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

Love confronts violence

You can feel the tension rising. As we make the slow yet certain journey with Jesus to his eventual arrest, trial, sentencing and violent death on the Cross, the assigned texts for Lent heighten the tension between Jesus and his scrutinizing opponents in the religious institution of Jerusalem. This short Gospel from Luke (13:31-35) reflects the tone.

It starts with a warning from the Pharisees. “Get away from here; Herod wants to kill you!” they say to Jesus. They are alarmed yet perhaps enjoying the drama unfolding around their competitor in the religious marketplace. They don’t care about Jesus. They are just pressing his buttons to see his reaction.

Immanent violence is in the air. It’s the only way we know to resolve conflict. Whether with our words, our manipulative behaviour, our compulsiveness and in some cases our outright physical abuses — violence is the unfortunate reality whenever and wherever human beings mix.

I’ve learned in a course on conflict I have been taking, that violence is not just played out on a battlefield between warring groups. Violence does not only happen in a physical way between people or nations, as sure and as horrific as these examples are.

Violence is also something that occurs in our verbal communication — whether of a bullying, judging, teasing, condemning nature, or intentionally hurtful put down. Violent communication creeps into any competitive or self-defensive motivation. Which is usually fuelled by a deep fear.

Not outside of this escalating situation for Jesus, the obvious underdog in the power struggle, he announces words of love. He describes God’s favour towards precisely those who wish him harm. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …” (v.34)

This maternal, protective, embracing, comforting image of God’s love for us intervenes into a world of violence and abusive cravings for power and corruption. This passionate love of God for us is not because we don’t sin, but especially because of our sin. This love of God is undeserved, and it is almost impossible to fully explain or justify. Precisely because it is exercised amidst a violent world.

“On April 16, 2007, the Virginia Tech massacre occurred in which a distraught student went on a shooting rampage, coldly killing fellow students. As many as fifteen were saved from death by an instinctively protective and caring English professor. 

“Liviu Librescu pressed his body against the door to his classroom while he urged his students to jump out a window to safety. This professor, a Romanian Jew who survived the Nazis in his homeland years earlier, died in his classroom after the killer shot through the door that Librescu was holding shut.

“Selfless love is real. In spite of the horrors of war and other brutal ways that humans treat one another, love is possible. Unselfish people reside everywhere. They love unconditionally, dedicate themselves to alleviating suffering, are willing to give their all for another, intent on being life-givers and spirit-transformers. 

“These are not do-gooders, holier-than-thou people. No, this kind of love is seared by trials, purified by personal growth, shaped by persistent rededication and self-giving that goes beyond required duty. Each day people on this planet open the door of their hearts and love pours forth. No matter how discouraged we might get about the world’s violence and hatred, let us remember that generous love thrives in kind souls and expresses itself daily.

“Caryll Houselander writes: ‘This is the first and last vocation of every Christian, to love, and all other vocations are only a shell in which this vocation, to love, is protected.’

“Our deeds of love may not be as enormous as Liviu Librescu’s, but they still contain great value. The unselfish giving and support we offer occurs within our homes and workplaces, in local grocery stores and on the highways, in hospitals, restaurants and other common places of personal encounter.

“Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was convinced that each act of love had a far reaching effect: ‘If we all carry a little of the burden, it will be lightened. If we share in the suffering of the world, then some will not have to endure so heavy an affliction … You may think you are alone. But we are all members of one another. We are children of God together.'” (1)

Librescu could have heeded warnings, and jumped out the window to safety himself. He could have heard the killer coming closer to his classroom, and acted in self-preservation. But, love for his students overcame his fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). 

The first words God speaks to Abraham, the god-father of three world religions, in this version of God’s Promise to Abram is “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 15:1). You would think the more important words of God at this point in the Scriptural tradition is the great Covenant God establishes with the people of Israel through Abraham and Sarah.

Yet, God knows us humans. We are a fearful lot, when propositioned with promises of greatness but which require letting go of seemingly important things. And Abraham would need to lose a lot — home, familiarity, security — in order to travel to the new place God was calling him. “Do not be afraid.” The most often quoted divine instruction throughout the whole bible! “Do not be afraid/Fear not!”

The journey to the Cross, and beyond the Cross is ultimately a journey of love. We can only carry our own crosses the whole way because of the love of God which sustains us. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” writes Saint Paul (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Not even all the violence in this world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door”, Sorin Books, Notre Dame IN, 2008, digital copy Week 6 ‘Beyond the Door’ Day 2 ‘Bringing Love’ p.12-13

The return journey of Transfiguration

When I first watched Danny Macaskill’s video, “The Ridge”, I assumed the incredible journey on his mountain bike would culminate at the pinnacle. When he lifts his bicycle over his head through the streaming rays of glorious sunshine on top of the Scottish highland, I anticipated the credits to role. His journey done. The glory achieved. Mission accomplished.

