Game of Thrones and the Throne of Grace

As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne .. (Daniel 7:9)

There appears to be something different about the throne of the Ancient One. Among all the thrones, when the Ancient One sits down we are to take notice. What is it about God’s throne that stands out?

At this time of the year, we still ought to be saying: “Winter is coming.” Although it is obvious now that we can, with all “Game of Thrones” fans, be asserting those ominous words that indeed, “Winter has arrived”!

Fans of the epic TV series “Game of Thrones” need still to wait until the final season airs next year. In the symbolic centre of this miasma of twisting plot lines and characters constantly fighting for supremacy sits the imposing throne at the front of the grand hall of the capital city in George RR Martin’s fantasy world of ‘Westeros’.

Who will finally succeed in claiming the throne? Who IS the rightful heir? And how will each of the so-called ‘pretenders’ manage to usurp ultimate power in the Seven Kingdoms? These are the questions swirling around this throne, highlighted by spiked swords and jagged edges—a dark, cold symbol reflecting the heart, it seems, of what it takes to succeed in this place.

… and an Ancient One took his throne …

When Jesus stands before Pilate hours before Jesus dies a criminal of the state on a bloodied cross, he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.[1]The cross stands as a counterpoint to the world’s thrones. The cross stands as a symbol, not of cold-hearted power-plays and world domination where the end justifies any, bloodied means. No, the cross is a sign of the God who failed according to the world’s rules, who found defeat at the hands of the worldly mighty.

The throne that Jesus sits on is indeed very different from all the others. When Jesus said ‘my kingdom is not of this world’ he meant its values are at odds with how power is exercised among humans, in all its brutish ways. We may be alarmed, and despair; yet, we accept that the ‘Game of Thrones’ world is quite similar to our reality on earth, more so than the kingdom of God.

I find at least two ways we fail to see and realize God’s ways on earth:

First, I suspect, for Christians, the temptation is to go the other way: to deny God’s kingdom on earth. The problem is that, without even consciously, we may delegate God’s values to some fantasy world. To practice genuine humility, forgiveness, grace, mercy and unconditional love not just to family and friends but to people we don’t know—well, we say, that’s reserved for ‘heaven’ someday; it has no place in the ‘real world’, we way.

But God’s throne is not in a different world than ours. God’s throne is not ‘up there’ or ‘over there’ or in some fantasy world far removed from our own.

The truth, and our hope, is that God’s way can be realized on earth. Not only has Jesus enabled people of all time and place to face the truth about ourselves, our relationships, our faith, and the world in which we live, Jesus is saying that his kingdom is also present — in part — upon the earth, in all our relationships.[2] Wherever grace is given and received, wherever forgiveness is practiced, wherever mercy and love are shown. There, is God.

I’m finishing up this week teaching a course on Martin Luther, prayer and the legacy of the Reformation (at the Ottawa School of Theology and Spirituality). In teaching this course, the students and I have returned time and time again to the notion of movement. Semper Reformanda–the Latin phrase popularized by Karl Barth in the last century: Always reforming. The legacy of the Reformation is that we are a church that is continually changing, and moving, and becoming. And, in what ways?

Here, I want to bring in the Rev. Riitta Hepomaki, assistant to Bishop Pryse (Eastern Synod–Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada). She said at the workshop the council attended last weekend that what we lack, today, as a church of the Reformation is this sense of movement. Our western church, and especially our generation, has adopted a “we have arrived” mindset.

This is the second way in which we fail to realize God’s ways, God’s reign on earth.

If we have arrived, we don’t need to move. If we don’t move, we are stuck. The feeling of being stuck often leads to hopelessness. And, we are not talking here about physical movement from one street address to another, per se. We can make little moves: from the church hall to the streets, from our own kitchen or garden to a community kitchen or garden—wherever God is sending you.

Giving up the ‘we have arrived’ mindset means also that we are willing to move from my little world to other people’s worlds. It is challenging. But we can do it because we have faith, even faith the size of a miniscule mustard seed. And we have each other. We have fellowship. We have a new way of life. And because we are confident that our God will guide and provide.

So, let’s try to change our mindset from ‘having arrived’ to ‘being sent’, and ‘being in movement’. After all, if we don’t move, we cannot follow. Aren’t we called “followers of Jesus?”[3]And, today, we proclaim, that Jesus is the Lord of our lives. And that we are followers not of the ways of the world, but of the Reign of Christ.

