Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

The Cure for a Corrupt Mind

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans  7:14-25, NRSV)

In the last several weeks, the news media has spent a great deal of energy uncovering instances government mismanagement and corrupt behavior. Classified leaks, secret cover ups and scapegoating have dominated the news cycle. The IRS, NSA, DOJ, Benghazi and the palace intrigue of wondering what the President knew and when he knew it, are the latest parlor games in Washington, DC. The seriousness of these events are still hijacked by much of the media (which for the most part has lost all sense of objectivity), to stoke general fears of government overreach, state monitoring and possible media interference.

Let’s be clear, in a free society there should always be the expectation of free access to people, places and information. Any reason for secrecy should be carefully debated, explained and then continually reviewed to see if the reasons are still valid for secrecy.  Open societies can have secrecy, but what makes them different from totalitarian secrecy is that there are well-defined and oft debated reasons for secrecy. The freedom of information is held with primacy along with the need for security.

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Much of that process took place when the Patriot Act of 2001 was enacted by Congress as a result of the attacks of September 11th. There were many voices of consent and dissent that were part of the discourse but in the end, a free society chose secrecy balance by freedom. The Act has been renewed several times by members of congress with overwhelming support, each time with new hearings and new conversation of the reasons we have for being secretive. To date we have chosen to keep the balance toward secrecy.

Unlike the surveillance programs, the other scandals are true instances of misconduct and negligence on the part of our government. These other scandals are bureaucratic and selfish attempts at government (or persons charged with the public trust in government) to act toward personal ends. We often miss the incredible selfishness that is present in our government structure as institutional preservation outweighs all other considerations toward morality. Whether it is secretly seizing records in a criminal investigation, withholding applications because of political affiliations, and/or the editing of talking points to save political careers; the trouble centers on the will to do right, over the will to do for self.

Government is not the only place where this battle of will is played out. So often we as individuals are faced with this same battle of wills. We battle between what we know is right and moral to do in a situation, and then battle against what we want to do for ourselves. Paul alludes to this very battle in this letter to the Romans. In discussing the work of the Jewish law in the life of the believer, Paul defines the law as convicting and clearly designed to bring us to an understanding of our immorality before God. So then, in light of the law, we are forced to know what the difference is between right and wrong.

As a result of that knowledge, we must choose. Empowered by a will to do either good or evil, we choose to act in the world. We choose to conform to the law or “live in the flesh” (according to Paul). Like much of the foolishness going on in our government, we often choose based upon self gain, preservation and a general belief that ‘no one will find out’.  Unfortunately what results from decision-making in this way are corrupt, ineffective and blatantly selfish actions that cannot be undone.

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If all we had was our understanding of the law and our failure to live up to it, then we indeed would be doomed. But Paul says in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”. It is by and with and through Jesus Christ that we are empowered to be different. By taking on HIS will, we see different options for being the good sheep He calls us to be. Sure corruption is always possible, but Paul’s admonishment is to be different for the sake of Christ. This same Christ who took on indifference and hatred make a decision for Him. This same Christ who died for you, the epitome of selflessness. Make the right choice because of who He is to you…

My vision of truth for us is just that: Be different for the sake of the one who became different for you.

 

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Filed under Christian Church, Christianity, Community, Discipleship, Epistles, Hope, Interpersonal Relationships, Jesus Christ, New Testament, Political Theology

The Question of Intent…

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah… (Matthew 1:1-6, NRSV)

The Christian faith is built upon many different tensions. Seemingly contradictory, traditional Christian tenets hold a tenuous grasp of polar opposites. The story of the faith is built on God becoming human, bringing the dead back to life and saving all of humanity to eternal life by dying. Christian disciples are both free to exercise their will, within the confines of God’s will. Christians carry within them all the promises and power that God conveys to God’s children, yet we often act with all the values of people who are not yet disciples of Christ.

One of the strongest tensions present in the Christian worldview is that of God’s intent and humanity’s exercise of free will. Beginning in the garden of Eden and working all throughout the biblical narratives humanity seems to so often get it wrong, and yet somehow, God’s will is enacted in creation. Many times, despite humanity’s best efforts to the contrary, God’s overarching plan is realized for the betterment of creation.

