“Crowned through Suffering”

The following is the manuscript for a sermon I preached in Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD, on Sunday, June 25, 2017. This sermon is the second in a Lectio Continua series through the New Testament letter “To the Hebrews.” Thank you for reading.

Remember to whom this letter has been written: a small church of Jewish Christians in Rome. As Jews, they were strong in their religious heritage and traditions, and their knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. But as Christians, they were new believers in Christ, spiritual infants. And living in Rome, it was because they believed in Christ that they were being threatened by those around them. In 1st-century Rome, to claim “Christ is Lord” was considered religious intolerance and political treason. The writer of Hebrews was compassionately concerned for the well-being of this persecuted church, but they also wrote with a strong desire to awaken these new Christians to the dangers of avoiding persecution through losing grip on their beliefs. It is a saying among preachers that our job is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” That’s precisely what the writer of this letter aimed to do:

Today’s Reading: Hebrews 2

Christ was crowned through suffering.

The writer knew their audience. These fledgling Christians knew their Old Testament! But like many Jews then and today, they know it a certain way. Passages like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 8 were read as prophecies about their MESSIAH, God’s chosen Savior of God’s people. According to the Jewish reading of their Hebrew Bible, the MESSIAH would be a “son of David,” both literally and spiritually. Not only was the MESSIAH to be a blood descendant of the great King David, but also have the same personal charisma, military prowess, and favor of God that King David had. All of this would qualify the MESSIAH to be the chosen and anointed king of a new Israel, whose physical kingdom and political reign would endure forever.

But the writer of Hebrews knew that this is not what came about. When the MESSIAH came, he looked nothing like the Jews expected. The writer of Hebrews wrote in this whole letter – and in this chapter specifically – to explain from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, how Jesus fulfilled Scripture’s expectations for the Messiah.

Yes, Jesus was a physical descendant of David, and had the same favor of God that David did, if not more. God loved David because God loved His Son, who would be born to David’s descendants. But Jesus did not come to establish a physical kingdom for the political nation of Israel. Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom for the spiritual descendants of Abraham, all those who live and walk by faith. Instead of a political conqueror, crowned through might and conquest, Jesus is a spiritual conqueror, crowned through suffering.

That religious claim was as preposterous to the world then as it is today. Jesus Christ, who in chapter 1 was heralded as God’s own Son, creator and ruler and sustainer of all things, is now presented as a suffering Savior. In the contest of Best World Religions, that story is laughed off the stage. The apostle Paul came up against that same resistance, and still he wrote: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The author of Hebrews goes even further, and says that Christ crucified is the perfect representation and display of the character of our God “for whom and by whom all things exist” (Hebrews 2:10). It’s as if Scripture says, “If you want to know the generosity and power of God, look at the ever-expanding expanse of space, and the countless stars beyond our own; but if you really want to know God, in the way that will save your soul, look at His generosity and power poured out for you in His Son Christ, nailed to the cross.” Jesus Christ willingly showed His love for us, by humbling Himself to the point of becoming fully one of us, entering into the bloodline not just of David the King, but also of Adam the Sinner, becoming fully human like us, for us and for our salvation. According to the writer of this letter, it is for that reason, the Incarnation of Christ Jesus, that Christ is “crowned with glory and honor, because of the suffering of death.”

We are crowned with Christ through our persevering in suffering.

And – thanks be to God! – that would have been enough. That in Christ, God became human, and suffered, and died in the place of fallen humanity, to set humanity free, would have been enough. But – grace upon grace! – God wanted more than for us to be free of the sin that bound us. If that were all, then verse 17 would have said that in Christ we have “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make [EXpiation] for the sins of the people.”

Our twins are discovering the joys of solid food, or, at least, our son is. There was one particular meal this past week where my son decided that the spoon coming toward his face meant playtime, and he covered himself in pureed vegetables. It was all over his face and hands and clothes, and in the wrinkles in his arms and legs. He was a mess. I love my son, but at that moment, I wouldn’t hold my son. He needed to be cleaned off before I was going to pick him up. That’s a picture of expiation.

