“Christ Supreme”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church (Springfield, SD) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. This sermon serves as the introduction to Emmanuel Reformed’s summer/fall preaching series through the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews

Introducing Hebrews

We know very little about the the author of this letter “To the Hebrews.” We can be fairly sure that the writer isn’t Paul. Paul makes himself known in his letters. The author of Hebrews does not tell us his (or her) name. We don’t know his name, but we do know his heart. The writer of Hebrews is a pastor, one who is deeply familiar with the Old Testament, and with Jesus Christ, and with the concerns and pressures of his audience, the church he’s writing to.

The audience of this letter, “the Hebrews,” are exactly that: Jewish Christians living in and around the city of Rome during the peak of violent persecution against Christians. This is another reason we can be pretty sure the writer isn’t Paul: Paul’s calling and mission was to Gentiles, not to Jewish Christians.

Imagine a house church or small congregation of Jews who have converted to Christianity – maybe were even present in Jerusalem at Pentecost, baptized with the water and the Spirit. These Jewish Christians have the Holy Spirit within them, and a solid understanding of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, but little else. And now they are being persecuted in Rome, racially as Jews and religiously as Christians. Ancient Rome was a pluralist society, meaning that many different cultures – and religions – were practiced and protected equally. That sounds like it should mean that Christians would have been equally safe and free to worship Jesus Christ, but we know that it wasn’t. Christians became Public Enemy Number One in Rome, and for this house church of Jewish Christians, their anxious reaction was to withdraw from the world and from each other, and potentially even to surrender their faith entirely, choosing instead to merely blend in to the world around them. This letter is written to these Christians, to encourage them in the faith and urge them to persevere.

This morning’s reading: Hebrews 1

Christ is Lord

To encourage Christians and assure their faith, the writer of Hebrews holds forth Christ. Specifically, we read here that Christ is God. According to the first verses of this letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is:

  • the inheritor of all things,
  • the creator of all things, and
  • the sustainer of all things.

Christ, the Son of God, has been given all authority over all things by God the Father. That is what we mean when we confess that Christ is Lord. Christ has all authority over all of me, and over all of everything.

This confession in Christ alone is the reason that Christians were so unwelcome and untrusted in pluralist Rome: in a society that insists everyone is free to worship however and whomever they choose, where everyone is equally “tolerated,” the only intolerable person is the one who says they have the right answer for everyone. If Christ is Lord, as all of Scripture says, then Christ is Lord of all. This technically means that Christians today still hold an “intolerant” position, if the dominant alternative narrative is that there is no Truth, only many equally valid belief options. That’s the world’s best solution for human peace on human terms. The best we can do for ourselves as humans is to simply “get along;” and according to the world, the first thing that has to go – if we’re all going to “get along” – is any absolute Truth claims, any position that one person can assert over another. The irony of this pluralism, of course, is that it is itself an absolute Truth claim: “all humans must tolerate and accept all humans equally if there is to be peace; and if you disagree, we can’t tolerate or accept you.” That’s the driving story that our world is still living by.

The writer of Hebrews – Thanks be to God! – has immersed himself in a different story, a story that holds forth real, lasting, substantial peace! Jesus Christ is the full revelation of a new way, the perfect image and imprint of His Father, who is at work in the world to redeem, restore and reconcile the world to Himself.

In Rome, that story was unwelcome. The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) was threatened by this story of divine peace, found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This house church was therefore under pressure to change their story: “Just say that Jesus was another angel, a created divine being. We have lots of those, and we’ll welcome another!” At the outset of this letter, the writer of Hebrews insists that Christ is far more than any angel, according to the witness of all of the Hebrew Bible; and to say otherwise is to exchange the hard truth for an easy lie. No, the writer of Hebrews offers only Christ as the foundation of our faith, and the reason for our hope.

Christ is our High Priest

In Christ we see God’s solution for peace, peace beyond human understanding. We read in verse 3 a small phrase full of meaning: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Jesus Christ came as our Great High Priest to do what no human priest has ever done before: to offer one sacrifice for all people in all places at all times, that all sin might be washed away forever. Jesus Christ is also that sacrifice, offering his own sinless blood as the perfect atonement for sin, reconciling us to God the Father.

Our story offers us a peace so complete, so perfect, that no danger or threat can shake us. In Christ our Lord, we are brought into right relationship with God the Father almighty; in Christ our Lord, we are also brought into right relationship with all those who also in Christ our Lord. We are adopted as sons and daughters into a spiritual family that transcends and includes all races, all nations, all languages, all peoples. Christ has made peace – true peace – possible. The world’s best hope — apart from Christ — is “keeping the peace.” Christ actively makes peace. This peace we find in Jesus Christ is our hope for this world, and for the world to come.