 

In contemporary life, we struggle with the realization and exploration of Gods will versus our own wants and desires and more specifically, how these two tensions are experienced for us. We hear that struggle whenever we hear a preacher or congregant talking about “staying in God’s will” or “waiting to see what God is going to do”. Many of our churches have preached that people ‘be in the will of God’ at the same time they say “God has empowered them to take action” without understanding inherent contradictions in those statements.

The working of God’s intent and design in humanity cannot ever fully be understood. Nor can the gift (sometimes perverted) of human intent and action in the world (free will) ever be fully appreciated theologically. However, an example of where we get it wrong is found in the comments of Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock a few weeks ago. The gist of the story is linked here. Mr. Mourdock argued at a debate that,

“I know there are some who disagree, and I respect their point of view, but I believe that life begins at conception,” Mourdock said at a debate with Democratic opponent Rep. Joe Donnelly and libertarian Andrew Horning. “The only exception I have to have an abortion is in that case of the life of the mother.” Mourdock added: “I just struggled with it myself for a long time but I came to realize: Life is that gift from God that I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” (Taken from an article entitled ‘Richard Mourdock under fire for rape remarks’ on www.politico.com)

Now, parsing his words, I believe that Mr. Mourdock was referring to the life of the child that results from pregnancy and to not the rape itself. While life is indeed a gift from God, Mr. Mourdock’s statements relegate women (and all humanity) to mere backdrops on the stage of creation. No matter how life comes into the world, we should be grateful for it and ignore the means of conception? No matter how painful or complicated or unintended or unlawful that conception might be? In other words the extension of this argument is that the ends justify the means. Rape results in life and therefore (fill in the blank). While the latter statement, Mr. Mourdock never said, I am using the extension of his argument to illustrate a point. (It also should be noted that I do not believe politicians should be in the business of doing theology.)

According to this theology, the free exercise of human will only serves to enact God’s will. We act and regardless of what we do, God’s ends are always served. As good as that might sound, the implications of this theology means that acts of violence like rape are what God has always intended. Everything from the murder of Abel by Cain to nuclear war, the Holocaust and genocide are all God’s will in the end. You see, in this theological frame, you cannot distinguish human action from God’s sovereignty. Despite the abhorrent implications of this theology, many serious God-fearing Christians (as given testament to by Mourdock’s statements) believe in this kind of warped orthodoxy.

Our text for today offers us a more genuine theological perspective. This text is the opening of the gospel of Matthew and is known as the genealogy of Christ. Contained in the heritage of Christ is every manner of human experience and relationship. Some children are produced by traditional marriage (ancient marriage), others are products of rape and incest, while others still are counter to cultural practices and have suspect origins. Peculiar that the savior of the world comes down and through many of the same experiences that all of us have in our family tree?

With all of this abounding soap operatic history, the writers of the gospel make a subtle distinction when speaking to human intent and God’s will in relationships in verse 6b. The writer recognizes the parentage of Solomon but makes clear, that Bathsheba was never lawfully David’s wife; she was “the wife of Uriah”. If you are familiar with the story of David and Bathsheeba (2 Samuel 11), you will discover the machinations of David to get his way with another man’s wife. (It should be noted that if this incident had taken place today, David would have been considered a statutory rapist for using his position to coerce sexual activity).

 

Despite this failure of David, the point of the writer in Matthew’ geneology is that we cannot ever, from our limited vantage, distinguish God’s intent from our human action. The biblical witness and story convey that our only real vantage for understanding is in reverse: seeing how God can redeem the actions that we perform. And God CAN redeem our mistakes and mess-ups! We make huge mistakes, we are violent towards one another. We steal, we cheat we murder, those acts are not God designed or God intended. They are the results of the perversion of the gift of human will. It is within the power of God to redeem our horrible acts toward each other to find moments of grace and healing. It isn’t as easy as it sounds nor is it as simple as exchanging pain for healing. It takes time, effort and mercy and sometimes takes a lifetime to adjust to. Some victims never reach that point in survival. Just ask any victim of sexual assault and violence.

