     Those of us who’ve given years to Jesus and brought swords with us only to discover he’s not the sort of Messiah we had wanted. 

 

Jesus’ Mandate

Jason Micheli —  March 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

Who has believed what we have heard?  And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He had no form or majesty.

Nowhere did we see that we should desire him; He was despised and rejected by others.

He had no form or majesty.

And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?  He was despised and rejected by others.

He had no form or majesty.  He had no form or majesty.

– Isaiah 53:  1-3

Today is known as Maundy Thursday. ‘Maundy’ from the Latin for ‘mandate’ refers to the scene where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and then mandates that they ‘love one another as I have loved you.‘ images

     The Foot-Washing is found only in the Gospel of John.

     In John’s Gospel Jesus always means more than the obvious. In John’s Gospel Jesus never leaves a miracle or a teaching moment at its literal level. Rather, they are always occasions to reveal more about his identity.

In John’s Gospel, when Jesus feeds the multitudes he announces that he’s the ‘Bread of Heaven’ and tells the confused crowds: ‘feed on me.’

In John’s Gospel, when Jesus meets the woman at Jacob’s well and she asks about water, Jesus tells her he’s ‘Living Water’ that can quench her thirst forever.

In John’s Gospel, after Jesus heals the man born blind he turns the conversation to the blindness of those who can see and declares that he’s the ‘Light of the World’ that no darkness can overcome.

So when Jesus washes his friends’ feet in John’s Gospel we should read it as more than an obvious object lesson about our love and service to others. In fact, in the years following Christ’s death and resurrection, the first Christians recalled the Foot-Washing and they interpreted it as a parable of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.

When Jesus removes his outer robe, he’s emptying himself of his divinity. And when Jesus lays his robe down, he’s laying down his life. When he puts on a loincloth, a slave’s garment, he’s putting on our sinful nature. When he kneels down at his friends’ feet, its God stooping down from his throne as the incarnate Son. And when Jesus washes their feet it’s him washing us of our transgressions. 

     “I’ve given you an example,” Jesus says. 

And because this is John’s Gospel, Jesus means more than the obvious.

He’s given them an example of the meaning of his death; so that, they will know:

even though has no form or majesty,

even though there’s nothing about him others might desire,

even though in less than a day he will be despised and rejected,

in his suffering and humiliation is the power to annul the wages of Sin.

 

Pharoah and his army he cast into the sea, they went down, down, down like a stone. By your right hand, by your mighty right hand they were shattered; Lord, you shattered them all. Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.  Sing to the Lord; the Lord has won, he has won.

– Exodus 15

Moses is referred to as a servant thirty-six times in the scripture Jesus learned on Mary’s lap.

Only, there’s another understanding of servant that courses through the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a memory of one God has sent to his People. It’s the promise of a servant God will send to rescue his People.

The prophet Isaiah was called after the Chosen People had been invaded, defeated and plundered by Babylon. Israel’s best and brightest were exiled into captivity. Those not exiled had it worse; they had to live among ruins, the promises of God reduced to ash and rubble. images

Isaiah looked for a day when God would restore his People by way of another Servant.

And maybe because of all the violence Isaiah had witnessed, maybe because Isaiah knew firsthand that violence doesn’t always end in victory songs, Isaiah anticipated a servant unlike Moses. Isaiah envisioned a deliverance different than the Exodus.

After Jesus enters Jerusalem, on Monday of Holy Week, Jesus goes to the Temple as though he’d been deputized and it’s his jurisdiction.

     Not content to ‘teach’ he drives them out:

The merchants who’ve set up shop in the narthex.

The money changers, looking to make a buck off atonement. The venders who sold doves to those too poor (like Mary and Joseph) to purchase a proper animal for sacrificing.

Jesus drives them out along with all the thousands of sheep and oxen waiting to be sold to the holiday travelers.

Tradition refers to this as Jesus ‘cleansing’ the Temple, but it’s really a stampede. In a city already filled with 200,000 pilgrims and the 20,000 lambs required for their Passover meals Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple creates chaos in the streets. It leaves the crowds spellbound.

     It puts Jesus firmly in control of events.

If he truly is a Messiah like they expect then his coup d’etat is nearly complete: the Temple’s been taken, the crowds are on his side and the Roman fortress is literally just next door.

But Jesus doesn’t take up arms.

Instead, Matthew says that after he’s driven out the merchants and money changers, Jesus welcomes the blind and the lame and the children to come up to him in the Temple, a place where they were forbidden.

     Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple becomes yet another example of how he’s taught all along.  

As though God had sent this messiah to teach.

     As if deliverance could be accomplished with just words.

     Or with the Word.

 

IMG_0593The Satisfaction or Substitutionary theory of the atonement is what many Christians take to be the only understanding. It’s the perspective you hear before altar calls or read in religious tracts.

This metaphor is rooted in biblical passages that suggest vicarious suffering as the way in which human sin is redeemed (Isaiah 53); that is, Jesus suffers in our place and we benefit from it. 

Paul writes using this metaphor, especially in 2 Corinthians and Romans. This theory, despite its omnipresence today, wasn’t that widespread in Christianity until it was popularized by St Anselm in his book, Why Did God Become Human? 

