Monday, March 31, 2008

Jesus: Dead or Alive

Some in the Church say it doesn’t matter whether or not Jesus was actually raised from the dead. I think that's flat-out wrong. And I also think that New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson expresses some of the reasons why such a view is wrong in words far more eloquent than I can muster.

The most important question concerning Jesus … is simply this: Do we think he is dead or alive?

If Jesus is simply dead, there are any number of ways in which we can relate ourselves to his life and his accomplishments. And we might even, if some obscure bit of data should turn up, hope to learn more about him. But we cannot reasonably expect to learn more from him.

If he is alive, however, everything changes. It is no longer a matter of our questioning a historical record, but a matter of our being put in question by the one who has broken every rule of ordinary human existence. If Jesus lives, then it must be as life-giver. Jesus is not simply a figure of the past in that case, but a person in the present; not merely a memory that we can analyze and manipulate, but an agent who can confront and instruct us. What we learn about him must therefore include what we continue to learn from him.

To be a Christian means to assert that Jesus is alive, is indeed life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). To consider Jesus simply as a figure of the past means to consider Jesus not from the perspective of a Christian but from that of one who stands outside Christian conviction. The Christian prays, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20; see 1 Cor. 16:22), intending thereby to address a real and living person capable of manifesting his presence still more palpably. Such a prayer is nonsensical to one who is not a Christian, for it is fantasy to address the dead as though still alive. It is either make-believe or necromancy to summon from a grave one who died two thousand years ago.

This seems to be one of those very few choices that allow no equivocation. There is no middle ground between dead and alive. If Jesus is dead, then his story is completed. If he is alive, then his story continues.

The decision whether to consider Jesus dead or alive ought to have consequences for how we regard his story. If his story continues after his death, then paying attention only to what he did before his death is at best inadequate, at worst fundamentally distorting. For if Jesus is alive, then he is alive not simply as a continuation of his former existence (as a wraith or poltergeist might be) but as the one who has entered into God’s own life and who rules creation as its Lord. …

The essential point … is that the confession of Jesus as resurrected, as living with God’s own life, and as ruling as Lord of the church and world is what distinguishes the Christian view of Jesus from every other view. For everyone else, Jesus is another dead man; for Christians, he is the Living One [Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), pp. 4-5, 6].

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Unreliable Witnesses

In the Sunday school class I'm co-facilitating, we're spending Easter season looking at the post-resurrection narratives in the Gospels. Those narratives are endlessly fascinating, not only for what they say, but also for what they leave unsaid and unexplained (like, how did the resurrection happen?), and also for the similarities that exist in the midst of so many differences between them.

This morning we compared and contrasted the accounts of women finding Jesus' tomb empty in Mark 16:1-8 and in Matthew 28:1-10. I find it very significant that it's the women who discover the empty tomb, it's the women who first encounter the risen Lord, and it's the women who first proclaim to the male disciples and to the world, "The Lord is risen!"

Based upon my own research, I prefaced the session by noting that the Christian claim for the resurrection of Jesus was surprising and "off the charts" in light of the spectrum of possible beliefs about life after death current within the paganism and Judaism of the day. Add to this that in Jesus' day, "women were not allowed to testify in court" and "were not considered reliable witnesses" (cf. Brian P. Stoffregen) and here's what we have: "unreliable" witnesses making an utterly fantastic claim about Jesus, a claim that flies in the face of every (then) conceivable view of what happens to persons after they die. In short, by insisting that the women were the first apostles (eyewitnesses to the resurrection), the evangelists undermine the credibility of their post-resurrection narratives in the eyes of their male-dominated society right from the get-go.

Why would they do that? Could it be because this illustrates how the first are now last and the last are now first? Could it be that this is a striking instance of God choosing what the world views as "foolish," "unreliable," and "weak" to shame what the world considers "wise," "reliable," and "strong" (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)? Could it be because, the differences in their accounts notwithstanding, each of the evangelists is telling the truth?

Concerning the testimony of the women and the truthfulness of the Gospels, here's what one scholar says: "In view of the prejudice against women's testimony in antiquity, no one would have invented the testimony of the women attested in all four Gospels; indeed, Paul even omits it" [Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (William B. Eerdmans, 1999) , p. 702]. Certainly, this does not prove beyond all doubt the reliability of these accounts. But I'm inclined to agree that, in addition to other factors, this gives further credibility to the evangelists' claim about the resurrection.

So thank God for Mary Magdalene, Mary, Salome, Joanna, and the other women who not only discovered the empty tomb of Jesus, but who also had the courage to proclaim the Good News that Jesus is risen indeed.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Resurrection Revolution

While I'm on my N. T. Wright kick, I may as well put in a plug for a piece he's posted over at The Washtington Post's "On Faith" web page. It offers a nice summary of the heart of his argument for the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and for the 'revolutionary' ethical and political implications of Jesus' resurrection.

Unlike the Borgs and the Crossans of New Testament scholarship, Wright embraces the historic faith of the Church as articulated in scripture and the creeds. And for precisely that reason, he offers grounds for an ethics and a politics that resists easy categorization as either liberal or conservative. Indeed, after reading Wright's Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), I think that his theology of resurrection is well positioned to provide a biblically sound, prophetic counterbalance to the theological and political extremes of both the Left and the Right.

