God in the lowlands

These last moments of Jesus’ life stand in stark contrast to what is valued in the world.

I find it ironic that we read today a text that is normally read on Good Friday – the day Christians worldwide pause to recall and remember the brutal death of Jesus on the cross. It is the day Christians confront the God who is deeply humiliated, a man who suffers injustice to the extent of his gruesome and painful suffering and torturous, drawn-out dying.

It’s ironic because a text that is normally read on Good Friday comes just days before what North Americans call Black Friday. Despite the various reasons why that day has come to be called Black Friday – it is commonly known to be the day the malls and commercial districts are crowded, busy and congested bustling with deal seekers and shoppers. It is the day the consumer in us is stoked. Big time.

Indeed, these last moments of Jesus’ earthly, humanity all seem to be in vivid contrast to what is valued as great in our world – this world presented to us in colourful, catalogue-thick inserts and pop-up internet ads promoting incredible sales and savings.

It is not poor, but a world of glamour and glitz.

It is not selfless, but a me-first world of acquisition and accumulation.

It is not vulnerable and generous, but a miserly, defensive and self-preservationist world.

Today is also what the church calls, “Christ the King”, on the last Sunday in the church year. At the end of time, we assert in faith that Jesus is King and his reign lasts forever. But, what kind of king are we talking about here? Certainly not a kind of king the world knows.

In response to Pilate’s question “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1], Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

That Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world is proved in what this ruler wants to happen and makes happen that other powerful rulers are not willing or able to do.

Let’s face it: Part of our inability to believe and trust the forgiving power of God’s grace and mercy is our inability to believe that other people deserve mercy. We want to judge whom God lets into heaven. Many of us are more comfortable not knowing what happened to the thief who scoffed at Jesus than knowing that an undeserving thief was let into paradise.

Would we not rather have had Jesus say that  God loves the people we like that God does not love the people we do not like? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the crackheads, the homeless, the refugee and Muslim immigrant? Would we not prefer it if God did not love the addicts, the adulterers, the thieves, the gays, the prostitutes, the rebellious and the disgruntled? Would we not prefer it if paradise were exclusively for the nice people, the clean people, the polite people, the well-behaved people, the right people?

How different is Jesus? There was a very strange novel published in England in the late 19th century called Flatlands. It is a story about a world that is flat, everything is two-dimensional. The chief character in the novel is Mr. Square, who is, of course, only in two dimensions.

One day, Mr. Square is visited by a Mr. Sphere who is, of necessity, in three dimensions. Square regards Sphere quite apprehensively. Sphere speaks to Square about a world of three dimensions, a world that is not flat. But Square is unconvinced. Living in a two-dimensional world, it is impossible for him to imagine another dimension. Eventually, Sphere is persecuted and driven out by the outraged flatlanders.

I propose to you that that is how different Jesus is from us. We are flatlanders. We live in a world of two dimensions, unable to grasp the possibility of a reality beyond that which we have experienced. We have been unable to believe, for instance, that love and forgiveness is a better response to evil than brute force. God’s power of love is three-dimensional to our two-dimensional thinking.

Notice with the second thief hanging beside Jesus on his cross, the thief does not ask to be saved, to be rescued. He only asks once, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Perhaps his plea is meant to echo these words from the Psalm: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”[2]– which is to say: Do not remember me according to my faults, but remember me according to your goodness.

We have faith not because we are weak but because God is strong and God is love. There is grace for us and for the people we do not like. Our salvation is dependent on a loving, grace-filled God.

So why can we hope in this goodness when we look around us at all the evil? Because Mr. Sphere did come among all of us Squares and we did persecute him and drive him out.

But he wouldn’t and couldn’t stay away. No, his three-dimensional existence couldn’t be flattened out by us. He is alive! And he comes to us again today in this meal we are about to share.

Again, it’s so hard for us to understand because he is like three-dimensions to our two. But he comes again with a word of love and forgiveness that promises the power that will finally take care of all that’s troubling in this world. It won’t be easy. He predicted that, too. But it is the only way. He comes to us again today to lead the way. “I have seen the future,” he says to us. “The future is not some cold grave, some hard, lifeless tomb. The future is the glorious triumph of God’s love.”

This man whom we follow is the king not of the flatlands, but in the lowlands. Spheres always roll to the bottom of things. Christ is king in the lowlands because God does not want us to die and suffer in that dark and sad region. Maybe you are today in a sort of darkness. The darkness of grief, loss, physical pain or emotional pain.

But the Holy One is with you today and for you today in that darkness. And, therefore, you will be with him today, and forevermore, in paradise. Thank God! Amen.[3]

[1]John 18:36

[2]Psalm 25:7

[3]Thank you to the writers for ‘Proper 29 (Reign of Christ) Luke 23:33-43’ in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4(Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010) p.332-337 for many of the words and ideas expressed here.