And that is the main theme of this letter: the Supremacy of Christ. God has made His Son Jesus Christ first and highest over everything, that everything might be restored and renewed and reconciled in Him. We will read this throughout the book of Hebrews, but it’s laid out clearly here: Christ is first, greatest, highest, Ruler and Reconciler of all.

And with Christ, our Lord and our Savior, so highly exalted, our peace and our hope is sure. We will see throughout this Letter to the Hebrews how we are therefore called to persevere in hope, knowing that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only our Savior in the past, and our Lord for the future, but also our Priest in the present, praying even now for us at the right hand of God the Father. Thanks be to God for the precious gift of His Son for us, and for our salvation. Amen!

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“No Condemnation”

Ruth Haley Barton, in her book on spiritual disciplines and crafting a spiritual rule of life, Sacred Rhythms, lays out one of the most helpful and well-rounded orders for Lectio Divina I’ve encountered.

  1. Read (and Remain)
  2. Reflect
  3. Respond
  4. Rest (and Resolve)

This is the order I try to use whenever I go through Lectio (which is just a fancy way of saying “devotional” or “sacred reading”); very helpfully, Barton says of these four “movements”:

“We might think of them as moves rather than steps because it reminds us of dancing. When we are first learning a new dance, we are very awkward and very concerned about getting it right. We watch our feet, trying to get them to do what they are supposed to do. We wonder what to do with our hands. If we are dancing with a partner, we may be clumsy at first as we try to figure out how to move together gracefully. But in the end, the point is to be able to enter into the dance, flow with it, improvise and enjoy the person we are dancing with. It is the same with lectio divina.”

I feel a little clumsy this morning, unsure of my feet, stepping on my own toes, but eager to pick up the steps again.

Epistle | Romans 8:1-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

This is a complicated passage for Lectio. It’s a bit long, and the wording is technical, but the opening is strong and striking. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v.1).

No condemnation.

In remaining with this phrase, I am led to reflect on the undeserved and absolute forgiveness and reconciliation that is mine in Christ. Undeserved, because I didn’t work my way toward Christ through obedience or good works — Paul goes on to lament the insufficiency of “the law” to achieve this reconciliation. Absolute, because in Christ’s death and resurrection, sin is no more. This is a marvel for me, that where the law was a standing condemnation to sinners, Christ made a once-for-all sentence against sin itself.

In response, then, is it enough to be simply grateful? Isn’t this the complicated message of Matthew 18? As those who have been so undeservedly and absolutely forgiven, we must be agents of undeserving and absolute forgiveness. What is more, as one who has been so completely reconciled to God the Father through Christ by the Spirit, I am charged to be an agent of reconciliation, welcoming and accepting and reinstating anyone who claims Christ’s forgiveness. What would it look like, for Christians — for whole churches! — to be recognized for their gracious welcoming and forgiveness and bearing one another’s burdens, rather than for their judgmental moralism and narrow understanding of who’s in and who’s out? What if we abandoned this “Love the sinner, Hate the sin” ethic, which has historically been so harmful to the so-called “sinner” precisely because it fixates on “the sin,” and instead we lived toward others as though God really has freed all sinners, because, in Christ, sin itself has been sentenced to death? What then?

As I read the passage again, concluding the lectio exercise, I am drawn to verse 6: “to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Life, because I have been granted a radical gift of grace, and stand, by God’s grace, under “No Condemnation.” Peace, because just as I have been forgiven, so am I called — and resolved — to live toward others in a posture of radical forgiveness, which “is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. ” (1 Corinthians 13:5-7). This is the foundation of Christian unity, that we bear with one another in love; this is a costly unity.

Come, Holy Spirit, and lead us into unity and peace.

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.”

Day 6: Via Dolorosa

Sunday morning in Jerusalem is a lot different than Sunday morning in Holland, MI, or in Sioux Center, IA. I have lived almost my entire life in cities that would identify themselves as “Christian.” Jerusalem is not a Christian city. Jerusalem is divided between the Jews and the Arabs/Muslims. According to our tour guide, Jerusalem is comprised of 33% religious Jews, 33% “secular” Jews, and 33% Muslims. The Jewish and Muslim quarters are so divided that neighborhoods rarely interact, and they even have their own shops and services.

For those who are good at math, you’ve probably noticed that these percentages don’t quite make a whole. The remaining 1% of Jerusalem is Christian, but there is no distinct Christian quarter. The Christians live among the Jews and the Muslims alike. The Jerusalem cross, we are told, has become a symbol for this.

