Advent Week 4: Prayer

We are now in week 4 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  What we usually do around here during Advent is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

We have been going through through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on prayer.

Williams leads off with the observation that growing in prayer is not about developing a set of spiritual skills that operate in only one area of your life.  Instead it is about growing into the kind of humanity that Christ demonstrates for us.  Christian theology began as people realized that because of Christ we could talk to God in a different way; if that is true then there must be things we ought to be saying and believing about Christ.  The essence of prayer is letting Jesus pray in you.

From there Williams unpacks what three of the earliest Christian theologians had to say about prayer.  He starts with Origen, who lived in the third century AD and whose book on prayer is the first truly systematic treatment of the subject by a Christian.  One of the big questions Origen attempts to engage with is, “If God already knows what you are going to ask then why bother to pray?”.  His answer is as good as any that have come since:  God already knows what you are going to say, sure, but God has decided to let your prayer be part of the process of bringing about whatever he intends to do.  Origen also engages at length with the Lord’s Prayer, and one of his big ideas is the spirit of adoption we have received.  Because of this we address God not as someone far off but as one who is close to us.

Very near the heart of Christian prayer is getting over the idea that God is somewhere a very, very long way off, so that we have to shout very loudly to be heard.  On the contrary:  God has decided to be an intimate friend and he has decided to make us part of his family, and we always pray on that basis.

Next Williams turns to Gregory of Nyssa, who came about a century after Origen.  Gregory of Nyssa builds on much of what Origen has to say and takes it in some different directions as well.  One of his big ideas is that prayer is all about healing relationships; if people prayed seriously they would be reconciled.

You could sum up what Gregory says about the Lord’s Prayer simply by saying, ‘Prayer heals relations.’  Prayer is about reconciliation, justice, and how it changes your attitude to other people and the world.  Prayer is not a narrowly private activity; it is about your belonging in the body of Christ, and in the family of humanity.  If you understand what is going on when you pray, then the world changes.  And if in prayer you are gradually becoming attuned to the will and purpose of God, then the divine power that comes into you is bound to find its outlet in this healing of relations.  That is not to say that you pray in order to be a nicer person, or so that justice and reconciliation will happen.  You pray because Christ is in you.  And if that is really happening, then the sort of things you can expect to see developing around you are justice and reconciliation.

Finally Williams turns to the monk John Cassian, who lived around the fifth century AD.  Cassian traveled from Russia to Egypt to be a monk.  In Egypt he met some of the greatest monastic teachers of that era, and his work provides a summary of their teaching.  Cassian’s big idea is that prayer takes for granted that you are already working on your self-awareness and everything else on the practical side of things.  It takes for granted that you have already cleared your mind of anxieties and distractions before you begin to pray.  When Cassian reflects on the Lord’s Prayer he begins with the idea that we are adopted children, which is one of Origen’s emphases.  Like Gregory of Nyssa, whose emphasis was on prayer as healing relationships, he notes the seriousness of asking God to forgive you as you have forgiven others.  He also takes a crack at one of the most frequently asked questions concerning prayer:  what does it mean to pray “Lead us not into temptation”?  Cassian’s answer is that people are tempted all the time but being “led into temptation” is like being dropped right into the middle of it with no tools to face it and no way out–that is what we pray to be defended from.

Prayer, more and more, is not something we do, but what we are letting God do in us.  And when that happens, it is not surprising that we get a bit wobbly and our emotions become a bit tempestuous, and we become baffled and depressed as well.  So don’t panic!  For when those disturbances are going on, it is very likely that God is beginning to settle down more deeply in you.


Advent Week 3: Eucharist

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  We are now in week 3.  This Sunday is traditionally called “Gaudete” – that is, “Rejoice”. The dominant theme of this Sunday is rejoicing. The intro to the liturgy is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. For this week the purple vestments are swapped out for pink or rose-colored vestments. If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it.

What we usually do around here during the Advent season is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.  This year we are going through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on the Eucharist, alternatively known as Communion, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Table, and other things.

For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted. It is, perhaps, the most simple thing that we can say about Holy Communion, yet it is still supremely worth saying. In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.

For Williams, the Eucharist is the sacrament of hospitality.  Williams takes us to the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) to show us how Jesus not only extends hospitality but draws it out of others in ever-expanding circles.