The Passion of Christ – a Good Friday sermon

The heaviness of it all weighs on our souls. Good Friday is a sombre day. The tormented images of the torture and death of anyone, let alone Jesus Son of God, flash across our minds-eye in the hearing of the texts describing the Passion of Christ.

We hear the lament from Isaiah’s poetry known as the Suffering Servant poems. If we let it, Good Friday pierces our denial of suffering and death. And we face squarely the reality of the situation. The very word, “Passion”, is from the Latin, one meaning of which is suffering.

If you, like me, have watched some contemporary video portrayals of Jesus’ Passion, probably the foremost image is the bloodiness of it all. Not only do we see the violence of the Jewish rebellion heating up during the Passover in Jerusalem, but we are intimately involved in the trial and torture of Jesus – beginning with the bloody cutting off of the servant’s ear in the Garden, to the whipping, flaying, kicking, slapping and piercing in Jesus’ torture while being held in Roman custody.

If that is not enough, we shiver at the pounding of the nails into his hands and feet, see the blood and water gush out of his side when the sword strikes him. Watch as blood trickles over his bruised face from the crown of thorns. Blood all over.

Blood all over. The blood of Christ given for you.

Suffering, Passion, is a great letting go. And acceptance of Christ suffering, even for us, is a great letting go. We cannot possess the gift of life. We cannot own or control this gift for us.

“For three days, the child bled profusely from the nose. She was six years old, and doctors had no idea what was causing the bleeding. What’s more, they understood that if the bleeding didn’t stop, her life was in grave danger.

“The year was 1913. The doctors knew little about transfusion, but they understood the importance of somehow getting good new blood back into the little girl’s system, so they asked her father, a preacher, to give his daughter some of his. He did, one of the first blood transfusions in the state of Michigan.

“The yellowed newspaper story is titled ‘Minister Saves the Life of Daughter By Giving Blood’, and ends by explaining how the father ‘was considerably improved and was able to dress.’ Then it adds, ‘The child was also considerably better and hopes are entertained for her recovery.’

“Two weeks later she was dead. Little Agnes Gertrude … succumbed once the hemorrhaging returned. For a time her father’s blood had brightened her face and her possibilities, but his gift – as unusual and strange to the newspaper readers as it must have been to him – wasn’t enough to save her life.

“Doctors knew very little, back then, about blood-typing. Her father … was as good as choice as the doctors could have made, but what coursed in his veins was not a match. Agnes Gertrude … died two weeks after that strange new procedure the doctors called ‘a transfusion.’

“Her father, a man of God, lay face down on the rug of the living room for almost a week after Agnes’ death, unable to move. Who could blame him – for an entire afternoon, he lay there beside his little girl, his blood flowing into her veins. He was lost in profound grief, was lethargic, depressed, his whole countenance darkened by the death of his child.

“Nothing changed … until he accepted a call to another congregation, a small country church up north. He and his family rode in a horse-drawn wagon up to that country church, their possessions packed up behind them. And there being greeted by the entire congregation there on the lawn, all of them waiting for the new preacher and his family.”[1]

The blood of Christ shed for you. Still, a mystery. Source of life. Beyond comprehension. The blood of Christ shed for you.

We hear these words during the Eucharist, Holy Communion. The word, Eucharist, from Greek, means “Thanksgiving”. Martin Luther, the great reformer, insisted that this sacrament is centrally about the gift of God, in Christ Jesus. The Holy Communion is God’s gift in Christ to us.

This, in contrast, to his contemporaries many of whom insisted that the sacrament of the table was more about what we humans must do to make sacrifice in order to appease God. Instead of making Holy Communion about what we must do for God, Luther preached that the Eucharist was what God does for us. It is a gift.

And a gift we cannot control, manipulate, engineer, manage. Only receive in thanksgiving.

On Good Friday, significantly, we abstain from the Holy Communion. It is one of the only days in the church year that calls for us to withhold collectively this gift. It, in our tradition, is the climax of the Lenten fast, the discipline to ‘do without’ and ‘let go’ and ‘surrender’ our claim on the gift. After all, we do not control God. God is free. And God gives what God will. When God wills. We are not in the driver’s seat of life and death.

Part of our lament, and suffering prayer, is to recognize that we are finite human beings, that we cannot do it alone. And can’t ever get it right. On this heavy day, the low point you might say of the Lenten journey, we put our ultimate trust and hope in God’s promise. As Jesus trusted his Father to the bitter end, we follow in his way, trusting that death has not the last word.

The blood of Christ shed for you.