The truth is always more complicated than any politician (or any human being) can ever really understand. In the end, speaking for God is always problematic and risky. Let the works and intent of God be revealed through experiences in the life of God. Somewhere in the midst of human trial and God’s design we can find a vision of truth that moves us closer to healing.

 

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Filed under 2012 Election, Christianity, Community, Discipleship, Gosepls, Hope, Interpersonal Relationships, Jesus Christ, New Testament, Old Testament, Political Theology, Redemption

“Here Come the Judge…”

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (John 3:17-20, NRSV)

Today, October 1st at 10am marks the start of the 2012 term of the Supreme Court. The court begins its term every year on the first Monday of October. As has become the case in recent years, the work of the Court will be intense and polarizing as in the nature of our politics and discourse. The Court’s makeup of five conservatives and four liberals means that the poison of partisanship infects the veil of jurisprudence. Despite the perception and attempts of the governmental institutional life to avoid the appearance of favoritism, history tells us that nearly every social dis-ease affected the work of the Court. From slavery in the 19th century to progressive social activism in the early 20th century, the work of the court has always cemented the views of a generation of jurors, partisans, and the society as a whole.

Despite the challenges of the Court’s docket this term (issues of Affirmative Action in higher education, same-sex marriage, and voting rights), the work of the Court begins just as another major American institution of regulation also returns to work……NFL Referees. Sunday marked the first time in the 2012-13 NFL season that the NFL referees were allowed to play after a lockout began over the summer contract dispute. The NFL’s use of substitute refs, was a debacle to those that loved the game. With all of the criticism they received (even though the blame for lack of readiness rest with the NFL and not the refs), their work to officiate the most popular game in the United States carried much more weight (and had much more impact) on the lives of everyday Americans. Millions of Americans hang on the decisions that these men make every week for 16 weeks of the regular season. Billions of dollars of trade and merchandising hinge on the outcomes of the games they officiate.

Both of these examples highlight the importance and significance of regulation and laws in our life together. The work of the NFL referee and the Supreme Court is identical they interpret a present day action in the light of existing ‘case law’ or ‘canon’. Whether the context is a courtroom or a stadium, the implications of the decision they make impacts the two litigating parties by making them winners or losers, creating a new precedent, or expanding existing definitions. Indeed, the work of all ‘officials’ serves the greater good of governing our lives together to keep peace and maintain harmony.

Their collective work, officials, jurors, umpires and all who do that work, is essential to our life together. For, basic human nature mandates the role of the official or the juror in our institutional life. Whether it is government regulators, crossing guards, judges or umpires, human being’s behavior show a lack of self-control and engagement in the world. We have a tendency to cheat when no one is looking and to bend (or break) the rules when it suits our case. We are going to always need people to judge our actions in accordance with the rules.

Those people have a particular function in conveying their judgment. The judge’s and the official’s function is not to remind us of the law nor is it to make us merely aware of the law as it exists. It is to judge the actions we have already taken against what is accepted as right/just.

The above passage from John’s gospel is the testament of Jesus about himself. It is prompted by his encounter with Nicodemus by night and in secret. Nicodemus is the inquisitive Pharisee who is seeking a deeper understanding of the Christ in this moment. Read all chapter three to get a more thorough understanding of the conversation between these two men. As part of the conversation, Jesus expands on his initial answer to Nicodemus to give a self disclosure of his very nature. Specifically, Jesus conveys the judgement of the world, saying, “ (17)Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him…. (19)And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

These statements, which are predicated on verse 17 means that the light (Christ) has come to be received for his message and that darkness (rejection of Christ’s message) was more favorable to people. The goal of the Christ was not to merely condemn bad behavior and just separate the righteous from the unrighteous. Jesus does that. Likewise, Jesus is not coming to merely recite or interpret the legal customs and codes that are part of the Jewish worldview. Jesus does that too! Jesus Christ comes to bring a new way of being, offering life and life more abundantly according to John. This new life and way of being is offered to all who receive him for who he is……the Christ, the Logos, God incarnate.

The judgment in this passage is not so much about what Jesus is going to do (future expectation) nor what Jesus has done (and continues to perform). Instead, the judgement according to Jesus here is self evident by our actions in response to the Christ. Jesus comes into the world and brings a message and the people respond more to their present “darkness” and reject the message Christ brings (that is the judgment). Our actions in the darkness are made known in the light and therefore the judgment of the Christ is clear.