In another vision of God, this time from a major prophet[4]in the Hebrew scriptures, God sits on his throne, yet the primary image is of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple. God’s presence permeates and fills all.

The world will indeed separate and set a boundary between the most powerful ‘at the front on the throne’, and the rest of us on the floor down below. Not so with God. In Christ, that boundary has been severed. Moments after Jesus died on that symbol of death and defeat—the cross—the curtain in the temple was torn.[5]The dividing line between where God is and where the rest of us are was opened.

No longer are we divided, violent, fighting, them-and-us. No longer need we compare, compete and kill. These are the actions and behavior of those who bow to the world’s thrones.

Rather, we are all enfolded in the robes of God’s grace forever. There are no boundaries, no limits, to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And, as the writer to the Hebrews expresses, we can therefore approach the “throne of grace” will confidence.[6]No longer afraid that God will rebuke, punish and condemn us. No longer condemned by our faults, sins and weaknesses.

We can approach this throne with boldness, assured that God will embrace us in mercy, forgiveness, and love.

 

[1]John 18:33-37, Gospel for the Reign of Christ Sunday, Year B, Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Robert A. Bryant in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.337.

[3]Riitta Hepomaki, The Eastern Synod Lutheran Volume 44, Sept 25, 2015 (Kitchener: Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada), p.1

[4]Isaiah 6:1-8

[5]Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45

[6]Hebrews 4:16

God in Acts

In Mark Burnett’s recent visual adaptation of the entire Bible, some scenes from Jesus’ passion still stand out for me. Weeks have passed since the dramatic events of Holy Week and Easter. So, I ask you, to rewind the tape for just a minute. And recall with me when news of the upstart prophet from Galilee first came to ears of the high priest in Jerusalem:

The scene in the temple is dark, illuminated only by the flickering flame of candlelight sending fleeting shadows throughout the cavernous room. The religious leaders draped in their flowing robes shuffle about.

An anxious member of the religious elite makes his way to the high priest, catching his attention: “There are reports of a man performing miracles, and some five thousand followed him to Galilee.” At first, news about Jesus does not worry the high priest. He turns away without saying a word. But the messenger persists, pulling at the high priest’s shoulder. “He calls himself the Son of God!”

The high priest’s mouth stretches in a cold smile, “They all do.”

Then, the night before Jesus’ death, Pilate consoles his wife who is disturbed by news of Jesus’ arrest and trial. Pilate’s wife tries to convince Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus and let him go.

But Pilate, feeling caught between a stone and a hard place, is playing a delicate political game in order to keep control. He says to his wife, trying to justify his own actions to have Jesus condemned to death: “Don’t worry, in a week this man will be forgotten.”

Both the high priest and Pilate, struggling for political control, convince themselves Jesus is a no one, or at best, a pretender. And will be forgotten, like all the rest of them.

We fast forward now, to life in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Now, in the Book of Acts, the focus shifts to the disciples. A man who is disabled, sitting by the gate near the temple in Jerusalem, finds healing. Peter and John meet him on their way into the temple. “In the name of Jesus Christ”, Peter touches the man, and he is able to walk again.[1]

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” the religious leaders in Jerusalem ask Peter and John when they are arrested. The Sadducees, who were a powerful religious group in Jerusalem, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.

Strike one, against Peter and John who did not stop preaching the resurrection of Jesus and all who believe.

It is said that five thousand people converted to Christianity after hearing and seeing what miracles and words Peter and John performed.[2]

Strike two, against them. Five thousand people is a huge threat to the religious establishment. And to social stability. Rome held Jerusalem’s religious leaders responsible for keeping the pax romana – Caesar’s idea of political control over each region in the vast Mediterranean empire. There was no way the Sanhedrin were going to allow Peter and John to continue their disruptive work.

So, they were arrested and brought before the religious council called the Sanhedrin. Did Peter and John know that a few weeks prior, Jesus stood in the same place before the religious leaders?

Strange, I find, that something obviously positive – the healing of a person – turns into something negative so easily where human nature is concerned. Questions of resurrection, the mercy of God and healing turn into a question of power: “By what power or by what name did you do this?”

It is also clear, as the author of Acts present, that the religious leaders were “jealously protective”[3]of their franchise on religion. They wanted the masses to be prayerful and faithful. But they wanted people to do so under the exclusive banner of the temple.

Yet, from the beginning, the Christian movement was an outbreak of the Holy Spirit, spreading like wildfire. It cannot be contained in any one, exclusive denomination, group or church claiming to be the only, right way. That is not the nature of the Christian movement, from day one to the present. Exclusivity is not the preferred style of Christian life.