Christ bled in his suffering, death and burial for three days. But God has other plans. The other meaning of the word “Passion” of course is love. Great suffering and great love. The Passion of Christ is ultimately about God’s great love for Jesus and for us. That is why God gives the gift of life to us. Love.

We will once again feast on the gift of life in Christ’s blood coursing through our veins. We will be transfused again with the life-giving spirit of God. It will be a perfect match! And our lament can become a song of praise and hope, bringing us home at last, as to a lawn on a bright day full of smiling people who open their loving arms.

 

[1] James Schaap, in Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, eds., “God For Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter” (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2015), p.119-121.

The human face of a vulnerable God

Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a play entitled: ‘The Living Dead”. The climactic scene is set in the attic of a house in France during World War II, where a half dozen captured members of the Resistance are being kept. The prisoners anxiously await the morning, when they will be executed.

An unexpected thing happens, however. The attic door opens, and the Nazi soldiers throw in the leader of the Resistance. The Nazis don’t know who he is. As far as they are concerned, they simply caught a man out after curfew.

The prisoners’ anxiety turns to courage. They tell their leader, “Don’t worry. We will hold our tongues.” The leader responds, “I thank you, for myself, for the Resistance, for France. Your courage and your sacrifice will not be forgotten.”

Suddenly, one of the prisoners says, “Oh, shut up. Nothing you have to say could possible mean anything to us. I am not blaming you … the fact is that you are a living man and I am a dead woman after tomorrow morning. The living and the dead have nothing to say to each other …and that fact puts an impenetrable barrier between us.”[1]

The Leader of the Resistance is an example of who God is NOT. Until Jesus, there indeed stood an impenetrable barrier between the divine and the rest of us. This is precisely why God became human. If God couldn’t bridge that divine-human divide, how could we love God? How could God love us?

When we look at the world today, we may just the same want to get angry at our human leaders if they lack authenticity. Scenes of African poverty, the chaos of Middle Eastern refugee camps, the evil of human trafficking, the growing divide between rich and poor, the scandals and fake posturing in politics – these all make us angry.

Indeed, in life we sometimes feel like shouting at God: “Shut up!” And working through that anger is good, I believe, because we will realize that many of our gods are not God: The god of domination. The god of violence. The god of consumerism. The gods of competition and combat. The gods of politics and superiority. Which lead us in the opposite direction when it comes to the God of the cross, and God’s relationship with us and the world.

We arrive soon at the climax of Jesus’ earthly, very human story. And this man who reflects the face of God says something very different from the gods of this world.

German Reformed theologian, Juergen Moltmann, tweeted this week: “We discover his glory in his humbleness, his greatness in his poverty, his power in his self-surrender, from the wretched manger in Bethlehem to the desolate cross on Golgotha.”[2]

In today’s Gospel reading[3], Jesus says, “…My soul is troubled.” Jesus can say this. He is fully human and authentically relatable to us, as a human being. “Jesus had the full spectrum of emotion and experience. He was sad and had compassion for those who suffered. He wept with a broken heart including upon the death of his friend Lazarus. He got mad at injustice and hypocrisy (“you brood of vipers!”) and got frustrated at his disciples who were continually arguing and not getting his point. Jesus changed his way of thinking as with the surprising confrontation with a Syrophoenician woman. Jesus learned and developed. Jesus was human!”[4]

God does not bypass the humanity and death we too must endure. God is now capable, because God became fully human, of removing the inseparable barriers between God and the world. Our Leader is one of us!

“…My soul is troubled,” says Jesus. Thank God for these words! These are the kind of things Jesus said that reveals the truth of the Christian God. Jesus says this in response to the inquiry of Gentiles during the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus dies on the cross. Everything has been accomplished in his ministry and mission, even now to all the nations represented by the seeking Greeks.

Nothing is left now for Jesus to do other than his final surrender to death. Jesus is now ready to succumb to the evil gods of the world which will condemn and crucify the upstart prophet from Galilee.

When Pilate, the regional governor of Palestine, later confronts Jesus during his trial, Jesus says that his kingdom is not of this world. If it were, his followers would be fighting to protect, defend and save Jesus.[5] Obviously, the method of God is not violence however justified. The way of God, is vulnerability and surrender. Not combat, not force-on-force, not physical strength, not invincibility nor violent justice.

Yes, we hear the human Jesus in that honest, vulnerable statement: “My soul is troubled.” In these words, Jesus crosses the divide between divine and human. He identifies with all our troubled souls however afflicted. He knows what is coming.