This is a hard notion to swallow for Christians who want God to be the ultimate line judge and determine as a Supreme Court Justice or umpire determining the behaviors of all humanity and creation. I don’t deny that other gospels and epistles do very much convey that reality as part of the role of Christ as Lord. However, the self-disclosure of Jesus in the passage should make us personally responsible for how we respond to the message of Christ. How we respond furthers the judgment of the Christ in the light of his word. By responding in the light, we show Christ as the vision of truth that God intends for him, and all of his followers, to be.

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Unity of Mind, Heart and Hand…

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name? ’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.(Matthew 7:21-23, NRSV)

I read on Facebook that there is a movement called the RAOK Nation. RAOK stands for Random Acts of Kindness. Likewise there are churches who have started this ‘fad’ entitled ‘Radical Hospitality’. In the former example, the Facebook based movement appears to be designed to promote good deeds (are you ready) without the desire for recognition. Go figure. In the latter example, the practice of Radical Hospitality is the attempt of some churches to ‘aggressively’ reach out to visitors, guests and random persons to make them feel a part of the community. Another way to attract people to their worshipping community.

In both of the above examples, you get the emphasis on good practice, with horrible motives. They show Christian behavior without a Christian motive. The basic conundrum is that these movements take what is principally Christian normative behavior, something we are to be, and make it to a goal or motive toward an end. Hospitality is a fundamental sign of Christian belief, Christians are to be hospitable to all they come across. To turn that state of being into mere behavior for the purposes of growing your church is to violate the message that hospitality is communicating. To take a random act of kindness and make it a movement of recognition is just…….stupid. It ceases to be both random and a genuine act of kindness when you target someone for an act in order to receive credit.

These movement, (and others like them) exemplify the failure of effective teaching and shepherding of the 21st century church. Misunderstandings abound about everything from Halloween to “turn-the-other-cheek.” Church ministries, pastors and Christian communities have failed to do their part in educating and challenging societal and theological misconceptions about the work, word and worth of Christian living. What results are disciples who spend more time focusing on the minutia of litmus tests around doctrine, behavior and political ideology instead of reading the Bible, questioning our traditions, and challenging the status quo.

Apparently this is not the first time that disciples have focused on the wrong thing. Nor is this the first time the teacher has been concerned about the student going astray. The above passage from Matthew 7 comes from a long passage of instruction by Jesus after the initial statement of the Beatitudes. In this corpus of instruction to the disciples and the gathered throng, Jesus spends time teaching on prayer, forgiveness, the Law and a whole host of other topics. Towards the end of this teaching, Jesus makes a qualifying statement about all who has already stated. In verse 21 he makes a dire warning to those with false motives saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” Essentially, there has to be some purity of motives and unity of behavior for the one who seeks entry into heaven.

Of greater significance to me in the passage is Jesus’ statement of the self-deception that many persons (including the disciples) will engage in, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’” This is a profound statement about our motives and the intention of our actions. We spend so much time looking for a particular behavior and/or response from believers and Christ is saying behavior is not enough. Likewise, confession is not enough (Lord, Lord). Jesus statement should force us all to constantly check our motives and actions.

 

Jesus is asking each one of us to examine why we do a thing. We are not called to be duplicitous or manipulative in our behavior. This includes performing a RAoK just to be seen doing good, or performing hospitable acts in order to be remembered for them. Jesus calls ones that perform such behavior “evildoers”. Our churches should be about more than merely good behavior. Our church members should be known for more than trying to grow the church. Our faith is about being Christ in the world today. Christians should be known for being what they want in the world, instead manipulating the world for their own ends. Manipulation, even for the kingdom, is still manipulation and the motives are not genuine.

We follow Christ because of who Christ is and not just because of what he does. Every miracle, every teaching, every pronouncement of Jesus was predicated or precipitated by a belief in his work as the Christ, the son of God. If we in the 21st century have become so focused on feigning acts and measuring belief, then we have ceased to believe in the work and being of the Christ. Remembering that Christ was/is in order that he be all God intended is fundamental to being a Christian, period. Being the Christ as he was in the world is the only way this world can get a vision of truth in a crazy, mixed up world.

