Good Friday: The Pilate Chronicles

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross. The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate. The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.

Previously we saw Jesus and his disciples entering Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.  The whole city was abuzz, not only because of the celebration of Passover but also because of the expectation that things would be different this year and that at some point Jesus would declare himself Messiah.  The religious leaders, who represented the kingdoms of this world par excellence, were watching Jesus.  By this point they had given up on trying to trip Jesus up in his speech and thereby turn the crowd against him.  At one point one of them blurted out in a meeting, “See, this is getting us nowhere!!!!!  Look how the whole world has gone after him!!!!!”  Their only hope was to somehow get Jesus separated from the crowd and then move in and arrest him and have him executed.

Jesus and his disciples found a secure, out-of-the-way place to celebrate Passover.  So much went on that night.  Jesus declared to his disciples that he had come to establish a new covenant, one that would fulfill the covenant with Abraham and replace the covenant with Moses.  He gave them the terms and conditions of this covenant; all covenants have them.  There weren’t 600-plus, there weren’t ten or even two.  There was only one:  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  The evening started with Jesus saying that from then on when they celebrated Passover they would not remember Moses and the deliverance from Egypt but instead they would remember him.  The bread was his body and the wine was his blood.  The disciples had no categories for any of this.

As the night wore on it became evident that something was up, but Jesus wasn’t.  He seemed…worried.  And where was Judas?  Shouldn’t he have been back by now?  After the supper Jesus gets up and says let’s leave.  They went to Gethsemane, an urban garden in the middle of the city where they had been many times.  They went at night so they wouldn’t be recognized or disturbed.  They went into the garden and Jesus instructed the disciples to wait and pray.  Then he went further in.  There he prayed that agonizing prayer:  Father, you and I both know that if it were up to me I would choose another way, but not my will but yours be done.  He went back to check on the disciples and they are sound asleep.  Could you not even stay awake and pray with me for an hour?  he asked.

Then Judas returned.  But he wasn’t alone.  Judas knew better than the disciples where this Jesus thing was going, and he didn’t want any part of it.  So he decided to “unfollow” Jesus, but he wanted a little something at least for his trouble.  So he went to the chief priests and for a price arranged to hand Jesus over at an opportune time.  And now here he was, with a small army of temple henchmen.  And to the shock and dismay of everyone present, Jesus surrendered to them.  The disciples deserted and fled.

The story continues.  Jesus is brought to the high priest’s house.  All the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law are there, crammed into that building.  They had never before been able to get this close to Jesus, and this was their chance.  They were curious, and emboldened.  Many testified falsely against Jesus but their statements didn’t line up.  They would ask Jesus a direct question but he wouldn’t answer.

Finally the high priest has had enough.  He stands up and asks the one question that goes right to the heart of the matter.  Answer this one incorrectly and it’s all the evidence they need to crucify Jesus.  He asks:  Are you the Messiah?  Jesus answered:  I am.  The chief priests and high priest tore their robes.  In ancient times, this was a gesture of complete and utter anguish, dismay, and lament.  There it is, they said.  You have heard the blasphemy with your own ears.  We don’t need any more of this.  He is deserving of death.  The temple guards stepped in, bound him, blindfolded him and beat him.  The priests and leaders spent the rest of the night discussing next steps and where to go from there.  In all likelihood Jesus go no sleep that night.

Very early in the morning they came up with a plan.  They were going to take Jesus to Pilate.  Why?  Because they had determined their sentence but they needed Rome to carry it out.  If all went properly they could get it done early in the day, give the city time to settle down and the people time to give up on their messianic hopes and dreams, and go on and celebrate Passover with everything exactly as it was before.  They hoped to have it all done by sundown, at which time the Passover would start.

Now Pilate had been in place for about seven years.  He ruled over Judea and Samaria.  If you know anything about Pilate you know that he hated the Jews and hated Jerusalem.  He had a palace down by the coast, and that was where he spent most of his time.  He only came to Jerusalem during festivals, to keep the peace.  He got his kicks out of antagonizing the Jewish leaders and reminding them that they were subjects of Rome.  He reveled in their groveling whenever they had anything to ask of him.

So it was early morning and the Jewish leaders were out on Pilate’s doorstep with Jesus in tow.  Now they did not want to go into Pilate’s palace, and thereby defile themselves ceremonially by being under the same roof as a Gentile on the day they were supposed to preside over the Passover celebration.  They had gone through an elaborate series of ceremonial washings to prepare themselves to celebrate the Passover, and if they passed over the threshold of a Gentile’s residence they would become unclean and have to start all over from scratch with the ceremonial washings, and there just wasn’t time for all that.  Note the hypocrisy here:  They are about to commit murder by insisting that an innocent man be put to death, but they haven’t entered a Gentile’s house so it’s all good.

So Pilate goes out to meet them because he has no other choice.  What is this man doing here?  he asks.  They have a prepared statement:  Pilate, if he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you.  Translation:  Don’t get bogged down in the details here.  We need a favor.  We wouldn’t be here–on the eve of Passover no less–if this wasn’t important.