In Jesus, God was given a face and a heart. God became someone we could love. We don’t and we can’t fall in love with abstractions. So, God became a person “that we could hear, see with our eyes, look at, and touch with our hands”.[6] The brilliant Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1905-1995) said the only thing that really converts people is “an encounter with the face of the other.”[7]

This is why to this day Christians have sought God among the faces of the poor, the destitute, the refugee, the homeless – and have tried to do their part in alleviating the plight of the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Because that is where God is discovered.

“Just giving people commandments on tablets of stone doesn’t change the heart. It may steel the will, but it doesn’t soften the heart like an I-Thou encounter can. We are mirrored into life, not by concepts, but by faces delighting in us, giving us the beloved self-image we can’t give to ourselves. Love is the gaze that does us in! How blessed are those who get it early and receive it deeply.”[8]

The prophet Jeremiah says it best: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”[9]

The good news is that the vulnerable God we worship and follow suffers with us. This vulnerable God in Christ Jesus lived in poverty and died in shame and torment. This God embraced our humanity. And has earned the right to ask us to hold on a little longer until morning comes … until resurrection.[10]

[1] Cited by Michael Battle in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.141-142.

[2] @moltmannjuergen, March 15, 2018

[3] John 12:20-33, Lent 5B.

[4] Brother Luke Ditewig, “Brother Give us a Word”, daily meditations from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (SSJE), 20 January 2018.

[5] John 18:36

[6] 1 John 1:1

[7] Cited in Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations”, 15 January 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jeremiah 31:33-34

[10] Michael Battle, ibid., p.144.

Something always has to die …

(The following is taken from Richard Rohr’s commentary in his book “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent”, with my added words.)

The crowds were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. This ritual is described in Exodus 12, and provides the basis of the Holy Communion in Christian practice.

In the original ritual, people were to procure a small year-old lamb for each household. They were to keep it for four days — just enough for the children to bond with it and for all to see its loveliness — and then “slaughter it during the evening twilight”! Then they were to take its blood and sprinkle it on the doorpost of the houses. That night they were to eat it in highly ritualized fashion, recalling their departure from Egypt and their protection by God along the way.

This practice was meant to be a psychic shock for all, as killing always is. Thank God, animal sacrifice was eventually stopped. The human psyche was evolving in history to identify the real problem and what it is that actually has to die.

The sacrificial instinct is the deep recognition that something always has to die for something bigger to be born. We started with human sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac), we moved here to animal, and we gradually get closer to what has to be sacrificed — our own beloved ego — as protected and beloved as a little household lamb! (1)

We will all find endless disguises and excuses to avoid letting go of what really needs to die for our own spiritual growth. And it is not other humans (firstborn sons of Egyptians), animals (lambs or goats), or even ‘meat on Friday’ that God wants or needs.

It is always our beloved passing self that has to be let go of. Jesus surely had a dozen good reasons why he should not have to die so young, unsuccessful (sentenced to death, a criminal), and the Son of God besides!

By becoming the symbolic Passover Lamb himself, Jesus makes the movement to the human and personal very clear and quite concrete. It is always “we” — in our youth, in our beauty, in our power and over-protectedness and self-preservation instinct that must be handed over. Otherwise we will never grow up, big enough to ‘eat’ of the Mystery of God. In short, we have to ‘get over ourselves’, individually and collectively as the church, before we can be effective and authentic followers of Jesus in the world today.

Good Friday is really about “passing over” to the next level of faith and life. And that never happens without some kind of “dying to the previous levels.” This is an honest day of very good ritual that gathers the essential but often avoided meaning of Good Friday: Necessary suffering; that is, something always has to die for something bigger to be born.

One of the Gospel stories repeated every year during Holy Week is the anointing of Jesus by a woman named Mary at Bethany (John 12:1-11). Even though the text does not identify her as a sinner, this has been the common understanding. This alone should reveal our rancid preoccupation with sin.

The point in this story, again, is not the sin but the act of love towards Jesus, whom the woman correctly accepts (unlike the twelve disciples) the coming death of Jesus. She anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive nard, which is the anointing oil for death. Jesus’ favourable response to Mary’s act clearly suggests her act of love trumps any failing on her part, or the part of the poor, or on our part!

As always, love of Jesus and love of justice for the neighbour are just two different shapes or sides to the one Love, that gets us beyond our over-thinking sin. A simple act of love gets us beyond our negative self-obsession, which only keeps us stuck in selfish, egoistic preoccupation.(2)

May our praise of God this day, in Jesus’ acceptance of his death on a Cross, invite each of us into commitments and acts of love toward God, toward one another, and to the world in need. Then, we get the point of the story. And we affirm, that something bigger indeed is just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters; Scriptures for Lent” (Cincinnati, Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.133-135

2 — ibid., p.126-127

Trust the down

I hate roller-coasters. It’s about the fear of letting go of control on the way down, that’s the problem. The couple times I’ve had the guts to go on a roller-coaster, I didn’t enjoy the experience because I couldn’t let go on the way down. Someone took a photo of me and my friend in the middle of one of those rapid descents: My friend who loves roller-coaster — his arms were up in the air and a big smile beamed across his face.