Here's some of what N. T. Wright says over at "On Faith":

The New Testament presents the resurrection of Jesus not as a bizarre event within the old creation, the present world of decay, corruption and death, but as the foundational, prototypical and generative event within the new creation, the renewal of heaven and earth which Israel's God had long promised and which was decisively launched when Jesus came out of the tomb (not, we note, as a mere 'resuscitated corpse', as some have accused me and others of suggesting, but in a transformed physicality that decay and death could no longer touch).

Jesus' resurrection is thus the foundation -- ontologically, and also epistemologically -- for all the work Christians are thus called to do for the renewal of creation, society and human lives. Indeed, to be a Christian at all is to be called to be both part of that new creation, by the renewal of the mind and the obedience of the body, and also an agent of that new creation in the wider world. Believing in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not, despite what many in North America imagine, a way of shoring up a 'conservative' world view with all the political fallout that that engenders. Resurrection always was, for the Pharisees and others who believed it would happen eventually and for the early Christians who believed it already had in one case, a highly revolutionary doctrine. Death is the last weapon of the tyrant. The news that the living God is sovereign over death itself is therefore very bad news for tyrants. The fact that some of today's tyrant s profess to believe in the resurrection, but haven't noticed how it relativizes their power, only goes to show how far 'religion' and 'public life' have drifted apart in some areas of the western world. The resurrection was and is all about 'God in public', which is perhaps why some are so shrill in their rejection of it -- as they always were ever since Paul and others announced it.

Read it all.

Life after Death

I recently completed N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), and I have now read about 250 pages of his massive book The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003). I continue to be fascinated with the different views of life after death that serve as the backdrop for the early Christian message of Jesus' resurrection and lordship - a message which, Wright argues, is unique and surprising.

Here are a few quotes from Surprised by Hope that give a flavor of the different perspectives on life after death available within ancient paganism, ancient Judaism, and early Christianity. For those interested in going deeper, Wright provides a far more exhaustive treatment of each of these areas in The Resurrection of the Son of God.

Ancient Pagan (Greeks & Romans)

“As far as the ancient pagan world was concerned, the road to the underworld ran only one way. Death was all powerful; one could neither escape it in the first place nor break its power once it had come. Everybody knew there was in fact no answer to death. The ancient pagan world then divided broadly into those who, like Homer’s shades, might have wanted a new body but knew they couldn’t have one and those who, like Plato’s philosophers, didn’t want one because being a disembodied soul was far better” [pp. 35-36].

Ancient Judaism

“Some Jews agreed with those pagans who denied any kind of future life, especially a reembodied one. The Sadducees are famous for taking this position. Others agreed with those pagans who thought in terms of a glorious though disembodied future for the soul. Here the obvious example is the philosopher Philo. But most Jews of the day believed in an eventual resurrection – that is, that God would give his people new bodies when he judged and remade the whole world. That is what Martha assumed Jesus was talking about in their conversation beside the tomb of Lazarus: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” [John 11:24]. That is what resurrection meant” [p. 37].

Early Christianity

“ … the early Christian future hope centered firmly on resurrection. The first Christians did not simply believe in life after death; they virtually never spoke simply of going to heaven when they died. … When they did speak of heaven as a postmortem destination, they seemed to regard this heavenly life as a temporary stage on the way to the eventual resurrection of the body” [p. 41].

“ … from the start within early Christianity it was built in as part of the belief in resurrection that the new body, though it will certainly be a body in the sense of a physical object occupying space and time, will be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties" [p. 43; Wright's emphasis].

“Resurrection, we must never cease to remind ourselves, did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble postmortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death” [p. 45].

In other contexts, Wright refers to the early Christian understanding of bodily resurrection after bodily death as "life after 'life after death.'"

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The God Who Commands

I wrote out these notes and reflections many years ago as I was reading Richard J. Mouw’s The God Who Commands A Study in Divine Command Ethics (University of Notre Dame Press, 1990). I publish them here, not because I embrace Calvinism or wholeheartedly endorse Mouw’s take on Divine Command Theory, but primarily because I so often hear the word “Calvinist” used in such pejorative terms that I frankly wonder if the persons using that term really understand what it means. Related to that concern is my conviction that many Christians who think they reject a Reformed approach to ethics may find, on closer inspection, that they have been more deeply influenced by it than they realize. Regardless, Mouw’s book is a readable, scholarly, and reliable resource.

According to Richard J. Mouw, the central emphasis on Divine Sovereignty in Calvinist thought surfaces in the following view of the salvific process: “human beings are totally incapable of initiating the redemptive operation; in that operation, if it is to get started at all, is a divine elective option; when God chooses to negotiate the atoning arrangement there is no salvific ‘waste factor’; God’s efforts are irresistible; and no divine transaction ever gets cancelled” (pp. 95 & 96). The corresponding doctrines are those of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints (TULIP).

Calvinism stresses Divine voluntarism over and above the human adjustment to external laws or rules (cf. Mouw, p. 97). The exercise of Divine free will is prior to the human will and forms the basis on which human beings conform themselves through obedience to God’s commands. Mouw calls this “the naked will-to-will encounter” between God and human beings, an encounter which differentiates Calvinist ethics from natural law ethics (Ibid., p. 97). Whereas Thomistic natural law ethics tends to ground law in Divine reason, Calvinist ethics grounds law in Divine will. For the Thomist, natural human reason participates in the rational order of the universe (Logos), a rational order which reflects the Providential design of god and which makes available to human reason the basic moral precepts of natural law (observance of which constitutes the minimal conditions for moral virtue). To know the “other” side of the natural law requires revelation of the divine law in scripture. The Calvinist’s main point of difference with this view lies in the status of the divine law. For the Thomist, the revelations of divine law conform to the eternal law. For the Calvinist, the revelations of divine law conform solely to the will of God.