Pilate lives for this.  He wants to hear the Jewish leaders acknowledge that Rome is sovereign over their rebel state.  So he eggs them on:  Go ahead.  Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.  Oh wait…you don’t have the power to impose your own laws.  What a pity.

But Pilate isn’t done.  He rubs the Jewish leaders’ noses in it even more by going back inside, knowing they wouldn’t follow–they’re too good for that.  He takes Jesus inside with him.

Back outside the Jewish leaders are sweating bullets.  Jesus, one-on-one with Pilate…no telling how that will end up.  He has already swayed the nation, what’s to stop him from swaying Pilate?  This was the flaw in their plan:  They wouldn’t go inside with Pilate–they were too good for that–but Jesus would.  He didn’t mind going under the same roof as a Gentile.  That was part of the problem, in fact:  Jesus was always hanging out with the wrong sorts of people.

Pilate goes right to the heart of the matter.  Are you the king of the Jews?  he asks.  He had heard the rumors.  He had heard about the parade.  He had heard the crowds and the commotion.  He had heard the reports from his soldiers that the city was on the verge of a riot.  All because that rabbi from Galilee was coming to Jerusalem for Passover.  This is Pilate’s big chance to ask his question.

Jesus responds:  Is that your idea?  Or did others talk to you about me?  Yes I am a king, but my kingdom is not of this world, not like the kingdoms of this world.  If it were, my subjects would be in arms right this very moment, trying to get me out of here.  You know how this plays out because you’ve seen it a million times before:  If my kingdom were of this world I would out-Rome Rome.  I would play by your rules.  I would use force, because that’s the way of things.  But my kingdom is not like yours, or anything else in this world.  Ah, says Pilate, so you are a king?  At least we’ve got that straight.

So Pilate goes back out:  I find no basis for a charge against this man.  But they insist:  He stirs up the people and causes trouble all over the city.  One of them blurted out:  He started in Galilee and now here he is.  At which point all the others are groaning because they had agreed in advance not to bring up Galilee.  Ah, says Pilate.  So he is a Galilean?  Not my problem.  You’re wasting your time.  Take him to Herod.

Now this Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the Herod who thirty years earlier had murdered all the kids two years old and younger in the area because he didn’t want any of them growing up to become king and take his throne.  When Herod died his kingdom fell to his sons, and this son got Galilee.  Now this Herod happened to be in Jerusalem, up for the Passover.  Lucky break there.

So they take him to Herod, and Herod is thrilled.  Like so many others he had heard the rumors about Jesus but had never been able to get close.  So he brings Jesus in and asks him questions but Jesus won’t answer.  He asks Jesus to do some tricks but he won’t.  Herod is fed up, so he sends Jesus back to Pilate.

Pilate says:  You said he is inciting the people to riot.  I don’t see any riot, and neither do you.  I find no basis for a charge against him.  Neither does Herod, because he sent him back here.  But just to appease you, just to get you off my front lawn so we can celebrate Passover, I will punish him and then release him.

True to his word, Pilate had Jesus flogged.  They tied him up with his hands stretched overhead as far as they would go.  Two Roman soldiers took turns, using a special kind of whip with leather cords and fragments of bone and other shrapnel embedded into the ends.  They would count.  Even the Romans had rules about flogging.  It was just that gruesome.  The whip would rip layer after layer of skin from the victim’s back and from his stomach, because the cords would wrap around.  People died from flogging.  People died from the resulting infections.

Next the soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head, and a purple robe on his back–his beaten, raw, bloody back.  Again and again they said “Hail king of the Jews!!!!!” and slapped him in the face, the same face that had already been bruised by the temple thugs the night before.

Pilate brought Jesus out and said “Look!!!!!”, in hopes that the crowd outside would have pity upon seeing him in that state.  Surely seeing him in this state–incapable of causing trouble and likely to die in short order anyway–would satisfy them and get them off his lawn so they could all get on with Passover and be done with it so he could get back to the coast which was where he really wanted to be.

Once more Pilate reiterates that he finds no basis for a charge against him.  Even when he was being beaten to death Jesus did not break, did not cry out and admit to things that he and everyone else knew weren’t true just to get the beating to stop.  Now can we please just go on?

This was going nowhere, so the chief priests implemented Phase 2 of their plan.  We have a law, they exclaimed, and according to that law he must die because (we didn’t tell you this earlier) he claimed to be the son of God.  Now Pilate was even more afraid than before.  Why?  Because this crossed over into Roman territory.  This intersected with Roman myth and legend, and was threatening to the empire.  So Pilate questions Jesus further, but this time he doesn’t answer.  Now don’t miss this:  Pilate was a first century Roman soldier who had seen it all.  This was the point at which men begged, not for their lives but for a quick death.  And yet Jesus was not speaking.  Pilate had seen it all, but he had never seen this.  He was incredulous.  Do you not realize that I have the power to free you or crucify you?  he asks.  You would have no power over me, responds Jesus, if it were not given to you.

From then on Pilate tried everything he could to set Jesus free.  But the Jewish leaders were having none of it.  They went into Phase 3 of their plan:  If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar.  Anyone who claims to be a king is opposed to Caesar.  Checkmate.