Expiation says that, because of the mess of sin that covers every inch of me, God cannot hold me. That sin has to be removed, washed away, before God will come near me. And — thanks be to God! — Christ’s death has cleansed us of our sin. But expiation is not the word that the writer of Hebrews uses here! The writer of Hebrews says that in Christ we have “a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make [PROpitiation] for the sins of the people.”

I love my son with my whole heart, and my daughter, too. But when I see how much my wife does to love and treasure and care for our twins, because she loves our twins, I find even more love for them grows in me. That’s a picture of propitiation. God loves you and longs for you as His own precious child, but when He sees Christ, His only Son, willingly sacrifice His life to save yours, God’s heart for you grows even bigger.

This is our great comfort. God not only wants you to be free from sin; God wants you to be free to come into His presence, and to become in Him all you were created to be, all He intends you to be. The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8 as a vision of your intended purpose in the world: that God has given us a position of status and power in this world, to care for this world that God created good, and to rule over everything like God does, in God’s company. Psalm 8 looks back to Genesis 1 and 2, where God charged Adam and Eve and all humanity to tend the earth and care for it and fill it and rule it, in His presence, under His guidance, as co-creators. That’s an incredible honor! But Adam and Eve’s sin after that was so complete that it scarred them, ruining their ability to rightly reflect the image of God to each other and to the world, and their ability to carry out the work they  were given. Their sin also scarred everything that had been entrusted to them: creation itself, and all of their descendants, the whole human race.

In Christ that original glory and image and calling of God is restored to us. For that reason, Psalm 8 was also considered a prophecy of the MESSIAH. Specifically, in the extravagant, self-giving suffering of Christ in his whole life, and especially in his death, we see and receive again our intended purpose to give our lives to one another and to this world in love. We also are made one with God, restored to that same kind of relationship that Adam and Eve had with God in the garden.

It is that relationship with God, that glory and comfort and peace that is ours in Christ Jesus, that this small house church in Rome was considering giving up! Yes, the threat of persecution was high. Believing in Christ Jesus and living out that faith puts us at odds with the world (John 15:20). The church to whom this letter was written was in the process of gradually letting go of Christ, drifting away from their faith to fit in with the world that threatened them. They weren’t actively denying Christ, so much as passively choosing to make their lives easier. But our reward is so much greater than earthly comfort (Romans 8:18)! The glory that is ours in Christ is ours precisely when we persevere through these present sufferings, just as Christ did. And to do that, to persevere well, we must hold fast to what we have heard, the gospel we believe.

If you find yourself persevering through suffering this morning, take heart. You do not face this threat alone. Christ has gone before you on this difficult path, pioneering the way through the wrath of the world into the peace and the beauty of eternal life with God, who loves you and longs for you. Hold fast to Him, and know that He is with you, and He’s faced what you’re facing, and He’s already triumphed over it for you.

Day 7: Holy Week

Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.

~ Exodus 12:21-28

We begin the day outside the eastern walls of ancient Jerusalem, overlooking the Kidron Valley. From where we stand we can see the Temple Mount, the city wall with its gates, and a vast cemetery full of tombs and monuments. It is fitting that we begin our day’s study with a contemplation of death, as today we reflect on Jesus’ last days: his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his prayer and betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, his crucifixion outside the city walls, all before we remember with joy his resurrection from the tomb on Easter morning. All this happens the week of Passover, the high Jewish festival of remembrance, celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’s arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion during Holy Week retell the story of Israel’s Passover, with Jesus Christ as both sacrificial Lamb and delivering God. But before we can celebrate that new life of deliverance from slavery, we must first lose the old one. A great paradox: we must die to live.

Mount of Olives | Palm Sunday

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately. This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,

Look, your king is coming to you,

humble, and mounted on a donkey,

and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

~ Matthew 21:1-5

We consider here the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Golden Gates, surrounded by crowds waving branches and carpeting the dirt path with their coats, all while shouting from Psalm 118:

“Save us, we beseech you, (Hosan-na!) O Lord!

