Does Your Jesus Need to Die?

Good Friday

Scripture: Isaiah 52:13-53:12

 

Scripture: John 12:23-33

Scripture: John 19:17-30

 

“Good” Friday?

On Wednesday at Soup & Sermon, Pastor Paul Kelley challenged us to embody the love that comes from a spiritual maturity. We’re going to need that maturity if we’re to get through the darkness of the next couple days of trauma, death, isolation, and darkness.

These holy days of our Christian Calendar–like Good Friday–are intended to be days of embodiment. Days when we place ourselves into the story and imagine. And finding ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disicples on this particular Friday, I imagine we’d realize there is an inevitability to where we stand today. To where his disciples stand. To where Jesus hangs. And to where Jesus will soon be laid. Put yourself there:

Welp……Today is the day (we might think). We had a good run. No one can say we didn’t try to share the good news of God’s redemptive love. But today is when it all caught up with us. There are social dimensions of following Jesus that proved unpopular. There are political realities that our faith stood in contradiction to. And Jesus……well, you know Jesus never made things easy for himself.

Today is a kind of day of reckoning–when the fruit of all that was sown just piles up against us. So they arrested Jesus. He was run through a judicial system one cannot call “just.” He was tortured, humiliated, and ultimate crucified.

That is what we remember today.

 

So how on earth can anyone call this day “good”? What is so good about Good Friday?

It was most decidedly NOT good from the perspective of the disciples. And many non-english cultures don’t use this terminology at all. In German (for example) the day is called Karfreitag, or “Sorrowful Friday.” That seems to hit the nail more on the head.

All language changes and evolves with use, of course. And long, long ago, “good” was a word that meant something akin to what “holy” means today. So when our english-language ancestors started calling this day “Good Friday,” they really meant “Holy Friday”–because it was a holy day (holiday). Get it?

 

But I do believe that all these years later, we can call it good anyway because we know the rest of the story. Through the seemingly-miraculous powers of hindsight, we know what God is doing. We know that the cross is a kind of giant X-marks-the-spot that indicates when and where everything changed.

That’s why the cross is so foundational to our life and worship. We take communion (as we did earlier) as in remembrance of the cross–the shed blood and broken body of our Savior. As a baptist, I baptize people by immersion–reenacting Jesus’ death on the cross, burial, and resurrection. We sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and “There is Power in the Blood” and “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burdens of my heart rolled away…It was there by faith I received my sight and now I am happy all the day!”

Without a doubt, the cross is at the center of our very identity as Christians–as followers of Jesus.

Need to Die?

Which is why it may surprise you this morning that my theme today–my sermon title–is “Does your Jesus need to die?”

Does your Jesus……need……to die?

Now, let’s get all that “right answer” BS out of the way.

Of course Jesus needed to die because of sin and brokenness,

and the need for reconciliation,

and the impermanence of the effectiveness of the Old Testament sacrificial system,

and the love and mercy of God,

and all those complicated arguments that get used to describe the mechanisms of salvation–as though any of us could fully comprehend what has been done for us here.

We good now?

If we move all that out of the way–if we are forced to be more honest with ourselves and with God than we have ever been before–I suspect we might be surprised with what is left.

For Us?

Sure, we might hear ourselves say. Jesus needs to die. But……

Jesus didn’t really need to die for us, does he? I mean: we’re making our way; we’re not that desperate. We’re here! We’re the choir, so to speak–you know, the one that get’s preached to because we are always there, but we’re not the one’s the message is really for.

Jesus died for them, right?–for the ones the sermons are for. Jesus did have to die for murderers and thieves and adulterers, for drug-abusers and wife-beaters, for the Hitlers and the package-bombers of the world. But……

But that’s not us. We’re better than that. We’ve been pulling ourselves up by our spiritual boot-straps for ages now, and look how much better we are. Look what we’ve overcome. Look what we’ve built. Look what we’ve accomplished. Look how hard we’ve forced the square peg of God’s Kingdom into the round hole of our American political system.

Don’t you think we’re doing just fine without the blood of Jesus congealing and getting our plans all sticky? Without the cross wedging itself into the machinations of our moral crusading? Don’t we wear the crown of our accomplishments more suitably than the impaling thorns of the crown of Christ? Aren’t we so much more effective carrying the Gospel without nail-pierced hands or damaged feet or the stabbing pain of a wounded soul?

No!

No. It only shows how much we’ve missed the point.

One of the most tragic things I’ve ever witnessed as a pastor was a life-long professed Christian insist–to my face and publicly–that they were not a sinner and that they took offense to my suggestion that any Christian was.

I was shocked, and my head pounded for days with 1John 1:10, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and [God’s] word is not in us” (1John 1:10 NRSV).

Two Pray-ers

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of two pray-ers and two prayers. It’s a parable that seems to have even more application today than all those years ago.