In other words Jesus is not only someone who exercises hospitality; he draws out hospitality from others. By his welcome he makes other people capable of welcoming. And that wonderful alternation in the Gospels between Jesus giving hospitality and receiving hospitality shows us something absolutely essential about the Eucharist. We are the guests of Jesus. We are there because he asks us, and because he wants our company. At the same time we are set free to invite Jesus into our lives and literally to receive him into our bodies in the Eucharist. His welcome gives us the courage to open up to him. And so the flow of giving and receiving, of welcome and acceptance, moves backwards and forwards without a break. We are welcomed and we welcome; we welcome God and we welcome our unexpected neighbours.

There is much diversity of thought and practice among Christians concerning the Eucharist.  Some believe it is a symbol while others believe it is more than that and the elements are the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.  Some celebrate it every week while others celebrate it once a month, once a quarter, or even once a year.  Regardless, one thing all Christians are agreed on is that through the Eucharist we eat and drink with the risen Christ.  That is the heart of it all:  that at the Lord’s Table we meet Christ and share a meal together.

We can see, then, that when the risen Christ eats with the disciples it is not just a way of proving he is ‘really’ there; it is a way of saying that what Jesus did in creating a new community during his earthly life, he is doing now with the apostles in his risen life. We who are brought into the company of the apostles in our baptism – which, remember, brings us to where Jesus is to be found – share that ‘apostolic’ moment when we gather to eat and drink in Jesus’ presence. And that is why, throughout the centuries since, Christians have been able to say exactly what the apostles say: they are the people with whom Jesus ate and drank after he was raised from the dead.

Holy Communion makes no sense at all if you do not believe in the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the Eucharist becomes simply a memorial meal, recalling a rather sad and overpowering occasion in the upper room.

…There is indeed a certain sombreness about some ways of celebrating the Eucharist (and a bit later on, I’ll suggest why that is not always inappropriate). But the starting point must be where the apostles themselves began, eating and drinking with him after he was raised from the dead, experiencing once again his call into a new level of life together, a new fellowship and solidarity, and a new willingness and capacity to be welcomers themselves.

Williams then unpacks how the Eucharist connects us with God as Giver.  In going back to the original event which started it all, we see Jesus giving thanks on the very night before he was about to be handed over, stripped, beaten, and then crucified.  By giving thanks, Jesus connects this with the reality of God, saying that this is ultimately rooted in who God is as Giver.

If Jesus gives thanks over bread and wine on the eve of his death, if Jesus makes that connection between the furthest place away from God, which is suffering and death, and the giving and outpouring of his Father, and if in his person he fuses those things together, then wherever we are some connection between us and God is possible.  All places, all people, all things have about them an unexpected sacramental depth.  They open on to God the Giver.

This also has implications for how we view the material world, not as objects there for our blind consumption regardless of consequence, but as things graciously given to us by God the Giver.  This view of things has implications for environmental policy which would doubtless make many conservative evangelicals very uncomfortable, but which must be considered nonetheless.

Not only does this way of looking at things change our view of the material world, it also has implications for our view of other people.  Ultimately, it forces us to look at others in Christian community, even those who are least like us and whom we may dislike the most, and say “There is someone whose company is desired by God.”

There is one other element of the Eucharist which Williams unpacks in detail, and that is the theme of repentance.  Repentance is needed because, though we are there because our company is desired by God, we are also there with the capacity to betray God and everything He represents.  Many liturgical churches begin the Eucharist portion of the service with the words “On the night he was betrayed…”.  It is incumbent upon us to confront this capacity within us to betray and forget all the good gifts God has given us.  Thus, Williams says, the Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior but rather the food we need to prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our self-enclosure and self-absorption.

Williams brings all this together in a poignant quote, with which we will close today:

In many of our churches it was once thought that receiving Holy Communion was something you should only do when you felt you had made ‘proper’ preparation. There was a time in the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic Church when weekly communion was something your confessor might allow you to undertake if he thought you were doing well. And there is still, in many parts of the Christian world, a kind of assumption that Holy Communion is something for ‘the holy’. All that I have said so far should remind us that Holy Communion is no kind of reward: it is, like everything about Jesus Christ, a free gift. We take Holy Communion not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Not because we have arrived, but because we are travelling. Not because we are right, but because we are confused and wrong. Not because we are divine, but because we are human. Not because we are full, but because we are hungry.

And so that element of self-awareness and repentance is completely bound up with the nature of what we are doing in the Holy Eucharist: the celebration and the sorrow, the Easter and the cross are always there together. And as we come together as Christians, we come not to celebrate ourselves and how well we are doing, but to celebrate the eternal Gift that is always there, and to give the thanks that are drawn out of us by that Gift.

Advent Week 2: Bible

We are now in week 2 of the Advent season.  Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas.  What we usually do around here during Advent is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we will work through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on the Bible.

