Friday, April 14, 2017

A Good Friday Reflection: Jesus’ Cry from the Cross: Abandonment and Hope

I write the words of this current reflection on the morning of what Christians have traditionally called Good Friday, the day on which we reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. While we refer to it as Good Friday, when we read the narratives of Jesus’ last hours, we can find nothing really that good about that Friday. In fact, it is a very dark and violent story about Jesus at his most vulnerable period.

Portrayed on stage, in film, and in church dramas, the passion story of Christ is fraught with human agony and pain that is unequal to any story we read from the Scriptures. And yet, despite the grotesque nature of the story, it is the focus of the Gospels and indeed the entirety of the New Testament. But what are we to make of this story?

This is certainly a difficult question to answer for many reasons. For one thing, the narratives of the Gospels tell the story in such vivid detail that we would be hard pressed to sum up the story in a few simple words. For another, details differ from Gospel to Gospel even though they agree at many points and all four tell essentially the same narrative of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. 

But one thing is certain about the story. The early Christians felt the need to tell this story, with all the details, no matter what it might have said about Jesus, their king and messiah.

While we often look back on the crucifixion with a bit of sentimentality, probably because we are influenced by the introspective, but wrong, idea that “Jesus died for me”, the earliest Christians must have been out of their minds to portray their Messiah as a vulnerable human who hung on a vile Roman cross. Yet, this is exactly the story they told, without sanitizing it.

This straightforward telling of the story by these earliest Christians is epitomized very poignantly in Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) through the only statement Jesus speaks from the cross in these two Gospels. It is a prayer of protest in which Jesus recites Psalm 22:1 and calls out in honest anger, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

This is a cry of naked vulnerability through which the crucified one expresses a deep resentment at the one who once called him the Beloved Son and the one in which he had placed his complete faith. The intimacy that once characterized this relationship was replaced by estrangement and abandonment, and the vulnerability that Jesus experienced in his life was now at its most extreme in his death. 

We cannot deny the fact that on the cross Jesus felt abandoned by God. This was real human emotion responding not only to the pain of death, but more tragically to the feeling of abandonment by the one in whom Jesus had placed his full trust and obedience. Yet, Jesus’ cry is much more than a personal cry to God for his own feelings of desertion. It is a cry he voices for vulnerable humans who also feel abandoned by God.

We often wrongly assume that the Gospels were written only to record the history of Jesus, so that future generations would have a biography of sorts about this famous Jewish Rabbi. They certainly provide us the best historical evidence of Jesus’ life and death. But a more important reason that these narratives about Jesus were written was so that Jesus’ story could become the story through which the vulnerable would find hope.

Thus, Jesus’ cry from the cross is the cry he expresses on behalf of those who suffer under the weight of a world system that produces injustice, oppression, and violence that marginalizes the most vulnerable. It is a cry for those who, like him, have been forsaken. It is a cry against the cruelty of death, particularly an unjust execution by the powers of this world.

Yet, even as his cry expresses abandonment, it also holds forth continued hope. For one thing, Jesus continues to call out to God for he knows that it is only God who can help him. 

Moreover, in quoting the first part of Psalm 22, Jesus may also be invoking the entirety of that psalm. Though Psalm 22, a psalm of lament, begins with a cry of abandonment, it ends in hope and victory.

But perhaps more important for our understanding of why the writers of Matthew and Mark included this inauspicious statement voiced by the one who was crucified is the fact that they are telling a story that does not end at crucifixion.

The Jesus on the cross, though experiencing vulnerability, death, and abandonment by God, will be raised by God, just as he said. The narrative of death and despair will transform into a story of life and hope.

And that is what makes Good Friday good.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Maundy Thursday Reflection: Jesus Modeled Love, Even Toward His Betrayer