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Of Sacrificial Worth…

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8, NIV)

In the lives of most Americans, we spend a great many holidays eating and creating merriment. New Year’s, Valentine’s, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Fourth of July are all days that feature prominently food and/or food products. The value and worth of those days are often measured by the food you eat and how you consume it on what day, (Hot Dogs on July 4th, Boiled Eggs and Chocolate Bunnies on Easter, Turkey on Thanksgiving). While I can understand the origins of many of these feasts that occur (history often shows feasts as being communal ways to celebrate events), our contemporary celebrations carry the feast traditions without any real understanding our reflection on the significance of the holiday. Thankfully, not all holidays are lived in this way. Yesterday was Memorial Day…

Sure, Memorial Day is the day that prominently features cookouts and parties in the good ol’ American feast tradition, but it also has a prominent feature that, no matter how full you get, you cannot ignore. It is the one holiday that features solemnity and reflection while offering hope through celebration. It is a holiday that is built upon the oxymoron of the “good sacrifice”. The feasts of this past weekend cannot happen or continue in the future without the sacrifice of those who have gone before. In many respects, Memorial Day carries with it the same peculiar paradox that Good Friday carries in the Christian experience. We celebrate the memory and sacrifice of families and service persons who have fought and continue to fight for this nation, its freedoms and the promise of this Union of States to be a “more perfect union.”

The significance of this day cannot be devalued. In spite of capitalistic attempts at making a easy dollar with a “Memorial Day Sales”. The sacrifice of too many men, women and their families will not allow the marring of this Holiday. They serve as watchpersons and gatekeepers that protect the legacy of the past for the heritage of the future of this nation. The wreath laying, the sound of taps being played, the height of civil religion on display all provide forceful reminders to the contextual ‘spirit’ of any the celebrations (more appropriately, observations). In my area, the sound of 15-20,000 bikers fills their air on Sunday prior to Memorial Day.  Rolling Thunder, as they are known, serves to disrupt the quiet peace of Sunday afternoon and force into your memory the real reason for why we observe this day. Like the sound of nails being driven into the cross at Calvary, these motors cry out for attention and respect. For those who have died, they are the voices to call attention to their sacrifice.

Like this passage of text, Paul reminds all believers of the irony of the sacrifice. We are often taught that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one). My Star Trek fans might recognize this! (Greek Philosophy also addresses this.) Paul turns that thinking on its head by recognizing the rarity of sacrifice for a greater good or ideal. He takes it a step further by proclaiming, Christ died for those who are imperfect and flawed. Rare is the one who dies for the just, but even rarer is the one who dies for the one who is wrong and unjust. It doesn’t happen! O, but it has, for the text says “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Every Sunday we proclaim Christ and Christ crucified for the sins of the world! This  and every Memorial Day weekend, let us endeavor to say quite simply, “Thank You!”

Much of the world finds it hard to believe that such a man would do such a thing (let alone that it is even possible for such a thing to take place). Yet, we on this past weekend celebrate the many who have lived and died in service to this nation. Some of whom did so when this nation was unjust in their treatment of them.

The many women who served….

African-Americans who served prior to desegregation…

The Native Americans who served…..

The Japanese Americans who served in WWII….

The GLBT who have served silently….

Those who served in Vietnam….

The power of Christ resides in all those who answer the call to serve in spite of the world’s labeling of them to not be qualified. We give thanks to God for the sacrifice of Christ Jesus who died for all of us in our ‘lowly state’. But we also give thanks to God for those who answered the call to serve even when this nation treated them with ‘lowly stature’. This Memorial Day week, let us continually thank God for the visions of truth our service members fight for each and every day. Here’s to that day when we beat out swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks…

 

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Filed under Christian Church, Civil Religion, Hope, Jesus Christ, Justice, New Testament, Political Theology, Sacred Memory, War

A Rote Victory…

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV)

It’s the day after Easter. We have spent the last month and half identifying with the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus during the season of Lent. The last week of this journey is the most intense and reflective of the entire journey toward the cross. This week is the entire Christian faith encapsulated. The Christian seasons have their meaning. The two most prominent, Advent and Lent are considered the most widely celebrated and deeply meaningful. Advent is characterized by innocence and expectation whereas Holy Week is filled with contradiction and conundrums. Advent has the promise and hope of God’s new movement in the world, while Holy Week is an emotional roller coaster with twist and turns that can challenge the faithful. Advent is significant but Holy Week is necessary. This is not a chicken or egg scenario: For it is the cross and resurrection of Jesus that inspires the narratives of the Gospels (which result in the telling of his miraculous birth).