O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

We celebrate Palm Sunday in our churches with upbeat praise music, led by our children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, relieved that it’s finally the last day of Lent. It’s a party atmosphere. And maybe that’s how it was on that first Palm Sunday: a party. But read again what they’re actually saying: “Hosanna!” is not the same as “Hallelujah!” “Hosanna!” is a desperate cry for help: “Save us!” The people are greeting Jesus Christ as they would a conquering Messianic King, expecting him to be a king for the people, a political savior. But look how he comes: riding a donkey, not a warhorse, followed by fishermen, not soldiers, coming in at the eastern Golden Gate, the gate through which the Messiah was to come, but without any fanfare other than the voices of everyday people.

Across the city, at the Jaffa gate, Pontius Pilate would probably have been arriving from his villa at Caesarea Maritima, surrounded by Roman legions, in preparation for the Jewish festival of Passover. This is the arrival of a king, not the rabble on the other side of Jerusalem.

The Pharisees are quick to chastise Jesus for this inappropriate display (Luke 19:39). We shouldn’t read this as an angered outburst of jealousy from Jesus’ enemies. One of the most interesting things I learned on this trip was that Jesus had a more nuanced relationship with the Pharisees than I had assumed. The Pharisees probably saw Jesus as a prospective addition to their number, except for his problematic tendency toward the prophetic. We’ve heard a few times now how Jesus’ views align very well with the Pharisees’ views on most things, and these Pharisees might even have been following Jesus to learn from him. They’re simply asking for some restraint in the crowd’s celebration of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. The Pharisees are not comfortable with Roman occupation, and they certainly don’t want to exacerbate tensions in Jerusalem.

And all while the festive atmosphere builds, and the Pharisees worry over the implications of an ill-timed party, Jesus weeps.

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

~ Luke 19:41-44

A church has been built at this spot on the way into Jerusalem, named “The Lord Wept” in Latin (Dominus Flevit). And as we look from the church yard out over the Temple Mount, we see now exactly what Jesus foresaw then: the inevitable and lamentable religious and political conflicts that have come, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Christ has come, the Light of the World, and yet the darkness has not understood it (John 1:5). We weep with Christ for the countless people still living in darkness, torn by the prolonged conflict. Lord, have mercy.

Gethsemane | Maundy Thursday

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”

~ Matthew 26:36

We were given time to walk around the garden connected to the church that stands here to mark Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives. We, as Jesus’ present-day disciples, are here in the warmth of the morning, observing the beauty of the flowers and wondering at the age of the gnarled, knotted olive trees, surrounded by other pilgrims and visitors. How different that night almost 2000 years ago must have been for Jesus’ contemporary disciples – cold, dark, lonely. We were reminded of what we learned in Nazareth Village at the olive press:

Just as the oil from the first press is pure, and used in temple rites of purification; and the oil from the second press is clean, and used in preparing foods and medicines; and the oil from the third press, while impure, is still useful for burning for light and heat; so the blood and sweat poured out in the prayers of Jesus are useful and beneficial for our purification, nourishment, and comfort, poured out for us. Thanks be to God!

Three times Jesus returned to intense, wringing prayer, after pleading his disciples to stay awake, and to accompany him in prayer. His poured-out prayers for himself, for his disciples, and for God’s will, are a model for our own intercession and petitions.

“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

~ Matthew 26:39

“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

~ Matthew 26:42

First, Jesus prays his heart’s deepest pleas not to a distant, indifferent deity, but to a God who is intimately interested in his good, and infinitely capable of providing what he needs. He calls the God to whom he prays “Father,” “Abba.”

Second, he expresses his plea simply and honestly, without bargaining or hiding or justifying. Jesus pleas, certainly, so intensely that drops of blood are wrung from him (Luke 22:44). But the depth of feeling in Jesus’ prayer do not lead him to “heap up empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7).

Third, he concludes his prayers by entrusting his words and his very life into his Father’s hands. He trusts his Father in heaven to work for only his best in any and every circumstance. Jesus closes his prayers with “Your will be done” because he knows and believes that “Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and glory forever.”

Just like our Lord and Rabbi Jesus, we can pray for what we need simply, honestly, and courageously to God as our loving and trustworthy Father, entrusting our prayers and our lives to Him who is ready and able to answer them for our ultimate good.