     Though many Christians assume this is the only biblical model for atonement, it’s critical to note that Anselm bases his understanding in the vassal-lord relationship of Medieval feudalism. Anselm draws a parallel between judicial and legal imagery used by Paul to the relationship of serfs and lords.

Sin, according to Anselm, is like the social disobedience shown to a lord. Just as satisfaction for the ‘debt of honor’ must be a paid to a serf’s lord, so too does God demand satisfaction for our sin. Like a Medieval lord, Anselm believes our sin offends God and God’s honor.

We’re guilty of offending God.

Sin is a debt that needs to be forgiven.

As Paul says, the punishment our offense merits is death.

     This theory focuses on Jesus’ suffering on the way to and on the Cross. In this understanding, Good Friday is the day that changes history.

It’s called the substitution theory for reasons that will be obvious.

Substitution imagines salvation as a law court in which you and me and all of humanity stand in the dock as the accused, on trial for the evil we do to one another and to God’s creation.

     God is the Judge.

The angry, wrathful Judge.

These are charges that we’re guilty of and our guilt is so severe that there’s no recompense we could ever make. What we deserve is eternal punishment, for God to just wipe his hands of us and be done with this thing called creation.

But Jesus suffers in our place.

      This is also called the objective theory because Jesus’ suffering changes how God sees us whether we believe or not.

The Protestant Reformers used the term ‘double imputation’ in reference to this theory of the atonement.

Human sin is ‘imputed’ to Christ, who had no sin himself, and Christ’s righteousness in turn is imputed to us, who have no righteousness on our own. Double Imputation recalls Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he writes that ‘God made Jesus to be sin.’ Christ’s death objectively imputes Jesus’ righteousness to it. It objectively, once for all time, how God regards us. It reconciles, literally it sets things right.

This theory takes seriously the sin in the world. After all, who could look at the newspaper or travel to a third world country and not think God has ample reason to be ticked off at us. 

This theory also takes seriously the nature of Jesus’ death. Why is it, after all, that Jesus dies on a cross and seems to foreshadow from the beginning that this is what would happen to him? According to this theory, Jesus dies on a cross because its the lowliest, more forsaken death we can experience. Jesus dies the sort of death we deserve. It’s not the extent of suffering Jesus endures, it’s the lowly, abandoned nature of his death.

On the other hand, this theory can focus so much on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and the severity of his suffering that God can seem more determined by his wrath than by his grace.

Does God, for example, really need to have his wrath satisfied?

The notion that our sin can offend God seems to put our sin in the driver’s seat. 

Most importantly, this theory seems to put God in contradiction with God’s self. God’s mercy is at odds with God’s righteousness. Grace seems conditional on Christ’s act of sacrifice. It seems to imply that incarnation is a last ditch effort to save humanity, that prior to Christmas and Cross God was not inclined to forgive humanity.

     What emerges therefore is a depiction of God that is at times distasteful. It presents a God who seems to need to be reconciled with us rather than a God we need to be reconciled to.

Think again of the tracts passed out by evangelists, the ones that describe God’s wrath, how death is what we deserve in God’s eyes, how God made Jesus die in our place. To someone with no other knowledge of Christianity, do you really this rendering would lead them to think God is a God of infinite love and peace?

 

 Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian, addressed some of these troubles while trying to recover the power of the substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Primarily Barth did it by more explicitly grounding the atonement in an act of the Trinity. It’s not, therefore, that God makes Jesus in our place; it’s that God-in-Christ suffers in our place.

     To say God is a wrathful Judge is not incorrect but it is incomplete. God, as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the Judge Judged in Our Place. Whatever wrath God feels towards us for our sin, God assumes and suffers for us. In this way, God has always been, eternally, the God ready to die for us. God’s wrath is subordinate, even on the cross, to God’s love and mercy. 

     The cross, the sign of abject humiliation, is actually exaltation. It’s the complete and final disclosure of who this God really is. 

 

      Patristic theologians, those theologians in the Church’s first generations, understood the work of atonement primarily in battle imagery.

For them, the Son’s work is a dramatic struggle Jesus wages with Sin and Death. Death in this perspective is a malevolent power, synonymous with Sin, which looms over God’s creation and frustrates God’s intentions for us. Paul, in Colossians 2.15, speaks of the Cross in this way and the effects Jesus’ cross have over the natural world in the Gospels suggest it too: the earthquake, the graves exploding open, the sky darkening, the temple veil torn in two. Jesus in Mark 10.45 speaks of his life being a ransom.

The Palm Sunday allusions to a military parade echo such a battle metaphor too. Jesus rides into Jerusalem just like Pilate, the crowds wave palm leaves, a messianic symbol, and Jesus is tried for claiming to be a rival king and he dies a revolutionary’s death. IMG_0593

For the early Church, Easter- much more so than the Cross- is the day that changes everything and the significance of the Cross is that it’s empty.

In the Gospel narrative, Pilate and the chief priests represent the power of Death and Sin in the world. They represent us, who enamored of ‘power’ such that we cannot recognize or accept that Jesus’ self-giving form of love is the true power that moves the universe.