Calvinist ethics therefore differs from the four-fold emphasis in Thomistic ethics on eternal law, natural law, human law, and divine law. Mouw writes that “the Thomist preferred a picture in which both the divine and human wills were already immersed in law prior to the presentation of the biblical imperatives” in the revealed divine law (p. 98). Law exists prior to either human or divine will in this view. The divine law reveals the eternal law, which itself serves as “God’s own everlasting normative point of reference” (ibid.). The Divine will, in other words, is always and already subject to an eternal and immutable law.

By contrast, the voluntarism of Calvinist ethics stresses that what Thomas calls divine law is not so much conformity with an eternal and immutable moral law “as a free and direct address from sovereign divine will to defenseless human will” (Mouw, p. 98). In other words, the Calvinist stresses the grounding of the revealed biblical imperatives in God’s will rather than in an eternal law. No law exists apart form the Divine Will. This is an important distinction because it gets at the question: are God’s commands right because God commands them, or does God give commands because these commands are in themselves right? The Thomist opts for the latter option, the Calvinist opts for the former.

However, Mouw notes that Calvinists typically (although not always) soften the voluntarism in this picture in ways that answer the charge of arbitrariness in God’s commands. This softening occurs in two ways. The first softening factor is “the Reformed emphasis on covenant(Mouw, p. 100). The biblical theme of covenant reveals that the “God who overwhelms our depraved wills with sovereign grace is a deity who honors commitments and who calls human beings to exhibit consistent patterns of behavior” (Ibid., pp. 100-101). In other words, the God who freely consents to enter into covenantal relationship with human beings is not morally arbitrary. If human beings respond in faith and obedience to God’s commands – which call persons into relationships of trust and loyalty – then God will honor the covenantal commitment already enacted by the Divine Will prior to the exercise of human agency. Mouw speaks of this divine-human relationship as one of “an interpersonal intimacy” characterized by “an increasing unity of purposes in the context of covenantal mutuality” (Ibid., p. 19). Elsewhere, Mouw accents the covenant theme when he writes: “Ethics, as portrayed in the Scriptures, is a dimension of the believer’s relationship to God, and attempts to isolate morality from this very basic ‘I-Thou’ context will inevitably seem artificial. … The fact of the concrete encounter with the specific mystery of the divine presence is itself a constituting factor of the good life, including the good moral life” (Ibid., p. 42).

The second softening factor is the emphasis on “the role of biblical law as a positive guide in the Christian life” (Mouw, p. 101). The Calvinist views law, not as an alien burden imposed on human beings (heteronomy), but rather as a gracious gift for guiding human beings in right conduct. This complements biblical themes which portray God’s law as a lamp to the feet, as the way of life, and as sweeter than honey (cf. Psalm 119). This underscores once more a point of difference between Thomistic and Calvinist ethics. Calvinists do not reject the conception of natural law. Rather, Calvinist moral theology stresses the need “to grant at least equal attention to the fact that human depravity impairs our ability to grasp and honor the dictates of natural law” (Mouw, p. 103). Calvinism holds that human beings need revelation even more radically than Thomism does, so they therefore place greater stress on biblically revealed moral imperatives. In this way, the Reformed principle of sola scriptura serves as an antidote to the depravity of human reason.

Mouw repeatedly stresses, in accordance with the factors of covenant and law which soften the radical edges of Divine Voluntarism, that God’s will is not arbitrary. Mouw is well aware that the strong Calvinist emphasis on the centrality of “moral surrender to the divine will” can have disastrous consequences for social and political life in the absence of any “appeal to reasonableness” (Mouw, pp. 2, 20). To counter theologies which view God as an arbitrary commander or which give legitimacy to various forms of oppressive social and political hierarchies, Mouw turns to the biblical witness to stress “the unique status of divine authority” (Ibid., p. 19). Mouw is worth quoting at length on this point:

I believe that God possesses the absolute authority to tell us what to do. At the same time I have no desire to expand my case into a more general defense of moral hierarchism. I am convinced that it is on occasion reasonable to submit to commands whose rationale we do not fully grasp, and the relationship between human beings and the God of the Bible satisfies, I am also convinced, the required conditions for such obedience. … Each case or relationship must be considered on its own merits. Whether a given individual possesses the authority to command our obedience is a matter which must be decided by examining the credentials of the would-be-commander. In this regard it is important to note that the God of Scriptures regularly offers credentials for our examination. The God who issues the “Thou shalts” of Exodus 20 is the one who prefaces those directives with the reminder that we have been delivered from the house of bondage. And the one who, in the New Testament, tells us to keep his commandments, does so on the basis of the fact that when we were yet sinners he died for us. The God who commands in the Scriptures is the one who offers the broken chariots of the Egyptians and the nail-scarred hands of the divine Son as a vindication of the right to tell us what to do. This should make us sensitive to the need to examine the credentials of others who claim the authority to be moral commanders (pp. 19-20).

God’s authority is not just any authority, but a reasonable and worthy authority.