One is a good, faithful, church-going fellow–you know, the kind you can rely on for things. Maybe a deacon, or a lay-leader, or a Sunday School teacher. The kind of person who shows up at every event, who stays late to help clean up, who steps up to the plate, and who–quite frankly–is the kind of person most pastors wish we had more of.

The other person isn’t. Jesus says he’s a tax collector. And the rest of the year, maybe I’d need to interpret that for our modern context. But given it is tax season, maybe you can do enough imagining yourself. He is not a righteous person. He is not a faithful church member. He is not a model citizen. He is not someone you want your kids to grow up to be.

Now I already have to pause: The fact that it is so easy for us to identify with the first man reveals how far we’ve fallen from the Way of Jesus.

The good, righteous church-goer prays a prayer of thanks (to God, he believes) that he isn’t one of those deplorable people who don’t follow the rules. He connects his success in life to the diligent practice of his religious rituals, and suggests (by association) that the failure of others–like that tax collector, for instance!–is because they are not as faithful.

The other man–a self-acknowledged sinner–won’t even assume the proper posture for prayer, and he simply hopes against hope that his confession and plea for mercy is enough for God.

Of course, as Jesus points out, it is more than enough. Not only does Jesus say this tax collector went home justified, but he tells us that the other man–the good, church-going fellow–did not. “Everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, but the one who humbles them-self will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b ESV+).

Sinners

Does your Jesus need to die? According to the scriptures, yes, of course. Because we are sinners. And scriptures remind us that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1John 2:2 NRSV).

There’s a great line in Alexandre Dumas’s great novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The characters are discussing vices–you know, those bad things that we do habitually, like eating too many donuts during the church coffee time. Anyway, one of the characters says that not having a vice is the worst vice at all. Not having a vice is the worst vice of all.

There’s something to that. When we think we’ve got it all together, everything about faith falls apart: compassion, generosity, kindness, justice, love–it all just evaporates.

You know what else evaporates? Our need for a Jesus who loves us enough to die for us.

Your Jesus?

But even more than that, your Jesus does need to die.

I mean: Your conception of Jesus needs to die–that picture in your head that looks more like you than like a radical, prophetic, dark-skinned, first-century Jewish rabbi who also happens to be God incarnate–enfleshed–Immanuel–“God with us.”

Too many of us have gotten comfortable with a pre-packaged, consumer-friendly Jesus that would himself feel good sitting in our pews, singing our songs, listening to our sermons, and attending our business meetings. But in response to all that–and because of all that–the real Jesus dies on the cross.

Back on Ash Wednesday, we read Isaiah 58 together and we remembered that God doesn’t give two biscuits about our religion. God cares about justice. God cares about the eternal and abiding love of God being demonstrated in the lives of those who slip through the cracks of society. If we are not using what we have to lift up those who are vulnerable, then none of it has anything to do with God: the religion we are practicing, the beautiful structures we preserve, the systems and history that we take pride in, the budgets we sweat over, the successes we pat ourselves on the back for–they are all for naught……

Or more accurately, they are all really for ourselves.

A Difficult Jesus

You see, the Jesus of the bible changes people. He’s not user-friendly. He isn’t going to be popular, though he’s got a knack for generating a lot of buzz. When the going gets tough–and it did and it does and it will with Jesus–he’s going to go places his friends don’t want him to go. He’s going to go places his followers don’t want him to go.

Don’t believe me? Look at Jesus’ disciples. Or better, look at the specific disciples we know as the Twelve. Or still better, look to Peter, the disciple on whom the Jesus movement will rest, according to Matthew 16:18.

In that chapter, Peter seems to finally get who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Yet just verses later, Peter tries to save Jesus from himself, rebuking Jesus–Jesus!!–for suggesting he was going to suffer and die in Jerusalem.

And again just last night, as Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, here comes Simon Peter once again, trying to save Jesus from himself–this time by wielding a sword in armed combat against his perceived enemies (a story found in John 18, Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22). Like most of the time when we resort to violence, it is here an innocent who suffers, a servant who has nothing to do with any of the decisions of this night.

The Sword & Love

In truth, I wrestle with this story and with Jesus’ response that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NRSV).

I wondered for a long time whether this story showed that it was possible to love someone too much. You know what I mean? It kind of looks like Peter loved Jesus so much that he just couldn’t let Jesus give himself up. Like Peter loved Jesus so much that he had to protect Jesus at any cost. And that sounds kind of good, right?

But one day God took me and turned my perspective around. I came to realize that it is easier to love than to be loved. It is easer to forgive than be forgiven. It is easier to give than to receive.

I don’t question Peter’s love for Jesus. But I’ve come to realize that this part of the Gethsemane story is a story about refusing love.

Peter is willing to sacrifice himself in armed rebellion against the overwhelming force of the Roman military. But he won’t allow Jesus to love him enough to die for him. He cannot loosen his grip on his attempts to control his life and his destiny–and yes, to control even who loves him. Peter lashes out in white-knuckled desperation, weapon in hand, in order to keep the love of Jesus in check because he knows something we too often forget. He knows that receiving that kind of love changes us.