The centrality of Holy Week to the Christian narrative warrants this week’s posting. Participating in the various services of Holy Week as a pastor and worship leader, I nearly always observe the same pattern in the way congregants connect with the story. From Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, there are as many as five different worship services that are offered to give opportunity for congregant’s theological exploration of the themes of the week. (Many churches have offered nightly services and as many as four or five services on Good Friday alone!) My experience of this week in several different settings observes Christians who either reluctantly participate in the worship for the week (often living in the midst of the theological tension) or more often, they are disengaged Christians who do not participate in the services during the week but are present at sunrise service to celebrate the resurrection.

Sure, an argument can be made that you can attend on Sundays and get the gaps in the story filled and be satisfied. You could say that weeknight services are not practical to the situation of many congregants and worshipers given their busy schedules. All true, but all those considerations do not account for my struggle with the failure of the average Christian to journey in wrestling with the contradictions, complexities and failures of Holy Week. Either in the privacy of the own ‘prayer closets’ or in communities of faith.

 

The purpose of Holy Week is to lead the faithful symbolically in the last week of the Jesus. The days of this week have themes and  counter narratives that are intentionally at odds with one another. The week begins triumphantly and excitedly with Palm Sunday and the coming king into Jerusalem. It moves to an intimate scene of bonding and humility with Maundy Thursday’s foot washing and meal. The counter narratives of both these days are just a prominent. Palm Sunday has a hypocritically character as the entire city crowns a king who they do not know and would come to challenge everything they hold dear. Maundy Thursday is intimate and humble but ends with betrayal and disintegration. The narrative and counter-narrative run parallel with equal emphasis through the week and collide on Good Friday.

Both in name and in theme, Good Friday embodies the central contradiction of the Christian faith. How can the day in which an innocent man dies, be considered a ‘good’ day? A day filled with violence, destruction and disappointment is declared ‘good’. This is the central day and truth of the Christian religion and many Christians are unwilling to live in the tension of this day (let alone the entire week). This failure of comprehension exposes an existential thread in our society that unravels the fabric of our faith as American Christians. The thread is reflective of our unwillingness to think or be challenged in the various aspects of our lives; especially in our faith. Many Christians do not attend worship, nor do they engage in the paradoxes of Holy Week, because it forces us to deal with unanswerable questions. Holy week presses the exposure and examination of the oppressive systems of power and fear that are just a present today as they were two thousand years ago. I can only assume that we are just as willing to be blind to the suffering of two thousand years ago, because it justifies our blindness now.

Let me give you an example from contemporary experience…

I attended a Good Friday service one Holy Week. It was initially conducted in the style of any Protestant Good Friday service. Solemn and deeply reflective (mournful at times) the prayers, hymns and overall worship conveyed a central truth that Jesus, an innocent man, died an undignified and unwarranted death on a cross. The preacher got up and preached a message of victory, hope and prosperity. The sermon was not at all connected with the significance of the moment and instead of wrestling with the theological tension that death, disappointment and dying mean in the Christian experience, they chose to simply…..shout.