But we were only half done! After relishing the moment, he puts his wheels on the uneven, rocky, dangerous path and accelerates downward on the return journey — jumping across gaping crevices, twisting across boulder tops and flipping over barbed wire fences. The pilgrimage began at the water’s edge below. And there, it will end.

The journey of Transfiguration, described by Luke in the lectionary for today, does not end on the mountaintop (Luke 9:28-43). After the majesty, mystery and glory of the spectacular vision on the top of the mountain, Jesus and the disciples “come down from the mountain” (v.37) into an anxious scene where Jesus heals a man shrieking, convulsing and foaming at the mouth in the grips of demon possession. Not exactly a moment of pristine glory. 

Though the story ends well for all concerned, the Gospel writer reminds us that the journey of change and transformation and healing must include a descent, a going down, a letting go, a releasing. You may call it a reality check in life, or in the case of the video, literally — the rubber hitting the road.

These mountaintop experiences of our lives, according to the Gospel, find meaning and validity in the valleys of our lives. Jesus’ majesty is legitimized in his mission to the people living in the valley. These mountaintop experiences are mere stopping points on the journey, not the destination. While we live on earth, the journey must embrace both mountain and valley, must recognize the meaning and value in both. Our spiritual charade is exposed if we pretend faith is validated only in those ecstatic mountaintop moments.

In your life, which mountains have you ascended? These can be times when you experience joy, love, peace and hope; they can be times when you experience a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

And into which valleys did you descend? These can be times when you experience failure, setback, disappointment, loss; they can be times when you felt profound fear, shame, anger, guilt and anxiety. 

Joyce Rupp reflects on legends common to many lands “about a person who has an enticing dream of where treasure is located. Of course, the valuable cache in the dream hides far beyond where the person lives. If the dreamer does not leave home to seek the treasure, the dream is repeated until the person finally sets out for the extensive journey. In each legend, the seeker travels long, arduous years, filled with both dangerous and enthralling adventure, never being sure if that which is sought will be found.

“The story ends with the traveler coming to the place where the treasure is supposedly hidden. Instead of finding it there, the seeker meets a stranger at that site who tells about a dream he or she had in which the long-sought treasure is located back at the place where the dreamer originally started out. Of course, the person who has been seeking all those years now hurries as quickly as possible to get home. Arriving back at the place of the dream, sure enough, there is the treasure. What the person sought on the arduous journey had been there all along.

“This legend teaches that life’s journey, with its flow of ups and downs, has to be made. Although it leads full circle back to the home of one’s own heart, the journey itself contains the necessary teachings for growth and change.” (1)

When we return to the starting point of our own existence, we will find our true nature. Again, the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is helpful. Because the message from the biblical record is that Jesus’ true essence was revealed on the mountaintop. He is the divine Son of God.

Yet, the Transfiguration of our Lord didn’t negate his humanity. From that point forward, he would still go down into the valley, heal the sick, preach good news to the poor and die a human man on the Cross of Calvary. The Transfiguration only uncovered his true nature in that moment of time.

In the same way, we are transformed and changed — yes. But our Christian growth does not dismiss, discard, and deny all that we are and have been — good and bad. As Martin Luther argued, we are simultaneously saints and sinners. Our transformation is not a movement from sinner to saint, as if we can only be Christian if we don’t sin anymore, as if no more sin infects our lives, as if we can somehow abolish altogether our sinful baggage on the journey. The greatest saints on earth still sinned to their dying day.

Rather, our transformation reveals to us and those around us who we truly are, in Christ Jesus: We are beloved children of God. In this life, we will always be saints and sinner. Yet, we will know and experience more and more the transforming power of God’s love for us, in us, and through us. This is our true nature. And our greatest treasure. Thanks be to God!

Where in your life do you see the love of Jesus, working in and through you despite the sin in your life?



(1) Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door – A Journey to the True Self” Sorin Books, Notre Dame Indiana, 2009, digital copy in Week 2, p.8

An impossible call

After months of deadly fighting, the four tribes on post-apocalyptic, war-ravaged earth have achieved a tenuous peace treaty. The band of new comers barely catches their breath before they receive a signal for help. The distress call comes from somewhere in the borderlands, forbidden zones marking the territories occupied by the combative tribes. 