Jesus saves us by breaking Death’s power, by defeating the lure that Sin has over us and by making possible a life lived in anticipation of God’s New Creation. This metaphor sees atonement has happening primarily through Easter’s Empty Tomb.

The strengths of the Victor theory include its recognition of the reality and power of Sin in the world; Jesus comes to defeat Sin on a cosmic level not simply forgive my personal sin and Jesus does this objectively and decisively.

According to this way of thinking, Sin really was defeated by Jesus once and for all. As Paul says in Ephesians, he has brought down the principalities and powers. All that’s left in our world, all the sin and evil we see in our world, is just the last gasp of an enemy that’s already been defeated.

Think of the Ring of Power in the Lord of the Rings and how it exercises power and evil long after Sauron had been defeated. It was, in fact, this model of the atonement that informed Tolkien.

Another attribute of the theory is how it understands that God works liberation and reconciliation not through violence but by letting Sin do its worst to him and thus demonstrating its ultimate finitude and weakness.

The Cross, then, shows God exhausting Sin’s power.

There’s literally nothing else Sin can do to him and its still not enough to destroy God’s condescending love. 

The Victor metaphor also pays due attention to Jesus’ life. The content of Jesus’ life, his teaching, is the same power that defeats Sin at the end of the story. His teaching isn’t extraneous or optional for us. It’s Jesus training us to do battle in the world today.

Christians committed to the efficacy of Jesus’ teaching aren’t being naive or idealistic, as critics often charge; in fact, they are being more realistic than anyone else.

Sin has been defeated by Jesus.

We shouldn’t act as though Christians must resort to non-Christians means to do battle. Sin should be taken seriously but the only way to defeat it is through Christ’s way of life.

It may even kill us as it killed him but ultimately Easter shows it to be the only winning strategy.

 

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This weekend for my sermon I answered questions people submitted about the Cross, the Atonement and the Passion Story.

I pulled the questions at random from a bingo tumbler and answered as many as possible.

Dennis Perry, my assistant pastor, joined me at 3 of the services and a friend and divinity student, Andrew DiAntonio joined me at 2 of the services. 

You can listen and/or download them by clicking here or going to ‘Tamed Cynic’ in the iTunes store.

I will add them to the ‘Listen’ widget on this blog by the end of this week.

IMG_0593

I hate Palm-Passion Sunday sermons. Hate. Them.

I know most everyone will never come to Holy Thursday or Good Friday so I feel this pressure to condense a week’s worth of holy week time and what is an easy third of the Gospel into one sermon, which is recipe for bad writing, which I know, which eventuates in bad writing. Argh.

Here’s a Palm Sunday sermon, “The Recipe for Peace,” from 2 years ago. It’s not terribly awful.

Scot McKnight has it posted it over at his Jesus Creed blog.

——————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

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

And he chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again with mock sincerity I said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

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

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

     And establish peace.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

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

 

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

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

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

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

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

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

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

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

He’s talking about:

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

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

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

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

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

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

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

 

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

He weeps.

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

 

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

 

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

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

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

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

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

I nodded my head in concession.

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

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

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

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

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

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

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

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

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

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

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

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

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

 

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

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

photo-1IMG_0593There’s a sense in which the Gospels 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 as part of my sermon I want to tackle some of questions people have about the cross, Jesus’ last week, Christ’s passion and the atonement.

If you have a question email by 5:00 PM EST at jamicheli@mac.com.

Just like we did at Christmas I’ll throw it in the bingo tumbler and give it a go.

 

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday and, with it, the beginning of Holy Week. We’re following Jesus to the Cross.

The following is an anecdote I used to begin a sermon on the atonement a few years ago:

It probably tells you something about my life that I’ve known two different people named ‘Frog.’ The first was a bully in middle school who sat in front of me on the bus. That was the Frog on whom I one day unleashed my inner Taxi Driver, but that’s a story for another place.  

     The other Frog was a retired man who worked for the funeral home in the town where I once ministered. This Frog- I have no idea what his actual name was; it actually said ‘Frog’ on the somber nametag he wore for the funeral home- was tall and skinny and bald. His head was small and his Adam’s apple was large and stuck out further than his nose. 

     Once, I was sitting in the hearse with Frog. I had my robe on and my worship book in my lap. We’d left a funeral service at my church and we were leading a processional of cars to the cemetery for the burial. I’d ridden with Frog before. Frog was a lay leader at his church- a deacon I think is what they call them. His church was Pentecostal Holiness, one of approximately fifty-three in town. 

     As we led the procession through town and up the winding road to the graveyard, Frog told me that he and his church had that previous weekend baptized sixteen youth in the Jordan River. 

     ‘Excuse me?’ I said. ‘In the Jordan River?’ I asked.  

     And he said: ‘Yeah, the Jordan River…at Holy Land, USA.’ 

     Holy Land, USA was a- I don’t know what you call it- theme park a short drive away in Bedford, Virginia. The Jordan River in question was actually more of a stream that eventually found its way to the James River. I had driven past Holy Land, USA before. 