Pilate was outmaneuvered.  He knew that Tiberias, the reigning Caesar of the time, had spies all over the place.  He brought Jesus out and said:  Here is your king!  Shall I crucify your king?  At which point someone in the crowd shouted something which at any other time and in any other context would have been considered blasphemous:  We have no king but Caesar!!!!!

So Pilate hands Jesus over.  They take him to Golgotha.  They offer him wine mixed with myrrh, a small act of mercy, but he refuses.  Now up until this point in all four Gospel narratives the story was being told in excruciating detail, but at this point all four Gospel writers go minimalist.  Because what happened next required no explanation.  Why?  Because once you’ve seen a crucifixion in real life you can’t unsee it.

The Greeks invented crucifixion; the Romans perfected it.  It could take hours or it could take days, depending on how healthy the victim was and how well the Romans did their job.  The goal here was not a quick death but a prolonged death.  Crucifixion was so gruesome that it was banned by Church leaders from depiction in art until the fourth century, when Constantine took over as emperor and banned crucifixion as a form of punishment in Rome.  C. S. Lewis wrote that the crucifix did not become a motif in Christian art until the generations that had seen real crucifixions had passed out of existence.

There was nothing glamorous or sentimental about a crucifixion.  There was no way to clean it up or sanitize it.  Once you’ve seen it in real life, you can’t unsee it.  Many have had this form of death imposed upon them, but only one chose it voluntarily.

Here is what makes all of this remarkable:  When Jesus died, there were no believers and no followers.  Sympathizers?  Yes.  Followers?  No.  Why?  Because Jesus claimed too much about himself.  He claimed to be the resurrection and the life, but you can’t crucify the resurrection and the life.  He claimed to be the Son of Man and was…arrested by Romans?????  He gave every indication of being the Messiah that the Jewish people had been waiting for for ages and was…killed by a foreign power?????  If Jesus was dead and crucified then he was most emphatically not who he had claimed to be.  There was no dream to keep alive, no movement to keep moving.  It was over.

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, whom we met a few weeks earlier, went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body.  No doubt they risked their lives in doing so.  They probably exchanged a significant amount of money with Pilate in the process.  It was illegal for crucifixion victims to be buried; their bodies were left on the trash heap to be devoured by wolves and dogs and other scavengers.  Jesus was clearly not who they had hoped, yet he deserved better than that.  Rome could always be convinced to look the other way if the price was right.  So off they went, with myrrh and aloe and other spices, about seventy five pounds worth.  Sabbath was coming, they had to hurry.  They took the body and wrapped it in strips of cloth.  They wrapped it in such a way that if by some chance he was still alive he would surely have suffocated.  Why?  Because he was dead and they expected him to stay dead.  When they were done they made their way home and celebrated the Passover, confused and dismayed and with no answers to well over a million questions.

The Jewish leaders went back to Pilate one more time.  Somehow they found out that Jesus had been buried, and they knew where.  That was not part of the plan.  So they needed one more favor from Pilate.  Go, said Pilate.  Take a guard and make that tomb as secure as you know how.  So they put a seal on it and posted a guard.

And everyone slept well.

Caiaphas slept well.  Once again he had outmaneuvered Pilate.  Once again he had leveraged his power to get Rome to do his bidding.

Pilate slept well.  Soon Passover would be behind him.  Soon he would be able to go back home to the coast and enjoy his life and his family.

Up north somewhere, Saul of Tarsus was preparing another message on the Passover and its meaning.  And over across the ocean somewhere, Tiberius was going on with his life, without even the remotest clue that any of this was happening.

And all was as it always was.  Because everyone was expecting Jesus to do exactly what dead people always do:  Stay dead.

These individuals were each only a few hours away from securing their respective places in history.  But not at all in the way they had intended or suspected.

Does Highpoint Get It?

ICYMI:  Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, resigned last week.  This was the culmination of a two-plus month investigation into allegations that Savage had sexually abused a student while serving as youth pastor at a Houston church twenty years ago and that church leadership covered it up.  These allegations surfaced back in December 2017 as part of the #metoo movement.  Savage had stepped down as teaching pastor while the investigation was ongoing.

Savage issued a statement via the church website upon resigning, from which I quote:

Your passionate opinions on this important matter have truly helped me to gain perspective that I simply could not have achieved on my own. I have come to understand Jules’ vantage point better, and to appreciate the courage it took for her to speak up.

When Jules cried out for justice, I carelessly turned the topic to my own story of moral change, as if getting my own life in order should help to make up for what she went through and continues to go through.

Church leadership issued a statement as well, in which they said they had “come to recognize that it was defensive rather than empathetic in its initial reaction to Ms. Jules Woodson’s communication concerning the abuse she experienced, and humbly commits to develop a deeper understanding of an appropriate, more compassionate response to victims of abuse.”

Larry Cotton, one of the church leaders involved in the cover-up, resigned last month.  He had since joined the staff at Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, TX.

Stories like this hit me in a special place because, when there is a beautiful young woman on the horizon of your world and you’re trying oh so hard to be the very best you that you can possibly be because she’s oh so worth it…well, stories like this hit you in a special place.