Of course, we cannot remember Jesus’ prayers for safety and deliverance without also remembering the way his prayers were answered:

At once [Judas] came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

~ Matthew 26:49-52

No wonder why we experience both fear and resignation when we reluctantly or perfunctorily pray our own “Thy will be done”s, if this is how they turn out. Jesus prayed thus, and immediately afterward was betrayed and arrested, so it seems that it must be God’s will that his own beloved son should be killed. And, we reason, if God would want His own son killed, how must he feel about us, poor sinners that we are?

But what if God’s will is grander and greater than manipulating all the pieces of the chess board? What if God’s will was not merely for his son to die, but that all people — indeed all creation — were reconciled to Him, through His son? And what if His will were not an arbitrary edict, but motivated by His immense, overwhelming, all-consuming love for His creation, for us? Then we could pray courageously and trustingly “Your will be done!” because we would know that in everything, God is out for our ultimate good, because he loves us.

So God is not to blame for Judas’ kiss. Judas is. And God is not to blame for the priests’ arrest. The priests are. And God is not to blame for Peter’s assault on the servant. Peter is. God is not a dictator, and His will does not override ours. Judas betrayed Jesus because of greed: the priests paid him to provide an intimate way to indicate Jesus out of the huge Passover crowds to the temple guards. The priests had Jesus arrested out of jealousy and misguided religiousity: he was a threat not only to their social status but also to their carefully balanced political peace with the Roman authorities. Peter attacked the priest’s servant out of vindictive love for his Rabbi: he did not strike to kill, only to wound, in order to preclude him from the strictly observed qualifications of physical wholeness required of temple employees.

We are responsible for our own decisions and actions. We cannot use God’s will as an excuse. This is precisely why we should take great comfort in praying “Your will be done.” If left to pursue our own wills, we invariably spiral away from our good and the good of others toward destruction; if we align our wills with God’s will, we will always be directed toward our ultimate good, even if that route passes through the valley of the shadow of death…

Kidron Valley | Good Friday

The Kidron Valley runs south along the east wall of Jerusalem, surrounded and filled with tombs. Because death and the dead were ceremonially unclean, burials were not permitted within the walls of Jerusalem. We walk the Kidron Valley path, filing past historic tombs with grand monuments and humble tombs with stones — each speaking of a family visit — thrown on top.

We pause here to hear about crucifixion, a favorite form of political execution used by Rome throughout its empire. Crucifixions, if certain historians are to be trusted, may have been a nearly constant occurrence here along the road into Jerusalem. Criminals of all sorts would have been placed here, probably at eye level, to remind travelers and pilgrims into the city to behave themselves during their stay, or suffer the same consequences. This is most likely Rome’s reason for crucifying Jesus. He was the self-styled “King of the Jews,” a publicly recognized insurrectionist, and he needed to be made an example of publicly, to warn anyone else who aspired to the same thing.

From the Jews’ perspective, Jesus was a blasphemer, a man who sacreligiously claimed too much of himself, potentially leading God’s people away from Him and toward a false concept of god, toward idolatry. As a religious leader, this would be a noble and right cause to censor or exile a false prophet. But Jesus was more than a kook on a street corner. He was a celebrity, and what is more, the people believed him because he spoke as one with authority, unlike the Pharisees and scribes. So it would take more than exile to get rid of Jesus; they also had to get rid of his ideas. And for that, a public execution as a political criminal was the best bid. After all, if Jesus was violently, publicly, bitterly executed for saying such things, then so would anyone else who said the same things.

I wonder, then, if the Jewish leaders were so justified in executing Jesus, according to their understanding of their faith, then why hold his trial in the dead of night, at the high priest’s home? Why not in broad daylight, in public, for an audience? Wouldn’t that only add to his indictment as a criminal? Perhaps they used such secrecy because it was Passover, and they wanted this taken care of urgently, before the major events, or at the margins, to not distract from the main ceremonies. Or perhaps the trial was held clandestinely in order to keep from inciting a riot in favor of Jesus, which is more likely. I wonder if the whole Sanhedrin was present? Or was this only a small group of only the upper management? I wonder…

Golgotha

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them…The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city.