Sitting beside him, I was the opposite: My hands were glued to the bar in front of us, and my lips were pursed tightly and my eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets. It looked as if I were staring death in the face, going down that roller coaster.

I read this week: “Humans are the only creatures who have knowledge of their own death. Its awareness creeps on us as we get older. All other animals, plants, and the cycles of nature themselves seem to live out and surrender to the pattern of mortality.

This places humans in a state of anxiety and insecurity from our early years. We know on some level that whatever this is that we are living will not last. This changes everything, probably more than we realize consciously. So our little bit of consciousness makes us choose to be unconscious. It hurts too much to think about it.” (1)

We humans find ingenious ways to avoid this journey, especially through Holy Week, that invites us to contemplate not only human death but the death of God in Christ Jesus. No wonder, especially among Protestants, attending services through Holy Week is not popular. This is not easy work, to face Jesus’s and our own mortality. No fun in that.

One way we avoid and deny this awareness of our own mortality is to find a scapegoat — by focusing all our negative energy on something or someone else. Our scapegoat is that which deludes us into believing that its destruction will somehow solve all our problems and make everything better again. Our scapegoat also shields us from taking responsibility for and dealing with our own problems.

Today, the scapegoats are easy to identify: The immigrants, the newcomers to Canada, the Muslims, the gays, the corrupt politicians, the government, the media, the church hierarchy — you name it. The blame game is alive and well, even in the church.

And then what happens is what many wise teachers through the ages have said: When we deny our own suffering we make others around us suffer. Which is unfair and unjust. Because the Gospel was given first and foremost to the followers of Jesus. 

“The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near,” The Gospel Mark thus records Jesus’s first words to his own people in Galilee. And to them he said, “Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). We are the ones addressed by the Gospel — those who are already in the church, in the family of God. Not those so-called ‘bad’ people out there.

Jesus was the scapegoat whose destruction would solve the high-priestly authorities’ problems. By having Jesus put to death, the religious authorities could maintain their power and privileged position in Jerusalem, the Roman Emperor’s fears of insurrection would be temporarily alleviated, and the Pax Romana (the Roman rule) would continue in the land.

As unjust as killing Jesus was — for many even in authority including Pilate saw that Jesus was innocent — Jesus was the convenient scapegoat whose death on a cross would make it easy on those in power. And maintain the unjust status quo in the land.

After hearing of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, the high priest, Caiaphas, advised the rest of the leadership in Jerusalem: “It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Rather than do the right thing in the moment, the end — a false peace — justifies the unjust means. Classic scapegoat -ism: Jesus became the convenient victim in the human power play of first century Judean politics.

It’s ironic that our fear, denial and avoidance of death is actually that which keeps us stuck in scapegoating, in blaming others, in all the motivations for war and violence in the world. You could argue that all of what is bad in the world today stems from humanity’s continued ambivalence and denial of death.

What’s amazing is that Jesus, knowing all along this human condition, chose to become a victim to it. From his privileged unity with God the Creator, he chose to connect with humanity. The reading on Palm Sunday from Philippians 2:5-11 describes this downward movement of God in Christ into the “enfleshment of creation” (2), and then into humanity’s depths and sadness, and final identification with those at the very bottom, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7), to death on the Cross.

Jesus represents God’s total solidarity with, and love of, the human situation. It’s as if God is saying: “Nothing human, now, is abhorrent to me.” This is incredible.

The Cross represents the divine choice to descend. It’s almost total counterpoint with our humanity that is always trying to climb, achieve, perform, justify and prove itself. The witness of the Cross is the divine invitation to each of us to reverse the usual process.

Christians worldwide have a great gift and witness in the Gospel of Christ crucified. The divine union with humanity suggests that everything human — including death, losing and letting go that is so much a reality in all our lives — is embraced by God’s love. The reason God loves even our shadow sides, is because God experienced the fullness of its brutal and unjust consequences, in the death of Jesus.

Jesus is like the human blueprint for our own transformation. Because who would have presumed that the way up could be the way down? It is, as Saint Paul writes, “the secret Mystery” (Romans 16:25).

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. The hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 says that Jesus leaves the ascent to God, in God’s way, and in God’s time. Because Jesus went to the bottom of all that is human, “God lifted him up, and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9-11).

