Here we (and God) go again

The horrible evil unleashed in Christchurch, New Zealand, this past weekend exposes so much that is wrong in our world. And in our relationship with those who are different from us. And in our relationship with God. When worshippers are gunned down in their house of prayer, to do anything now but grieve alongside and stand in solidarity with the sufferers exposes in us a serious God-image problem.

Our God-image problem, as Christians, starts with our understanding of God’s holy word. And specifically, our over-simplistic judgement of Jesus’ opponents. Typically, in the New Testament, these are the Pharisees. And we succumb to what I call the ‘black helmet syndrome’.

The ‘black helmet syndrome’ comes from how the bad guys are usually portrayed in popular culture—in old tv shows and movies like Star Wars. For example, the bad guys all wear the same uniform, usually the same colour, and we normally don’t see their faces because they are hidden behind some helmet or mask. They march to the same tune and move the same, predictable ways. They behave, essentially, like robots.

We know nothing of their unique personalities (unless a story evolves and develops, like Star Wars eventually does) and never gain insight into their unique personalities. They are trapped in their badness because individuals yield to the pressure to conform.

When we read the bible like that, it’s easy to lump all the Pharisees together under one over-arching label: bad guy. But that’s not the case, if we read the narrative more closely and contemplatively.

Portrayed in several Gospel stories as the antagonists, the Pharisees do scrutinize and criticize Jesus. Yes. But there are layers to that antagonism, even to the point of sympathy for Jesus. That is what first caught my attention in the Gospel text assigned for today, the Second Sunday in Lent.[1]

It was the Pharisees who warned Jesus he should get out of town because Herod wanted to kill him.[2]Jesus, after all, has become a useful target and a convenient scapegoat for the powerful elite. Let the restless crowds project their anxiety, their anger and fear onto the troublemaker Jesus rather than those holding tentatively to power.

Do you sense the growing tension? Jesus’ enemies have throughout his ministry flocked to him, hung on his every word and literally breathed down his neck. There is a power struggle strangling Jerusalem, and everyone, especially Herod Antipas, is looking over their shoulders.

The fact that Jesus had sympathizers and supporters  in the halls of power shouldn’t come to us as a surprise. After all, Joseph of Arimathea, on whose land Jesus was buried, exercised power in Jerusalem and had Pilate’s ear.[3]Joseph of Arimathea, we sense, was partial to Jesus and what he was all about. Nicodemus, who often questioned Jesus[4], in the end helped the Arimathean bury Jesus with respect and according to tradition. Who Jesus is and what he says somehow touches the hearts of those like Nicodemus.

These sympathizers, however, are caught between two worlds, two kingdoms. They have benefited from their privileged status, to be sure. They wouldn’t easily give that up, nor would they necessarily want to. And yet, this preacher from Nazareth who gives hope and the promise of God’s love to the downtrodden stirs something irresistible deep within them.

“Tell that fox, Herod …,” Jesus snipes.[5]“Tell him what’s really going to happen sooner than later. Tell him the truth about God and God’s intention.” Jesus gives a warning, and gives it to these ‘sitters-on-the-fence’ Pharisees to convey his cutting words.

At the first, we witness Jesus throwing his allies the proverbial ticking time bomb. For when they bring Jesus’ message to Herod, they would be bringing upon themselves unwelcome attention and even scrutiny. A shadow would pass over them, the seed of suspicion planted. “What were they doing so close to Jesus in the first place?” “Whose side are they really on?” And the political machine might start turning against them. The balance shifts ever so subtly, and the irreversible track to their eventual demise begins.

Indeed, Jesus’ words for these sympathizers lead them to a place of discomfort, to say the least. And Jesus knows what he is doing. These ‘good’ Pharisees must now face their own demons and answer to themselves. They must choose.

It’s as if Jesus is forcing their hands to come clean: Whose kingdom will you serve, now? Will you follow the values of Herod and the political self-serving machine of Jerusalem? Or, will you follow in the realm of God? Whose kingdom will you seek? The kingdom of hate? Or, the kingdom of love? And, are you prepared to let go of your privileged status, for my sake? And the sake of the Gospel?

