Category Archives: Holy Week

Tell them what I said

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Repeating after Jesus is dangerous. It can get you killed. This is why the disciples gave the cat their tongue, why they feigned deafness, laryngitis and amnesia when the authorities came to arrest Jesus. “Jesus who? I’ve never met him before in my life.” They didn’t even want to be found in the same sentence with Jesus because it was a death sentence. But Jesus was always a dead man walking.

The disciples would rather take the walk of shame back to their homes rather than travel Calvary’s road with Jesus. They would rather hang their heads in disgrace than in solidarity with him. They said they wanted life eternal in heaven but, in the end, they wanted to live another day on earth. They saved their necks but not their reputation. They just didn’t think the man and his message were worth dying for.

Repeating after Jesus is hazardous to your health. It is not the smartest or safest thing to do. The gospel of Jesus Christ should come with a warning label: This message if practiced faithfully may cause abandonment, baseless accusations, isolation and ridicule. It is also old life- threatening, prone to end friendships and relationships if taken seriously.

The gospel is not medicine that goes down easy. Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Gospel Medicine, “(T)he medicine of the gospel—those healing stories did more to put people back together than all the potions in the world.”[1] Still, we fold our arms, shake our heads and refuse to open our mouths to receive it. “It’s not sweet enough. It has a funny smell. It makes me feel strange or not like myself,” we say. I fear that we don’t take in more of the gospel because we don’t like the side effects.

Thomas a Kempis said,

“There will always be many who love Christ’s heavenly kingdom, but few who will bear his cross. Jesus has many who desire consolation, but few who care for adversity. He finds many to share his table, but few who will join him in fasting. Many are eager to be happy with him; few wish to suffer anything for him. Many will follow him as far as the breaking of bread, but few will remain to drink from his passion. Many are awed by his miracles; few accept the shame of his cross.”[2]

The good news is hard on our ears and bad for our hard hearts. Our lives as we knew them will not survive. Everything goes down Calvary’s hill from here.

Melito of Sardis reflecting in AD 180 on the meaning of the Crucified God, who dies at the hands of those Jesus was reaching for, who is sentenced to death by those who share his breath, who enact the severest of punishments though Jesus has come to spare them eternal damnation, wrote, “And so he was raised on a cross, and a title was fixed, indicating who it was who was being executed. Painful it is to say, but more terrible not to say… He who suspended the earth is suspended, he who fixed the heavens is fixed, he who fastened all things is fastened to wood; the Master is outraged; God is murdered.”[3]

Jonathan Edwards famously preached in July of 1741 a sermon titled “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” But, clearly, God is not safe in the hands of a self- serving humanity. Less we make Jesus the victim, Blaise Pascal provides clarity. He writes, “Jesus suffers in his passion the torments inflicted upon him by men, but in his agony, he suffers the torments which he inflicts upon himself. He was troubled. This punishment is inflicted by no human, but an almighty hand, and only he that is almighty can bear it.”[4]

This punishment is self- inflicted. Jesus says in the gospel of John, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say— ‘Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’”[5]

Because the devil didn’t make him do this. This is not a work of darkness but at the root of the cross is love. Jesus is not trapped in a relationship he wants to get out of. And while his flesh is weak, his spirit is willing.[6]

One songwriter said, ” He would not come down from the cross, just to save himself
He decided to die, just to save me.”  He could have saved face, saved his reputation, saved his mother the grief, saved the disciples the embarrassment but Jesus put all of that aside, just to save us. And he is not just going through the motions of commitment. Jesus’ body goes limp and he gives his life. They have nailed his body down but have only driven the point home.

They take his body down and put him in what persons thought his final resting place. But, as we know, that’s not how the story ends. Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to Jesus’s tomb. There, they are met by an angel who tells them what to say. They ran from the tomb to tell the disciples what the angel said and are met by Jesus, who tells them what to say.

