The Kingdom of Life, part 2

(Our church cancelled its services this morning, so instead of preaching this sermon, I decided to share it here! Enjoy!)

Recap

Mark’s gospel tells the beginning of the good news. So far, we have kept company with Jesus on the move, spreading his Kingdom of Life throughout Galilee. We started in Capernaum, where Jesus taught, and cast out demons, and healed the sick and paralyzed. We have followed Jesus and his disciples as they move from village to village, hearing Jesus teach in parables about the character of the king, and his kingdom. Then, as we read last week, he demonstrates the power of that kingdom, the Kingdom of Life, by driving away a legion of demons. In this morning’s reading from Mark, Jesus again demonstrates the nearness of the kingdom, its presence here now, by healing two women: one old, and one young:

Clean & Unclean

Before we can fully appreciate what’s happening in this morning’s text, we need to understand what it means to be clean and unclean, according to Jewish law.

We need to understand clean and unclean because the woman who was bleeding was unclean. Many things made someone unclean: being near certain places or things, eating certain kinds of animals, and of course, bleeding. And uncleanness spreads. When someone is unclean, they are quickly removed from society, from their families, from their lives, and made to stay apart in order to keep everyone else clean. This woman was unclean, and had been for 12 years. That’s 12 years of isolation, loneliness, and physical sickness without any diagnosis, any treatment, any comfort. She has spent everything, and still is left outside of the community. In fact, she has been unclean for so long, that even her name has been forgotten. She is forever remembered as the bleeding woman.

On the other hand, Jairus is the very model for ceremonially cleanliness. Notice that he is remembered by name, and by his office in the community, a leader of the synagogue. This man, and gender is also important, would have enjoyed every privilege, had every advantage in the community. In fact, he was central to the community, a prominent religious and social leader, someone trusted and revered and essential.

This is what the system of clean and unclean looks like in the community. But why is this system in place at all? Is this just a human system, to keep certain people in and certain people out, for the health of society? I think that’s how we often think of it, that this is a broken system that preserves the status quo. That’s maybe what it had become by the time Jesus walked on this earth, but that’s not the way it started. The system of clean and unclean was a gift from God in order to help hold back the kingdom of death and preserve his chosen people for life.

Part of our great Christian vocabulary is “original sin,” what happened the day that Eve and Adam ate that forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You can read that story in Genesis 3, it’s one of the first stories in our Bible. It narrates for us the reason for the presence of sin in the world, why we age and suffer and ultimately die, and why we are so prone to sin, to give in to temptation. We often define our original sin as our arrogance, our prideful rebellion against God and our insistence on running our own kingdoms the way we want. But original sin, our sinfulness, is more than the sum of our sinful acts. Our sinful state goes beyond the things we do, the decisions we make, to rebel against God and live for ourselves. Original sin is also made up of the consequences of all sin in the world: the death and decay and disease and despair and disasters. Everything that is not right in the world, not the way it’s supposed to be, is part of the original sin that has pervaded creation since Genesis 3. The bleeding woman is suffering under the weight of original sin, isolated from her community because she bears the stain of sin on her body, not because of anything she did, not for any reason, simply because sin and brokenness and death rule over the world. God gave his people the gift of the system of clean and unclean in order to hold the natural consequences of sin at bay, away from the people of God, to give life its best chance to grow and spread and take root in the world.

This is all significant for our story this morning because the people that Jesus encounters believe there is a profound link between the health of the body and the health of the spirit. To be clean or unclean is more than just the state of their body, but the state of their soul, as well. The condition and works of our bodies impact the shape and condition of our souls! That idea is lost today, we think our bodies and souls are separate entities, but it was an integral belief of the people we meet in this story.

Once we understand the importance of the clean and unclean system, we begin to better grasp what Jesus is up to here, and why Jesus is so keen to heal these women, both the old and the young. Both women are living in the kingdom of death, one for 12 years and the other only 12 years old. Jesus is fulfilling the original purpose of the clean and unclean system: to force back the power of sin and death in the world and to make room for life. What the clean and unclean system could only do in part, Jesus works completely, fully, dramatically. Jesus is about the work of reversal here, reversing the spread of uncleanness, of death, and instead spreading health and life and strength and wholeness. Unclean people were kept in quarantine to keep the uncleanness from spreading throughout the community; cleanness could only be given again at the synagogue or temple, by performing certain rites and sacrifices. But in the presence of Jesus, cleanness and wholeness spread, simply by touching him – even the edge of his clothes! – and disease and death retreat and perish. This is our King! This is the king with healing in the very corners of his robes. This is the king who so loves his people that he cannot leave them in the isolation and loneliness and quarantine of their sin, but draws them to himself and risks his own uncleanness for their healing.

 Faith & Healing

But what does our faith have to do with all this? That should be our next question. If it is true that Jesus is the power by which we can be healed, then why does Jesus commend the woman that her faith has made her well? Remember that the work and condition of our bodies affects the work and condition of our souls; the reverse is also true: the work of our soul has an impact on the shape or condition of our bodies. Jairus’s household and this unnamed woman both exhibit great faith, and it affects their healing. That is a given of Mark’s story here. But that causes us some anxiety, right? We know, either from our personal experience, or from a pretty simple exercise of our imagination, that this story can’t be a guarantee that faith works healing always. We have prayed for healing, and received none. We have prayed for life and strength for those dying, and have had to attend their funeral and mourn their death. We would say those prayers were in earnest, given in faith. And yet our faith did not guarantee healing, did not ensure life. What do we do with that?