It alters us. Fundamentally. As if in our very DNA.

And if we are subjected to that most overwhelming force in existence, then all power, all control, all illusion can only fall away.

……Including that carefully constructed Jesus that lets us piously sit in judgment over the very people Christ died to save.

 

Does your Jesus need to die?

Mine does. And with God’s help, I will die too.

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25 NIV).

God Takes the Long View

Palm/Passion Sunday

Scripture: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

Scripture: Mark 11:1-11

Finally!

There is something about this story that is both thrilling and infuriating. After all these chapters, all these miracles, all these teachings, all these misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Jesus, it feels great to finally be in a place where Jesus is being recognized. That’s what we seem to get here: Jesus enters Jerusalem with this piece of seemingly-spontaneous theater and is hailed as a king. At last. As novelist Truman Capote once said, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” Certainly, victory never tastes as sweet as for when it is hard fought.

So after chapters of complications and increasing hostility to Jesus and his message, it feels good to see Jesus finally get the acknowledgment that is due him……Even if it is a bit anticlimactic, since it’s so late that Jesus just gets to scope things out before heading back to his airbnb in Bethany.

Where’d They Go?

But this story is also infuriating for those of us who remember how this week goes. All these people—these crowds:

Where are they on Monday when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the Temple, inciting the religious establishment to conspire towards his murder?

Where are they on Tuesday, when Jesus is offering hard teachings about discipleship and God’s Kingdom, and making predictions of his death?

Where are they on Wednesday, when the web of conspiracy in which Judas becomes entangled is spun with disastrous efficiency?

Where are they on Thursday, when Jesus and his disciples are quietly absconded into an upper room for their Passover celebration, isolated from the threats of the city down below?

And where are they on Friday, as Jesus is arrested under cover of darkness, subjected to sham trials in a gross miscarriage of justice, tortured without any cause beyond amusement, nailed to a cross just outside the city wall, and left like garbage to die?

Where where these crowds then? Where did they go? What happened between Sunday and Friday that caused all those shouts of “Hosanna!” to become the bloodthirsty howls that demanded “Crucify him!”?

What changed?

Short Term Victories

These things we ask because we do not understand ourselves.

I don’t mean that “we ourselves do not understand.” I mean we do not know ourselves: our passions and motivations, our strivings and failures, our successes and our self-sabotage. We are not honest enough to understand ourselves.

If we were, we’d realize that nothing changed between Sunday and Friday, not really. These are simply an expression of the fickle whims of fickle people who seek to be entertained and distracted from their own lives.

That describes us as well.

What happened all those years ago is what too often happens—both then and now: we are so ready for any victory that we are content with any victory. With so many marks already in the minus column, we get ecstatic about a single positive that we stop keeping score. We win one battle and give up the war. We take such a short view of things that we are satisfied with short-term victories, even though they may cost us the very thing we were fighting for.

Church Examples

In churches this kind of thing takes many forms.

Building a church around a charismatic preacher might bring short term victories in terms of rising attendance or membership numbers, but that happens at the cost of building the kind of community that will endure beyond that pastor’s tenure.

Filling all board and committee positions is a victory for sure, but if those who said “yes” do not have the passion and gifts and commitment to fulfill their position, it will cost the community in terms of burnout, disillusionment, and witness.

Even responding to a local or global crisis through a prayer service, fundraising, or whatever can result in short-term victories that give a community energy. But what happens next? Do we pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next thing? Or do we continue to see the crisis through? How?

Puerto Rico

An example: In the wake of the hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico last year, there was a tremendous response from our American Baptist organizations and partners. Churches large and small took up special offerings and collected supplies. Working with those resources, the American Baptist Home Mission Society provided water filters, solar lights and chargers, tarps, propane tanks and burners, and so much more.

But for far too many tragedies, this is where the relief efforts stop; we content ourselves with the short-term victory.

But in this instance Jeffrey Haggray, the executive director of our Home Mission Society, has chosen to follow God’s example in taking the long view. The Home Mission Society launched a three-to-five year project aimed at “Rebuilding, Restoring, Renewing Puerto Rico.” It’s first goal was to raise a million dollars in conjunction with the America For Christ offering, and that goal was exceeded over a month before the deadline. Volunteers and mission teams continue to be regularly assembled and sent. Denominational representatives travel to Puerto Rico and the rest of the US both to understand the needs of our on-the-ground partners and to raise awareness and commitment to this ongoing initiative.

And I’m glad they’re doing it. I’m glad we’re doing it, because whether you realize it or not, in our American Baptist faith you are the denomination, not some leader in an office somewhere.

I’m glad we’re doing it because the reports from this week indicate that there are still 100,000 or more folks who have been without power for over 6 months now. Reports show that the suicide hotlines continue to take double the number of calls from before the hurricanes, as many as 600 or more a day (link). There are no quick and easy solutions to the problems in play, so to be content with short-term victories only would ignore the deeper realities in which so many are struggling.