     It is a not- quite- to- scale recreation of the Holy Land complete with State Park-like wooden signs explaining in irregularly painted words what you’re looking at. The Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  

     It all has a certain charm to it, and I suppose if you can ignore the thickly forested mountains, the waste baskets and park benches, then it’s just like the Holy Land. It’s on the same tourist route as Foam-Henge, the Natural Bridge Wax Museum and the miniature toy museum. 

     This is the hallowed, sacred site where Frog had proudly helped baptize sixteen of his church’s youth. 

     ‘That’s…interesting’ I said. When he didn’t say anything in reply, I was afraid I had offended him. But we had arrived at the cemetery and he was instead looking in his mirrors to check that the procession was lining up behind him properly. 

     ‘It’s a waste of land’ he said to me absently. And I thought he was talking about the graveyard. 

‘At Holy Land, USA they have I don’t know how many acres. You can walk Jesus’ whole life.

But if Jesus just came to suffer for our sins, it’s an awful waste of land.’ 

     Then he got out of the hearse. 

     By that same reasoning you could argue that the Gospel texts themselves are a waste of ink and pages. Filler. Unnecessary prologue on the way to the Passion and to Paul.

Frog is hardly the only person to harbor that perspective.

     When the purpose of Jesus’ life is defined exclusively in terms of his death, then the content of his life seems superfluous. Indeed (and this may be one reason why the substitutionary perspective has such mass appeal) the ethical imperatives preached by Jesus in his life no longer carry much urgency.

     You only need the cross for salvation. 

     Not the sermon on the mount. 

     Jesus came to die for me. 

     Not to form me as part of a particular community.

     What’s demanded by this understanding of the atonement is my belief in it and not my           participation in or continuation of Jesus’ Kingdom community.

What’s more, if Jesus’ death is the point of it all then Easter seems little more than a happy surprise at the end of the story, a pleasant but not necessary epilogue, an example only of the eternal life we too will one day enjoy.

But here’s the real kicker:

Why is it that no one seems to notice that the most common ways we have of talking about the Cross and what Jesus accomplishes (and why) appear no where on the actual lips of Jesus?

How do we get away with narrating the Cross in a manner that the Gospel writers chose not to narrate it?

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.

 

IMG_0593This weekend is Palm-Passion Sunday, the start of Holy Week and the day that begins with glad shouts of Hosanna and ends at Golgotha. This time of year the cross necessarily begs the questions:

‘Why does Jesus have to die?

What does Jesus accomplish on the Cross?’

It’s also a time of year that non-Christians scratch their heads at many of our conventional explanations for the Cross.

I remember going to an evangelical church with a friend when I was boy and singing the hymn ‘There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.’ I recall being completely confused and grossed out by the imagery not to mention the apparent glee everyone in the congregation felt over this bathtub filled with someone named Emmanuel’s blood.

Seriously, if you were to describe a cult, could you find a better illustration than people singing lustfully about buckets-of-blood?

Our historical atonement theories that calmly explain how Christ had to die on the Cross to satisfy the demands of God’s eternal justice and quell the Almighty’s wrath and anger over the sin of the finite, fallible creatures whom God made to be…ahem…finite and fallible don’t seem so self-evident if you’ve not already given your heart to Jesus.

Our tidy, transactional theories that unthinkingly assert that God can’t forgive humanity’s sin until someone pays the ultimate price for it seem just that to the average outsider- too tidy.

Affirming that God shows his ‘love’ for us by making his only begotten son die in his stead doesn’t appear to abide by most people’s notion of love.

Oh, we like to add, it’s okay because that only begotten Son is actually God incarnate. So, don’t worry, it’s not divine child abuse.

No, but then it’s divine masochism. God’s not a child abuser. God just has a pathology. Nice.

My point is that our usual, casual explanations for the central event of the Gospels:

A) don’t appear in the Gospels themselves and

B) only beget more questions, especially for unbelievers: 

 

What do you mean God can’t do something?

Is God a prisoner his own inner logic?

Is love just an attribute among many for God or is it who God fundamentally is in God’s nature?

I’m no saint but does Jesus deserve to be tortured to death because of my small-time narcissistic sins? The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.

Why does God sound like someone with multiple personality disorder?

Tracking with this line of critique and skewering the gaping, sinkhole gaps in Penal Substitution Atonement is a great 2 minute film: Mr Deity and the Really Big Favor. In case satire is not your strong suit: The Jay Leno look alike (‘El as in Elohim) is God, the Young Guy (Jesse) is Jesus and Larry is, yes, the Holy Spirit.

 

IMG_0593The angel Gabriel in Matthew’s Gospel tells the sleeping Joseph to name ‘his’ boy ‘Jesus’ for that boy will ‘save’ his people from their sin. This is as explicit as the nativity story gets. How Jesus will save his people Gabriel doesn’t mention.

     How Jesus saves…how Jesus saves from Sin is a question the Gospels, the New Testament for that matter, never answers in a singular, definitive, clear, logical or rational way.

      The reticence of the New Testament to explain the mechanics of salvation leaves us with questions. Questions with which the Church has wrestled for centuries under the heading ‘atonement theories’:

     Does Jesus die for us? 

     As in, does Jesus die in our place? 

     As a substitute for you and me?

 

     Or does Jesus die because of us? 

     As in, is death on a cross the inevitable conclusion to the way he lived his life?