For when you see a group of baptized people listening to the Bible in public worship, you realize that Bible-reading is an essential part of the Christian life because Christian life is a listening life.  Christians are people who expect to be spoken to by God.

Williams takes pains to remind us that the picture many evangelicals, and perhaps other Christians as well, have of someone all alone in a quiet room with an open Bible in front of him/her, studiously devouring every word, is a relatively modern phenomenon.  For the vast majority of church history and all of Old Testament history prior, people did not have their own personal copies of the Bible.  Scripture was something that was recited, usually within the context of a public worship service.  The same is true for Christians in many parts of the world today.

This is not to diminish the importance of personal Bible study.  And Williams does not either:

Now I say this not to deny the importance of all Christians having a Bible in their pocket with which they are familiar, but to point out that very often we make a set of assumptions about what is central and most important for Bible reading, which would have been quite strange in many parts of the Christian world for many centuries.  And it still is strange to many of our fellow Christians today.

The Bible in the hands of individual believers was a needed corrective for many abuses that had arisen during medieval times.  But the benefit of having easy access to our own personal copies of Scripture to read and study at any time comes with some side effects that I do not think we have fully considered.  First, a book is impersonal and the emphasis on individual Bible study that is pervasive in evangelicalism leads us to believe that our primary responsibility is to study, parse, and analyze independently.  Reading Scripture in corporate worship personalizes it by emphasizing the I-thou dynamic that is present in conversation.  Second, it leads us to prioritize our own study and interpretation of Scripture–apart from and independent of the community of other believers–over hearing the Word in the context of community.

When you do get around to reading and studying the Bible, you will find that it is a very complex thing which resists any attempt to cast it as a simple, straightforward “Thus saith the Lord…”.  The Bible is a collection of texts which span several centuries and represent a bewildering diversity of perspectives and literary forms.  You think the Bible is one thing and then lo and behold, you turn the page and it is something completely different.

According to Williams, the best way to understand the Bible is as a parable.  It is a record of how a certain people saw, heard, and responded to what God was doing in their midst.  The operative question is the same as it is for any of Jesus’ parables:  Who are you in the story?  Where are you in the story?

Ultimately, this brings us back to Jesus.  Says Williams:

It is all very well to talk about finding yourself in God’s story, about reflecting and imagining; but, as we do all that, how can we decide what a good or bad interpretation of that story might be like?  What criteria do we have for discerning truth from falsehood?  The Christian answer is, unsurprisingly, in terms of Jesus Christ.  As Christians read the Bible, the story converges on Jesus.  The full meaning of what has gone before is laid bare in Jesus.  The agenda for what follows is set in Jesus.  And, without trying to undermine or ignore the integrity of Jewish Scripture in itself (a complex question that needs the most careful and sensitive understanding of the experience and reflection of our Jewish brothers and sisters), the Christian is bound to say that he or she can only read those Jewish Scriptures as moving towards the point at which a new depth of meaning is laid bare in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

As we read the Bible, we place ourselves in the story.  We understand from the perspective of the people who are living out the story.  We attempt to make sense of their words, attitudes, and actions, and relate and evaluate it all in terms of Jesus Christ.  What we learn of him helps us to evaluate what constitute a faithful response and what constitutes an unfaithful response.

Williams gives an example from the development of the Tanakh (the Jewish law/prophets/writings).  Jehu was anointed by the prophet Elisha to become king of Israel and purge the evil legacy of king Ahab from the land.  Jehu does this by slaughtering en masse Ahab, his family, and his supporters at a place called Jezreel.  The story is presented and celebrated in 2 Kings as a triumph of God’s righteousness.  But only a few generations later, the prophet Hosea takes a much different view of things:

For in the book of the prophet Hosea (1.4) you will find, just a few generations later, a prophet of Israel looking back on that very story and saying that Jezreel is a name of shame in history, not of triumph, and that Jehu’s atrocities deserve to be punished. Something has happened to shift the perspective. And I imagine that if asked what he meant, Hosea would have said, ‘I’m sure my prophetic forebears were absolutely certain they were doing the will of God. And I’m sure the tyranny and idolatry of the royal house of Ahab was a scandal that needed to be ended. But, human beings being what they are, the clear word of God calling Israel to faithfulness and to resistance was so easily turned into an excuse for yet another turn of the screw in human atrocity and violence. And we’re right to shed tears for that memory.’