As the Church, we should be leading the way in regards to being a safe place for victims of sexual abuse.  We should be way out in front of this whole #metoo thing.  Yet clearly we are being dragged along kicking and screaming by the secular culture.

I don’t have it all together. Every woman (not related to me) who has ever gotten close enough to me to see this is now happily married to someone else. (Which is why I am still with my imaginary wife and 2.6 imaginary kids.) My last two attempts to connect romantically with a woman ended badly:  each time with the woman in question telling me that I was making her feel uncomfortable around me and would I please back off and give her space. One woman said I was a distraction in her pursuit of a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. I had to do the hard work of genuine contrition and repentance and humble submission to the consequences of my social/emotional misdeeds. This included making myself scarce to these women so as to provide the requested space, watching them go safely and happily into the arms of other men, then enduring a lengthy season of life in which it seemed as if God had hidden Himself from me behind an impenetrable wall of anger and wrath, filling my days with anguish and distress to (I believe) give me a taste of what these women must have been feeling as I was attempting to pursue them.

Thankfully my sin was only social and not sexual.  At least I don’t have that baggage to carry around.

At any rate, while I was going through all this I would not have wished it on anyone, not even my worst enemy.  But I am wishing it on Andy Savage.  I want him to feel everything I ever felt, to experience everything I ever experienced during that season of life, in hope that it might bring him to a place of genuine contrition and repentance.  Based upon what I see in his public statements, it appears that at least he is on the way, and that is a start.

Palm Sunday: A New Command

“A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

–John 13:34-35

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross. The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate. The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.

But before we get to the cross there are a couple of loose ends to tie up.  Last week we saw Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples, and it got weird.  First Jesus embarrassed the hell out of them by getting down and washing their feet.  Then they had the actual meal.  They knew the Passover script.  They knew it was all about God delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt but the whole time Jesus kept changing everything around and going on as if it was all about him.  (Maybe this whole Messiah thing was getting to his head?)  Then Judas left and God knows where he got off to and what he was doing and would he be coming back.

Then Jesus started going on about a new covenant, one that would replace the covenant God had with Israel that had been in force ever since Moses and Sinai.  This new covenant would be for all people on the face of the earth, not just for Israel, and it was a covenant where God took on all the obligation and all people would receive the benefit.  There was talk about flesh being given and blood being spilt and what was that all about?  Jesus’ flesh could only be given and his blood could only be spilt once and if he was going to become Messiah what was that all about?

But as with any covenant there is always fine print.  That is the final loose end which remains to be tied up.

With this covenant there is a command.  Not a new command to be added to the other 633 or however many there were.  This is a new command that replaces all the others.

The disciples should have seen this coming.  Jesus had been dropping breadcrumbs along the way over the course of the past year, if they had been paying attention.  Over the course of the past week it had come to a head.  The Pharisees were scheming to trip Jesus up so that the crowd would turn on him, he would lose the crowd, and they would have their chance to get to him and enact their nefarious plans.  Toward this end, they teamed up with the Sadducees.  Now the Pharisees were the populist party and it was a straight, short line from the Pharisees to the Zealots.  (Think:  Trump-supporting Republicans.)  The Sadducees were a rich, well-heeled elite (think:  Northeastern liberals) who believed that there was no resurrection or afterlife and that we all lived for God and then we died and that was that.

At any rate, these two factions teamed up in hopes of delivering a one-two punch during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem.  They probably flipped a coin to decide who would go first for all we know.  The Pharisees came out first.  They sent their interns down (none of the actual Pharisees would go because they would be too easily recognized and then the whole gig would be up) to pose as honest questioners.  They started by buttering Jesus up, then asked him a question about paying taxes to Caesar.  This was intended to be a no-win question that would split the crowd along partisan lines.  But Jesus shut them down with a coin trick.

Next up were the Sadducees.  Recall that they believed that there is no resurrection and no afterlife.  The Pharisees and many of the rank-and-file Jews believed the exact opposite.  The Sadducees sent their interns, who posed a riddle intended to show the whole ridiculousness of believing in all that afterlife/resurrection nonsense.  But Jesus shut them down by going all the way back to Abraham and making an argument based on the tense of a verb.

Now it was the Pharisees’ turn.  They sent one of the teachers of the Law (or likely one of their interns) to ask Jesus “What is the greatest commandment?”  This, for the Old Testament Jews, was basic Sunday school stuff.  Everybody knew the Sunday school answer:  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”  Of course this person had a question behind the question, one intended to trip Jesus up.  But we will never know what it was.  Jesus gave the Sunday school answer, but before his questioner could say anything he continued:  “The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.”

That had never been done before.  The “Love the Lord your God” part came from Leviticus, and the “Love your neighbor as yourself” part came from Deuteronomy.  Never before had anyone taken these verses from two completely different books and linked them up like this.  Yet here was Jesus doing exactly that.  With this one stroke Jesus took all 633 or however many commands of the Jewish law and reduced them down to two.

But on this night Jesus would go one better.  He would take the two and reduce them down to one:  Love one another–not as you love yourself–but as I have loved you.