I’m glad (for once) our denomination is an example of doing it right.

Our Town

But maybe we should set our sights on things closer to home. There is a brokenness in this city of ours that (for many people) is usually invisible. But every now and then, that trauma breaks through the surface and we all seem surprised and appalled at what is in our midst.

Two teens committed suicide last month. We did a lot of praying in our churches; we did a lot of casting blame and attacking each other and the schools on social media; and we brought a specialist to town for some presentations. But now things have gone quiet. Are we presently content to have “made a difference”? Is this somehow a “victory” just because we did something?

I certainly don’t think so. In the last weeks I’ve witnessed a family in our broader community getting bullied and shredded on social media—even getting threatening calls at home. They are afraid they may have to move. These are adults bullying adults. And this is where our young folk are learning it—in their homes, not in the schools; from our examples, not from each other.

This is one more expression of the same brokenness that led those teens to despair last month, the same brokenness that keeps us divided and isolated and damaged and afraid. The same brokenness that many of us have the privilege of ignoring a majority of the days of the year.

I’ve heard some voice that we have a sin problem, and yes, they’re right. But more than that—more to the point, that is—we have a people problem. We’ve forgotten how to be human, so we’ve ceased being humane.

When pressure builds and this brokenness bursts into our awareness, we tend to do just enough to pat ourselves on the backs—just enough to prove to ourselves and whoever we care about that we are better: better than we were, perhaps; but more often better than someone else. We engage with whatever’s right in front of us, and then we care quite little when it moves out of sight.

Because the goals we work towards are consistently short-sighted, we are quick to find ourselves contented with our results.

Yet this is not the way of God.

God’s Way

God is persistently working toward an end, and is not dissuaded by short-term victories or defeats. If you remember from a couple weeks ago (March 4), Jesus was confronted about causing a brouhaha at the Temple. He responded: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

Is he talking about the resurrection? Of course! But he’s also talking about how God’s purposes will not be derailed, not the least by something so impotent as death. We can try to kill God’s long-term plans—and we might even win a short-term battle or two—but nothing (ultimately) will stop God’s expansive love from overcoming the world.

In the same way in today’s text, I have no doubt that some of Jesus’ disciples ended this Sunday on a high note. Things, they thought, were finally looking up. Jesus is getting the positive attention he deserves, at last!

But in contrast, Jesus doesn’t seem phased by any of it. The disciples are stuck in the immediate, while Jesus has his eyes fixed on eternity. They are thinking about power and prestige and victory in the here and now, and Jesus is thinking about the victory of liberating all people everywhere for all of time.

God takes the long view. And once again we see that if we’re going to look like Jesus, something has to die in our lives. And that something is our contentment with short-term victories. God is persistently working toward an end, and is not dissuaded by short term victories or defeats. Even the apparent defeat of the cross is not enough to dissuade Jesus from the reconciling work that brings God’s future into the world.

Monopoly

A final illustration: the game Monopoly. I’m going to tell you all right here and right now how to win at Monopoly virtually every single time. (no, really…it’s connected)

Step one: follow the written rules. Know them and follow them. There are things you might not realize in there, like a piece of available property that gets landed on must either be bought or auctioned. That’s an easy way to grab property cheaply while your opponents battle it out for the high-dollar pieces.

Step two: Get three houses on your monopolies right away, but never upgrade to a hotel. There are only 32 houses available, and hoarding these keeps your opponents’ rents from going up. This is also why the less expensive properties are good buys: you can do a lot of improvements quickly.

Step three: Hang out in jail once all property is bought. You can still collect rent, but you don’t risk paying any.

You follow these three rules and you will win most every time—as long as you take the long view. This won’t work if you’re playing a quick one-hour game, because that type of playing relies too much on luck for most strategies to be very certain. But if you’re playing a whole game—if you can take the long view—these three rules just flat work.

Winning with God

The rules might be a little different, but there’s an analogy here. When it comes to life and advancing God’s Kingdom, short term results and victories rely on a lot of luck and positioning. To be content with them is to follow a fickle master.

But long term results can be almost guaranteed if we follow a few simple steps. And wouldn’t you know it, Jesus lays those out for us.

“He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40 NRSV)

Step one: Love God.

Step two: Love your neighbor as yourself.

That’s it. According to Jesus, if you fulfill these two things, you’ve fulfilled everything else. As surprising as it might be to realize, following Jesus into God’s future is simpler than winning at Monopoly.

But they both require taking the long view. And sooo very much rests on learning to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” Author NT Wright reminds us that

“The royal law – love your neighbour as yourself – is the vocation through which the followers of Jesus are called to reflect into the world the generous love poured out in creation itself, the generous love given up to death on the cross, the powerful love of the Spirit which goes out through the gospel to call rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female alike to live as transformed human beings, as vessels of mercy not simply in the sense of people who have received mercy but in the sense of people who, receiving it, gladly and generously pass it on.” (link)

Certainly, when this generous love of God is poured through us–when the mercy we have received from God finds expression as we share it freely in the world–the very foundations of the earth tremble as all things become new.