Jerusalem Cross

The four smaller crosses remind the Christians living in Jerusalem of their neighbors in the four quarters of Jerusalem; the large cross – the cross of Jesus Christ – does not divide Jerusalem, but unites it and binds it together. Division is not the answer that we think it is; political solutions to racial and religious conflict have often centered on division (Bethlehem’s wall is a primary example). We who are in Christ are called to be ambassadors of peace and reconciliation, going into places of conflict and reconciling it, rather than “managing” it by division or compromise. A hard word for a quiet Sunday morning; a call to discerning action and many prayers.

The Via Dolorosa

Sunday morning in Jerusalem is not marked by the solemn parades of cars to churches and home again for family dinners, like it is at home. Sunday here is another normal workday, a day for families to run errands, pick up groceries, go for a jog, walk pets, meet friends. The few Christians there are in Jerusalem find their way to their churches – Roman Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, etc. — in peace, largely unnoticed. Our group chooses to celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord on Sunday morning by walking the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Suffering,” the route Jesus took on his painful journey to the cross.

We go early, before the narrow maze of Jerusalem’s historic streets are crowded with a normal day’s traffic. Our group gathers around empty church doorways and ignored plaques in the brick walls, often blocking the entire street; we are one more small reminder to the Jews and Muslims going about their day that Christ’s disciples are called to take up their cross and follow the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on the inconvenient, narrow way of suffering that winds its way through the heart of the world’s great conflict.

As we walk the path of Christ’s steps to the cross — from the site of the 1st-century Antonia Fortress where Jesus was tried by Pilate, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre built on the historical/traditional sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection — like so many Christian pilgrims have for two thousand years before us, we meditate on the Stations of the Cross by reading the story, with its accompanying prayers and hymns.

This was an indescribably moving experience for me. I completely understand why this is one of the most important pilgrimages for a Christian. I know the steps Jesus actually walked are a thousand feet beneath me, but these steps have been trod by countless Christian brothers and sisters just like me, seeking to mysteriously participate in Christ’s sufferings. I also realize that pilgrimage is completely lost on our group, even on me. We don’t think this way anymore, that God’s presence is in and around and among us in this world in “thin places” for us to encounter, so I don’t have the mental infrastructure to fully apprehend and appreciate this experience. Some of our group have done this before so many times that this is just another walk through Jerusalem, hearing the old, familiar story; most of our group have never done anything like this so this is just another walk through Jerusalem, hearing the old, familiar story. I can recognize that this is a unique opportunity to touch holiness and be changed by it, and yet I am also  on just another walk through Jerusalem, trying to experience anew and participate in the old, familiar story in the middle of 21st-century Jerusalem’s workaday busyness. Lord, have mercy. Show up in Jerusalem. Show up to us. Wake us up to the holiness that is thick here, and show us your powerful presence, and give us open hearts to receive it, and respond to it.

Hezekiah’s Tunnel

Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. Hezekiah prospered in all his works.

~ 2 Chronicles 32:30

After our pilgrimage on the Via Dolorosa, we take another walk through under Jerusalem: Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Hezekiah was one of the few good kings of Judah — restoring correct temple worship, reducing the pagan shrines, and reinstating the Passover as a national feast — who kept the Southern Kingdom from exile during his reign. His fortification of Jerusalem and other building projects included rerouting water through Jerusalem in order to provide for his people during Assyrian seiges.

The city of Jerusalem has made this tunnel accessible for tours, including the quite narrow stretch of it that required us to walk through knee-deep water in the dark, single-file, and for us taller ones, to duck most of the way. An experience to remember (forget?). The historical significance of this tunnel is minor, except that it demonstrates the strategic mind of King Hezekiah at work in service to his great heart for God’s people in order to provide for them in times of dire need. I suspect that the state of Israel has developed sites like these into tourist destinations to bolster its sense of a great military history; but I wonder what King Hezekiah would say of this posthumous pedestaling of his works, when the Bible remembers him for his devotion to God, his zeal for worshiping God and not himself. I wonder.

City of David

The tunnel runs along the ancient “City of David,” a new archeological find of the Old Testament city of Jerusalem during the days of David. This area is surprisingly small, and, as it is still being excavated, we only got an overview.

Pool of Siloam

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

~John 9:6-7

Hezekiah’s Tunnel finishes at the Pool of Siloam. We exit the tunnel at a pool that was long thought to be the biblical pool of Siloam, but has been recently proved to be a later work. We walk down a bit further to what is now known to be the biblical Siloam, a pool still mostly unexcavated. This pool is the site of only one verse of Scripture, where a blind man washes his face and opens his eyes seeing. An incredible story in its own right, but the surrounding events of this story are even more remarkable.