While the women, Ministers Mary Magdalene and Mary, are en route to spread the good news, to preach the message of Jesus’ resurrection, some of the soldiers run to get ahead of the story, to tell the chief priests what happened. They were not able to kill Jesus, so they try to kill the story.  The Pharisees put their hard heads together, formulate a plot to pay them off and to protect the soldiers if the governor hears about the resurrection of Jesus. They are to forget what they saw and know to be true. The Pharisees tell the guards what to say: “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’” [7]

They are spreading gossip. But the women are carrying the gospel. They don’t want the people to get the story straight. Perhaps, they did not expect Jesus to keep showing up but here he is in Galilee and on a mountain. Some lift their hands in worship and others lift their hands with questions.

Jesus doesn’t mind either way as there is still work to do. He issues these instructions: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Clarence Jordan said, “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave, but a spirit- filled fellowship. Not a rolled away stone, but a carried- away church.” People are always going to talk and tell lies about where Jesus is and what his disciples are doing. Pay them no mind. You know what you saw. You know what he said. You know what he asked us to do.

Today, be reminded that the world doesn’t need more small talk. As Jesus commissioned the disciples after the resurrection, so he charges us. There are lots of stories circulating these days but this one is ours. No matter what you hear, Jesus says, “Tell them what I said.”  But I must warn you—repeating after Jesus can be dangerous.

End notes|

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, (Plymouth, United Kingdom, Cowley Publications, 1995), ix.

[2] The Editors, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2003), 36.

[3] Quote offered in the opening of Fleming Rutledge’s The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015).

[4] The Editors, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2003), 140.

[5] John 12.27, NRSV

[6] Matthew 26.41

[7] Matthew 28.13, NRSV

 

This is a good Friday

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“I’ll do it when I’m good and ready.” “It’s just not the right time. I need more time.” But in matters of faith, we are never truly good or really ready. Filthy rag righteousness, we could never clean up the mess we’ve made on our own. The Apostle Paul tells the truth and shames us devils, writing to the Romans, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”[1] Sinners never clean up real nice, which is why we need Christ’s push broom- cross.

There is waning interest in the kingdom of God and less and less time to pursue it as we spend much of days building our own. Likewise, we behave as if we can put God on a waiting list, as if God is comfortable to remain on the back burner, as if our getting right with God can be rendered in installments, as if we are on a payment plan. A little here, a little there, we attend four Sundays in a row and then our affection grows cold.

We talk of our relationship with God as if we have all the time in the world. We speak about life with Christ as if there is time to spare. We rob him of years that could have been given in service to his ministry but instead, are wasted playing church or worse still, playing God. William Willimon offers this confession for us: “God forgive us for selling out our great intellectual treasure—the gospel of God with us—for a mess of psychobabble and pragmatic, utilitarian, self- help triviality.”[2]

Because we have been told by popular culture that we are good people. Michael Horton writes in Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, “It is easy to become distracted from Christ as the only hope for sinners. Where everything is measured by our happiness rather than by God’s holiness, the sense of our being sinners becomes secondary, if not offensive. If we are good people who have lost our way but with the proper instructions and motivations can become a better person, we need only a life coach, not a redeemer.”[3]

But, the words of the penitent thief change the conversation on conversion. Like Judas, the decoy disciple who fakes it until he can make a deal with the Pharisees, he is a pickpocket, a bandit, a robber. We don’t know his name and he was not long a Christian. A new member of the body of Christ, he wasn’t baptized, didn’t join a church, didn’t attend a new member’s class or a single worship service.  But he did what really mattered in the end. He saw a future after death and life beyond the grave. He was a late bloomer, but he bloomed, nonetheless.

“No cross, no crown,” the thief is a follower, not an admirer, a distinction made by Soren Kierkegaard. He says, “Admirers are only too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. They refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended by him.”[4] Thomas a Kempis said, “The cross… is unavoidable. It waits for you everywhere. No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go, you take yourself along. Turn where you will—above, below, without, or within—you’ll find the cross. … (But) if you willingly carry the cross, it will carry you.”[5] If we are to get to heaven, then this is the price of admission.

There is no way around the cross.