God takes the long view. May we as the Body of Christ give up our quick satisfaction with short-term victories, and truly labor for God’s cause—a cause that began before us and will extend well beyond us. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

We Find Life when God Controls Our Destiny

 

Scripture: John 12:20-33

Intro to Series & Week

As we move from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, we continue to move “From Ashes to Fire” in our worship and reflection.

For these last couple weeks of the Lenten season, we continue wrestle with the question of “What needs to die?” in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. After Easter, we will begin to ask “What needs kindled?” in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us.

This morning, we continue to read scripture and reflect on the question “What needs to die?” This week, the answer we hear back is surrounded by things we say all the time but never do—”turn it over to God,” “let Jesus take the wheel,” and the like. It’s a kind of bumper-sticker theology that sounds easy but isn’t. Within it all though is the realization that our attempts to control our own destiny, need to die.

Doing One Thing

One of the groups from our Christian history that I admire the most are the Desert Fathers and Mothers. These are folks who saw Christianity becoming more mainstream, aligning with politics and nationalism, and (in general) becoming more of a cultural phenomenon. So they did something about it.

What they did was worked as hard as they could at two things. First, they tried to break with their larger culture. This invariably involved making some rather counter-cultural choices about what their life was going to look like, including living on the literal margins of the world: the desert wilderness.

But the second thing that they worked incredibly hard at was actually doing what Jesus said to do. And they were not so naive as we might be today, jumping into the whole of Jesus’ teaching and expecting to be able to do it all. Quite they opposite, they often committed their whole life to learning to live into just one of Jesus’ teachings: such as “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 NRSV).

I mention these spiritual giants because remembering their peculiar way of living out their faith can help us see the magnitude of how Jesus opens up today’s scripture reading:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (v.24).

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v.25)

“Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (v.26 NRSV).

What would it mean to spend our entire life committed to living out just one of these teachings?

How would it change our priorities? our relationships? our spending?

What would be the impact on where we lived? or how we voted? on who we served?

How would it change this congregation? or the way we share the good news of Jesus?

 

There is a lifetime of learning and growing contained in each one of these seeds of wisdom and life. But woven through all three of them is one of the most fundamental truths of our existence: We find life when God controls our destiny.

Pivot 1

Today we arrive are at a pivotal place in John’s gospel. When we read it through, it is hard to keep track of when we are, given the way the gospel writer so frequently jumps both forward into God’s future and back to the Beginning. This place in John 12 is a significant text because this is where—quite literally—everything pivots from.

Think about children, playing on a teeter-totter. No child in their right mind uses the teeter-totter the way it is intended, unless a parent is nearby and attentive. No! They’re going to hold each other up high, or drop them fast, or jump off it…

Or they might do what I remember so often doing myself: trying to walk it (or run it) end to end without falling off. It’s easy enough when you start out, but the closer you get to the center, the less your own weight matters and the more squirrelly it gets. The very center is the most crucial and thrilling place—when what was up goes down and what was down goes up. Only by maintaining balance during these few disorienting seconds does one make a successful crossing.

Our scripture lesson in John 12 is a similar place. Way back in chapter 1 verse 4, the author told us we were going to get to this place, stating that: “in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4 NRSV). We find life when God controls our destiny.

There have been hints of this already, of course. But here in chapter 12, it all takes on a particularly real feeling. Just a chapter before, as Jesus’ disciple Lazarus is raised from the dead, the idea of finding life went from the metaphorical to the physical: finding life means finding life. That’s the chapter where the resistance Jesus experiences is transformed into a murderous plot: losing life means losing life. The shift from the theoretical and theological to the real and the physical is as disorienting as the shifting of that teeter-totter. We find life when God controls our destiny.

Pivot 2

There’s another shift here too. Notice it is “Greeks” who inquire of Jesus. The gospel doesn’t tell us their motivations—they could have been Gentiles who had come to believe in Jesus; but just as likely they could have been tourists shuttled around (as it were) by a Messiah tour group, having no doubt heard the reports of how this Nazarene Messiah brought about a resurrection.

These non-Jews coming to see Jesus mark a shift for two reasons. First, it fulfilled what the gospel writer saw as prophecy that all nations would come to the Messiah. Back to those opening verses of the gospel, we are reminded that

“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:11–13 NRSV)

Here in John 12, Jesus’ own people are conspiring to kill him. Yet these outsiders represent the ones who “receive him, who believe in his name,” and who “become children of God.”

Jesus himself seems to recognize and respond to this development. That’s the second shift here. After this experience, Jesus himself shifts the program. After saying who knows how many times that “my hour has not yet come” (cf. John 2:4), Jesus now proclaims “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23 NRSV). It’s time for the big reveal.