Of course, they say the joy of a roller coaster’s twists, turns and rapid descents is knowing and trusting that the ride eventually and surprisingly goes up. What an incredible rush! Carl Jung wrote: “Not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die.” (3) The roller coaster analogy suggests that when we refuse to descend, when we avoid facing our own mortality, and avoid taking responsibility for our own suffering, we also don’t really live.

Conversely, we can only truly live when we have faced and come to terms with the reality of our own mortal, imperfect human lives. Being fully human is being fully spiritual, faithful and alive. Saint Irenaeus was first to say in the second century that the glory of God is human being fully alive.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. When challenges, disappointments, defeats and failures come your way, don’t rush into avoidance techniques, distractions, denial of the problem or blaming others for the circumstance you find yourself in. What do these events have to teach you? Where is God in the midst of your suffering? What are the signs of grace therein? Christian faith asserts that God is revealed precisely in those lowest moments. Jesus believed this. It was trust in his Father that got Jesus through his passion, suffering and death.

Trust the down, and God will take care of the up. Resurrection was just around the corner.

 

1 — Richard Rohr, “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent” (Cincinnati Ohio: Franciscan Media, 2011), p.100.
2 — Rohr, ibid., p.123
3 — cited in Rohr, ibid., p.123.

The good crowd

I was ten years old when my parents shuffled me and my brother into one of the front rows of the main, outdoor theatre in the small, Bavarian town. The crowd pushed and shoved for privileged seating to watch the story of Jesus’s last days acted out daily by the town’s folk every ten years.

In fact, the crowd on the large stage did not appear any different than the tourists who got up very early in the morning for tickets to the Oberammergau Passion play.  

This coming Holy Week is rich with story. And when we read the stories about the last days of Jesus — full of drama, plot, and character — we will naturally identify with elements of the story-telling. Our worship is designed to help us identify, for example, with the crowds.

This morning, we sing “Hosanna” and wave our palm branches identifying with the enthusiastic crowd that first day when Jesus entered the city. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees …” (Matthew 21:8). Some years in Holy Week we dramatized and therefore simplify the trial scenes. We have individuals and groups speaking the various parts of the story. So, for example, ‘the crowd’ is played by the whole congregation who chants those lines together, such as “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:23) and “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:66).

Undergoing some mysterious metamorphosis sometime between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday, the crowd turns to the dark side. In a tradition that goes back centuries, Christians have most often portrayed the Jewish crowd around Jesus during his last days as rabidly and violently against him. We see it in Passion plays, the most famous of which is at Oberammergau in Bavaria. The evil crowd is also central to Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

This over-interpretation has unfortunately led to harmful, anti-semitic justification against the Jewish people throughout the dark side of Christian history.

It may be easy to identify with these ‘bad’ crowds more than anyone else in the stories. Through the journey of Lent, we have struggled with the shadow self of our own lives, carrying our own cross so to speak, alongside Jesus. We have confessed our sin. Indeed, at the climax of Christ’s Passion, we pound nails into the cross on Good Friday. We so readily identify with the crowds, even saying that ‘we’ have crucified Jesus by our sin. It is little wonder why we come to these rather negative views, from Scripture.

What these portrayals fail to address, however, is this: Why, if the Jewish crowd was so against Jesus, was it necessary to arrest him in the darkness of night with the help of a traitor from among Jesus’s followers? Why not arrest him in broad daylight? And why do they need Judas?

What we discover is a positive, more balanced approach to the identity of the crowd. First we need to understand why the high-priestly authorities wanted to do away with Jesus.

“[The chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him …” (Matthew 21:46).

If the chief priests and Pharisees let him go on like this, everyone would believe in him, and the Romans would then intervene and execute them (John 11:48). Moreover, the authorities were not just afraid of the Roman Emperor, who was the recipient of Judean tax money and demanded political allegiance from those put in a position of power by the Emperor to keep the Pax Romana in the region. Insurrection in Judea would not be tolerated by Rome.

“… but they feared the crowds …”

Pilate and the high-priests also felt threatened by the whole crowd of people who, if they didn’t do something about Jesus, would eventually turn on them, which in 70AD (around the time most of the Gospels were written), did in fact happen. (1)

The Gospels reveal a clear disconnect between the high-priestly authorities who wish to execute Jesus, and the “whole crowd” who are “spellbound by his teachings” (Mark 11:18) and who “regarded him as a prophet” (Matthew 21:46).

This favourable support of Jesus by the predominantly Jewish crowd does not stop after the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday. It continues throughout the days leading to the Passover Festival in Jerusalem.

The crowds aren’t perfect, to be sure. Their motivations for supporting Jesus may very well have missed the mark, especially those who still sought in Jesus a violent solution to the end of Roman rule in Judea.