Years ago, as I was teaching on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, a very perceptive young man asked me, “How far should we go to love our enemies?” Not only was this a thought provoking question, it was one I had never seriously considered until that moment. Certainly I understood that Jesus had called his followers to love their enemies, but I had never pondered to what extent I was to live this command.
One thing that makes the command so challenging is that Jesus does not qualify which enemies we are to love. Nor is he explicit in how far we are to go in loving them.
Can we pick and choose which ones we are to love? Can we decide on how much love we are to show them? These are relevant questions for us to consider, but Jesus’ command to love our enemies does not help us one bit in deciding how far we are to go in doing this.
Whenever I find myself struggling to come to grips with one of Jesus’ more difficult commands, I often discover clarification by looking at what Jesus does; how he responded to the challenge of doing God’s will. After all, if I claim to be a follower of Christ, it only makes sense that I emulate the way he lived.
Jesus is not only the one who makes our way possible to God; he also acts as the example of true faithfulness before God. Jesus is the paradigmatic disciple of God’s will. 
I need to find incidents in the life of Jesus that give me guidance in understanding the command he has clearly set forth.
While we could point to various stories of Jesus’ love for others, and indeed, the whole story of the incarnation itself is a story of Christ’s love for humanity, there is a very interesting and underlying twist in the account of Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 which may very well prove to be an answer to this perplexing question.
We often hear sermons preached from this scene that focus on the portrayal of Jesus as the true servant, who sets an example of service for his followers. Undeniably, this is the crux of the story. What we may not see, however, is a subtle, but powerful, detail of the story; the interaction between Jesus and the one who sets himself up as the enemy of Jesus, Judas.  
We are very familiar with Judas’ story. He seems to have followed Jesus with hopes that Jesus was the political Messiah who would stir zealous passion in the people to rise up against Rome. We also know that Judas’ dreams did not become reality, as Jesus talked of another kingdom, one characterized by peace, love, and justice, and not by arrogance, violence and war.
It was this realization that may have caused Judas to plot with the religious leaders and hand him over to their authority. John 13:2 makes it clear that Judas’ plan was in the works even as they gathered for the Passover.
What is interesting about this scene, however, is that when Jesus takes up the symbol of a house slave, the towel, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, nothing is said about him passing over Judas. In fact, if we read it carefully, we find that Judas does not leave the table until after Jesus had completed his act of service.
Are we to assume that Judas was a recipient of Jesus’ service? Does the story lead us to accept the distasteful fact that Jesus washed the feet of every disciple, including Judas?  If so, then the follow-up question is why would Jesus wash the feet of any of his disciples, and especially the one who would become his enemy? 
The answer may be close at hand in John 13:1. The verse can be understood in two ways. First, it might be translated, “He loved them to the end.” Or it could read, “He showed them the full extent of his love.” Regardless of which reading is more correct, both capture the essence of Jesus’ act of love towards his disciples, including the one who became his enemy. Indeed, the mention of Judas’ eventual betrayal of Jesus right after the statement concerning Jesus’ love for his own seems to add to this reading that Judas was included in that group whom Jesus loved.
Notwithstanding the evil plot and action soon to be taken by Judas, Jesus continued to express his complete love for Judas to the last possible moment. In the face of betrayal by one of his own, Jesus showed persistent love. While evil was being plotted all around him, Jesus returned love. 
Paul declares in Romans 12, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” He continues, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Like Jesus, Paul is not unaware of the evil people will do to others.

But, as Jesus both taught and modeled for us, retribution toward those who do evil is not the way God calls us to respond. Rather, Jesus taught and modeled for us that loving our enemies means always seeking to love them through repeated acts of goodness that express the limitless love Christ demands of us.

As we reflect on this Maundy Thursday, remembering when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave them the commandment to love one another, and as we approach the dark day of his crucifixion, let us follow Christ’s model of love for all, both our enemies and our friends.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Lent Reflection: Embracing Vulnerability Leads Us to See the Authentic Jesus

The church has historically placed the disciples of Jesus in positions of honor, even referring to them as saints.  Yet, when we read the Gospels, and particularly the Gospel of Mark, we find a somewhat different picture of them.  This is not to say that the disciples should not be viewed as central figures in church history, for they were certainly the framers of the early Christian movement.  But an honest reading of the Gospels shows us that they had real difficulty in understanding who Jesus was and what Jesus’ ministry was about.

Mark 8:22-10:52 is a theologically rich portion of Mark that has a few distinct characteristics.  First, the passage is framed by two stories of Jesus healing blind men, a feature I will address shortly.  Second, it is in this section where Jesus predicts his coming death three times with great detail.  Third, in this subdivision of Mark, the disciples are more noticeably shown as misunderstanding Jesus and his mission, especially in light of his death predictions.  All three of these characteristics from Mark 8:22-10:52 come together to say something about the necessity of embracing vulnerability in order to understand the authentic Jesus.

The two stories of healing two blind men that frame this section are interesting to say the least.  The first one (Mark 8:22-26) is odd for it is a miracle that takes Jesus a couple of tries to perform.  Though he touched the blind man in an attempt to heal him, the blind man cannot see clearly, and Jesus must touch him a second time.  While we may recoil at the thought of Jesus having to retry to heal the man, as if somehow his power to heal the man the first time was short-circuited, the story functions as an important theological point and introduction to this major portion of Mark.

The touching of the man twice serves as an introduction to the theme of the essential blindness of the disciples to Jesus teachings about his death and about the meaning of discipleship.  Each time he predicts his death, they do not understand him, and they even reject his words.   Jesus must come back to them each time and teach them what it means to be a disciple.

Moreover, the disciples are so consumed with their own interests in their own spiritual superiority, pride, power, and exclusiveness that they not only fail to see clearly who Jesus is, they also fail to realize that understanding the mission and message of Jesus requires one to embrace vulnerability.  Their failure to understand is seen even more plainly in the second story of Jesus healing a blind man. 

Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco (ca. 1570)

Mark 10:32-52 begins with Jesus once again predicting his death.  But in response to his words, James and John come to request something of Jesus.  Instead of being shocked by Jesus words, they continue to misunderstand and continue to seek for their own.  Jesus responds to them, What do you want me to do for you?  They answer by asking for places of honor in the kingdom. 