John 9 records the story of a man blind from birth, a disability that everyone — disciples and Pharisees alike — assumes the wages for some sin, either the man’s or his parents’. Jesus answers that “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3). And God’s works are revealed. The man is healed with a strange formula of Messiah saliva and Jerusalem dirt and spring water, but it is not mysterious mud that makes this man see. Siloam, John tells us, means “sent,” and just as this man is “sent” to receive his sight, so also is Jesus Christ “sent” from God to restore all things, including sight to the blind.

This pool has biblical roots that go deeper than this episode, roots that tie this man’s healing into the Messiah’s whole project to restore creation to its Creator. The water from the pool of Siloam is living water, water fed from a stream, rather than a well or a cistern. This means that the water can be used for temple worship in its rituals. During one festival in particular, the Festival of Tabernacles/Booths (called Sukkot), a priest would go to the Pool of Siloam, while all the people followed singing, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation!” (Isaiah 12:3), and the priest would gather water from the pool in a golden pitcher. Everyone would return to the temple, where the priest would pour the water out into the basin by the altar for all to see as a remembrance of the water that God provided for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness.

Jesus attends the Festival of Booths, and “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” ‘ “ (John 7:37-38)

Jesus Christ is the promised Messiah who will “draw water from the wells of salvation.” He is the Living Water sent from God for the healing and restoration of all things. Thanks be to God for sending us The Living Water, Jesus Christ, for our journey through the wilderness of life, who satisfies our thirst and gives us eyes to see the works of God in the world to redeem it and restore it and recreate it.

Israeli Museum

In the afternoon we visited the Israeli Museum, which is home to a number of exhibits:

  • Model of Jerusalem
  • Archeological Museum
  • Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit
  • Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum
  • Children’s Memorial

This was a complicated and difficult afternoon for me, and I’m not sure what to post. “Yad Vashem” (“Hand and Name” in Hebrew) is a single vault of concrete and steel and glass with a one-way path of exhibit rooms winding back and forth across it. There’s an atmosphere in this brutal march that is simultaneously punishing and pitiable, as if the air itself were humming “Never again. This will never happen to us again.” Among the other tourists there were groups of American Jews on their birthright tour and Jewish soldiers in military garb; both groups were young adults ages 19-25, and the message of Yad v’Shem seemed to reverberate off of them: “Never again.” Their tears, their anger, their shock, all transfigured this exhibit into quite another via dolorosa, a very different “way of suffering.”

I did my best to really absorb the entire exhibit, to not become numb or distant, to charitably engage what I was seeing and hearing with generous ears, to understand. This was hard. The videos and displays and presentations and the very walls echoed with the voice of a belligerent victim: “Never again. This will never happen to us again.” When that message is all that you hear, all the time — in every article, every conversation, every news report — there can be no room for grace, no room for forgiveness, no room for reconciliation. Hurt people become so filled with their hurt that all they offer the world is their hurt. Yes, they are certainly victims of great injustice, and not just in the last century. But when all you are is a victim, then the only thing you get is what is owed you. Grace cannot be owed. And grace is the only thing that transforms a “way of suffering” into a way of healing and restoration.

Parents’ Circle – Family Forum

In the evening our group gathered to hear from two individuals on behalf of Parents’ Circle Family Forum, an organization that helps connect people who have lost family members to the constant conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims. This is not a religious group, but their work is born out of the belief that reconciliation is the only way to lasting peace in the Middle East.

We listened to stories of pain and grief and anger, and how their meeting other fathers and mothers who had lost children, or husbands and wives who had lost spouses, transformed their solitary “ways of suffering” into a path toward reconciliation walked by many others. In the wake of the sorrow caused by religious and political and family conflict, reconciliation is crossing the divide between Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, victim and victor. While this reconciliation is not going forward in Christ’s name, I felt in my heart as I listened to their stories that the only way this kind of reconciliation happens is in Christ’s power. The message of reconciliation is going forward, creating a way of healing out of the way of suffering.

***

I’m trusting these sensitive reflections to the internet, mostly because I recognize that most of you reading this are people who already know me well and understand my heart behind these words. The situation in Israel-Palestine is political, and I don’t offer any of these words as political discourse in favor of any one position or party. The situation in Israel-Palestine is also religious, and I am reflecting here on my experience of another culture as someone deeply committed to the way of Jesus Christ: I share my reflections because seeing the Cross of Christ at work in another place can open our eyes to see the Cross of Christ at work in our own as well. May we have eyes to see.