And herein lies the beauty of it:  With 633 or however many commands there were, there was a lot of room to find loopholes.  The more commands there are, the more space for loopholes there is.  The Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law who were in power then specialized in finding loopholes.  That was their raison d’etre.  But with only one command–and a simple one at that–there is no room whatsoever for loopholes.

And herein lies the problem with claiming to just believe the Bible or just follow the Bible.  If you look to the Bible, you can find a loophole for anything.  You can find a verse or even multiple verses to justify pretty much anything you wish to justify.  But when there is only one command, it becomes that much harder to find loopholes.  And when the command is “Love one another as I [Jesus] have loved you”,  …well, there are some things you just can’t justify no matter how hard you try.

So now Jesus and his disciples leave to go out to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives.  They knew the spot well.  They went to pray.  Jesus went off to pray by himself.  He came back to find the disciples sound asleep.  Then the Pharisees and Judas showed up with torches.  After a bit of a scuffle, they led Jesus away.  The disciples took to their heels.

Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house for a hastily convened trial.  Many witnesses spoke up and said many different things, but the witnesses who were closest to Jesus and knew the truth because they had been with him the whole time were nowhere to be seen because they were all in hiding.

Eventually word trickled back to the disciples that Jesus had gone to Pilate.  That could only mean one thing.  For any other punishment the Jewish religious elites wished to impose, they didn’t need Pilate.  But if they wished to put someone to death, Pilate would have to give the OK.  And if the Pharisees were going to do that to Jesus, they as his closest followers were surely next.

That is as good a place as any to leave it.

Lent Week 5: A New Covenant

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate.  The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.  But before we get to the cross there are a couple of loose ends to tie up.

At this point Jesus and the disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem for the Passover.  Now the Passover was the climactic celebration of the Jewish year, but by the first century it was a bittersweet celebration.  It looked back fondly on the great acts of deliverance by which God brought the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and established them in the Promised Land, but with an air of wistful longing as the Jews found themselves enslaved again to a hostile foreign power and hoping–yearning–for a fresh act of deliverance from above.

It was against this backdrop that Jesus and his disciples prepared to enter Jerusalem.  The city was huge by ancient standards, and all the roads into the city were slammed with people headed there for the festival.  There was not a hotel room to be had.  (Think:  Athens GA on a football Saturday.)  And with all that Jesus had been doing, there was a buzz among the people heading into the city that had reached a fevered frenzy by that point.  People in the city and on the roads leading in were looking around anxiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of Jesus.  And when he and his disciples were spotted on one of the roads in, the whole crowd started laying out palm branches and broke into a chant:  “Hosanna!”  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Blessed is the king of Israel!”

The people had high hopes that this Passover would be different from all the others before.  That this would be the time when Jesus would pull off his rabbinic robes and declare himself the Messiah.  That next year at this time they would be celebrating their first Passover in a freshly liberated Israel with nary a Roman in sight.  They had no idea.

Once in the city, Jesus and his disciples skirted around from place to place–even causing a disruption in the Temple (you can read about it in Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, or Luke 19:45-46) which was prophetic in that the whole sacrificial system ground to a halt, if only momentarily, as a sign pointing to a time when the sacrificial system would stop for good–but never staying in one place long enough for any of the chief priests or their spies to get a bead on them.  They were tailing Jesus the whole time, with the intent of keeping him in sight until after the Passover was over and the crowds thinned out and making their move then.  Once they had killed Jesus, then they would track Lazarus down and kill him too and this whole thing would be over and done with.

And then, an answer to prayer–from their perspective, at least.  One of Jesus’ closest disciples broke ranks and approached them, promising to deliver Jesus over to them at an appropriate time.

Finally we get to the Passover.  Jesus had his disciples find an out-of-the-way place where they could hole up and have the Passover meal and have those last conversations with the disciples, because he knew that time was running out.  This sets the stage for our reading this week:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

–Matthew 26:26-29

Now get the picture:  Here are Jesus’ disciples all holed up in the upper room.  One of them has just left for God knows why.  Then Jesus starts acting all kinds of crazy.  There was the foot-washing thing, which we looked at last week.  Now this:  Jesus breaks the bread and starts talking about “This is my body”.  Wait–what?????  Luke’s version adds the words “given for you”.  What on earth is he talking about?????  This was the unleavened bread, the part of the Passover meal which represented the manna that God provided for the Israelites during their time in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  The disciples knew exactly what the unleavened bread was.  Come on, Jesus.  Stick with the Passover script.

But it gets worse.  In Luke’s version the next thing he says is “Do this in remembrance of me.”  At this point the disciples, if they were God-fearing Jews, should have all gotten up and walked out of the room.  Perhaps the whole Messiah thing was getting to his head, but the one thing you did not do under any circumstances if you were a devout Jew was mess with Passover.  The closest parallel would be if your pastor got up on Christmas day and said “Today we are going to celebrate my birth and sing songs to me and hymns about how great I am.”  If that ever happens in your church, it means that something has gone seriously off the rails and you should get up and leave instantly.