 

     Does Jesus die because our sinful lust for power, wealth and violence kills him? 

     As though our world has no other reaction to a life God desires than to eliminate it? 

 

     Does Jesus die in order to destroy Death and Sin? 

     As in, does Jesus let the powers of Sin and Death do their worst so that, in triumphing over them, he shatters their power forever?  

 

    Does Jesus die with us? 

    As in, does Jesus suffer death as the completion of his incarnation? 

 

    Is death the last experience left for God to be one of us, in the flesh? 

 

    Was it necessary for Jesus to die? 

    Or was his incarnation, his taking our nature and living it perfectly, redemptive in itself? 

 

    Did Jesus have to die on a cross? 

    If the conclusion to incarnation had been for Jesus to die as an old man of natural causes, would we still be saved?

 

     And how does the history of and covenant with Israel fit into the salvation worked by Christ?

      And how does Easter relate to Good Friday?

Such questions are possible, indeed they get asked all the time, because the New Testament never singles an answer to how Mary and Joseph’s son lives up to his name.

 

God Made Jesus Sin?

Jason Micheli —  March 19, 2013 — 2 Comments

images

Holy Week is coming up next week and this Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday; consequently, I’ve got the atonement running through my head.

The atonement is the theological term for thinking through how Jesus saves us through his suffering and death on the cross. Some may not realize it but the atonement has always been a debated topic in theology. Scripture uses a variety of images and metaphors to explain what Jesus accomplishes on the cross and why, and scripture never singles out any one of those as the normative, authoritative teaching. The creeds as well are silent when it comes to the atonement.

Nonetheless, in many evangelical circles ‘penal substitutionary’ atonement is one of the fundamentals and is requisite for orthodox belief. Lay people may not realize it but substitutionary atonement is a white-hot topic in the evangelical and emergence parts of the Church- it’s the official position, for example, of Christianity Today while Emergence Christians are making intentional strides to rethink the atonement.

Penal Substitution in a Nut Shell: Jesus suffers on the cross God’s wrath towards our sin.

God made Jesus to be Sin.

Our Sin.

While I think evangelicals are wrong to privilege this substitutionary atonement over all other understandings of the cross, as an historic, robust part of the Christian tradition does it deserve a hearing?

Here’s an attempt on my part to think constructively on Jesus’ agony in the Garden using the substitutionary perspective.

I spent a year after seminary serving as a chaplain at the UVA Hospital in Charlottesville. On one of my first nights spent there, my pager called me to the room of young girl. She was maybe in the fifth grade. She’d been in a car accident earlier that evening. I don’t remember the girl’s name, and I can only barely recall what she or her family or the doctors and nurses looked like.

What I do remember is the sound. I remember the sound the girl’s mother made when the doctor told her that her little girl would most likely die during the night.

It was a deep wail from somewhere in her gut, a cry that sounded like it cut her throat, followed by desperate pleading: with God, with the doctors, with me.

And almost as much as the sound, what I remember is how uncomfortable she, the mother, made the rest of us feel- how uneasy we felt to be that close to someone so fragile, how embarrassed we were to be confronted by another’s fear and grief and horror, how disarming it felt when there was nothing for any of us to do.

Mark’s Gospel gives us this uncomfortable picture of Jesus:

“Jesus began to be distressed and agitated; telling his disciples ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death.’”

Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha, after a long life spent contemplating the ubiquity of suffering, died a serene death.

Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world, puts the brakes on Jesus when it comes to Christ’s agony and suffering. Jesus can only be an enlightened teacher, they say, if- before death- he slipped into a peaceful and contemplative state.

According to the Koran, Christ must be something less than who our creeds say he is- true God from true God- because the almighty God would never and could never suffer the indignity of fear and suffering.

To the average Roman of Jesus’ day, Socrates’ death was the ideal. The goal of every person’s life was to live heroically and die serenely. Apathy and detachment towards one’s death were virtues to be honored.

But, Mark’s Gospel tells us something that couldn’t be more jarringly different:  “Jesus began to be distressed and agitated; telling his disciples ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death.’” 

In the Greek text, Mark puts it even stronger and more embarrassing:

“Jesus began to be horror-stricken and deeply depressed.” 

Speaking of this very same passage, the Letter to the Hebrews says:

“Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save him from death…”  

Uncomfortable, embarrassing stuff.

All along Jesus has acted as though he’s known all along what was to happen to him. Ever since he was baptized by John and called the disciples and began preaching and healing and offending convention- ever since Jesus has boldly and presciently spoken of himself as a dead man:

  • ‘One of you will betray me’ Jesus had told them.
  • ‘You all will become deserters’ Jesus had predicted.
  • ‘You will deny me three times’ he had warned Peter.

In Caesarea Philippi, just before the Transfiguration, just after Peter had confessed ‘You are the Messiah’’ in Caesarea Philippi Jesus had told them that “the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes; and be killed.” 

And back in chapter ten, after Jesus had blessed the little children, he’d taken the disciples aside and pointed out towards Jerusalem and said: “See, we are going there, and the Son of Man will be handed over…and they will mock him and spit upon him and flog him and kill him.” 

In Mark, there’s never been any mystery where this was headed, where Jesus’ path would end.