The thief only lived for Jesus for a few hours. Nor theological red tape, no right hand of fellowship, no business meeting, no Robert’s Rules of Order, no vote, still, Jesus extends the invitation, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43). The thief is Jesus’ personal guest. There is no waiting period.

If you don’t know Jesus in the pardoning of your sins, then this is a good Friday to be introduced.

End notes|

[1] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 10-11.  It is part of his foreword for the book.

[2] Romans 5.8

[3 Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008), 15-16.

[4] The Editors, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2003), 57.

[5] The Editors, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter, (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2003), 40.

Maundy Thursday: Tough Love

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In John chapter 13, Jesus doesn’t just want us to talk about love.  Jesus wants to see it, hear it, feel it in our fellowship. It is a love that Christians should be famous for, that Christian should be synonymous with.  Jesus said and demonstrated it every day of his life and even in his death. Why can’t we?

I love you. Three words that we want to hear from parents, spouses and significant others, toddlers and willful teenagers. I love you. These three words seal the deal, make real our commitment to another and communicate the seriousness of our relationship. Whether romantic or familial love, its expression deepens the bond shared.

But, what of loving our neighbor next door and moving more closely, those we share our faith life with? Love as a practice of discipleship, unconditional love, is what we are to offer. Not this take it or leave it love, this if and when I feel like it love, this if the stars align and the mood is right kind of love, this if you do what I say temperamental love.

Instead, we are invited to love authentically where we are and as we are until we become who Christ calls us to be. We are called to love tenderly, specifically, unflinchingly, unapologetically. We are taught by Christ to love indiscriminately and until the very end. We are to love each other as siblings, and we don’t get to choose our family. C.S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” Still, Alfred Tennyson says, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

Christ’s hands on the cross, extending and yet bringing us together, he becomes the supreme matchmaker. He says that we all belong to each other, that God made us for one another, that we are a perfect fit. His hands on the cross show the breadth of this acceptance and the depth of his commitment. He will go to the grave, proving this love. Paul Tillich said, “Love manifests its greatest power there where it overcomes the greatest separation.”[i] Bridging time and eternity, our sin and God’s righteousness, Jesus demonstrates the sovereignty of his love.

***

Maundy Thursday is the first day of remembrance services leading up to the resurrection. Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, from which we get the word mandate, and means commandment. As captured in John’s gospel, it is a reminder of the new commandment Jesus’ gave his disciples.

John says that Judas has left the building. In response, Jesus says, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” Not matter what happens or how tough it gets, it is all for God’s glory. Nothing personal but deeply spiritual, Judas’ betrayal signals that Jesus’ time with the disciples is running out.

Jesus says to his disciples, “Gather ‘round, children; we don’t have much time together. I cannot take you with me. So, let me leave this with you.” Jesus wants to tell them something new: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another.”

“Just as I have loved you”– through thick and thin, sink or swim, no matter what it takes, I am all in.

This is all that matters to Jesus. This is what he expects from his disciples. It is a kind of dying wish and all that he has to give. His legacy is love.

Jesus is the model of tough love. On the cross, his love will take a beating, be buried and still get up with arms extended.  As his disciples, we are called to do the same.

 

End notes|

[i] Paul Tillich, Love, Power and Justice, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1954), 25.

When Jesus comes to town

“The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.”

| John 12.12, NRSV

It is interesting to see how people prepare the way for Jesus today.  In America, we set up shop at his grave, selling -covered crosses, bubble gum eggs and bunny slippers.  “Get your empty tomb t-shirt here!”  Jesus’ death is treated as a coming attraction and we have shows at 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Like the temple priests, we try to mix Almighty God with almighty dollar; then, wonder why the world is not turned upside down.  Because Jesus did not come for our entertainment but for our edification.   And his kingdom will not be commercialized.

Our coupons and his cross, our sales and his salvation, we think that we can save Jesus for ourselves.  We pretend that he only likes people like us.  But, his body, his believers are not a gated community.  And if the first will be last, then there are no first- class seats, no miles to cash in, no points to redeem.  God with us—not just with you or me.  Jesus does not belong to us but we belong to each other in him.  His blood relates us and demonstrates for us what living is all about.