This turn to “soft” Calvinism balances the Bible with “reasonableness” as norms for discerning the credibility of claims for authority to command human submission and obedience. Mouw’s practical casuistry sifts through false claims to authority for the sake of defending the reasonableness of Christian faith against the tyrannies of blind faith. It makes a difference to Mouw whether or not individuals submit to God’s commands with or without warrant. Only those claims to authority that check out with the “larger context” of the biblical witness and with what persons may reasonably expect from a God whose intentions towards human beings are primarily expressed through covenant and law are deemed worthy of obedience (Mouw, p. 10).

When compared with the theological ethics of a Reformed theologian such as Karl Barth, Mouw’s “soft” Calvinism may suggest a kind of human arrogance or pride in the face of the Divine Imperative. However, Mouw succeeds in offering a persuasive case for an objective, deontological approach to theological ethics which grounds moral right and wrong in Divine Commands and which leaves room open for the exercise of human reason in moral discernment.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Glorious Hope" Has Risen Today

From the March 22 edition of The Globe and Mail:

That triumphal barnburner of an Easter hymn, Jesus Christ Has Risen Today – Hallelujah, this morning will rock the walls of Toronto's West Hill United Church as it will in most Christian churches across the country.

But at West Hill on the faith's holiest day, it will be done with a huge difference. The words “Jesus Christ” will be excised from what the congregation sings and replaced with “Glorious hope.”

Thus, it will be hope that is declared to be resurrected – an expression of renewal of optimism and the human spirit – but not Jesus, contrary to Christianity's central tenet about the return to life on Easter morning of the crucified divine son of God.

Sounds like a good reason to roll back over in bed and sleep in on Sunday mornings to me.

Read it all.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Easter Homily

Many consider St. John Chrysostom (circa A.D. 344-407), bishop of Antioch and Constantinople, as the greatest preacher of the ancient church and one of the greatest of all time. Probably no sermon he preached is as well known as the powerful and eloquent Easter homily (circa A.D. 400), which I've printed below. Many churches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition still recite it each year as part of their observance of Pascha.

For the third year in a row at St. Andrew's Episcopal Cathedral in Jackson, MS, we have read Chrysostom's famous homily at The Great Vigil of Easter. And each time, it's said everything that needs to be said on this holy night. It's the very epitome of what, before his consecration as Bishop of Atlanta, Neil Alexander said about "precision and economy" in his homilietics class at The School of Theology in Sewanee, TN.


Easter Homily

by St. John Chrysostom

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary from fasting?
Let them now receive their due!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their reward.

If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the feast!

And those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they shall lose nothing.

And if any have tarried until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.

And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last no less than the first.

The Lord gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour,
even as to those who toiled from the beginning.

To one and all the Lord gives generously.
The Lord accepts the offering of every work.

The Lord honors every deed and commends their intention.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike, receive your reward.

Rich and poor, rejoice together!

Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice, this day, for the table is bountifully spread!

Feast royally, for the calf is fatted.
Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy the riches of the Lord’s goodness!

Let none grieve their poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let none mourn that they have fallen, over, and over again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let none fear death,
for the death of our Savior has set us free.

The Lord has destroyed it by enduring it.

The Lord destroyed hell when He descended into it.

The Lord put hell in turmoil even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering him below.”

Hell is in turmoil because it has been eclipsed.
Hell is in turmoil because it is mocked.
Hell is in turmoil, for it is destroyed.
Hell is in turmoil, for it is annihilated.
Hell is in turmoil, for it is now made captive.
Hell grasped a corpse, and discovered God.
Hell seized earth, and encountered heaven.
Hell took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and you, O death, are obliterated!
Christ is risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life is set free!
Christ is risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead.

For Christ, having risen from the dead,is become the first-fruits
of those who have fallen asleep.

To God be glory and power forever and ever. Amen!

Alleluia. Christ is risen.

Holy Saturday

"O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 221


Concerning the painting:

"In 1522 Hans Holbein the Younger (1497 - 1543) painted a disturbing picture: The body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. The painting represents a corpse stretched out by itself on a slab covered with a cloth that is scarcely draped. Life size, the painted corpse is seen from the side, its head slightly turned toward the viewer; the hair spread out on the sheet. The right arm in full view, resting alongside the emaciated, tortured body, and the hand protrudes slightly from the slab. The rounded chest suggests a triangle within the very low, elongated rectangle of the recess that constitutes the painting's frame. The chest bears the bloody mark of a spear, and the hand shows the stigmata of the crucifixion, which stiffen the outstretched middle finger: Imprints of nails mark Christ's feet. The martyr's face bears the expression of a hopeless grief; the empty stare, the sharp-lined profile, the dull blue-green complexion are those of a man who is truly dead, of Christ forsaken by the Father ("My God, my God, why have you deserted me?") and without the promise of Resurrection."
Julia Kristeva, Holbein's Dead Christ.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday Homily

St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City stands directly across from Rockefeller Center. At the entrance to Rockefeller Center there’s a huge sculpture of the Greek god Atlas holding up the world. On Good Friday, when the doors of the cathedral are opened, persons on the street can see the cross inside the church. So if you turn in one direction, you see Atlas holding up the world, and if you turn in the other direction, you see Jesus broken by the world. Commenting on this contrast, one writer asks: “Which image speaks the truth? Is the world upheld by our godlike strength or by the crucified love of God? Upon that decision everything, simply everything, turns.”[1]

The faith we enact in the Good Friday liturgy claims that the world is, indeed, upheld by the crucified love of God. That’s a bold claim to make, for it often appears that nothing could be farther from the truth. Wars, disease, lies, the death of the innocent, manipulation and coercion, the gulf between rich and poor, the domination of the weak by the strong – isn’t this the stuff that makes the world tick? Isn’t it unrealistic and perhaps even dangerously naïve to believe otherwise? Aren’t the Pilates of this world right in the end?