But to our embarrassment, Mark tells us that “Jesus was shaking with horror and depressed.” 

That night, Passover Night, after the sacred meal Jesus and his disciples had left the upper room and walked down the western hill of Jerusalem. On the way, they walked past the place of King David’s tomb- the place where Yahweh’s promises lay buried and dormant. They walked past the Temple- the place of God’s presence.

The city that night was filled with people, perhaps as many as 2 million, but the streets were empty. Everyone was inside celebrating the feast. The city was quiet for the first time that week. No more was anyone shouting ‘Hosanna.’ The 200,000 Passover lambs that had been bleating all week were silent now.

Jesus led them through the city to a plot of land, Gethsemane, and to a garden there. To pray. He left the nine near the garden entrance and, as he’d done before, took Peter and James and John further in with him. But even those three, Jesus left back a bit, behind him; as if where he was going they could not follow.

Earlier that afternoon, Peter had promised Jesus that he would follow him anywhere, no matter what. But in the garden that night, those promises seem far off as Peter can’t even stay awake. While the disciples sleep, Judas steals away.

Just a week ago, Jesus had dared James and John to drink from the cup that Christ would be made to drink from.  And just that night, Jesus had blessed a cup and said that the wine in it was blood from his broken body poured out for the world.

But now, in the garden, if any of the disciples were still awake, they would have heard something deeply embarrassing: Jesus crying and quivering with horror and pleading:

“Father, take this cup away from me.” 

     One of only two times Mark records Jesus speaking in his own language, Aramaic. The other time being from the cross: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  

And Peter and James and John- those who’d been on the mountaintop when Jesus was transfigured and God had shouted from the sky ‘This is my Beloved Son’– if any of those three were still awake in the garden they would have noticed something else about Jesus’ pleading.

This time, God doesn’t answer back.

This picture of Christ, shuddering with grief and fear, makes uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with it. Has Jesus lost his nerve?

Mark’s Jesus embarrasses the other evangelists too.

  • Matthew softens the language so that Jesus is just “sorrowful.”
  • Luke removes the language all together.
  • And John cuts out the whole scene from his Gospel.

One of the reasons I believe the Bible to be true is passages like this one. Tonight’s passage is hardly the creation of religious wishful thinking. This moment in the garden flatters no one.

“Jesus began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.” Mark tells us. And the question Mark raises is as obvious as it is troubling: Why?

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

The question need not be so pointed. As one of you emailed me this week about this passage: ‘Why did Christ become agitated and ask that the cup be removed from him? If he knew what would come, why ask?’

So, what’s going on tonight? In the garden?

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

If sin is separation from God, then I believe what Jesus experiences here in the garden- in his horror and agony and abandonment- is sin.

Not his own, but the burden of ours. The deafening silence from God that meets his pleading prayer is the echo of our own unrighteousness.

His agony is the separation we put between ourselves and God.

It’s not simply the dread of death that Jesus experiences this night; it’s the dread of our self-imposed Godforsakeness.

Up until then, Jesus has lived our life. He’s celebrated and laughed. He’s scolded and condemned. He’s hungered and feasted with friends. He’s wept and lamented.

He’s experienced our life, but he’s never experienced Sin.

He’s judged Sin. He’s preached against it. He’s bemoaned it and forgiven it. But he’s never experienced it. Felt its weight and pain. Not until now.

Tonight, in the garden, Jesus is submitting himself to total abandonment.

As embarrassed and uncomfortable as it might make us feel to be up so close to someone so fragile, in those moments in the garden Christ experiences what we experience our whole lives when we try to live without Him.

When Jesus gets up from his knees, he’s committed to giving up everything that is his and shouldering everything that is ours.

When his prayer is finished, Jesus stands and wakes up the sleeping “twelve.” Mark doesn’t call them disciples again until after Easter.

Maybe it’s because where Jesus goes next, we can’t follow.

There’s nothing for us to do.

He alone can make things right.

 

 

progGod_bannerMy response to ‘Why a Crucifixion?’ is featured on Patheos’ Open Source Theological Conversation. I posted the essay last week on my blog, but the link is here.

54CrucifixionAs part of Lent, Tony Jones issued another of his ProgGod Challenges.

This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’

My first stab at Tony’s question is posted here at Patheos.

What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory (which holds that Christ dies in our place, his blood ‘satisfying’ the wrath of God towards sinners).

One of the reasons for the penal substitution theory’s staying power, I suspect, is that it ‘preaches.’

Indeed I’ve heard many a pastor worry that other understandings of the atonement- many of which are just as scriptural- lack the emotional resonance of ‘Jesus suffered God’s wrath in your place.’

Here’s an attempt to play with the traditional ‘Christus Victor’ (referencing Revelation 12) perspective in a way that’s practical and ‘preaches.’

——————————————————————————————————————————

Nearly a year ago this month, I found myself trapped on the corner of Washington and King streets in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.

I was headed into Banana Republic. I don’t own many ties.

I have fewer dark ones. And that Friday I needed one, a black or a grey one. Because the night before, Jack, the little boy from our confirmation class, had been pronounced dead as I held his hand in the ER.