~ John 19:16-20

Golgotha

From a biblical perspective, the details of Jesus’ crucifixion clearly point to him as the fulfillment of Israel’s sacrificial system, begun all the way back in Egypt, at the first Passover. We read that Jesus breathed his last at 3:00pm, “the sixth hour,” on a hill called Golgotha (now enshrined just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). At that moment on another nearby hill, the Temple Mount, a priest would have ascended to the top of the Temple and blown a ram’s horn, announcing to all of Israel that the atoning sacrifice had been made for the sins of the whole nation. Other astonishing signs are recorded in the gospels’ account of Jesus’ death: an earthquake, premature darkness, tombs opening, dead bodies resuscitated, and most telling of all, the Temple curtain dividing the Most Holy place from the inner sanctuary is torn in two, from top to bottom. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the earth is wracked in grief and veils its face from the light; yet forgiveness fanfares ring loud, life breaks forth, and God’s presence is offered to all.

To grasp the exchange that occurred on the cross, we were reminded of what we learned at Tel Dan: blood is the physical manifestation of the life God gave us; our sins and our sinfulness mark us for death, and must be removed by life, by blood. This is the essence of a sacrifice, a specific sequence of redemptive events: a representative death, the manipulation of blood over what is to be cleansed, a burning of the remains (sometimes completely) in order that it “go up” (the literal translation of the Hebrew “offering”) to God, and a feast (sometimes featuring the sacrificed animal after it’s been cooked). These events were prescribed for Israel’s worship, not arbitrarily, but as a context for communion with God. In Christ, these events are fulfilled: in his death, ours is represented; in the shedding of his blood, our sinfulness is cleansed and our sins are forgiven; in his ascension, Christ “goes up” to God, bearing with him his blood (Hebrews 9); and in the sacrament of communion, he has instituted a regular feast of his own body and blood for our joyful remembrance, communion, and hope in and with God.

Notice that the cross is not the end of the sacrifice, but the beginning! And the exchange of the cross is not itself the purpose, but the means to our enjoying perfect union with God.

We discussed a yet more complex element to sacrificial or atonement theology. It must be asked, What is the nature of our separation from God, that sacrifice is necessary to attain union with God? Have our sinfulness and sins so ruined us, that God is no longer even able to look on us, unless we pay the price of our wickedness? If this is so, then sacrifice is necessary as a propitiation, a gesture from us to God to win His love and favor. This is like a husband who does the dishes for his wife to gain her approval, because doing dishes is better than sleeping on the couch.

But what if the separation we experience from God is not because of His absence from us, out of wrath or disgust for our sin(s)/fulness, but rather our absence from Him, our rebellion or distractedness or selfishness. Then sacrifice is not primarily our gesture to win God, but is in fact God’s act of expiation to remove the offense that keeps us from Him. This is like a husband who does the dishes for his wife because the dishes need to be done before they can spend the evening relaxing together.

The sacrifice of Christ is not the actions of an abandoned son trying to please a demanding Father in order that a ruined creation might be restored to its original splendor before God will love it once more. I fear this is how many of us understand the story of salvation, even if we would never say it in these words.No, the sacrifice of Christ is the ultimate gesture of embrace of a good and loving Father giving what is most precious to Him — the very life of His own Son — in order to win back the world He loves. Christ himself, as God’s beloved Son, loves his Father in heaven, and therefore loves what his Father loves, and willingly gave his life as a sacrifice for us, being obedient even unto death. For this we rejoice, that our God is a God of love!

Church of the Holy Sepulchre | Resurrection Sunday

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.

~ John 20:1

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre standing today is a crusader church built in the 1100’s over the traditional spots of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. But for the skeptics, who look for discrepancies between church tradition and factual history, we were told there are 15 evidences that this is the actual spot. What is most surprising about this to me is that the cross and the tomb were so close to one another.

This is not one church, but in fact a honeycomb of churches, one building hosting 6 different denominations of Christianity: 3 major churches – the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Church – and 3 minor churches – the Ethiopian Church, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, and the Coptic Church.