This failure  of faithful wrestling extends to Resurrection Sunday morning. The celebrations and excitement of Christ’s resurrection can only be appreciated by the depth and sorrow of the Friday of his death. Many Christian communities do not even observe a Good Friday service. Let me just say here that Protestant Christians celebrate the resurrection every single Sunday. For every Sunday is a recognition of the resurrection and what it means for the people of faith. So if churches celebrate the resurrection every Sunday, why are we not willing to take one week to wrestling with its meaning? Or even one day to mourn the death of Jesus? How can you know the goodness of resurrection if you are not willing to know the depth and pain of death on a cross? What does it say sociologically and theologically about the church when it is so willing to only celebrate the victory and never reflect on the price of the battle? It leads to triumphalism and a lopsided perspective of the cross…

Living in the tension is something that we in our modern sensibilities and privileges don’t believe is necessary. If we can choose not to suffer, then we don’t. We live in fortresses built upon foundations of ignorance that we defend at all costs. Thinking and being challenged in our thinking is what makes societies great and filled with ingenuity. Wrestling with challenging existential truths like suffering, forgiveness and death means we are forced with how those truths manifest in our lives. When that challenge is absent, we no longer centered for moments of discord and disappointment that so often characterize life.

This absence of critical and reflective thinking leads to the development of people that do not identify with the suffering of others. Non-reflective people can  blame the poor and oppressed for the struggles the impoverished experience, all the while hoarding the privilege that keeps poverty and oppression alive. It leads to the rise of a church that spends it days fighting over doctrine and who to keep out instead of ‘rolling the stone’ away to open the doors to infinite possibility. A church whose wealth and maintenance becomes the chief priority of governance over the need for ministry that changes lives. If you aren’t willing to include pain in your theology, then you can’t have it in your ontology.

If anyone is familiar with disappointment and failure; if anyone knows what it means to suffer and have heartbreak, it is Jesus. Paul’s admonition here seeks to get us to wrestle with the paradox of the Christian faith: Christ suffers death to sin so we do not. The glorification to which the later part of this famous hymn of Paul speaks cannot be understood without the first verses in context. In other words, it is Christ’s humility, suffering and death that leads to the glorification. You do not have the glorification without first having humility, suffering, humiliation and death ‘even on a cross’. If we really believed this credo (understanding is another animal),  then we should at least live through all of Holy Week in order to proclaim “He Is Lord”. Knowing the price of salvation and the path toward resurrection is the vision of truth for all who are called to live in the Way. 

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The Search for Redemption Continues

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding* him and saying, Are you not the Messiah?* Save yourself and us! 40But the other rebuked him, saying, Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong. 42Then he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into* your kingdom. (Luke 23:39-42 NRSV)

So here we are again, a humiliating and meaningless death orchestrated through subtle forces of coercion and manipulation. The victim: An innocent bystander, who, through being who God intended him to be, became confrontational to the systems of oppression built on assumption and fear. The threat: A perceived and misunderstood phantom of fear’s construction. The action: Unwarranted but final, forceful but empty and seemingly hopeless yet filled promise for greater opportunity.

The actions of George Zimmerman and the Sanford Police department, (and more importantly the murder of Trayvon Martin), has caused many in our society to reflect on all matters concerning race, to jurisprudence to proper attire for minority males (see Melissa Harris-Perry and Geraldo Rivera). While these critiques are good at channeling the continual refrain of equality and fairness under the law, they merely renew the same debates and issues of the last 150 years of racial inequality. That does not at all mean that this is not an effective means of redress in society. It doesnt always account for the critical analysis of the theo-logic in light of the socio-political structures present in society.

I too, am driven to careful reflection and critique in light of the violence in Florida almost a month ago. Although I must admit, my reflection is specifically unique in the course of discussions surrounding this gross miscarriage of justice. In light of the Lenten and Easter seasons, I am led to reflect on power of death and the theological meaning for social change. Out of the many billions of folks who have died, there are some deaths that fundamentally redefine the way we exist in the world. I believe Trayvon is one of them, but by no means the first.

Most of our modern perspectives on death and dying are rooted in fear. The most heinous of deaths is any murder: the killing of another (the law would add: with intent). From the so-called first murder of Abel in Genesis to the present, the act of murder displays one of humanity’s greatest sins toward our neighbors. So often, murder is completed fear and hatred towards each other, it is hatred’s ultimate end. Civilizations the world over (including many religious and Christian civilizations), have sought to contextualize and sanitize this scandalous and perverse act. Murder for soldiers in time of war is a crime but killing the combatant enemy isn’t murder. Killing in self-defense is appropriate under certain criteria (depending on the state you live in and whether or not you pursue your assailant are both mitigating circumstances). God throughout the bible coexists in the world between “Thou shall not…” and “Go and take the land and …”, both of which are at odds with the other. The biblical mandate seems to be static and unchangeable both in Genesis and in the Mosaic covenant in the Ten Commandments. Yet, the heart of the Christian narrative centers on……..murder.

