Monday, April 6, 2015

An Easter Reflection: The Resurrection as God’s Answer to Human Evil, Failure, and Despair

Yesterday 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-millennium, the meaning of the resurrection remains fairly mysterious to us.

What does the resurrection of Jesus mean? The answers to this question are multifaceted, and no answer can fully draw out the meaning of resurrection, 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 morning, 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” (Mark 16:6).

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 having been 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 in the end. 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!

Friday, April 3, 2015

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 with the intention of focusing on Jesus’ death as sacrificial for us, 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.

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 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 abandoned 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 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 primarily 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.

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 using a rabbinical technique through which the one who quotes the beginning of a psalm also invokes the entirety of that psalm. Though Psalm 22 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.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

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 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, “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 Maundy Thursday, 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.