After explaining to them that he cannot grant their request, and after he once again makes clear that he will give his life as a servant, Jesus and the twelve encounter the second blind man sitting on the side of the road.  When Jesus calls the man to come to him, he poses the very same question to him as he did to James and John, What do you want me to do for you?  The blind man simply replies, I want to see again.  He does not seek glory or power, as did those closest to Jesus; he merely wants to see.

This story clearly shows that the disciples, who seem to be insiders who are present with Jesus at crucial moments, and who are privileged to hear the secret teachings of Jesus (Mark 4:11), are really outsiders, who constantly seek their own interests, their own comfort, and their own glory.  They refuse the vulnerability to which Jesus calls them, and in doing so, they are blind to the authentic Jesus and to who they must be in response to Jesus.

In stark contrast to these intimates of Jesus, the minor characters in Mark’s story, like the blind man, are those vulnerable individuals on the fringes of that society who seem to understand the authentic Jesus.  Though they appear to be outsiders, they are really insiders, who recognize Jesus and his mission.

To see the authentic Jesus, we must embrace vulnerability that opens our eyes to the vulnerable Jesus.  Embracing vulnerability, however, means we reject our self-interests, our need to lord over others, our propensity to use violence, and our intolerant and exclusive attitudes towards others.  But we must also reject a Jesus we have crafted to fit our own prejudices and preconceptions.  To know the authentic Jesus, the vulnerable Jesus, means we must also become vulnerable.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lent Reflection: Prophets of God’s Justice Are Vulnerable to the Powers of Injustice

The story of John the Baptist is a familiar narrative to most Christians. We imagine John as a wild man preaching in the desert about repentance and calling people to be baptized. We also visualize John baptizing Jesus, a significant starting point to Jesus’ ministry. But when we think of John, we probably most often recall his death at the hands of King Herod. While all the Synoptic Gospels tell us about John’s death, Mark narrates John’s arrest and death in a quite interesting way that implies something deeply theological about the vulnerability of those who would dare to be prophets of God.

Readers of the Second Gospel are told very early in the narrative that John was arrested (Mark 1:14). Yet, what seems odd is that this is all the information we are given about the Baptizer’s fate at this point in Mark’s story. In fact, we may just skip by Mark’s comment about John’s arrest in chapter one and treat it as an incidental remark written as a segue into focusing on Jesus.

While the comment might simply be a transition into telling about Jesus, it is written for a very specific reason. The telling of John’s arrest immediately before the narration of Jesus going out and proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near is for the purpose of linking the arrest of John with the preaching of Jesus. By connecting the two stories at this point, Mark foreshadows that the fate of Jesus will be like that of John. And the preaching of justice will be the cause of that fate.

A similar link is made between John’s death and the sending out of the 12 disciples in Mark 6. In reading chapter 6 one would have to admit that the structure is a bit strange. First, Jesus speaks about the dishonor he is given in his home region (Mark 6:1-6), and then he sends out the 12 disciples on mission (Mark 6:7-13). After we are told that the disciples are sent out, then we are told, in a complete narrative, the details of John’s death (Mark 6:14-29). But what is interesting is that just after narrating John’s execution, Mark then tells us that the disciples returned to Jesus to report on their mission (Mark 6:30).

The structure of intertwining the sending out the disciples and then their return with the narration of John’s death sandwiched in between is a technique used by the author to tie the fate of the disciples with that of John. From a literary perspective, Mark is saying that their going out to proclaim the gospel is a risky endeavor that makes them vulnerable to the powers who seek to silence God’s message of justice.

St John the Baptist before Herod by Mattia Preti (c. 1665)

There are other passages in Mark that suggest what I am stating here (See 13:9-13), but these are enough to raise a pertinent question. How does proclaiming the gospel make us vulnerable to the powers of injustice?

To get at the answer to this question, we need to refute some common misconceptions about preaching the gospel. Many think it is simply evangelism, where the goal is to convert everyone in the world to Christianity by trying to persuade them that they “need Jesus.” This seems to me to be a very limited understanding of Jesus’ practice of preaching. For one reason, it is mainly, and wrongly I might add, intent on getting people to heaven. For another, it is very individualistic and focused mostly on the spiritual needs of people.

While addressing the spiritual needs of people has some legitimacy, proclaiming the gospel is not simply evangelism. Proclaiming the gospel is speaking the truth about what God desires for humanity- justice in all its forms. While proclaiming the gospel is a call to repent from sin, it is more than anything a call to repent from humanity’s greatest sin, injustice and oppression, whether directly or indirectly, towards those most vulnerable.

The reason that prophets of God’s justice like John, Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., just to name a few, face persecution, is that they are willing to speak truth to power, even the religious power that often sanctions the continuing oppression of the most vulnerable. In doing so, these prophets not only side with the struggles of the marginalized as a form of resisting the status quo of injustice, they also boldly proclaim that God sides with the vulnerable and against the powers that rule.

While we must identify with the vulnerable of our world through our close association with them and service to them, we must also be prophets of truth that call to repentance the powers of society that set up structures of violence and injustice that entrap the vulnerable. But becoming those prophets will set us on a collision course that makes us vulnerable to retribution from those powers.