In response to those kinds of questions, John’s Gospel gives an emphatic “No!” For in the aftermath of the collision between the kingdom of Pilate and the kingdom of Jesus Christ, something startlingly unexpected happens. It appears that Pilate’s power crushes the defenseless Jesus, casting him aside as yet another failed upstart. But appearances are deceiving. For in reality, the crucifixion of Jesus is the exaltation of Jesus.

In Jesus Christ lifted high upon the cross, things which were cast down are being raised up. The first are now last and the last are now first. God's kingdom is not far off in some distant, irrelevant heaven, but is coming on earth. And not even death itself can stop it.

This is central to the meaning of our Lord’s dying words when he says, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).

“It is finished.” This means more than, “It’s over.” It’s more than saying, “Jesus is no longer suffering,” or, “Jesus is now dead.” In John’s Gospel the words “It is finished” mean something deeper and more profound. They mean: “It is consummated, fulfilled, [and] brought to perfection”; and applied to Jesus, these words signify “a life brought to completion.”[2]

Lifted high upon the cross, Jesus completes his mission, the purpose for which God consecrated him and sent him into the world. On the cross, he who knew no sin became sin for our sakes (2 Cor. 5:21). On the cross, Jesus fulfils God’s determination to do something decisive about sin, evil, and death. On the cross, Jesus takes human suffering and death into the heart of God’s life for healing and transformation. On the cross, Jesus throws the Pilates of this world out of office and crushes Satan under his feet. On the cross, Jesus rises above the world to reign as the true Lord of the world.

“It is finished.”

“For this I was born,” Jesus tells Pilate, “and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn. 18:37). The truth to which Jesus testifies is God’s truth. And God’s truth stands the “truth” of the world – a “truth” which relies for its justification on manipulation, coercion, violence, and the domination of the poor and powerless by the rich and the ruthless – on its head. For God’s truth expresses itself as crucified love. And on Good Friday, crucified love prevails.

My friends, it is finished. It is complete. The victory has been won. The Good Friday paradox is that Jesus’ moment of humiliation is the moment of his exaltation. The apparent defeat of the cross is the moment of God’s triumph over sin, evil, death, and decay. By the power of God, an instrument of shameful death becomes for us the means of abundant and eternal life.

And so we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

[1] Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic Books, 2000), p. 203.

[2] Ibid., p. 187.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Maundy Thursday

"Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 221

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

War and Faith

I preached this sermon on March 23, 2003. It was just a few days after the start of the Iraq War. I was very nervous about it, especially in a small church in a small town. But, as one of my senior clergy colleagues told me, if you feel strongly about this and don’t do it, you may end up regretting it for the rest of your ordained ministry.

Well, here it is – my “war sermon.” It’s a topic I’ve prayed to avoid. But it’s also been an ever-present reality since the beginning of my ordained ministry.

I never would have dreamed I would be ordained a deacon just one week after an event like 9/11. And I can hardly believe we’d begin another war with Iraq near the first anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Terrorism and war: they color my being set apart into holy orders.

Now I know there’s been a lot of controversy about the justness of this war. It’s a deeply divisive issue. That’s why we need to come together as a community of prayer. And that’s why we need to be honest about our concerns, our fears, and our struggles. So as your priest and your pastor, I want to share with you today the anguish of my fears and my worries, my questions and concerns. And I do this because I want to invite you to enter deeply into your own fears, questions, and worries. For it’s in the anguish and struggle with our fears and our questions that we’re likely to find deeper intimacy with the God who suffers and redeems in Christ.

I know that some critics say, “The Church should stay out of politics.” And they’re often quite right. But war is not politics. War is the failure of politics. War is death and destruction. So whether we agree with this war or not, surely we can agree that war, even when necessary, is a necessary evil. War is Satan running amuck. And that’s why, from the very beginning to this day, the Church has spoken out on issues of war and peace.

If Christians remain silent on these pressing issues, we’re actually sending a loud message: a message that our faith is irrelevant to the concerns of the real world. My brothers and sisters, if our faith is irrelevant to the concerns of the real world, then we’d do well to abandon the Christian faith for something that is.

I refuse to do that. And thanks be to God, I know that I’m not alone. Indeed, one of the things that’s been so overwhelming over the last several months has been the unanimous voice of all the mainline Church leaders about this war. It’s been a truly historic moment in the life of the Church. Not only in the United States, but all over the world, Anglicans and Presbyterians, Methodists and Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and Disciples of Christ – among many others – have been speaking with one voice. Whether we agree or not, as people who take Christian faith seriously, this nearly unprecedented consensus of the Church should give us pause. At the very least, it should make Christians feel uncomfortable with waging war. It should conjure up fears about the consequences of war. And it should make us ask, “What would Jesus do?”