“By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter and John have an answer: There is no other name by which we all are healed. Jesus Christ stands for all.[4]For God shows no partiality, for there are people in every nation who are acceptable to God.[5]

There is no other name. Other gods will give up on you:

The god of war and violence will give up on you when you turn the other cheek.

The god of consumerism will give up on you when you give what you have to those in need.

The god of power and control will give up on you when you let go of any pretence of being in control of others, forcing them to be like you.

The god of competition and hatred will give up on you when you welcome, affirm and show mercy to those who are different from you and your kind.

All these false gods of the world will forget you. They will be forgotten. The high priest of Jerusalem and Pilate were right because there were so many claiming to be the Messiah who were just that: fakes. These are the false gods who will be forgotten.

But not Jesus. Even after his resurrection and ascension, Jesus will not be forgotten.

Peter and John may have had a couple of strikes against them standing as prisoners before the religious leaders in the temple’s portico. But they, and the Christian movement, would never strike out. God was about to blast a grand slam out of the park of history.

The God of resurrection and new life will continue to inspire, to push us forward, to pinch our consciences, even challenge us to move forward. There is no hiding from this God who will not give up on you and on us.

The God who created you, who loved you,

Who, even in your sin forgives you and shows you mercy,

The God who gives you a second chance, always,

The God who is your loving shepherd, compassionate friend,

This God will never, ever give up on you, nor forget you. Nor any lost, hurting person or creature in all of creation.

Whether it is Peter or John, or the voice of God speaking this through the church and in the world today …

There is no other name under heaven by whose power all can be saved.

Amen.

[1]Acts 3:1-10

[2]Acts 4:4

[3]Thomas C. Long cited in David L Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary” Year B Volume 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008) p.432

[4]Acts 4:10-12

[5]Acts 10:34

Questioning for the truth

Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (John 18:34)

Well over a hundred times in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Jesus asks a question. Jesus, the Teacher, does not give answers as much as he asks the right question.

And the question aims to reveal the truth. Good teachers will ask questions. And those who learn, who follow, will appreciate the importance of understanding the question.

Laurence Freeman tells of a time in his youth when he struggled with math in school. Finally he and some of his friends went to a bookstore in London, England, and found a copy of the math textbook they were using in class. The teacher’s edition had all the answers in the back.

Overnight, his marks shot up. Succeeding in math was no longer a problem. But the problem was that even though he had all the right answers, he still didn’t understand the questions. He was no better off in learning anything.

As people of faith living in this time of history, are we not so preoccupied with finding the right answers? We want answers to questions about ordinary life as much as the biggies — life after death, the nature of God, the final judgement, the end times, who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. We want answers. And, we will be satisfied only with right answers.

And yet, the point of the Christian life is to understand what is behind the question. Jesus uncovers the truth by helping others understand what the questions mean. We ought to appreciate this, since Jesus often “answered” a question by asking another question, as is the case in this trail scene with Pilate.

What is Jesus getting at with Pilate? In truth, as many have indicated, this scene might better be called “Pilate on trial”. Pilate, though supposedly in control, is completely trapped in fear. Pilate’s line of questioning betrays his his true goals. And his captivity.

These days it is common to speak of defining one’s values and clarifying one’s goals in life. Othersie we drift, rudderless. Without setting goals we become guilty of living LBWA (Life By Wandering Around). Or, without taking the effort and time to articulate values and goals, we become subject to “the tyranny of the immediate” and react to events rather than doing that which is most meaningful to us. Being honest and open with our values and deepest desires is not an easy task. Yet honestly living out of our deepest held values makes us more authentic and real. (1)

Pilate’s true goals? Being honest could not be the true goal of Pilate. Rather, staying in power had to be his aim. Authenticity would have to be thrown out the window. He questioned Jesus to find a technicality on which to condemn Jesus — in order to appease the crowd and religious leaders. “So, you are a king?” is a question designed to catch Jesus in a capital offense.

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Jesus asks. Is Pilate not bound in his effort to stay in control? Is that not Pilate’s real goal, regardless of the cost — to stay in control of his life ‘as is’? Pilate is trapped. I have the feeling Pilate has to hide his true convictions, his honest questions, and his haunting fears. Jesus sees right through the smoke and mirrors.