But it gets worse.  Now Jesus takes the wine, which represents the blood that was applied to the door of every Jewish house in Egypt so that the angel of death that struck down all the Egyptian firstborn would pass over their houses (thus the name Passover).  He says “This cup is the new covenant…”  If the disciples were thinking straight they would have asked “What kind of covenant?”  You see, in ancient times there were three basic types of covenants:  bilateral parity covenant, which was an arrangement between two equal parties (think:  business contract), bilateral suzerainty covenant, in which one party is clearly superior and lays down all the terms and conditions (think:  your curfew, when you were growing up), and promissory covenant, which is where one party takes on all the obligations of the covenant and agrees to provide all the benefit to another party (think:  middle school crush).  If the disciples were thinking straight they would have asked “Is this going to be like the covenant between our nation and God (a bilateral suzerainty covenant), or is this going to be something else entirely?”

But Jesus isn’t finished.  He goes on, “…in my blood, which is poured out for you.”  Now we’re right back to the Temple equation.  Every year for as long as they could remember, the disciples had gone up to the Temple, made some sacrifices, and obtained forgiveness of their sins for the year.  An animal was sacrificed, its blood was poured out, and forgiveness was received.  Wait a minute, Jesus.  Your blood is going to be poured out, as some kind of sacrifice.  But you can only do that once.  What on earth are you talking about here?

There is one more loose end to tie up before we get to the cross.  But that will have to come next week.

Chaplain Mike on How the Culture War Looks From the Other Side

Today I give you this post from Chaplain Mike at as evidence of why I could never be a liberal:  As strong as the culture war impulse is in conservative Christianity, it is equally strong if not more so on the other side.  Chaplain Mike recounts the experience of the ELCA in negotiating the issue of homosexuality; in its public statements it attempts a reasonable via media on this contentious issue yet in real life it faces tremendous internal strife between conservatives fleeing to groups which uphold more traditional forms of morality and liberals who feel that the denomination’s public pronouncements do not go far enough to suit their tastes.

This is precisely why I could never be a liberal.  My approach to dealing with racial prejudice is to have a few black friends and just be chill about it, but that would never pass muster with the guardians of purity over on the left in today’s world of white privilege, white guilt and being “woke”.  I believe that gays are human beings created in the image of God and people for whom Christ died, yet the statements cited by Chaplain Mike indicate that I clearly have a long way to go if I ever want to gain acceptance in the liberal world.

Lent Week 4: Leading Great

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  For this week’s reading we go to Mark.  But before we get to that, let us back up to establish some context.

The most well-known of Jesus’ miracles is the story of Lazarus, a well-known story to many of you which John recounts in his Gospel (John 11).  Here was a dead guy.  Not just dead, but dead dead.  As in they-had-already-had-the-funeral dead.  When Jesus got the word that his friend Lazarus was sick, he told his disciples “Stay put.  We’re not going anywhere.”  Which must surely have weirded them out.  When they finally arrived in Bethany they had already hired the mourners and they were just finishing up the funeral.  They had just closed up the tomb.  When Lazarus came back to life they had to take the grave clothes off.

So when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead it was a huge deal.  To the point where Bethany became a tourist attraction.  People came from all around in hopes of a Lazarus sighting.  Some went and told the Pharisees, as John points out in his account.  They convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin.

Who was the Sanhedrin?  This was the ruling council, the Supreme Court if you will.  These guys represented the Jewish people to Rome and Rome to the Jewish people.

At this meeting, John tells us, they said, “What are we accomplishing? …Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  On the face of it, a very arrogant thing to say.  Yet it shows that on a certain level they got what Jesus was all about and what he was intending to do.  They referred to his miracles as “signs”, which indicates that they saw them not as blind, haphazard displays of supernatural power but as pointers to something.  There was a method to Jesus’ madness, if you will, and the Pharisees recognized it.  Jesus had come to start something new, something that would put them and their system out of business.  If everyone believed in him, then the Romans would take away the Temple–there would be no need for it anymore.  History tells us that that is exactly what happened.

So from then on, John tells us, the Pharisees were out to kill Jesus.  And not just him, but Lazarus too.  Why?  Because Lazarus was evidence.

Jesus gets wind of what the Pharisees are up to, and he decides to lay low.  He wants to be in Jerusalem for the Passover, but he doesn’t want to risk getting arrested prematurely, so he moves about carefully and stays mostly on the fringes of the Judean wilderness, in a village called Ephraim, as John points out.  How did Jesus get this intel?  Likely Nicodemus.  Recall that Nicodemus was a Pharisee on the ruling council, and Nicodemus was likely in attendance at that meeting.

So now, pilgrims are streaming into Jerusalem from all over the region just ahead of the Passover.  Tensions are high around Jerusalem, as the Passover is always the time for Messianic wannabes to stir up trouble.  This year is no different.  If anything, the hype is even greater this year because of all the news going around about Jesus and the Lazarus thing.  This year Jesus was even greater than the Passover.