As if we can keep Jesus for ourselves, we try to arm wrestle Scripture, like we can fight against its witness, as if we can somehow pin down its promise and make it bend to our will.  No, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life” (John 3.16).  How is it then, that we will gather around his cross but will be no closer to each other?  How do we maintain the distance when God came this close to us, face- to- face with us in Christ?

As if we can keep Jesus to ourselves, to somehow get ahead of his beginning or talk over his words, we speak as if we are the only ones who know Jesus, that we have a handle on the real Jesus.  We act as if Jesus is in our circle and we influence him, that he is small enough to fit into our click, our culture, our country, our political party affiliation. No, that bobble- head Jesus is made in America.  Because Jesus’ side was pierced so that we would not have to pick sides.  He prayed that we would be one, reconciled to his body (John 17.21).

Besides, our arms are too short to hold Jesus back, to keep Jesus from going to the other side of the tracks, to people we don’t like and don’t want to understand, who we would rather fight with than be reconciled with.  His first disciples tried this, to get Jesus to love and lead between the lines.  They wanted him to  reinforce the boundaries, to bless their prejudices.  They wanted to keep him under their finger, directing the way that he should go.

They wanted him to be the Savior they had in mind.  Forget the will of God; they had big plans for Jesus.  They knew what they wanted him to do for them.

***

Described as the triumphal entry, he enters the city on a donkey.  In Matthew’s gospel, they throw their cloaks on the ground as well as branches from trees.  John is more specific; the branches are from the palm tree and are a symbol of victory.  Jesus has won their hearts.

The disciples are walking with him but don’t have a clue as to what is happening right now.  They’ll get it later.  It will all make sense in hindsight.  Well, we’ve had more than two thousand years to think about it.

He won’t come riding in a stretch limousine.  He won’t wear sunglasses, sign autographs or give network interviews.  He’s not running for office because the government rests on his shoulders.  He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  In fact, he is like no one we’ve seen.  And like the disciples, you will be with him and you still won’t see him coming.

“Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel! (John 12.13)”   How will you respond when Jesus comes to town?

Rushing the Resurrection

“Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!”  But, not so fast.  Before we move on to the next thing on our liturgical to- do list, let’s take in this moment.

Jesus has done more than defeat death but has won the salvation of the world.  He is the only Undefeated Champion, claiming the victory of all victories.  Free of zombies, space invasions and end of the world scenarios, Jesus has entered the world as a plainclothes God and died for it like a criminal.

By all accounts, his death should have gone unnoticed.  His own disciples had gone back to fishing as usual.  And though Jesus shared the message of the resurrection with them, they were not expecting this to end “happily ever after.” He told them that he would be back in three days; still, they did not meet him at the tomb.

Well, at least not the male disciples; the women were there to anoint him properly for burial (Luke 24.1-11).  While they may not have remembered his promise, these women could not forget the duty of preparation.  That remained on their list. 

So, he’s dead but they couldn’t just close the chapter.  They could not simply wash their hands of his life but were committed to the very end.  And because they were there after he was crucified, these women received the message of the resurrection: “He is not here, but has risen” (Luke 24.5, NRSV).  Because it was not over.

His open tomb is our open invitation.  His open tomb is our open door.  His open tomb is God’s arm open wide. 

So, Easter is not a moment to give grave tours or to take pictures beside his empty tomb though we are wearing our Sunday best.  Instead, it is an opportunity to walk in the power of his resurrection for without it, we have no faith at all.  The Apostle Paul reminds us,

“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?  If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.  For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (First Corinthians 15.12-19, NRSV).

The Apostle Paul is right.  Because we believe in the resurrection, we are not a pitiable but a hopeful people.  The reason for our hope is not something that can be declared in a single worship service or even a single lifetime.  No, it will take all of eternity to declare our praise.  Consequently, rushing the resurrection would go against the nature of the gospel and who we have been recreated in Christ to be. 

No, as resurrection people, we are to live it, breathe it, walk it and share it carefully, deliberately and very slowly.