And what does that look like?

It looks haphazard.

It looks like falling.

Or being wasted.

Or buried.

Or dying.

Or being a slave.

It looks like loving God so much you appear to hate your own life.

 

Of course, it’s not any of these things—not really. But that is how it looked to the disciples then, and that is how it still looks to followers of Jesus today.

Our perspective is still so rooted in this world.

We continue place supreme value on what our own senses tell us.

We deny any reality or experience of anyone else that does not confirm to our own experience.

And because of these things, the Enemy continues to divide Christ’s Church and isolate believers; knowing that alone they will atrophy and may then be picked off like sick animals by a raging predator.

Big Picture

Here in John 12 (as so many other places) Jesus intends to broaden our horizons. He desires to give us a glimpse of things as they really are. He hopes to help us shed these distorted, funhouse-mirror-like lenses we look through at each other and the world.

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25 NRSV). We find life when God controls our destiny.

 

But in order for that to happen, we’ve got to learn to let go of the illusion that we control our own destiny.

We have free will, of course; we are free to make decisions and even to reject the love of God. But deciding whether to eat Cheerios or shredded wheat for breakfast, or even deciding to follow Jesus, does not produce life—not without some reciprocal action by God. Our movement in this dance is minute compared to that of our Maker. And so our impact in our lives and world—on our own—will be minuscule.

But if we turn our destiny over to the one who brought all things into being……well, Jesus himself says we could say to the mountains “move” and they would crash into the sea (Matthew 17:20).

We find life when God controls our destiny.

 

May God give us strength to cease our futile efforts at controlling our future.

And may God fill us with the courage to yield to the unimaginable, abundant-life-filled future of God’s desires.

Sisters and brothers: we were created with purpose; let us live into God’s destiny.

“Jesus Is Lord” Means Caesar Isn’t

 

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10

 

Once…

Once upon a time……

There’s a wealth of storied history and legend that follows those words, is there not?

Once upon a time, a man named Odysseus set out on a journey……

Once upon a time, Hansel & Gretel wandered into the woods……

Once upon a time, a mermaid named Ariel caught a glimpse of a human……

Once upon a time, a young Arthur discovers a sword in a stone in a churchyard……

 

Once upon a time, a small group of persecuted British Christians started a church that called itself “Baptist”……

Once upon a time, the American colonists grew weary of being treated as second-class citizens and said “Enough!”……

Once upon a time, a teenager named Claudette Colvin refused to get up from her seat on the bus, inspiring a woman named Rosa Parks to do the same, who in turn inspired a Baptist minister named Martin King……

 

Once upon a time, God created the heavens and the earth……

Once upon a time, a baby was born in Bethlehem……

Once upon a time, a cross was erected in Jerusalem……

Once upon a time……

Paul’s “Once up a Time……”

In today’s scripture lesson, Paul is telling a “once upon a time” story.

Once upon a time (he shows us), we were citizens of this world. Our allegiance was to this world—its ways, its laws; its behaviors, its promises; its hopes, its dreams. But in this once upon a time, our allegiance was also to the ruler of this world, though we did not even know we were forming this allegiance.

We didn’t realize it because this ruler taught us to live for ourselves, that nothing is wrong unless it hurts someone, that if it feels good it must be good, that external struggles are worse than internal struggles, and that my rights are more important than yours.

Even though this world and its ruler taught us that these things lead to a full and complete life, God has revealed it to be a lie. These things damage our health, our relationships, our communities, and our planet.

But they also damage the connection we have with God. They are modern manifestations of the same temptation that felled our first ancestors in the Garden of Eden. Then—as now—the temptation is to decide for yourself what is right and pleasing and good, instead of trusting the God who brought all things into being.

Paul says that “once upon a time” this was everyone’s story. Because once upon a time we didn’t know God. Once upon a time we did live for ourselves. Once upon a time we pledged allegiance to nation and flag and culture, and we believed that was the highest allegiance that was due to anyone beyond our own person. That is the way “in which you used to live,” as Paul says in the first verse.

But God…

But there’s a but. Or at least there’s supposed to be. “But God”……

Hereafter we discover an abbreviated telling of an incredible story—one fit for the ages, for sure! It has a hero and villains, comedy and tragedy, suspense and romance, and a plot twist more unexpected than that of The Sixth Sense. Paul says:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4–7 NRSV)

As one of our old hymns tells it:

One day when Heaven was filled with His praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin,
Dwelt among men, my example is He!

One day they led Him up Calvary’s mountain,
One day they nailed Him to die on the tree;
Suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is He!

One day they left Him alone in the garden,
One day He rested, from suffering free;
Angels came down o’er His tomb to keep vigil;
Hope of the hopeless, my Savior is He!

One day the grave could conceal Him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door;
Then He arose, over death He had conquered;
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore!

This amazing thing has happened—and not just in the past, but in our lives today. God has made us alive through Christ, saving us by God’s grace and on account of God’s great love for us.

