Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Easter Story is God’s Answer to Human Evil, Failure, and Despair

This past Sunday millions of Christians across the globe gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For centuries, Easter has been the most important day on the Christian calendar. But even though Christians have celebrated the resurrection for the past two-millenium, the meaning of the resurrection remains fairly mysterious to us. What does the resurrection of Jesus mean? The answers to this question are multifaceted, but a close look at the gospel stories can offer us the heart of Easter’s message.

While all four canonical gospels tell the story of the resurrection, there is something very interesting about the way the gospel of Mark describes the experience. When the women reach the tomb that Sunday, they meet a young man who says to them, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” While this seems straightforward to most readers, a look at the Greek text brings out the meaning of the Easter message. The key words in the statement are ‘crucified’ and ‘raised’. Both are in the passive voice and they are in juxtaposition to one another. A literal translation might be, “The one who was crucified, has been raised.”

Since both words are in the passive voice, the subject of each word is hidden. But are they? The subjects of the participle ‘crucified’ are those who acted evilly against Jesus. But the subject of the verb ‘raised’ is God. And so we have in these two words the story of Easter: On Friday Jesus was crucified by humans; but on Sunday Jesus was raised by God. But what do these few words mean for the faith of these first witnesses and for the faith of millions today?

First, the story of Jesus’ resurrection shows that God’s goodness overcomes human evil. The arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus demonstrate the essence of human malice, as those who tried Jesus falsely convicted an innocent man of a crime he did not commit. But those who perpetrated the evil against Jesus would not have the final say, for God was overcoming their evil act through God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead. The resurrection narrative reminds us that though evil is real and powerful, evil will never win. The Easter message is God’s powerful response to human evil.

Second, the young man’s message about the empty tomb also implies that in the resurrection God’s faithfulness was prevailing over human failure. The scene of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution is memorable for many reasons, but what is significantly shocking is the absence of Jesus’ closet followers. The disciples had abandoned Jesus in his time of need; turning their backs on the one they called master. They had moved from being followers to failures. But in the message of the resurrection, God’s faithfulness prevailed over their failures. The man in the tomb said to the women, “Go and tell Peter and the others that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” While they had failed in their faithfulness, God was continuing to be faithful to God’s plan to bring good news to the world. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s continuing faithfulness to humans who fail.

Third, the resurrection story illustrates that God’s hope triumphs over human despair. The women who came to the tomb that day came to put spices not on their living Lord, but on a dead criminal. Their journey to the grave must have been filled with grief and despair. They were hopeless not only because their teacher had died, but also because all their hopes and dreams had died with him. But the resurrection story transformed their despair into hope. They had left the other disciples in mourning, but they returned to them with joy. Easter not only gave these followers of Jesus back their master, it gave them back their hope and their purpose for living. In the resurrection the futility of human existence was defeated by God’s purpose for humanity; to proclaim loudly and boldly that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Jesus was crucified, but he has been raised! Although a short statement, it is one that has changed the world. For in this simple but profound announcement we hear the crux of the gospel story that God’s goodness defeats human evil; that God’s faithfulness overcomes human failure; that God’s hope triumphs over human despair. Jesus was crucified, but he has been raised!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

In Worship We Join Creation in Celebrating the Coming of God’s Anointed

There is no greater activity we do as Christians than worship. Whether we worship daily in our individual devotion times or worship corporately as we gather with the body of Christ in community worship, our lives ought to exude attitudes and actions of worship. Yet, we may often find worship boring, unnecessary, and even burdensome. As Christians, however, our worship is a response to God and God’s actions in the coming of Jesus. Worship, then, is not a boring, unnecessary, and burdensome exercise. It is an act of grace in which we respond to God’s love and majesty.

The coming of Jesus as God’s Messiah brought euphoric celebration from some and contempt and jealousy from others. Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in Luke 19:28-40 narrates a scene that most pointedly describes these opposing reactions. As Jesus enters the city, the crowds cry out with joy and worship of God for a promised Messiah who has now arrived. Yet, the Pharisees react to Jesus with contempt by refusing to join in the celebration and by stifling the worship of the people

The scene begins with Luke informing us that Jesus was going to Jerusalem. We should not take this as simply a reference to Jesus’ location. Rather, Luke purposely indicates that the prophecies about God’s beloved are about to be fulfilled in the city of fulfillment. The long expected coming of the Messiah is now happening in their lives and the joy they feel cannot be contained. The irony of this is that though the crowds see Jesus coming in victorious power, Luke, Jesus, and the readers familiar with the story, know that Jesus goes to Jerusalem to face denial, rejection, and death.