Yet, they are captivated by his teachings. There is some good, therein. The ‘whole crowd’ can be personified by each of us. Which part of ourselves identifies with the crowd that is for the most part good and supportive of Jesus, even during his last days on earth?

I ask this question, especially in the midst of the most penitential season of the church year. I ask this question, and make this point as a spiritual antidote to what can easily, and so often does, slide into self-hatred on account of all our sinfulness.

We must remember we live in Christ Jesus, and the living Christ lives in us through the Holy Spirit. There is some good therein. We don’t need to be so hard on ourselves.

“The secret of life,” say the American Indigenous people, “is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.” (2)

We may begin Lent and Holy Week — indeed our Christian pilgrimage on earth — by confronting our shadow self. It’s important to do so. But by the end of Holy Week we cannot avoid the open sun and see the empty tomb. The ending is always as it was in the beginning when God created everything and everyone, and said that it was good. “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

 
1 — Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, “The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem” (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), esp. p.87-91

2 — cited in Joyce Rupp, “Walk In A Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino” (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), p.161

Exposing the agenda of hate

A recent song by American singer-songwriter Soufjan Stevens is entitled: “There’s no shade in the shadow of the cross.” Today, on Good Friday, we all stand in the shadow of the Cross of Jesus. But there’s no shade in this shadow.

If you want a comfortable religion that just makes you feel good, then you dare not approach the Cross of Christ, and you dare not pray.

Encountering Jesus on the Cross is not pablum for the soul nor is it expressing mere platitude for an easy life. The cross is not an exercise of remembering something that happened long ago (and therefore doesn’t really mean anything for me today). We are not merely going through the motions, on Good Friday.

The cross, in all its bloody, bear and stark reality, exposes the darkness within each one of us, today. The cross exposes the human problem of hatred. You will not find relief here today. No shade. No comfort. Only sin. Only hate. In the world. And, within you.

The longer we live in this world, we are forced to asked the question: What makes many people so mean? What creates mean-spirited people? “I want to hurt you!” What is behind hate?

Hate – I just called it ‘mean-spiritedness’. Maybe that is what we see more often than overt hatred. Mean-spiritedness is, unfortunately, here to stay.

Hate is, for some reason, helpful. Hate works. In a lot of immediate and seemingly good ways. It unites a group very quickly. Far quicker than love, you must know that. Hate immediately and easily resolves the inner struggle between the little devil on one shoulder persuading you to do something other than what the little angel on the other shoulder is saying. 

Mean-spiritedness is formed by contraction, ‘against-ness’. Love, on the other hand, is formed by expansion. Love doesn’t come easily, because you have to let down your boundaries. And no one wants to do that.

Contraction — whereby you can eliminate another person, write them off, exclude them, torture them, expel them, ‘vote them off the island’, immediately gives one a sense of boundaried definition, boundaried superiority, even.

Hatred — mean-spiritedness — gives a person identity even if it is a negative one (“I am not that, I am not like them, I am against so-and-so, etc.”). And we’d sooner have a negative identity than feel vulnerable, like nothing, empty. Just who we are, in God.

Hatred takes away all doubt, and free-floating anxiety. Even if in a false way. It feels superior. And feels in control. Hate settles the dust, and the ambiguity that none of us likes. Hate is much more common and — I’m sad to have to say this as a pastor — it is much more immediately effective than love. Immediately.

Hate makes the world go round. Just read the front pages of morning paper this week, scroll through the news feeds on your tablet or flip the channels at 6 o’clock every day. It’s largely about who is hating whom.

You could say that Jesus came to resolve the central problem of hate — this problem that has defined humanity since the beginning of history. There’s really no other way: To save us from ourselves. To save us from one another. And to, therefore, save us.

Until and unless we are saved from our need to hate. 

That’s why people even made religion into a cover for their need to be hateful. I’m hating for Allah, and so it’s ok. And yes, I’m hating for Jesus. Christian history, too, is not free from violence (the Crusades, the witch-hunts, Protestant-Catholic European wars, the residential schools — the list goes on). “I’m hating for Christianity — so my hatred is good hatred.” It happens every day. It’s almost the name of the game.

The ultimate disguise, whereby you can remain a hateful, mean-spirited person is to do it to protect the church, or to protect the country. All those good excuses. So, you are relieved of all anxiety: “I am still a holy person.” Even though, underneath, in the deeper stream, you are a hateful person. But you don’t have to see that. That’s what Scott Peck called, years ago, “People of the Lie”.

We have done so much utopian talk about Jesus and love. But Jesus had a very hard time getting to the issue of love. First, he had to expose and destroy the phenomenon of hate. Which I think is the meaning of the Cross.