The earth’s inhabitants avoid these areas altogether now, anxious that any movements within the borderlands may be construed as aggressive. Those venturing into the forbidden land may be seen as provoking another war.

The distress signal calls the young troop into action. As they prepare to leave the relative safety of their compound, the elder statesman turns to the leader of the rescue mission and says, “We’ve lost people and shed blood to make peace. Don’t mess this up.”

Of course, such dialogue functions as foreshadowing — meaning, yeah, they’ll likely do just that: mess it up. Such a story line, or a variation thereof, sounds like many in popular fiction and TV today.(1)

When the stakes are high and there is so much to lose, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). This is no walk-in-the-park calling. The appointment from God is not a nice, extra little job to do as a hobby. This is not a proposition for an easy, comfortable life-style. This is not an extra-curricular weekend, work-life balance proposal.

The stakes are high. Your life is on the line. Everything you have and know is placed at great risk. You are more likely to fail. You can really mess this up. Not only for yourself, but for a whole lot of people.

Can we really be hard on Jeremiah (oh, and Moses, Sarah, David, Isaiah, Mary, Zechariah, Timothy and others in the Bible) who first questions the call from God? Doubt the veracity of the claim. Question the wisdom of such a move. Balk at the incredulous proposition of this word. Jeremiah understandably doubts his ability, and knee-jerks into finding excuses: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (v.6). 

It is the natural, human response. God, though, does not give up on us.

A caution: This is not a word just for the professional religious. Another excuse today would be for the people of God to dismiss this text as irrelevant, pertaining only to those discerning a call to full-time ministry and ordination. There is here a word to all who face seemingly insurmountable odds:

A call to attend with care, compassion and dedication one who is dying. A call not to give up, but persevere in a course of action. A call to leave an unhealthy relationship behind in order to embrace an uncertain, unclear future. A call to stop doing something without being certain about what will replace it. A call to change one’s mind and adopt a different approach, perspective and opinion on a long-held belief. A call to do something or go somewhere that you had never thought possible in your life.

Now, we are all saying, “Oh, Lord, I can’t do that. Impossible!”

“Do not be afraid … for I am with you to deliver you” (v.8).

When against all the odds we are faced with an incredible task, our relationship with God is brought into sharp focus. What we really believe about God rises to the surface. Our faith is exposed. What do we see there? 

I wonder whether in anxious moments of life we expect God to do something for us — intervene with thunder and lightning to show the way unambiguously in a booming Charlton Heston voice from above; or, more to the point, do the thing that needs to be done while I stand on the sidelines, spectating.

I wonder whether in the anxious moments of life what we really need to ask is not what can God do for us but who can God be for us? (2) When we are down-and-out, will God be our comfort? When we face a decision, will God be “the source of our courage, the keeper of our troubles, the teacher of our prayer, the guide of our pathway, the nurturer of our virtue, the companion of our soul”? 

The being God, rather than the do-ing God, keeps the boundaries clear as to who needs to do what job, and whose job it is anyway to work as prophet “over nations and over kingdoms” (v.10). The being God won’t give in to our responsibility-shirking tendency to pass the buck on the job we are called to do. When we actually risk doing it, nevertheless, God will be there for us. God will not forsake us. No matter whether we fail or succeed.

There is a wonderful grace that comes with the promise of God, as it did to Jeremiah, to be with him through it all. Yet, this grace comes not in words alone. This grace is not reserved nor exclusively confined to the realm of the abstract — a dis-embodied, disconnected cerebral, mental event. This grace is not the purview solely of an internal process.

God’s grace is embodied. It comes to us in the real world. “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth …” (v.9a). Touched. The image is rather odd, yet similar to the burning coal that touches the mouth of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his call (Isaiah 6:6-7). 

God validates, confirms, and communicates the call through the concrete, material aspects of our lives. Some may call it a ‘sign’. I prefer seeing it in terms of what you need in order to do the job. God supplies us, gives us the resources and personal support we need, to get the job done.

When we confront and respond to an impossible call, God will have already given us the gift we need to do it. We may not see it, acknowledge it or make sense of it right away. Yet, God equips those whom God calls to do what seems impossible. A poster used to hang in my home office: God doesn’t call the qualified, God qualifies the called. We are qualified to do what we must.

What has God already given to you, in order to do the impossible thing standing between you and God’s beautiful vision for your life, and the life of the world?

(1) – such as “The 100” CW TV, season 3 episode 1, based on the books by Kass Morgan

(2) – Joyce Rupp, “Open the Door” Green Press Initiative, 2008 digital version, Week 2 – Knocking on the Door, p.18-19