Yet, while Jesus’ actions were taken by some as the victory of God, others understood them as a direct threat to their authority. The Pharisees, religious leaders of Israel, held their power by the permission of the Roman authorities and any disruption in Jerusalem would surely end their power. In many ways, although the Pharisees hated the Romans, their own fate was tied to pleasing their pagan overlords.

This is why the Pharisees seek to censor the worship of the crowd. Jesus, however, implies that creation itself has longed for this day and if the crowd was silenced, the Pharisees would hear the stones shout in worship to God. The reference to the stones shouting out does not mean that if the crowd is silenced then the stones would begin their worship. The meaning seems to be that the stones, which are symbolic of all of creation, are already offering praise to God. The people are only joining God’s creation in worship.

The portrayal of the characters in the Triumphal Entry scene forces us to see ourselves as part of the story and it calls us to choose a reaction to Jesus’ coming as God’s anointed one. We can either react as the Pharisees did by rejecting Jesus, or we can react as the crowds did and join with creation in the worship of God.

The story also defines for us what our worship should be—the celebratory reaction to God’s actions in Jesus. In worship, we find our place in the choir of creation and we experience the joy of being the objects of God’s love and actions. In the authentic worship of God, we become caught up in the joy of the worship of God as we join creation in shouting out to God in an eternal and exuberant celebration.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Jesus’ Glory is Found in the Cross

One of the dominant themes in the Gospel of Mark is the journey that Jesus and his disciples travel. Often, this wandering band is pictured on the road moving toward, as we discover through reading the story, Jerusalem, the holy city of David. As the narrative of Mark moves forward, however, Jerusalem begins to come into clear view, and Jesus begins to point this out to them.

Most likely those who followed Jesus knew they were headed to Jerusalem; what faithful Jew would not know the direction to Jerusalem. So Jesus’ acknowledgement that they are headed to Jerusalem seems out of place, unless the mention of the direction in which they are headed is intended to mean something. Why does Jesus state specifically that they are headed for Jerusalem? For what purpose did the disciples think they were headed for Jerusalem? Did their understanding of trip to Jerusalem match that of Jesus?

Perhaps they thought that when they reached Jerusalem, Jesus would take his rightful place as King of Israel and overthrow the Romans. Perhaps they followed Jesus, hoping that they would be participants in this rule of Jesus in David’s city. Most likely they believed that Jesus’ purpose in continuing on the road to Jerusalem was so that he would be made King and, consequently, they would share in that kingly power.

This expectation is seen most clearly in the request two of Jesus’ disciples make as their band moves even closer to Jerusalem. The brothers, James and John, come to Jesus with the bold request, “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). These disciples seem to understand that following Jesus leads to glory, but they fail to understand that there is no glory apart from the cross that looms in Jerusalem. The Markan Jesus had spoken to them two other times before this exchange about what would happen in Jerusalem; he would be arrested, beaten and killed. But somehow they failed to hear, or better, refused to hear his words. Instead they continued to see the movement toward Jerusalem as a move toward power and glory and not one that would lead to suffering and death.

The specifics of the request made by the brothers should not be missed. James and John were seeking seats of authority by requesting places on the right and left of Jesus. Jesus affirms that there are such seats, but that they are reserved for whom they have been prepared by God. But the only other place in Mark where people are said to be on the right and left of Jesus is in the crucifixion scene of 15:32-52, where someone is crucified on his right and someone else is crucified on his left. Moreover, just before we read of these two other crucified victims on either side of Jesus, we are told of the inscription that read, “King of the Jews.”

What all of this says to us is that the kingly glory of Jesus in Mark’s narrative is found in his death on the cross, and those who are at the right and left of Jesus in glory are those who take their places on the right and left of Jesus in crucifixion. For Jesus, glory comes not in the heavens, but in the cross.

This overturns our own ideas of greatness and power. Greatness does not come in worldly thrones, but in the throne of a cross. Power does not come by ruling over people, but by serving others. In opposition to the disciples, Jesus was living out true greatness and power by going down the road to Jerusalem that led to the cross.

When I was getting ready to preach one Sunday morning, I sat on one of the front pews in the church. At the end of the pew there was a stack of music books. As we stood to sing, I happened to glance at the title of the books, which read, “Easy Gospel Arrangements” We often are like James and John in that we want easy gospel arrangements. Certainly the gospel is freely offered to all, but it is not cheap in its demands. The real gospel of the real Jesus calls us to give up ourselves in self-sacrificial service to God and others by taking up the cross of Jesus. The true glory of God is in the cross.