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.

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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.

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.

Lent Week 2: Nic at Nite

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

–John 3:1-21

This well-known encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus is what we are looking at this week.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a member of the ruling council.  This meant he had gotten on as a Pharisee and started at the bottom of the religious rung and worked his way up from there, likely because he had wealth or connections or possibly both.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, likely because that was the only time that would work for them.  Jesus was busy during the day, the Gospel writers make a point of telling us that there were always crowds surrounding Jesus, and surely Nicodemus figured that it would not behoove him to be seen in that crowd trying to get a meeting with Jesus.  So night it was.

But things tend to mean more than one thing in the Gospel of John, and time is significant as well, so when John notes that the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus was at night, there is more in play than just night being the only time these two could connect.

Night is the time of darkness (duh).  But in the Gospel of John, it is more than just physical darkness.  Spiritual darkness.  Ignorance.  Unbelief.  Atheism.  Paganism.  Idolatry.  Knowing much but knowing nothing about God.

Jesus had lots of followers, and many of them were expecting him to at some point show himself as the Messiah, drive out the Romans and reestablish Israel as an independent kingdom, just like in the days of Solomon and David.  But the more astute followers suspected that something else was happening here.  Nicodemus fell into that category.  And he had some questions about Jesus and what he was up to, so he came at night.

He begins:  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  Note that Nicodemus refers to the miracles, healings, etc. as “signs”.  These things were not just willy-nilly displays of supernatural power, but instead there was a method to the madness, as it were.  Nicodemus recognized this.

So Nicodemus finally comes to the point of asking his question(s).  But the words of his preamble aren’t even out of his mouth when Jesus stops him and goes in a completely different direction:  “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Jesus did this all the time.  He would routinely answer questions by not answering them, or answer questions no one was asking, or go in a completely different direction from what the questioner was asking about.  And here we see it happening again.

Jesus was a teacher, a rabbi, sent by God.  Nicodemus knew that much.  But he didn’t even begin to know the half of it.  So Jesus wanted to stretch him, get him thinking in a new direction.

Nicodemus was lost.  “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”  He knew Jesus wasn’t speaking literally here.  But he didn’t have a clue what Jesus was really saying here.

But Jesus doesn’t take the bait.  “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  In other words, nice try.  You were born a citizen of Israel–great.  But that won’t even begin to get you into the kingdom I’m talking about here.

“You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus is still lost.  So Jesus yanks his chain:  “You are Israel’s teacher…and you do not understand these things?”  Finally Jesus comes to something Nicodemus can relate to:  Moses.  “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Wait a minute.  But for the Son of Man to be lifted up like that…that would require him to be hung on something or impaled on a pole or other such thing.  And the Law is clear that anyone who meets that fate is cursed.  So you’re saying that the Son of Man is going to be…cursed?  And somehow that will bring us eternal life?

Likely Nicodemus left that meeting with a whole lot more questions than answers.  We don’t see Nicodemus again until the end when Jesus has died.  This was not the ending that anyone was expecting.  But this Jesus deserved better than to have his body cast upon a trash heap, as was the typical fate of crucifixion victims.  Joseph of Arimathea had a tomb, so he and Nicodemus went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus.  Likely this involved a significant bribe, as it was against the law for crucifixion victims to be given a proper burial.

Nicodemus came up that day and saw the Son of Man–lifted up above the crowd.  Not the ending he or anyone else was expecting, but when he saw it he doubtless remembered what Jesus had said to him that night, and made the connection.

Lent Week 1: Jesus in the Wilderness

This year during the Lenten season we will be looking at some key moments in the life of Jesus leading up to the cross.  This week we look at a familiar story which comes to us courtesy of Matthew’s Gospel:

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.  The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.  For it is written:

” ‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up on their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot
against a stone.’ ”

Jesus answered him: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.  “All this I will give to you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

–Matthew 4:1-11

Forty days and forty nights Jesus fasted in the wilderness.  This is where the forty days of Lent comes from.

By passing through the Jordan at his baptism and then heading out into the wilderness, Jesus recapitulated Israel’s journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, but in reverse.  The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness parallel the forty years Israel spent there.

Now at this point an interesting question surfaces.  Why did Matthew choose to include this episode in his Gospel account?  Why did Mark and Luke include it in theirs (they tell the same story but slightly differently)?  You see, not a whole lot was written down in ancient times.  Papyrus wasn’t cheap, and few people knew how to read.  So if Matthew, Mark, and Luke wanted to go to all the trouble to include this, there must have been a very compelling reason.  And here it is:  Each of these temptations was, for Jesus, a temptation to opt for the world’s way of doing things, the way of power and of me-first, the way that ran contrary to everything Jesus was and everything He was all about.  This struggle would be a recurring theme throughout Jesus’ ministry, right up to the very end when He went to the cross.

So Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and then the devil came to him when he was at his weakest.  His first temptation was to turn stones into bread.  It was as if the devil was saying, “Come on, Jesus.  I’ve read your book.  I know who you are and what you’re all about.  You can do this.  Who’s going to miss a few stones from out here in this godforsaken country where it’s nothing BUT stones?”

Any worldly king would have killed for that kind of power.  And if they had it, they almost certainly would have used it to transform stones into bread–to “transubstantiate” stones into bread–in that moment.  But Jesus didn’t bite.  Instead he answered the devil as one under the old covenant:  “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  This was an allusion to Israel’s time in the wilderness when God provided bread for them on every day of the journey.  Jesus refused to use his power to meet his own needs.  He came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.

Next they go to the temple.  How did they get there?  They walked, in all probability.  Meaning that Jesus and evil personified–they spent some time together.  They went to the highest point of the temple.  Now this was not some spire on top of the temple building, as you might imagine.  It was the southeast corner of the temple courtyard.  You look down from here, and it is a sheer dropoff of hundreds of feet into the valley below.  Had Jesus thrown himself down into that ravine, as the devil had asked him to, and emerged unscathed–it would have had a tremendous effect.

The devil even quoted some Scripture at him.  Two could play at that game.  The modern version of this is all over the place in evangelicalism:  Just believe, just have faith, just quote a verse–and God will come through for you.  He has to.

Jesus answered by quoting Scripture:  “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  These same words were spoken by Moses to the Israelite nation, at a point when they felt themselves entitled to certain things by virtue of their status as God’s chosen people.  You don’t understand, he said.  It doesn’t work that way.

If you think that by doing such-and-such things, you can get God to respond in the desired way–that isn’t Christianity.  That’s magic.  That’s religion that plays right into the world’s way of doing things–the way that Jesus came to turn upside down.

So now we come to the third temptation.  The first two were merely warmup acts, in which Jesus and the devil were getting to know each other.  This temptation was the main event.

They went up to a high mountain.  How did they get there?  They walked.  They spent time together.  Likely they went atop one of the mountains north of Jerusalem.  They went at night.  They saw the whole city lit up at night, in all of its splendor.  About sixteen miles away was Jericho, likewise lit up at night in all of its splendor.  This was the epicenter of the presence of God in the lives of the Jewish people.  It is as if the devil was saying, “Feast your eyes on this, because I know this is why you’re here.  I can give you all this.  All you have to do is bow down.  Not for all time, just for a moment.  Just acknowledge that it is mine to give.”

But that is not what Jesus came for.  He did not come to barter for a kingdom, but to establish a kingdom.  This would be a kingdom of conscience, established in the hearts and minds of his followers.  A kingdom where power and influence were not exercised for the exclusive benefit of the powerful and influential.  A kingdom where the subjects were not at the whim of the rulers.  A kingdom where the subjects were not required to lay down their lives for the king, but the other way around.  A kingdom like none that had existed previously.

So then the devil left him.  Luke tells us that the devil left to wait for an opportune time.  In other words, he wasn’t finished.  This was just round one.  All of these temptations would be recurring themes throughout Jesus’ ministry, and they would be present right up to the very end, when he went to the cross.

Jesus was tempted in ways that we all are tempted, yet he refused.  Why?  Because he came not to take over, but to take away the sin of the world.  Even he came not to be served, but to give his life as a ransom for many.

Welcome to Lent

Welcome to Lent.

This is one of those years that comes around every once in a while, in which it is not such a great year to be Catholic–or a liturgical Christian of any stripe–because Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine’s Day and Easter falls on April Fool’s Day.

Lent is the forty days before Easter.  Back up six weeks from Easter, and then back up a few more days, and you get to Ash Wednesday.  Now all you Georgia Tech grads out there are much much smarter than the rest of us, and at this point you would tell us that’s actually forty-six days.  And you would be correct.  Back out the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter, which are counted as free days and not considered part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Historically, Lent has been the time during which the Church has prepared catechumens (those seeking to join the Church via baptism) for Easter, which is when their baptisms take place.  For the rest of us, it is a time of preparation as well. We prepare for Easter during this season by focusing on Christ and his journey to the cross. The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent out in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years that the nation of Israel spent in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land.  Not all of us will go out into the wilderness by ourselves for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey.  Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where ashes are placed on your forehead in order to symbolize repentance from sin.   Ashes appear throughout the Bible as a symbol of repentance–the preferred expression of mourning in Old Testament times was sackcloth and ashes, and the Old Testament writers tied this to repentance.  Ashes also symbolize our mortality–dust we are and unto dust we shall return. We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise again with Christ.  In the weeks to come we will focus on stories and events in the life of Jesus, especially those leading up to Jerusalem and the cross.