I don’t have any hard and fast answers. I wrestle with these questions. I have prayed for healing, for myself and for friends and for family, and not seen those prayers answered dramatically, immediately. I have laid my hands on sick people, and not seen them get up and walk away healthy. Do I not have enough faith? I assumed so. And, to be honest, I still don’t have answers to these questions; I don’t know what anyone does. But I don’t think that’s the point of this story. I don’t think we should be left anxious and fearful about whether we have enough faith to be well, because that’s ultimately not what I hear Jesus saying to us.

The relationship between healing and faith is, as I take it, sort of a chicken-egg relationship. What comes first? Do we pray for healing in our faith, or are we given faith to pray for healing? Does our faith make us well, or are we made well to live in faith? They are related, to be sure. Our bodies and souls are more united that we think. But the one thing that comforts me over and over again, the one answer I do have, is that the ultimate power to heal is the power of God at work. The real power behind healing, behind restoration, behind life, is not our faith, but the author of faith, Jesus Christ, the Divine Word through whom all things that have been made were made. That Author, that Word, that Power, is the one who calls us to Himself, and to life abundant. And that Power comes to us, not as some amorphous Force, not as the sum of all of nature’s positive energies, not as a fickle or self-obsessed deity, but as God-made-man, Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi, in order that he would have a personal relationship with us.

 The King is Near!

That is ultimately what Jesus means when he proclaims the gospel: “The Kingdom of God is near!” Jesus is announcing that the king, he himself, has come near to his beloved ones, in order to have a personal relationship with them, with us. We see in this morning’s story that Jesus is focused, not so much on healing these women, but on meeting them as people, and valuing them. It is not enough to heal their bodies if their souls continue to live in separation and loneliness.

We see in this story that both Jairus and the unnamed woman have great faith. Jairus has faith that the Rabbi’s touch can heal his daughter. And he has the audacity to presume on Jesus’ time, asking him to drop everything and come to his home, in spite of Jesus’ obvious busyness; that’s a faith that some of us are maybe in need of this morning, the faith to bring all of our needs and worries to God, no matter how trivial. The woman also has faith, perhaps an even greater faith than Jairus; she believes that just his clothes are powerful enough to heal her from what no doctor has been able to cure for 12 years. But she presumes that Jesus will be too busy even to speak with her, that she must break her quarantine of uncleanness and sneak through the crowds to touch him secretly.

Jesus Christ our King is about the work of reversal, reversing the spread of the kingdom of death and advancing the kingdom of life. He’s also reversing these two faithful people’s expectations. Jairus’s faith is made public, with a grand request and mass journey to his house; but Jesus makes their encounter private, permitting only immediate family and his disciples to witness the healing. Jairus is taught here that faith is certainly a public act, but it must first and always be grounded in a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, if it is to have any ultimate value.

The woman has an even greater faith than Jairus has, but she keeps it private. Perhaps she was taught by her society and her culture that a woman’s faith is supposed to be private, supposed to stay within the realm of the home and not the streets. More likely, she desperately needs to keep her presence in the crowd a secret, so she doesn’t cause a scandal by being unclean in the presence of so many, and making all of them also unclean. But she has such faith that Jesus – even Jesus’ clothes! – can make her well that she breaks the clean/unclean rules to press in through the crowds and touches Jesus. No sooner has she touched the hem of his clothes than she is healed; and no sooner is she healed than Jesus feels the healing occur. He will not continue to Jairus’s house without acknowledging the healing, and waits until the healed one comes forward. The woman’s private faith is made public. Faith is, of course, personal, but Jesus shows the woman, and the crowds, that faith is not true faith if it remains private. Jesus calls her great faith from the shadows into the public for the benefit of all to see, but even more so that he could meet the one who was healed face to face, and to make her faith and her healing take root in this personal encounter, and grow into something even greater than physical health.

Just like Jesus makes Jairus’ public faith private, and makes the woman’s private faith public, in order that he might encounter them on an intensely personal level, he draws us into situations where our faith is put to work, in order that he might meet us face to face and reveal himself to us as a person who wants an intimate relationship with us. Our American culture is tired of the Christian cliché about a personal relationship with Jesus, but that is an essential part of the beginning of the good news, not to be apologized for or swept under the rug of trendiness. This is the hope to which we cling, the joy that causes us to lift our hearts in adoration not just on Sundays, but every day: our great hope and comfort is that the God of the Universe, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, sent his very Son, Light of Light, true God of true God, into the world he so loved, in order that we might know God himself face to face, as a tender and caring Father, and cast ourselves on him as our only sure hope of rescue and restoration.

I want to close with one last thought, then, in light of this morning’s reading, from the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the Reformed Church’s confessions of faith. Next Sunday evening at 7:00 we will discuss this first question and answer of the Heidelberg, but this morning I want us to remember together how the Kingdom of Life that Jesus the King brings with him is not some distant or abstract or removed thing, but is intensely and deeply personal, given for us.

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1.

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

 

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.”