As much as this church is a center of Christian unity — the one site on earth we all have in common, and where so many branches of the Christian family tree worship together — this is also a place where we saw the still great division among Christians. These 6 churches do not worship together, but each in their own separate languages, in their own chapels within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As a humorous caricature of this disunity, we were shown a small wooden ladder that we were told has remained on the facade of the church for over 90 years, because no one church will take responsibility for putting it there. We were also told that a Muslim family has held the key to the doors of the single most important Christian holy site for over 700 years because that is the only way these churches know to share the same building. The empty cross and empty tomb of the living Jesus Christ is the one place on earth that should unite the Christian community in worship and peace, and instead it is marked by evidence of division and factions.

Bethesda

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

~ John 5:2-6

Most of our touring today was focused on the events of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday. The healing at the pool of Bethesda was not part of Holy Week, as far as we know, but was very appropriate for considering the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus.

We finished our day’s pilgrimage at St. Ann’s, an 18th-century French church on the site of the pools of Bethesda. This place is long associated with healing: this is also the site of the ancient Roman Temple of Asclepius, where the baths, along with the use of opiates, helped to heal and restore people.

In the biblical episode at Bethesda, Jesus encounters a man by the side of the pool, as if the man is interested in being healed of whatever illness afflicts him. And yet if that were true, the man would presumably been more active in pursuing restoration. This is not the case. Perhaps he’s enjoying the secondary benefits of his illness, like the pity and the attention he gets from caretakers. Or maybe he’s simply afraid of what a life without illness might look like, as he’s forgotten what it means to be well. Either way, Jesus sees this man exactly where he is, and recognizes his reluctance to be really well. He wants to stay close to where he could be made well, certainly, but he doesn’t desire wellness.

Could we be like this man? We find ourselves over and over and over again at the cross of Jesus, praying for forgiveness and asking for new life, and yet we don’t actually pursue the assurance of complete restoration and healing that Jesus offers us in his resurrection from the dead. Jesus offers us a gospel of life, abundant life, life that burst forth from the tombs we often resign ourselves to. And still we find ourselves stuck believing a gospel of sin management, as though that’s the best we can hope for. Jesus encounters this unfortunate man again, and we see again that Jesus is more like the Pharisees than we often assume. Jesus prioritizes life over law.

Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him,“See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”

~ John 5:14

The invitation to new life, to wholeness, to spiritual health and vitality, comes with this charge: “Sin no more.” We can hem and haw and explain this away, telling ourselves and others that we are always going to be bound to our sin in this life as fallen sinners. But our risen Lord and Rabbi Jesus has given us a command: “Sin no more.” We must commit ourselves, as redeemed ones in whom Christ dwells and delights, as resurrection people, to lives of serious obedience.

Indwelling Holy Spirit, empower us to live the new life of trust and obedience that Christ came to give us here and now. 

***

Other sights from the day:

Evening Speaker: Salim Munayer

Through My Enemy's EyesSalim is a Palestinian Christian, who works for an organization called “Musalaha,” which means “Reconciliation.” He shared with us more specific, personal examples of the injustices the Palestinians face in what was once their homeland. But what impacted me most was not to hear a diatribe against the Jewish occupation, or a litany of grievances against U.S. involvement in Palestinian oppression, or a passionate plea to us to side with the Palestinians for peace and justice.

Salim shared with us his sharp theological mind, turned not against Israel or toward Palestine, but fully fixed on God as revealed in Jesus Christ, seeking to live as a disciple of Christ in an impossible situation. He offered us some of the theological questions he daily wrestles with:

  • How would Jesus cross a checkpoint twice every day?
  • How would Jesus respond to this lose-lose situation: if he acts, he will be labeled a terrorist; if he does not act, his land will be seized for settlements?
  • How do we respond to the realities of this conflict when the occupiers use the same Old Testament Bible to support their occupation? Do we give up the Old Testament entirely, or simply question its authority in every situation?

Salim did appeal to us, as American ChristiaThe Land Cries Outns, to think carefully about our theological positions, their biblical foundations, and their political consequences. He shared with us that American “Evangelicals” (read “Premillennial Dispensationalists”) give $200 million annually to the State of Israel, all because of a bad theology of land. Zionists misunderstand the role of land in Scripture, and God’s relationship to it, and throw their lot in with disastrous outcomes. It is not enough for us to leave the conflict to others. Christians are already involved in this conflict. But how are we called to engage it? Are we called to take one side over the other? Or to be peacemakers?