Jesus and his disciples are among the throngs streaming into Jerusalem, and he pulls his disciples off the road, into an orchard and under a sycamore tree perhaps, for one last chat before they get to the city.  Now we come to this week’s reading:

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

–Mark 10:32-45

Of course James and John knew how the systems of this world worked.  Those on top leveraged power and influence for their own benefit and with no regard for others.  It paid to be on, or close to, the top.  They knew (or so they thought) how all this was going to end:  With Jesus pulling off his rabbinic robes and revealing himself as the long-awaited Messiah.  So they wanted to be #2 and #3.  The other disciples knew how it worked as well, which is why they were so indignant with James and John–they also wanted to be #2 and #3 and how dare James and John cut in front of them!!!!!

We saw this top-down leadership model play out in the Sanhedrin meeting which John recounted.  We have seen it play out in virtually every political, cultural, and religious system prior to Jesus, and we see it in many political, religious, and even Christian, places today.

Not so, says Jesus.  My way is completely different from anything else you’ve seen.  If you want to be great in My kingdom, you must take the role of a servant.  And if you want to be the greatest, you must become a slave.  This is even worse.  At least servants get paid.

The story of the early Church indicates that the disciples got this.  Acts tells us that there was a point where the leaders of the early Church were so busy serving and meeting the needs of widows in the community that they had no time for anything else.  They had to literally pry their hands away from that task so that those disciples who had been closest to Jesus could pass along what they had learned from him.

But it didn’t happen right after this conversation.  In all likelihood, the point at which they got it was on another occasion a few days later.  They were all in an upper room celebrating the Passover.  This was a heady time; emotions were high and momentum was building.  Everyone was expecting that at any moment Jesus would pull off his rabbinic robes and reveal himself as the Messiah.  And then, sure enough, Jesus did pull off his rabbinic robe.  But not to reveal himself as Messiah.  Instead he grabbed a towel and a washbasin and began to wash everyone’s feet.

Washing feet was a servant’s job.  Yet in all the headiness of that moment, no one had thought to step up to do it, or to get a servant to do it.  And now Jesus was doing the deed himself.  The disciples were dumbstruck.  They knew what these hands could do, they had seen it with their own eyes.  And now here they were, washing feet.  Peter protested vociferously, voicing what the other disciples were probably thinking to themselves, but reluctantly submitted.  After that, all was quiet.  The quiet was interminable.  Those of you who have been to a footwashing service are accustomed to a quick wash that takes only a minute or so.  But actual footwashing as done in the first century was nothing like that.  Instead it was a painstaking process that took several minutes and involved going over every square inch of the foot and ankle, taking the towel and washbasin and scrubbing out every conceivable spot on the skin where dirt could accumulate.  And here was Jesus, going through this painstaking process on each foot, for each disciple.  When he finished, he said basically, “I am the greatest around here.  And now that I have done this for you, you have no excuse.”

We live in a day and age in which the reputation of Christianity in America has gone completely to shit.  In what can best be described as a bald-faced power grab, evangelicals have linked arms with some of the worst specimens of humanity to elect a president whose message is consistently the complete and total opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.

But there is hope.  Two thousand years ago a small band of people took to heart this idea that true greatness lies in being one who leverages influence for the benefit of others–the exact opposite of how every political, cultural, and religious system in the world up to that point had leveraged influence.  The result was that a knockoff Jewish sect following a crucified leader, with no financial or military backing, that should never in a million years have made it out of first-century Judea, became a worldwide movement that has persisted for over two thousand years.  It happened once.  It can happen again.

Benjamin L. Corey on American Fundamentalism’s Alarming Comeback

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Benjamin L. Corey entitled “How Christian Fundamentalism Is Making A Concerning Comeback In America“.  It first appeared during the height of the 2016 election season yet now is just as poignant as ever, if not more so.

Christian fundamentalism first appeared a century ago.  That movement was rooted in fear–fear of the then-new concept of evolution (replace evolution with gay marriage and you’ll be right where we are today), fear that the nation was growing too liberal and drifting from God and that it would all come crashing down if they didn’t take the nation forcibly back for God–you get the idea.  But fundamentalism eventually drifted to the lunatic fringe and was supplanted by evangelicalism which sought a kinder, gentler approach to attaining many of the same goals as the fundamentalists.

Now here we are a century later and the fundamentalists are suddenly back with a vengeance.  Much is happening in the current climate yet Corey notes 3 items of concern:  Many Christians believe they are “losing” and are panicked as to what that means.  Right-wing extremists who would otherwise have nothing to do with Christian fundamentalism, or Christianity for that matter, are joining the ranks and giving them critical mass.  The leaders of this new fundamentalist movement are telling their followers that they have to do something right now.

When Christian fundamentalism faded into the shadows and focused on building arks and trying to debate scientists, there was little cause for concern and much cause for amusement.

But when those people get panicked? When they begin broadcasting their racism, xenophobia, and homophobia to the masses, and begin finding like-minded people to join them? When they have leaders traveling the country, fanning the flames of fear and warning them that this is their last chance to take control? When they’re no longer content to debate the legitimacy of the King James Version versus the NIV, but instead are focused on how to control the Supreme Court?

Yeah, that’s the kind of thing I’d keep my eye on.