Let me share my fears and worries with you. One of my biggest fears is for the men and women of our armed services. Many of them are only in their late teens and early twenties. Many of them have families with children under the age of 6. They’ve never experienced war before. What they are getting into will forever change their lives for good or for bad. I know that you join me in praying for their safety and for their joyous return home to family and friends. And I know that you join me in praying for the anguished families who are left behind, especially those who have already lost loved ones.

I’m also worried for our nation. I’m troubled by the suggestion that asking questions and having concerns about this war is unpatriotic and un-American. It scares me to hear our leaders say that we’re either with them or we support terrorism. The suggestion that loyal dissent is unpatriotic doesn’t just slam the door shut on civil discourse. It constitutes a direct attack on Christian witness and mission. Is Christian faith simply a rubber stamp for whatever our leaders want to do?

What would Jesus do?

And then there are questions of faith. Where is God in all of this? My deepest fear is that, amidst the sound and fury of war, we Christians will no longer hear Jesus’ call to walk the way of the cross. My fear is that we will set aside our baptismal vocation to seek and serve Christ in all persons, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being. Even those with whom we disagree. Even our enemies.

What would Jesus do?

I’m also deeply distressed by some of the talk coming from certain sectors of the Church. I’ve heard God’s blessing invoked as though we can safely assume that God is unequivocally on our side. It scares me when I hear fallible human beings claiming to know the mind of God with absolute certainty. After all, that’s what the Osama bin Laden’s of the world do.

Should we be asking, “Is God on our side?” Or would it be better to ask, “Are we on God’s side?”

What would Jesus say?

I’ve even heard some Christians flat out declare that God prefers war as a method for enacting His will.

"God prefers war."

Can Christians really believe that?

Does God revel in bloodshed and violence? Does God will the deaths of men, women, and children to advance His purposes?

What would Jesus say?

It’s sometimes said that “war is hell.” Theologically speaking, that’s false. Hell is by definition the absence of God. But the truth is, bidden or unbidden, God is always present, even in war. So where is God in this war?

Let me share with you what I believe. I believe that God is in Christ, and Christ is on the cross, suffering and dying with our service men and women and their families and will the nameless, faceless ones we conveniently categorize as “collateral damage.” If there is to be any redemption in this human tragedy, it can only come through Christ’s passion and resurrection.

Let me also say what I hope. I hope that my fears prove groundless. I hope that God is working to bring renewal and transformation out of this tragedy.

But regardless of what happens, I am confident of three things. First of all, God loves everyone and wills their salvation, regardless of what side they’re on.

Secondly, in Jesus Christ, God calls us to stand in solidarity with all those who are suffering on both sides of this war. It wasn’t for nothing, after all, that Jesus said, “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44) and “be kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk. 6:35).

And finally, even in the midst of this war, God continues to call us to faithfully seek the justice, peace, and reconciliation of His kingdom.

I recently read a poem that deeply moved me. I’d like to close by sharing it with you. It was written on Ash Wednesday by a Presbyterian named Ann Weems. The title is, “I No Longer Pray for Peace.”

On the edge of war, one foot already in,
I no longer pray for peace:
I pray for miracles.

I pray that stone hearts will turn to tenderheartedness,
and evil intentions will turn to mercifulness,
and all the soldiers already deployed
will be snatched out of harm’s way,
and the whole world will be astounded onto its knees.

I pray that all the ‘God talk’ will take bones,
and stand up and shed its cloak of faithlessness,
and walk again in its powerful truth.

I pray that the whole world might sit down together
and share its bread and its wine.

Some say there is no hope,
but then I’ve always applauded the holy fools
who never seem to give up on the scandalousness of our faith:
that we are loved by God,
and that we can truly love on another.

I no longer pray for peace;
I pray for miracles.

Treason and Atonement

Sermon for Wednesday in Holy Week

On this Wednesday in Holy Week, we remember one of the most notorious characters in the Christian story. Throughout the centuries, no single person has been abhorred among Christians as much as Judas Iscariot. Just say the name “Judas” and the word “treason” immediately comes to mind. Judas’ name has even become a colloquial expression. You may have heard someone way, “So-and-so was a real Judas when they did such-and-such.” What a powerful and damning legacy to be known for all time for only one deed, and an evil one at that.

Judas’ treason is beyond the pale. After all, he had pledged personal allegiance not only to Jesus but to the cause Jesus proclaimed: the coming kingdom of God. And then he knowingly and willingly betrayed Jesus, helping to hand him over for torture and murder. Little wonder that Christians have almost universally regarded “Judas” as a dirty word.

Looking at the four gospels, it’s difficult to pinpoint Judas’ motives. The Gospel according to John – written well after Matthew, Mark, and Luke – says that Judas was motivated by good old fashioned greed (cf. John 12:6). He sold Jesus out for money.

Others speculate that Judas was motivated by hatred born from disillusionment. According to this theory, Judas was a zealous Jewish nationalist who was willing to use violence and murder to effect regime change in the Holy Land. When it became clear that Jesus had renounced the way of the sword for the way of the cross, Judas turned him in to the authorities. Jesus wasn’t the Messiah Judas wanted him to be, so Jesus had to go.

And then there’s the view that Judas didn’t intend for Jesus to die. Maybe Judas thought that Jesus was acting too slowly, so he struck a deal with the authorities and led them to the garden of Gethsemane in order to force Jesus’ hand. Maybe Judas betrayed Jesus to compel him to rise to the occasion and act forcefully and decisively as everyone knew the Messiah should. And then, when the plot backfired and Jesus gave himself up without even resisting arrest, Judas was so shattered by what he had done that he committed suicide.