Salim offered us a surprising solution: remembering. He reminded us of the memory that “Yad Vashem” encourages: “Never forgive; never forget.” But our Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, teaches a very different kind of memory, a memory it seems the Jews have forgotten in their efforts to occupy and re-settle their Promised Land. The memory of Passover is “You were once a stranger in a foreign land; when you enter the land I have promised you, love the foreigner and the alien.”

It is striking how prevalent and powerful the sense of victimization is here. Both Israel and Palestine claim more and more loudly that they are the world’s greatest victim. Being a victim means that the world, and especially its powerful, owes them everything. At the same time, the party in the wrong, their enemies, are entirely responsible for peace: “It’s their fault, we’re just the victims!” Both sides refuse to consider the pain of the other, and therefore shut themselves off from feeling any responsibility for the ways they have wronged the other. This makes repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation impossible. Lord, have mercy. Salim’s words are powerful:

“We find God in our enemies. We find ourselves in our enemies. Our enemies are always our neighbors: our future depends on how we treat our enemy-neighbors.”

To See Christ Crucified

In one of my classes this semester, “Creative Reading for Imaginative Preaching,” we were just assigned Shusako Endo’s Silence, an award winning novel about Christian Jesuit missionaries from Portugal encountering Japan as a country unwelcome to the gospel. At the beginning of the novel, the priest Sabastian Rodrigues writes to his order with excitement:25200

The face of Christ rises up before my eyes. What did the face of Christ look like? This point the Bible passes over in silence. You know well that the early Christians thought of Christ as a shepherd…one hand is holding the foot of the lamb while the other clasps a staff. . . . That was how the earliest Christians envisaged the gentle face of Christ. . . . As for the medieval artists, many of them painted a face of Christ resplendent with the authority of a king. Yet tonight for me the face is that of the picture preserved in Borgo San Sepulchro. There still remains fresh in my memory the time when I saw this picture as a seminarian for the first time. Christ has one foot on the sepulcher and in his right hand he holds a crucifix. He is facing straight out and his face bears the expression of encouragement it had when he commanded his disciples three times, ‘Feed my lambs, feed my lambs, feed my lambs . . .’ It is a face filled with vigor and strength. I feel great love for that face.

By the end of the novel, after encountering betrayal and torture and executions, Rodrigues is faced with a horrific ultimatum: apostatize (deny Christ) by trampling on an image of Christ (called the fumie), or let innocent Japanese die by torture.

The fumie is now at his feet.

A simple copper medal is fixed on a grey plank of dirty wood on which the grains run like little waves. Before him is the ugly face of Christ, crowned with thorns and the thin, outstretched arms. Eyes dimmed and confused the priest silently looks down at the face which he now meets for the first time since coming to this country. . . .

‘Lord, since long, long ago, innumerable times I have thought of your face. Especially since coming to this country have I done so tens of times. When I was in hiding in the mountains of Tomogi; when I crossed over in the little ship; when I wandered in the mountains; when I lay in prison at night . . . Whenever I prayed your face appeared before me; when I was alone I thought of your face imparting a blessing; when I was captured your face as it appeared when you carried your cross gave me life. This face is deeply ingrained in my soul — the most beautiful, the most precious thing in the world has been living in my heart. And now with this foot I am going to trample on it.’ . . .

The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: ‘Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.’

The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.

We enter Holy Week with an image of the face of Jesus in our minds. Maybe it’s the Sunday School drawing of Jesus smiling gently with children in his lap. Maybe it’s the grant frescoes of the masters, Jesus the king of heaven. Are we willing to see Jesus bruised and bloody and dying?

Lent 6: Forsaken

TERRIBLE SONNET (VI): “No Worst, There Is None,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

NO WORST, THERE IS NONE. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked “No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”
    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.
I’ll let Hopkins speak for himself. No paraphrase, no restating or explaining. This poem is clear. So is the Psalmist.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me.

My hands and feet have shriveled; I can count all my bones.

They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, O Lord, do not be far away!

O my help, come quickly to my aid!

Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!

Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him!

All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him; stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.

The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord.

May your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.

For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him.

Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.

 ~ Psalm 22