Once he exposed the lie and the illusion of hatred, love could show itself clearly. But until then, you can’t. The pattern is still the same. As Jesus shockingly put it, “Satan is the real prince of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11).

Hate, it seems, is the daily, ordinary agenda. Love is the totally enlightened, entirely non-sensical way out of the ordinary agenda. The Gospel presents the dilemma in a personal and cathartic Passion narrative that grounds the whole issue in history, and in one man’s enlightened response to that history. 

One man, Jesus — fully divine and fully human, accepts the religious and social judgement of hate. We have both church and state, both Caiaphas and Pilate. Both power systems declaring Jesus unworthy, declaring him a sinner, wrong, the problem. The very one that you and I call the most perfect man who ever lived is judged by power at the highest levels to in fact be the problem. 

Jesus bears the consequences of hatred, publicly. But in an utterly new way that transforms the pattern. And therefore for us, transforms the possibilities. For two thousand years, Jesus has remained the most striking icon of a possible new agenda. His death exposed the lie and the problem like never before.

His risen life told people that life could have a different story line. Jesus did not just give us textbook answers from a distance. But he personally walked through the process of being rejected and then said, ‘follow me’. And there’s something you only know having been in that position.

What is behind hate? I believe fear is almost always behind hate. It’s not easy to get to that deeper river of fear. It’s not easy to recognize the subtle fears: Afraid of not looking good. Afraid of not being in control. Afraid of not having the right word. All those are fears. But they are subtle.

And the only way to see them is to go right into your own poverty of spirit — blessed are they who do so, Jesus said (Matthew 5:3).

Sometimes it looks like it’s control that’s behind hatred. But even control freaks like myself are usually afraid of losing something. Just go deeper, and you’ll see. It is almost always fear that justifies our knee-jerk hateful response. 

Fear is hardly ever recognized as such. As Paul says in Second Corinthians — ‘the angel of darkness must always be disguised as an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). The best and most convincing disguise, of course, is virtue itself, or godliness. Then, it never looks like fear. 

For fear to survive, it has to look like reason, or reasonableness, prudence, common sense, intelligence, the need for social order, responsible stewardship, morality, religion, obedience, or even justice and spirituality. It always works. Just give it the nice cover, and you don’t have to face underneath it, what is craven fear.

What better way to veil vengeance, and a vengeful spirit than to call it justice. You hear it on the news every night, “I just want justice.” One wonders whether the inner need to punish the other, to hurt the other, has ever been recognized. Let’s be honest: It’s in everyone of us in this room. When someone has made you afraid, you want to hurt them back. To be trapped in our need for vengeance, is to always be afraid. It’s necessarily to be afraid. No wonder fear is the name of the game in almost all of the world. 

And that demon is not exorcised easily. Until you name the demon and admit the demon is there, you have no power of exorcising the demon. It’s clear, in Jesus’ exorcisms. You must name the demon correctly. When you pretend the demon isn’t there, you’ll never do any good exorcism. That’s largely what we do. It’s called, denial.

Only people who are honest and vulnerable about their own fear, and confess their need to control all outcomes, only those practiced in letting go, can go beyond the agenda of hate. Jesus himself prayed hanging on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). This is about letting go of our opinions, our need for getting back, our need to exclude, circle the wagons, and point the finger.  

Jesus prayed, too, from the cross: “Father, forgive them — they don’t know what they are doing!” (Luke 23:34). Only people practised in letting go will be taking the first step in the new agenda of love and forgiveness. This agenda of love, Jesus made possible for us. “Perfect love casts out fear,” scripture promises us (1 John 4:18).

The Cross, today on Good Friday, calls us to trust Jesus. To not have anyone that you can trust is necessarily to be afraid, to be vengeful. Christianity at its best aims to free individuals from their small, fragile, sinful selves, and points to a larger identity in Christ Jesus — the only true self — “hidden in Christ with God” (Colossians 3:3) .

Jesus is the only trustworthy lover, the only trustworthy self. Healthy Christianity, like Jesus himself, tells you that there IS someone you can trust. You do not have to create all the good. You do not have to fix all of the bad. You do not have to explain all the failures. You know you are simply in the stream we call the mystery of death and resurrection, the paschal mystery. 

What else would be the beginnings of peace? As long as you think you have to fix everything, control everything, explain everything, and understanding everything, I can promise you, you will never be a peaceful, loving person.

In the shadow of the cross, there is no shade. Indeed. But let’s stay awhile, and open our hearts to Jesus whose love makes us worthy and who is with us, even in the darkness.

Adapted and transcribed from Richard Rohr, “The Central Problem of Hate” track 8 on CD ‘Action & Contemplation’, Meditatio Talk Series 2015