Regardless of what really motivated him, Judas is an important part of the Christian story. His betrayal of Jesus and its tragic consequences powerfully illustrate an important truth of the moral life. God’s gift of freedom of the will entails the possibility of treason. Just as we can freely pledge our loyalty to a person or a cause, we can also freely betray that person and sabotage that cause. The aftermath of the betrayal doesn’t just injure the persons directly involved. It also damages community. Treason has ripple effects that touch the lives of countless persons, sometimes for years to come. And the damage can never be undone.

We don’t have to look for dramatic examples of treason to country to understand this. Just think of what happens when a husband is unfaithful to his wife, or a wife to her husband, and you get a pretty good idea of why some people maintain that treason is an unpardonable sin. Acts of treason lock us into what one philosopher calls “the hell of the irrevocable.”[1] Any deed we do – whether good or bad – becomes part of a past that can never be changed. If a person commits treason, no future good deed they do – no matter how noble or praiseworthy – can ever change the past. The traitorous deed stands as an irrevocable and eternal fact. Like a hot-iron brand, it leaves a painful and indelible imprint on the hearts and souls of countless people.

Judas’ story is a tragic example of what can happen to people who, in the aftermath of breaking fundamental bonds of trust, see no way out. Locked into the hell of the irrevocable, unable to forgive themselves and unwilling to receive forgiveness from anyone else, such persons may end up on a course of self-destruction.

What word of hope, what good news, is there for such persons? Can there be atonement for acts of betrayal and treason? Is there any way that our acts of unfaithfulness and disloyalty that become part of an irrevocable past can ever become a source of blessing rather than an eternal curse?

Christian faith answers these questions by saying “yes.”

But here’s the irony. Atonement for treason is only possible because Judas betrayed Jesus. A horrible act of treason was necessary to make atonement for treason possible.

Here’s where God’s grace enters the dark story of Judas. Through the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God used Judas’ treason as an opportunity for doing a deed that would bring salvation to the whole world. In Jesus Christ, God transformed the meaning – not only of Judas’ sin – but of all of our sins. Jesus Christ frees us from the hell of the irrevocable by transforming the meaning of a past that can never be undone, thereby bringing new life out of death and triumph out of tragedy. And this opportunity would never have arisen if Judas hadn’t betrayed Jesus into the hands of sinners.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t condemn acts of betrayal and treason? Of course not. Treason is still evil. Loyalty and faithfulness are still necessary and praiseworthy virtues. The point is that God can take even the worst things we human beings are capable of doing and use them to transform the world into an even better place than it was before the sin occurred. That’s what the cross – the symbol that sums up our faith as Christians – means. As the Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week puts it, by the passion of Jesus Christ, God “made an instrument an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life” (BCP, p. 220).

That’s good news because each and every one of us in one way or another has or will follow in the footsteps of Judas. If and when that happens, remember the good news. True, we can never change the past. It’s irrevocable. But the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is greater than our past. God is greater than our sins. And through Jesus’ betrayal, through his passion and death on the cross, God transforms human evil into good.

So there’s always hope. Perhaps even for Judas.

[1] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume I: The Christian Doctrine of Life (Macmillan, 1913), p. 263ff.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

The Promise of Resurrection Life

Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent
RCL, Year A: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Today’s gospel reading has it all: love, family, and friendship; tragedy and grief; fear and suspense; and an ending that no one could anticipate or imagine. At the heart of the story is a scene that happens over and over again in human life. Every time it unfolds, it cuts to the heart of our faith in all that is good, beautiful and true. I’m talking about the anguish caused by suffering and death.

Here’s how it plays out in today’s gospel. Martha and Mary live with their brother Lazarus, who has taken ill. John doesn’t give us any of the details, but we can imagine these two sisters at the bedside of their brother, lovingly attending to him, and growing more worried as he gets sicker. They do what any of us would do – they call for help. They send a message to Jesus: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Jn. 11:3). Succinct, direct, and crystal clear, this message is like a prayer that says, “Lord, please help us.” “Jesus, come quickly.”

But Jesus doesn’t show up right away. And meanwhile, Lazarus takes a turn for the worse. Helpless, Martha and Mary watch as Lazarus suffers and dies. I can imagine that this is one of those deaths we never really get over, the kind that forces us to ask, “Why?” and to say, “This just isn’t fair!” Lazarus’ death is a tragedy at so many levels, because not only have Martha and Mary lost a beloved brother, but now that they are unattached to a man in a patriarchal culture, they’ve also lost economic security. The future is up in the air. Death appears triumphant. So when Jesus finally arrives, both Martha and Mary fall at his feet, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Surely we can relate to how the sisters must have felt. Think of seeing pictures of death and destruction on television, when the lives of innocent men, women, and children are taken by natural disaster or by human violence. Or what about scenes that unfold in hospital emergency and waiting rooms across the country and the world? What about the injustice and indignity unleashed on the bodies and spirits of loved ones by progressive illness? The list could go on and on. And if we let the full weight of these things sink in, we, too, may find ourselves falling to our knees and saying in anguish or even anger, “Lord, if you had been here, this would not be happening. These people would not have suffered. They would not have died.”

So how does Jesus respond to all of this? Does he offer the sisters the false comfort of saying, “Don’t worry, be happy because you’re brother is now in a better place?”