Lent Week 3: A Woman at a Well

This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross.  This week we stay in John for another reading that is likely familiar to many of you.

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

–John 4:1-26

She lived in a town called Sychar, in the heart of Samaria. Samaria was right smack in the middle of things; if you wanted to go from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, you had to go through Samaria.

The Jews hated the Samaritans–so much that they avoided Samaria if they could at all help it. Anytime they needed to get from Judea to Galilee or vice versa, they would cross the Jordan and detour via the east side. The feeling was probably mutual on the part of the Samaritans. Jews saw the Samaritans as half-breeds–people who intermarried with foreigners out of convenience and disrespect for the ways of God. The Samaritans worshiped on a different mountain. They used a bastardized version of the books of Moses.

So here she was, coming to the well, lugging her jar all the way up the hill under the oppressive heat of the noonday sun.  You didn’t come to the well to get water in the middle of the day unless you had a really good reason.  It was just too hot.  Lugging that water jug all the way to the well and then all the way back home was hard enough; why add to your trouble by dealing with the heat of the noonday sun as well?  For this reason, the vast majority of the town’s women went to the well at twilight; there was just enough light to see where you were going but not enough to be oppressively hot.

And therein was her problem.  You see, this woman had some baggage.  She had had five husbands; each one had divorced her and cut her loose for some reason or another.  We don’t know.  Now she was living with another man, “living in sin” as we might say.  The rabbis wouldn’t grant her another marriage; they had been lenient enough with her as it is with numbers four and five.

Though we don’t know the details of this poor woman’s personal life, that didn’t stop the other women of the town from speculating and formulating their own judgments.  Said judgments were often communicated in whispers just loud enough for her to hear–intended to be loud enough for her to hear–whenever she was around.  Given the choice between dealing with that and dealing with the noonday sun, she preferred to take her chances with the sun.  The noonday sun was crazy hot but at least it didn’t gossip behind your back.

But on this day, things were a little different. There was a man sitting there at the well. A man who wasn’t from around here. Now in that culture, Jews just didn’t associate with Samaritans. (You knew that already.) And men didn’t associate with women. Women were viewed as second-class citizens and there were all sorts of complicated cultural protocols that you went through to arrange a marriage and you just didn’t step outside of that.

But Jesus didn’t care about such things. (You knew that already too.) And so he asked this Samaritan woman for a drink. Really he didn’t need it, but when you’re chillaxing at the local well, that’s as good a conversation starter as any.

Now in John, Jesus is all over the place. He will start in one place and then quickly jump to something completely different. We saw this last week with Nicodemus, and we see it again here. After the woman expresses her incredulity that Jesus would ask her for a drink or even talk to her in the first place, he starts talking about living water. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

The woman obviously is thinking of well water. This kind of water requires work. Hard work. “You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?” But Jesus is talking about something completely different. Water that bubbles up from inside of you and never runs dry. You can drink this water and never be thirsty again. This water does not come from Jacob’s well or from any other source here on earth. This water flows from the Lord, the fountain of Israel.

Now the woman’s interest is piqued. “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” Not quite, but close. She is still thinking well water and not having to come up to Jacob’s well every day. She still doesn’t have a clue who this Jesus is, other than some stranger claiming to offer her water that is better than what she can get at the well.

“Go, call your husband.” Ah, now the truth comes out. Jesus doesn’t go there in order to shame her or accuse her, as the other women of the town would, only to show her that he is much more than anything she had ever suspected up to that point. He is greater than Moses or Jacob or Abraham. She senses that he is some kind of prophet. Good. Maybe he can settle that age-old question that had divided Jews and Samaritans: Which mountain? But worship is not a matter of which mountain when the Son of God is standing right there in the flesh, right there in front of you.

“God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” True worship of the Father is through the Son who is the Truth in the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last week we saw that the Father begets the very worshipers He seeks through water and the Spirit. Worship is not a matter of finding the right mountain–or the right church, or the right denomination–but of being found by Jesus.  You don’t get close to God by climbing up mountains to get to him, or by searching for the one true Church or the place that has it all right doctrinally or that offers a smashup musical worship experience or whatever.  God gets close to you by coming down to you, putting on human flesh and taking it to the cross.  You worship by receiving what God has to offer you.

“I know that the Messiah is coming, and he’ll straighten it all out.” So she says to Jesus.  But she doesn’t know the half of it. “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” One of the very few times in all of the Gospels when Jesus comes out and says straight up that he is the Christ. He doesn’t say this to any of the high and mighty religious types of Israel–not this directly, at least–but he says it to this poor, miserable train wreck of a woman with a train wreck of a life, who had had five husbands and was now living with what would have been number six.

Remember that we, too, are the Samaritan woman. The only difference is that we have superior means at our disposal to maintain the illusion of respectability and of having it all together. When you have the cushy job and the new house in a fashionable part of town, when you have the 2.6 kids and the minivan on a quiet and safe suburban street, it is so easy to pretend that you have it all together. But scratch a little below the surface and it gets real messy, real quick.

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) This is grace–pure, unmerited favor from God. While we were still sinners. A Samaritan woman at a well. And each of us.