We also live between two worlds. Being a follower of Christ creates tension before release and peace.

What about you? Where are you feeling the pinch in your life today? Where is your journey taking you? Where in your life is Jesus pushing you to decide in your heart whom you will follow—the voice of ambition and accumulation, the voice of privilege and protecting it at all costs, the voice of acquisition and preservation?

Or, will you follow the values represented by Jesus and the kingdom of God—the voice of compassion and forgiveness, the voice of reason and discernment, the voice of restorative justice and peace, of personal responsibility and collective wisdom?

We’ve seen this narrative repeat throughout the bible. Jesus even implies the repetitive nature of this story when in his lament, Jesus says, “How many times / How often have I desired  you….”[6]

Not only was this one of several, actual visits Jesus made to Jerusalem in Luke’s writing, the cycle has been going on since ancient times. God’s relationship with Israel reflects a similar pattern: At one point, they are not God’s people; at the next, they are God’s people, again.

The prophets preached God’s word to the people like a broken record: Judgement; Forgiveness. Destruction; Restitution. Rejection; Restoration. “How often have we been down this road before,” it’s as if Jesus were lamenting. Here we go again.

And yet, herein lies the grace, the Gospel, the good news: In confessing that we have an image problem with Jesus’ enemies—that we far too often succumb to the ‘black helmet syndrome’— we also must confess our image problem with God.

Because God is not some cosmic police officer ready to pounce on us should we be caught speeding. God is not some old man sitting on a throne pointing a finger of judgement and accusation. God is not about retributive, punitive justice. A tit-for-tat God who stokes the fire of revenge and escalating violence. God is not an exclusive God for only the rich, the famous, the perfect.

We learn three things that I can tell about God’s love from this passage. First, God’s love is true. God loves us, not to control us, but to free us. God’s love gives us the freedom to choose our way. God’s love allows us to figure it out for ourselves. God’s love lets us own it for ourselves, so our action is authentic and true. And then God’s grace follows.

We are not robots, mindlessly marching to some pre-determined rhythm of God’s master plan. We are not mindless creatures who can’t make own decisions. We are not co-dependent in some unhealthy, enmeshed relationship with a controlling God. As God’s love increases, so does our freedom. Union is not a breakdown of personal initiative and unique expression. Rather, God’s love is about ‘letting go’. This is true sacrifice.

Second, and consequently, God lets us fail if fail we will. If there is anything we learn about God’s love from Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem is that  Jesus’ sadness is the sadness of God. God grieves with us when we live the unfortunate consequences of our poor decisions. God understands and is ever near, especially when we fall to the bottom of our lives. That’s what they say about tears—they bear witness to how deep one’s love is for the other.

Finally, God never gives up on us. God is faithful. God will keep giving us second chances to grow and deepen our relationship with God, with one another, with ourselves and with this world we inhabit. God will always be there to give us those opportunities to make it better, to choose better. God will never abandon us on this journey.

As we follow Jesus on his path with ours this Lenten season, may we hold on, if anything, to this wonderful promise of God’s never-ending love for all people.

 

[1]Luke 13:31-35; the Gospel reading according to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).

[2]Luke 13:31

[3]John 19:38-42

[4]John 3 & 7

[5]Luke 13:32

[6]Luke 13:34

Forgive = Love

To forgive someone, is to love them. We cannot forgive someone who has hurt us, without first being able to love them. So, the question of how we can forgive is deeply connected to the question of the quality of, and our capacity to, love.

In the Gospel chosen for this Pentecost Sunday (John 20:19-23) Jesus meets the disciples to give them the holy breath — the Holy Spirit. His breathing on them gives them the authority to pronounce the forgiveness of sin.

But before he does this, he first says to them, “Peace be with you” — not once, but twice, in this short passage. The repetition of his greeting ought to make us pause, and reflect on what Jesus is doing here by repeating his opening statement to the disciples.