I was in a hurry, still feeling numb. But standing there on the corner, blocking my path, were 4 or 5 men and women. Evangelists.

A couple of them of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of a lake of fire, a 7-headed dragon and a terrible-looking lion with scars on its paws.

At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women…and children…looking terrified, looking like they were weeping.

A couple of them were passing out pamphlets.

I tried to slip by unnoticed. One of them tried to hand me a tract, so I just held up my hands and said ‘I’m a Buddhist.’

But the young man blocking my path wasn’t fooled. He pointed at my open collar and said: ‘But you’re wearing a cross around your neck.’

‘Oh, that.’ I feigned surprise.

The young man looked to be in his twenties. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us.

He handed me a slick, trifold tract, gave me a syrupy Joel Osteen smile and said: ‘Did you know Jesus Christ is coming back to Earth?’

Then he started talking, with a smile, about the end of the world.
I flipped through his brochure. It was filled with images and scripture citations from the Book of Revelation.

‘Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots’ I mumbled.

‘What’s that?’ he asked.

‘Oh, just thinking out loud.’

Then he asked me if I was saved. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘Jesus Christ was returning to destroy this sinful world, but that Jesus loved me and wanted me to invite him into my heart so I could be spared the tribulation.’

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ll be the first to admit it.
Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm.
Sometimes, I have a tendency to be abrasive.

But that Friday, the day after Jack, what I felt rising in me was more like…anger.

‘Lemme get this straight’ I said. ‘Jesus loves me so much that before he casts me and everyone else into the lake of fire and destroys all of creation, he wants to give me the chance to accept him as my personal savior.’

The evangelist smiled and nodded his head and immediately tried to close the deal, telling me I just had to accept that I’m a sinner and that Jesus died on the cross in my place.

Because he was still standing in my way, I decided to push his buttons.

‘Why the cross?’ I asked him. ‘Why does Jesus or anyone have to die? Why can’t God just forgive us?’

He gave me a patronizing chuckle and said: ‘But God can’t do that!’

‘God can’t do that? God can create everything from nothing

but God can’t forgive?’

He just nodded like this was the most obvious thing in the world and said: ‘That’s why Jesus has to die on the cross.’

‘So what you’re saying is…my salvation hinges on how persuasive I find you- out here with your huge signs with dragons and lions on them?

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic.

‘I’m not sure you understand how serious this is sir’ he said to me.

‘Oh, I got it. I just think its more serious that you don’t understand the cross or Jesus Christ and don’t even get me started on the Book of Revelation!’

It was right about then I became vaguely aware that I was creating something of a scene. A small crowd had stopped and were watching us like it was the scene of an accident.

And I could tell from the PO’d look on his face that this evangelist was now much less concerned about my eternal salvation, and if he could he’d probably volunteer to throw me in the lake of fire himself.

He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. ‘Maybe you should talk to a pastor instead’ he said.
‘Yeah I’ll think about it.’

My assumption is that for most of you the Book of Revelation is like that acid-trip, boat ride scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I’s like those Cosby Show episodes where Cliff Huxtable sneaks a midnight hoagie and then has whacked out dreams of pregnant men who give birth to toy boats and more sandwiches.

And why not?

Revelation is filled with bizarre, crazy images: dragons and horsemen named Death, lions that look like lambs, robes dipped in blood, pregnant women and numbers pregnant with meaning and above it all this image of a boot-stomping, butt-kicking Jesus Christ.

And my assumption is that, like those evangelists on Washington and King, you assume Revelation is about the future. That it’s like a visual morse code, warning us of what’s to come.

But when we treat the Book of Revelation like a Ouija Board that predicts the future, we miss the fact that St John writes down this vision God gives him, sneaks it out of the prison Rome has locked him in, and he sends it out to his churches not not to warn them of what’s to come one day but to remind them of what has already come to pass, once and for all, in Jesus Christ.

The Book of Revelation is not primarily about the future.
It is instead in scene after scene, in image after image, in symbol after symbol, about the cross.

It’s about the cross.

And not only that- as bizarre and crazy as Revelation might seem to you, if you don’t understand what John’s trying to convey, then you don’t understand the cross.

Here in chapter 12, John describes this vision of a heavenly battle between the forces of Satan and the forces of God.

On one side of this battle is the Dragon, whom John identifies as Satan.

But John doesn’t stop there. John gives the Dragon 7 heads and 7 crowns, the same number (everyone of John’s churches would’ve instantly known) as the number of Roman emperors from the regime that killed Jesus to the regime that threw John in prison and now persecutes his churches.

So John draws Satan as a dragon, as serpentine, and then costumes it as Rome to remind you that the powers that once killed Jesus and now persecute his People- this is the Evil that’s afflicted God’s creation from the very beginning.

On the other side of the battle that John sees is the archangel Michael, who in the Hebrew Scriptures personifies the power and might of God.

And in the middle, in Satan’s sights here in chapter 12, is a woman crowned with 12 stars- that’s Mother Israel, with her twelve tribes, from whom comes the Messiah.

Now notice- it’s the archangel Michael, the power of heaven, that throws the Dragon down, but notice what John says: it’s the blood of the Lamb that conquers and defeats the Dragon.