The death of Christ is an innocent man’s death according to orthodox Christian teaching. A man, who is without any error, is convicted of crimes he did not commit. Given a swift and biased trial, he is summarily executed. By any definition, the death of an innocent person by the hand of another is murder. Christians interpret the death of Christ as something greater and much more profound than any of the contemporaries of Jesus’ time would have thought. The thief’s confession at Jesus’ side, (as well as the mocking thief) acknowledges the truth of the moment: an innocent man has died. The truth goes deeper: an innocent man has died and we are complicit in his death and need his forgiveness. The mocking crowd and thief remind us of the power of fear and coercion in moments of murder. This scene is very much like the arguments being offered today trying to find justification for the unjustifiable. Despite the horror of the moment, it isn’t until after his death (and resurrection) that Christians like Paul would appreciate the theological significance of Christ’s death as being the Good humanity would need to be in right relationship with God. And it is only because of that death, that we even come to know of the life of the man who changed all of history.  The Gospels and the church are written and founded upon the confession, Jesus is Lord! but only after he is murdered.

Regardless of this divine truth, the crux of the Christian narrative is problematic in a violent and murderous world. The faith in Christ’s death is mysteriously redemptive for all of creation: this is the spiritual claim that asserts primacy over the graphic horror of an innocent man’s death. His death is like ours but doesn’t mean the same thing. His life was similar to ours but cannot be understood in the same way. These contradictions are at the heart of the Christian faith, despite the fact that the murder of innocents is still very much a part of our life today. If the work of Christ is efficacious for us in the modern time, then there must be a greater purpose to the death of innocents in the present, after the death of the Innocent One? In other words, how can we redeem the lives of the innocents who are murdered in our present day?

The challenge for us as Christians is to see the redemptive power of the deaths of the innocent in the larger sweep of Universal Justice. Troy Davis, Medger Evers, Shaima Alawadi, Matthew Shepherd, Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin are just some of the innocents who were murdered. I am sure there are countless others, who we will never know. We have labeled their deaths as  ‘meaningless deaths’. Meaningless because they didn’t have to die or their deaths were so outrageous that their meaning was totally indefensible. Yet I challenge all of us to rethink our use of a ‘meaningless death’. The value of every life is sacred and immeasurable. The loss of anyone in this world, particularly to the act of murder, cannot be measured by the mere act of the death itself. The power of the singular moment of Christ’s death is the beginning of understanding the power of Christ in totem. His power, (unleashed at his death) is to impart life and change in the world through understanding his life. This death is not just one that sets him free but then convicts the systems and stagnancy of the world. It demands and cries out for redemption and change in the world.

I believe the power of Trayvon’s life should be interpreted through this same lens.  In the immediacy of his death we search for justice and to date, have found it lacking. Yet, this search and the search for all of the countless relatives of the innocents still call us to be better and do better. Their deaths are not meaningless, they are tragedies of the first order, but every life is meaningful. The truth of the Trayvon Martin case and many of the other innocents is to call us to seek our redemption. We have to be and do better than we are, lest we (in the words of Paul) crucify them afresh.

Redemption means recognizing the power of the life force in all of us and abandoning the categorization of murder and fear. It means living with divine justice and mercy as realities and not relativistic ideals. Redemption means seeking forgiveness from the innocents as the thief does in the passage. The change this redemption brings means no one should have the power George Zimmerman had that February night. Redemptive change means no state, no nation; no human principality has the power to murder. It is too great a risk to take the innocent with guilty, even though it still takes place. Yet even then, God is able to bring purpose to our idiocy; to bring hope to our fears; and bring peace to our chaos. It isn’t until we choose redemption that the twisted irony of a macabre day of death can be called ‘Good Friday.’

Recognizing that life and death have meaning and purpose in God’s creation is the first step to this redemptive life. Sadly the completion of this reality may still be a ways off. Yet, the vision of truth can be closer in our sight if we choose to search for it now, before another innocent dies

SELAH

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