Let’s recall the story leading up to this passage: It is one of the first post-resurrection accounts of Jesus appearing to his disciples. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors, fearing arrest by the same people who had just executed their Lord on the cross. They had just heard an unbelievable account of an empty tomb, and were not sure what to make of it. Judas was gone from the group, and Peter was still reeling from guilt in having denied knowing Jesus.

Many of the twelve must have felt incredible guilt from having abandoned Jesus during his torture and death. And suddenly, now, Jesus comes into their midst through a locked door. Quite probably, their initial reaction would have been of fear — perhaps Jesus was coming back to exact retribution and punishment on his unfaithful, denying and fickle followers. “Where were you when I needed you?” “Shame on you!” you could imagine what the disciples may have expected Jesus to say.

Is this not how we often feel? Our first reaction to any notion of relationship with God is riddled with guilt and fear. Because we are so unfaithful, so weak. We make mistakes, over and over. We fail in our discipleship, and in our relationships. We are not committed and we often do all the wrong sorts of things. No wonder the church is in such a mess! So, if Jesus would appear walking through these very doors this morning, I suspect many of us might start shaking in our boots.

I had to giggle at something someone posted in their Facebook page: It was a picture of a gigantic jelly fish. And we see this jelly fish from underneath the water, looking sideways at this rather ugly, translucent being with long entrails dangling downward from its broad bobble top.

The caption underneath reads: “The fact that jellyfish have survived since the beginning of time, despite not having brains, is great news for stupid people.” Indeed, especially when it comes to following Jesus, we are all sometimes stupid!

Jesus demonstrates God’s true nature by what he has to repeat over and over to try to get through our thick heads. “Peace be with you!” “No, didn’t you hear me? “Peace be with you!” “I come not to condemn you for your sins, but to love you as my precious children.” Jesus demonstrates the love of God. He forgives his numb-skulled disciples because underlying Jesus’ whole approach to them, and us, is an unconditional and expansive love that is not shaken by our messing up all of the time.

That is why God forgives us our sins. And that is why and how we will forgive others as God has forgiven us. Love. Unconditional. When we can retract all our expectations and claims on another person, then we can truly love them. When we stop projecting our expectations and desires upon another person, especially if they have done something to hurt us, then we are able to love them, and therefore forgive them.

I read about a reporter who was covering the conflict in Sarajevo some twenty years ago. The reporter saw a little girl shot by a sniper. He rushed to a man who was holding the child, and helped them both into his car.

As the reporter raced to the hospital the man in the back seat said: “Hurry, my friend, my child is still alive.” A little later he said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still breathing.” Still, later, he said, “Hurry, my friend, my child is still warm.” Finally, he said, “Hurry, hurry. Oh, God, my child is getting cold.”

When they got to the hospital, the little girl was dead. The man who had been holding the child then said to the reporter, “There lies a terrible task before me now. I must now go and tell her father that his child is dead. He will be heartbroken.”

The reporter was puzzled and responded, “I thought she was your child.” The man looked at him and said, “No. But aren’t they all our children?”

They are all our children. They are all God’s children. Christ sends us forth with the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to love them all. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Our capacity to love others — especially those different from us — will often determine our capacity to forgive. The people of the world are God’s loving creation, too. Our practice of showing compassion and care to all people reflects our capacity to love.

Can we do this? Can we bear faithful witness to God’s love and presence in our lives? Maybe not, if left to our own devices. But try we must. Fail, we often will. But don’t give up. Because Jesus will still come into our lives with an unconditional embrace of God’s love for you and for me. We have nothing to lose — certainly not God’s love.

And because of this great gift we have, Jesus will continue to say to us, “As the Father has sent me, so now, I send you.”

Come, Holy Spirit, come
Breathe into us the breath of new life,
Come with a mighty wind or on a soft breeze, and
Kindle our hearts on fire to go forth and fulfill your mission on earth.
Come, Holy Spirit, come.