No. The first thing Jesus does is to make a startling claim. In response to Martha’s affirmation of the Jewish belief that her brother will be raised in the resurrection on the last day, Jesus boldly says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn. 11:25-26). God is doing something new and unexpected. In Jesus Christ, the future has come into the present. The promise of resurrection life, while consummated for us in the future, is among us in the here and now in Jesus.

But the in-breaking of the future resurrection into the present doesn’t initially offer much comfort to Mary, who kneels at Jesus’ feet weeping.

And then it hits him. John puts it this way: “When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, [Jesus] was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (Jn. 11:33). One translation renders this verse to say: “He gave way to such distress of spirit as made his body tremble.”[1] Jesus is shaken to the very core of his being. He’s moved with compassion and pity. He’s flooded with sadness and grief. And the effects of this tragic death on the people Jesus loves, as well as their giving in to despair even in the presence of God’s resurrection life, also kindles the fires of his anger. This is not the way things are supposed to be! And so it’s out of that mix of compassion, grief, and anger that “Jesus began to weep” (Jn. 11:35).

I think we need to pause over the humanity of all of this before we jump to the surprising conclusion of this story. Unless we do that, Jesus’ promise that those who believe in him will never die may ring hollow. For unlike Martha and Mary, we don’t get our Lazarus’ back in this lifetime.

There are no easy, pat answers to the issues raised by today’s gospel reading, as most all of us know only too well from our own experiences of suffering and death. Even so, we’re not left out in the cold. While the Christian faith is not a magic wand we can wave to make everything alright, it does give us grounds for hope. For this Jesus who claims to be the resurrection and the life is trustworthy. And Jesus proves that he is trustworthy by his willingness to share with us in everything we go through, including suffering and death.

Jesus Christ reveals a God who is shaken to the core by what’s wrong with our world. This is a God who shares the agony and anguish and outrage over this world’s bondage to evil, death and decay. And so, as one Anglican bishop puts it: “God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end.”[2] This is why God doesn’t stand aloof or safe on the sidelines. On the contrary, in Jesus, God comes among us. In Jesus, God subjects Himself to everything we mortals face: to all of the joys, temptations, pain and suffering this world can dish out, including the pain of seeing others suffer. And in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection from the dead, God’s determination to do something decisive about it has already borne its first fruits. For in Jesus we see the inauguration of a new creation in which our salvation – the healing of all that we are as persons made in God’s image – includes the redemption of everything we have experienced as embodied beings in this good but fallen creation.

If it’s true that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and if it’s true that we can trust Jesus, then our sufferings are not in vain. The deaths of our loved ones – and our own deaths – are not the end of the story. For God intends to do for us not merely what Jesus did for Lazarus. Remember – Lazarus is raised by Jesus only to die a second time later on. No, the raising of Lazarus is a mere foretaste of what God ultimately intends. For in the end, God intends to raise us up from our graves as whole persons – souls and bodies – that we may share resurrection life in the kingdom of heaven come on earth. God intends to heal and transform all of creation. God intends to set things right. Nothing gets "left behind."

This is the hope for which we live. This is the vision that guides our work for justice and peace. And this is the basis for our assurance that nothing in all of creation – including suffering and death – can even begin to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

[1] Cf. William Barclay, The Gospel of John Volume 2, Revised Edition (Westminster Press, 1975), p. 97.

[2] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), p. 179.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Sunday is Not the Sabbath

For most of my life, I’ve heard Christians refer to Sunday as “the Sabbath.” And for most of my life, I’ve never questioned the use of that term for Sunday. But I’ve come to believe that it is incorrect. I'll briefly explain why.

As is well known, in the first Genesis account of creation, the Sabbath refers to the seventh day, the last day of the week:

“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Genesis 2:1-3 NRSV).

On the Jewish calendar, the seventh day is Saturday. Hence the rationale for Saturday synagogue worship.

Christianity retains this ordering of the week. Look at any liturgical calendar, and you’ll see that the last day of the week is Saturday and the first day of the week is Sunday (on the secular calendar, of course, the first day of the week is Monday).

Which brings us to the Christian day of worship. Because of its association with the resurrection of our Lord, Sunday became the focus of Christian worship. This is because Jesus was crucified on Friday, and was raised (as the Nicene Creed puts it) “on the third day.” And so every Sunday is a Feast Day of the Resurrection, even during Lent (if you include Sundays, there are 46 rather than 40 days during Lent). As such, it should not be confused with the Sabbath. Matthew, for example, makes the point very clearly when he describes how the women discovered Jesus’ empty tomb “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning …” (Matthew 28:1 NRSV; emphasis added).

The Book of Common Prayer reinforces what the New Testament teaches: that Sunday is not the Sabbath. Note, for example, the thematic focus of the Collect for Saturdays in the office of Morning Prayer (BCP, p. 99):

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world rested from all your works and sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures: Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And note also the thematic focus of the Collect for Sundays in the office of Morning Prayer (BCP, p. 98):

O God, you make us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of your Son our Lord: Give us this day such blessing through our worship of you, that the week to come may be spent in your favor; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Prayer Book differentiates Saturdays and Sundays because their theological meanings are quite different. So rather than calling Sunday the Sabbath, it is more theologically and liturgically accurate to call it “the Lord’s Day.” Confusing or conflating these two days, we lose the richness of their respective meanings and how we can and should observe them.