There, before Pilate, Jesus seeks to encounter the real Pilate, the one who in truth is utterly trapped in his desperate effort to stay in control. There, Jesus gives himself to be with the true person who is Pilate. There, Jesus invites Pilate to be vulnerable, transparent, to share how it is with him, to utter the truth of his own life. (2)

My uncle living in Poland tells of a time at the end of the Second World War when the Soviets established control over Eastern Europe. My uncle, a German by origin, felt trapped. Caring for his wife and two young girls in an economically depressed part of Europe, he faced a significant decision to ‘prove’ himself: He could either reject the offer to become a card-holding member of the Communist party — which would be consistent with his beliefs — but face the potentially dire consequences. Or, as it turned out to be, he ‘paid his dues’ and became officially a Communist.

I remember he spoke to me years ago about how difficult that was. On Sundays he would sneak in and out of church through a back door to avoid scrutiny by the authorities. He and his family enjoyed the security and material benefits of his decision. Yet, on a deeper level he never felt entirely at ease with his decision, living a double life.

I share this not to condemn my uncle. In the same breath I sympathize with Pilate. I would struggle with and probably make similar decisions if I were in their shoes. My point is that living the truth is not an easy, simplistic reality in our world.

In our encounter with the living Lord and King, Jesus Christ, we are invited nevertheless to strive for the truth. We are invited to be authentic, transparent, vulnerable. We are invited to share the utter truth of our lives with one another in the church — the Body of Christ. We are called to face the truth about our lives, the truth Jesus holds up before us. We must look at what is right and what is wrong in our actions and attitudes towards others and within ourselves. As Emilie Townes puts it, we must “look deeply into who we are and what we have become, to try to live into what we can and should be.” (3)

I agree with those who say that people are leaving the church today not because they reject the teaching of Jesus. They are leaving the church because of the actions of those in the church. The problem is not what we say we believe. Truth is not simply born out of an intellectual discourse and debate. The problem is the actions — or lack thereof — that are supposed to flow from what we say we believe, into every dark corner of our lives.

Is not the truth Jesus wants us to see, what we are doing with our lives? Our behaviour? What we say to others? Our decisions? Is it possible to speak of truth as something that is done, rather than something that is merely believed or thought of?

We therefore challenge ourselves to look beyond what we think, to the truth found in God, as represented by Jesus. Jesus encounters us daily to help uncover the deeper truth of our lives, and invites us to speak and act authentically out of that truth which is larger than any of us individually. Our encounter with Jesus pulls us out of our self-centredness into that expansive, eternal realm that is the kingdom of God. And we act, beginning in our lives on earth according to the values of the Reign of Christ.

“Everyone who belongs to truth listens to my voice,” says Jesus to Pilate. Even to Pilate Jesus offers to be the good shepherd – the good shepherding king – who, when his sheep listen to his voice, are led into abundant life. (John 10)

God the creator is love and grace. The truth of God comes from beyond our hypocrisy and failures. The truth of God comes from outside of our sordid and mis-guided attempts to act accordingly. The truth of God comes from a divine heart that is willing to put Jesus’ life on the line, for us. Jesus giving of his whole life for our sake speaks of an ultimate action, despite ours, that is all love, forgiveness and grace.

This truth can help us sort through all that competes in life for our attention and energy. We may encounter truth as a challenge from God. But it is also a gift God gives to us through infinite love and grace.

(1) Paul R. Trimm, “Successful Self-Management; Increasing Your Personal Effectiveness” Revised Edition, Logical Operations, 2015, p.14-19

(2) Pete Peery in David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Feasting on the Word” Year B Volume 4, WJK Press, 2009, p.333-337

(3) ibid., p.336

The Pilate problem and the gift of God’s perfect action

In Pilate’s actions (Matthew 27:11ff) we witness how we can be so divided, inside ourselves, between what we believe/what we say — and what we end up doing.

Pilate is convinced Jesus is innocent. He tries all manner of techniques — appealing to tradition to free one prisoner, even having Jesus flogged — all in order to keep him from being crucified. Even Pilate’s wife intervenes to try convincing Pilate to release Jesus.

And for this we can sympathize with Pilate. We can appreciate the political struggle. He is caught between a rock and a hard place: He can use his authority to do the ‘right’ thing but incur the wrath of the crowds and incite rebellion; or, he can do the ‘wrong’ thing but keep political stability in the occupied territories, not to mention his job.

Self-preservation seems to be a guiding motivation for Pilate. But, in the end, when all has been said and done, we hang our heads low in confession that Pilate failed. In contrast to the bloodied and tortured man that stood across from him, he was no man of integrity.