After such a dramatic change of circumstances, Paul expects our priorities are going to shift. We will respond to God’s liberating love with the recognition that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” as we read in v.10 (NIV). And as a result, we will spend our new, redeemed, transformed, liberated lives allowing Christ to live through us, as Paul says in Galatians 2:20.

Instead of pledging allegiance to this world, its powers, and its empty promises, we now pledge allegiance to God’s Kingdom. When we confess that Jesus is Lord, we confess that Caesar is not. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom overrides our citizenship in any worldly nation. If we have “by grace been saved” as Paul insists twice—twice!!—in these verses, then that “once upon a time” is not going to describe the way our present life is lived.

But…

But……

But my “once upon a time” (the description of my life before my commitment to follow Jesus) too often describes the current events of my life.

Too often my transgressions and sin bring death to my life—the death of relationships, the death of possibilities, the death of hopes, and even very real physical death.

Too often I still follow the ways of this world.

Too often my cravings for donuts and coffee and Thai food and books and buying and learning and indulging and consuming and possessing take precedence in my life over everything that is really important.

Too often, my allegiance is fractured at best, all while Jesus himself reminds us that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Matthew 12:25 NRSV).

This isn’t a guilt-trip sermon. You all know I don’t approve of those. Instead, this is a sermon about our honest confession that where we are doesn’t line up with where we are called to be. There are things that have become entangled with our faith that have more to do with politics than the bible. There are confessions we make religiously that are nothing more than our regional cultural identity.

And (of course) there’s nothing inherently wrong with these other parts of our identity. In fact, to deny that they shape us is both dishonest and it hinders the Cause of Christ (or so I believe). But they are not to be where our primary allegiance lies. And they should not be allowed to contradict the priorities, values, and purposes of our primary identity as the Beloved of God, citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Paul’s Conversion & Commitment

Sometimes I get frustrated with Paul. He has this amazing “Road to Damascus” conversion experience, filled with shining light, voices from the sky, and being changed inside and out forever. But Paul doesn’t seem to always understand that not everyone has encountered God in that kind of way. Maybe Paul can turn 180 degrees in a couple days, but most of us can’t go half that far in a lifetime.

But then again, I don’t think Paul’s transformation was quite as instant or complete as we often imagine. He left for Damascus that day with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. When he began laboring for Christ instead of against Christians, he did it with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. Maybe there was a subtler shift than we—or he—realized.

But regardless, no one can doubt that Paul knew what it meant to confess that Jesus is Lord.

It landed him in prison.

It got him beaten.

It led him to advocate against slavery and for women’s rights in ways that were radical then, but (admittedly) seem backwards today.

He went toe-to-toe with Jesus’s disciples and expanded their conception of Jesus’s liberating work.

He went toe-to-toe with pagan leaders, judges, soldiers, and even (according to John Chrysostom) with Caesar Nero himself before Paul was killed—beheaded, according to tradition—because his allegiance rested unequivocally with Jesus and God’s Kingdom.

Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t.

It’s a hard truth for us to live into. It’s a harder truth for this world and its powers to accept.

May God help us put to death our allegiance to this world, so our allegiance to the Kingdom of God might be completely undivided.

God Cares about Justice

 

Scripture: John 2:13-22

 

 

Intro to Series & Week

As we move from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, we continue to move “From Ashes to Fire” in our worship and reflection.

During this Lenten season, we wrestle with the question of “What needs to die?” in our lives in order for us to live into our calling and God’s desires. After Easter, we will begin to ask “What needs kindled?” in our lives in order for the Spirit to move and work through us.

This morning, as we read scripture and reflect on the question “What needs to die?” another answer emerges: Our tolerance for injustice needs to die.

“Was That Kind?”

The biggest theological questions of my life have not come from pastors at church. They have not come from professors in college or seminary. They have not even come from my own experiences in the world. The biggest theological questions of my life have been posed by my children.

One of these questions came at me quite unexpectedly earlier this year. I was sitting at our dining room table one day with my daughter—I think it was after school or something—and she started talking about the story described in our scripture lesson today. I think it had been part of a lesson in Sunday School, or God’s Kids, or perhaps the WEBS program at the First Presbyterian Church. I don’t remember exactly how she brought it all together, but it went something like this:

You know in the bible? When Jesus finds all those people selling things in that place that’s like church? And Jesus gets mad? And he turns over the tables and everyone runs away? You remember that?

Yeah, I remember that.

And then she gets to the point…… the real question: “Was that kind?”

Kindness

Now it’s helpful for you to know that in our house kindness is rule #1. We have three family rules, and kindness tops the list.

If you’re not kind, I don’t care if you’re following the rules.

If you’re not kind, nobody’s going to have fun.

If you’re not kind, nothing else is going to work.

I don’t care about “nice.” I’m not trying to raise nice kids. Nice doesn’t mean anything. I want to raise kids who are ferociously kind.