Williams brings it all together by emphasizing that the Bible is a thing which we read together:

The Bible that we read is a Bible that has already been read by countless Christians before us, and is being read by others today.  And so we need to listen not only to what the Bible is saying, but to what it is saying to those around us and those in the past.  That is one of the meanings of ‘tradition’ in the Church.  You listen to the way in which people have been reading the Bible.  And it is one of the crucially important things about the Church now:  that we listen to one another read the Bible…

So we read together, we hear together.  And instead of that picture of the Bible as a book held in the hands of a solitary reader alone in a room, have in your mind another kind of picture, one in which somebody is proclaiming God’s story to a gathering of diverse people – and all of them asking themselves, and asking one another, ‘How do we find ourselves in this?  How are we going to be renewed together by this reading?’  Because when that happens, the Bible is an essential source, as well as a sign, of the Christian life.


Advent Week 1: Baptism

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas.  More precisely, it is three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get to Christmas.  What we usually do around here at this time of year is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks.

This year we will work through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian:  Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity.  Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.

This week we will look at what Williams has to say on baptism.

Baptism marks the beginning of one’s life as a Christian.  In the evangelical world we see it as a public profession of faith in Christ; in other places it is seen as the means by which one comes to faith in Christ.  Some churches and Christian traditions baptize infants; others baptize only adults who are old enough to make a meaningful profession of faith in Christ.  In some places it is done via sprinkling or pouring of water upon the person being baptized; in others it is done via full immersion.

Jesus spoke of his death as a sort of baptism–that is, a dipping or an immersion–that he had to go through.  So from the beginning, Williams points out, baptism as a ritual for joining Christian community identifies us with the baptism of Jesus’ death in that we are swamped or immersed in the reality of what Jesus endured.

When Jesus was baptized at the river Jordan, he went down into the depths and when he came up the Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove.  Williams ties this imagery back to creation:  at the beginning there was watery chaos and the Holy Spirit hovering or a great wind blowing (depending on how you read the Hebrew, perhaps one is a metaphor for the other) over it, and out of this comes the created world.  Thus the early Christians referred to baptism as a sort of “new creation”.

They also came to see this “new creation” as a restoration of what it means to be truly human, a recovery of the humanity that God intended.  We have let go of that humanity, forgotten it, corrupted it.  Jesus came down to earth to restore that humanity from within.  He did so by entering into the chaos of our world in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness.  This suggests that our path forward as Christians, as baptized people, as “new creation”, is to enter into the depths of human need in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness.  What’s more, it means we are also in touch with the chaos inside ourselves, because we all live with a great deal of chaos and inhumanity inside of us.  Williams puts it thusly:

So baptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’:  the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need – but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.

If all this is correct, baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else.  To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people.  It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected – you might even say contaminated – by the mess of humanity.  This is very paradoxical.  Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed, and re-created.  It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied.  And the gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world.  To put it another way, you don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!

The life of the baptized people is not only a life of openness to human need, it is also a life of openness to the Holy Spirit.  It is a paradoxical, seemingly contradictory existence:  in the loving embrace of the Father’s love for the Son as personified via the Holy Spirit, and yet at the same time in the thick of a world of suffering, sin, pain, and danger.  But because Jesus has taken his stand right in the thick of both these realities, that is where we take ours.

Through baptism we identify with Jesus Christ, and one way to think of the identity and calling of Christ is through the titles of prophet, priest, and king, which in Christ are all rolled up into one.  Williams concludes this chapter by unpacking each of these.

For many centuries the Church has thought of Jesus as anointed by God to live out a threefold identity: that of prophet, priest and king. The baptized person identifies with Jesus in these three ways of being human which characterize and define his unique humanity. As we grow into his life and humanity these three ways come to characterize us as well. The life of the baptized is a life of prophecy and priesthood and royalty.

As baptized people who identify with Christ the Prophet our role is to remind each other what we are here for.  The Church plays this role to the wider world by expressing important yet easily forgotten questions in our society.  This is more than just loudly echoing the talking points of the RNC, as many people in the wider world seem to think (and rightly so).

As baptized people who identify with Christ the Priest–in the Old Testament a priest was somebody who represented humanity before God and vice versa.  His job was to build bridges between humanity and God, by offering sacrifices to God he would restore a relationship wrecked by sin.  Our role, then, is to build bridges and mend shattered relationships between God and the world.

As baptized people who identify with Christ the King–in ancient Israel the king had a priestly role but also the freedom to shape the law and justice of his society.  He would use this freedom to keep the people of Israel close to the demands of God’s covenant, to make justice a reality, or to fail miserably at both of the above as many of Israel’s kings did.  We use our freedom to shape our world in the direction of God’s justice and model something of God’s liberty to heal and restore.

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.

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.