When Pilate washes his hands, he does so symbolically making himself innocent from the crucifixion of Jesus. But Pilate deludes himself from taking responsibility as the governor of the region; because, in truth, the authority to condemn someone to death rested on his shoulders. Even though he washes his hands to try to rid his conscience of the truth, he is culpable. Ironic, isn’t it, that in John’s gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

We have heard the saying that not doing anything is doing something. There is no such thing as ‘abstaining from life’. Whether this problem is manifested in pretending not to see something happen on the road or in the mall that would require us to take a risk to help someone in need; whether self-preservation motivates us to hide or run away when what is called upon is our help; when we ignore a text or email from someone because what they say exposes us or asks us to deal with an uncomfortable truth.

These are some examples of the Pilate problem showing up in our lives — when we delude ourselves into believing there can be no significant consequence from our inaction; when we deceive ourselves into not doing anything, as a strategy for dealing with a difficult situation that requires our attention and action; when we fool ourselves to think that by ignoring someone or something we are doing some good.

Not doing anything is doing something. The question then, is: What is ‘doing nothing’ actually doing? Is not doing anything making the problem worse? Is not doing anything keeping people stuck in unhealthy habits and relationships? Is not doing anything enabling evil to accomplish its diabolic purposes?

We compulsively lay judgement on our’s and others’ actions that result in bad things; these are traditionally known as the sins of commission. But how much have we considered bad things that have resulted in not doing anything at all? The sins of omission are failure to do what one can.

This Good Friday is a good time to reflect personally on what our action, and our inaction, actually accomplishes in our families, marriages, our workplaces and church. More than what our words say, what does our behaviour communicate? Because when it’s all been said and done, our lives are a testimony to our actions.

As Dumbledore advised Harry Potter — in J.K. Rowling’s popular children’s books: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Who God truly is, was shown no more clearly and profoundly than in the Passion of Christ. But ‘Passion’ is not passive. God is doing something in the Passion of Christ. And there’s no way Pilate knew what was afoot — what his waffling was actually leading to, in God’s great work. So, in the end, the Passion story is not about the failure of Pilate, Peter, Judas and the deserting disciples. In the end, this is a story whose principle character is God, in Jesus Christ.

What does Jesus do, before Pilate? You will note that Jesus remained predominantly silent throughout his trial (Matthew 27:11-14). It’s not about what he says. Though he admits he could have called upon his disciples to fight to save him (John 18:36), though he confesses he is “the king of the Jews”, he knows what he must do.

When it’s all been said and done, Jesus against certain torture, mutilation and humiliation, had aligned his inner compass on true north. He was “a man despised and dejected” (Isaiah 53:3). But because he never wavered in his actions at the end, God “allotted him a portion with the great” (Isaiah 53:12).

God, in Jesus, showed us that our God is trustworthy, faithful and true to us, no matter how dire the consequence or even how divided in our lives we are. Nothing will stop God from trying to reach out to us in love. God, if anything, is persistent. God in Christ Jesus is, in the famous words of 19th century English poet Francis Thompson, the “hound of heaven”, who wont stop at anything to accomplish what is good, and what is right.

After all, when it’s all been said and done, nothing we can say nor do can even come close to what God accomplished on the Cross.

In this Good Friday liturgy, we have been focusing on the symbols of the Passion of Christ, culminating in the Cross, which is of greatest value in Christianity.

In the German, Lutheran tradition of worship on Good Friday, special effort is made to emphasize and cover as much as possible with the colour black.

In late medieval times, the colour black became the popular fashion choice for royalty in Europe. The more common, least expensive methods of pigmentation resulted in a brighter array of colours. But ‘vine black’ — obtained from burning the twigs of grape vines — was according to the 15th century painter, Cennino Cennini, “the perfect colour.”

Hard, laborious work was employed to extract even a little bit of this perfect colour. In order to yield the perfect result on a canvas or in clothing, a sacrifice of comparable worth was made.

Black was gold. Black signified a valuable and, above all, worthwhile expression of faith on “Good” Friday. While the colour black can signal temperance, penitence, sorrow and a mournful mood, it also points to a greatness beyond any human effort. This colour, as a symbol of faith on Good Friday, points to the greatest, most perfect, sacrifice of love by God that yields the greatest power, even over death itself.

God is not passive. God doesn’t sit around. God is active. That is why we adore the Cross — to symbolize the ultimate triumph of God.

Let us give thanks this day, that Christ’s action made all the difference in, and changed, the world forever.