You see what he’s doing?
St John’s telling you the same story the Gospels tell you.
He’s telling you the Passion story- only not from the perspective of those gathered near Jesus’ cross but from the perspective of heaven.

What John wants you to see is that if you could sit down in Heaven’s throne and look down upon the cross and see it as the angels see it, then what you would see is a battle, a cosmic battle.

That when Jesus collides with the powers of Rome and the religious authorities and the mobs who scapegoat him and the friends who betray him, what’s really going on is that God, in Christ, is colliding, once and for all, with the Powers of Sin and Evil and Death. Satan.

You see-
It’s not that the cross is about placating an angry God who demands blood.
It’s not that there’s something in you, something about you, called sin that keeps God from loving you until someone dies for it.

No.

It’s that there’s something called Sin-with a capital S- in the world, outside us, all around us, that transcends us and victimizes us and dupes us and seduces us and enslaves us.

And God loves us so much that he takes flesh in Jesus Christ in order to throw the Dragon down once and for all.

 

John wants you to see that’s what’s really going on in the Passion story is that the Powers of Sin and Evil do their worst to Jesus:

He’s betrayed by one of his closest friends.

Peter, who’d sworn to always be there for him, to be with him till the end, swears Jesus off not once, not twice, but three times.

In the Garden, when Jesus is afraid for maybe the first time in his life, his friends aren’t there for him.

He’s spit on, struck and ridiculed.
He’s accused and lied about.
He’s stripped and mocked and beaten down and then he’s condemned.

To be nailed to the cross:
Where he’s stared at: naked and shamed.
And abandoned by everyone, including- it seems- God. Everyone but his mother and a friend.

The Powers of Sin and Evil and Death do their worst to Jesus.

And how does Jesus respond?

Jesus never retaliates.
He never says a word in anger.
He never curses those who curse him.
He never raises a fist and strikes back.
He never prays for God to avenge him for what they’ve done to him. He never gives in.

Sin and Evil and Death do the worst they can do to him. And then three days later…guess what?…he comes back.

Jesus lives God’s love and forgiveness till his dying breath, and three days later his grave…is empty.

He wins. He conquers. He throws the Dragon down.

John wants you to see that from the foot of the cross Jesus might look like a suffering servant. But from the front row of heaven he looks like a boot-stomping, butt- kicking warrior.

Who wins with love.

What’s Good News about the cross is not Jesus’ death.

What’s Good News about the cross is that the cross is where the Powers of Death go to die once and for all.

What it means to be a Christian is to be believe that in Jesus Christ on the cross something cosmic and objective occurs.

Evil has been defeated and all that’s left of it in our world is like the last gasp of a dying enemy.

If you miss this…

The cross is not about individuals getting forgiven so that they can be with God in heaven when they die.

The cross and the empty tomb are God’s way of vindicating the life of Jesus; they’re God’s way of saying that love and forgiveness triumphs. Period.

And if that’s true, then it’s true not just on Good Friday, not just on Easter.

It’s true today and tomorrow and in our everyday lives: that the way we conquer and overcome and triumph over the sin and evil done to us is with love.

If I’m honest, I think what angered me most about those evangelists on the street corner- especially on the day after Jack- is how they made John’s Revelation seem so other-worldly.

And I know that for most of you any scripture about Dragons and Armed Angels and Women Crowned with Stars sounds very unrealistic.

It doesn’t seem to have much to do with this world, with this life, with your life.

I know that most of you have always assumed that any scripture with Dragons and Angels and Women Clothed with the Sun must be about some Future, not the Here and Now.

Then again, for many of you, I know something about your Here and Now. What’s it like.

I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now who’ve been betrayed, who’ve been sworn off by someone who promised to be with you always.

I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, for whom those closest to you weren’t there for you when you needed them the most.

I know plenty of you, in the Here and Now, who know what it’s like:

To be struck
And ridiculed. Insulted and rejected. Lied about.
Scorned.
Rejected.

And I know there’s plenty of you in the Here and Now caught with someone else in an endless tit-for-tat, someone with whom you can’t resist returning every insult with a dig of your own, someone for whom you save one or two outstanding, unforgiven memories just to hang over their head and keep the upper hand.

I know there are plenty of you in the Here and Now who believe in Jesus Christ, who say you have faith in him, but still have someone in your life for whom you insist it’s impossible to forgive, someone in your life with whom no accusation can go unanswered, someone with whom you can’t put away the sword, turn the other cheek or show compassion or pray for the opposite of what they’ve done to you.

I know plenty about your Here and Nows.

So maybe, despite all your assumptions to contrary, you need John’s Revelation to tell you that the Battle’s over, that the Enemy’s lost, that the sin and evil in your life only have their dying breaths left.

Maybe you need St John to paint his pictures of the cross to remind you that you don’t need to give in to what’s going on in your life.

You don‘t have to become what was done to you.
You can overcome. You can conquer. You can triumph.

But only with Love.
Because the love of Jesus Christ has already won.

Maybe you need St John to challenge you: to have more faith in the power of Christ’s love than you do in the power of Sin.

Maybe in the Here and Now, as bizarre and strange as it might sound, you need someone to tell you that the Dragon’s been thrown down.