But alongside this, we also look to Jesus as the supreme example of how we are to live.

All of our experiences and encounters in life get filtered through the life Jesus lived.

All of our choices and actions get weighted against those of Jesus.

Even all of scripture gets read and interpreted through the lens of Jesus.

So I suspect you can see the conundrum, too. In our scripture text, Jesus is not acting in a way that most of our parents would describe as “kind.” Even my 10-year-old daughter can recognize that, and we do to when we’re honest. But what does that mean?

Does that mean something different about Jesus?

Or does that mean something different about kindness?

Or does it mean something else entirely?

Sacrificial System & Capitalism

If we’re going to get to the bottom of my daughter’s question, I think we’ve got to look a bit closer at what is happening here, as well as what the scriptures teach as it relates to Jesus’ actions and motivations.

We start by looking at the Jewish religious system—set forward (as they believed) by God in the first few books of the bible. Now, the Jewish religious system was inherently economic in nature.

In order to be set in right relationship with God, it cost you—in a literal sense.

In order to participate fully in the life of the community of faith, you were charged part of your livestock, your harvest, or your money. You had to produce or purchase the elements of worship that would be used to achieve the forgiveness of sins and do the other things that marked you as part of the community.

And while capitalism as an economic system had not yet been described by Louis Blanc or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, we human beings (since our beginning) have had an uncanny ability to sniff out those situations we might manipulate for personal gain.

The state of the Jerusalem Temple in Jesus’s day is a clear example of this. As the world at that time had already begun it’s transition toward “urban” and away from “rural,” more and more people found themselves in need of purchasing their elements of worship; as city-dwellers, they simply did not have the land or resources to raise their own.

So folks (that many today would describe as “resourceful”) found a way to fill the gap. They acquired and sold (at a profit, of course) those elements that were needed. Demand and supply. And remembering that much of business is about “location, location, location,” what more successful business model can you imagine than right there at the Temple? Certainly there was an additional expense to be paid to the priests for the privilege of this prime real estate, but that would be passed on to the customer anyway—because consumers have always been willing to pay for convenience.

As demand goes up, so do prices. Supply and demand, right? Except we’re not talking about buying ink pens here—we’re talking about the cost of forgiveness of sins; we’re talking about how much you have to pay to be a participating part of a community of faith. Supply and demand—and all of capitalism for that matter—shouldn’t come into play at all. We Protestants took great offense to the selling of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church back in the 1500’s—a practice that amounted to a “get into heaven free card”—and a practice that the Roman Catholic Church has since denounced as well.

On top of this were a second group of economic and religious predators. Also in conspiracy with the Temple priests and the aforementioned merchants, these moneychangers converted the various currencies in use at the time into the only currency the Temple merchants would accept. Despite all the Old Testament condemnations of interest and those who profit by charging it, the moneychangers had become a fixture in the Temple that could not be avoided—especially if you were an out of towner with limited means who was trying to live a faithful life.

The dark side of all this was that people were profiting off of God—and that in doing so, they were waging an unintended economic war against the poor among the Jewish people. That’s strong language, I know. But how else do you describe preventing someone from connecting with God because they don’t have enough money to do it (quote) properly?

If we look anything like God, the very thought of it should get our blood boiling too.

God & Injustice

Now quite often, we Christians draw too firm a line between New Testament and Old, almost as though the Old doesn’t matter, or that it cannot inform life and faith. But what we now call the Old Testament is what the biblical authors simply called “scripture.” It provided the grounding for Jesus’s life and faith, as well as that of the early Church. I’d dare say that should make it good enough for our consideration today, reading it (as did the early Church) through the lens of Jesus life and teaching.

Justice vs. Love

I have often heard folks say that it’s almost like there are two different gods in the bible: the God of the NT is a God of love, revealed in Jesus; the God of the OT is a God of judgement, who often seems to be rampaging through the world and condoning wanton destruction and death.

But I think this dichotomy stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the words translated justice, judgement, and the like actually mean in the OT. In fact, I believe that justice and judgment are natural extensions of God’s heart of love.

Justice in the OT means to set things right—to rightly discern and correct the proper way of things. As expressed in the heart of God, justice looks out for the marginalized, the invisible, or the taken-advantage-of in society. In the OT world, these folks are usually represented as widows, orphans, and aliens.

And there are literally thousands of verses that speak to God’s concern for these marginalized folks, and that when God sides with them it is “justice.” But perhaps the most striking example is the destruction of Sodom. This apparently “unkind” thing was the result of God’s justice and judgment—of God “setting right” something that was not right about the world. But this justice and judgment stems not out of hate or vilence, but rather love and concern for those who were victimized by that society. Ezekiel 16:49 says:

“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49 NRSV)

This (according to the bible) is why Sodom was destroyed: because they did not practice God’s justice toward the poor and needy.

Justice and judgment are extensions of God’s love as God sets right injustice. Understood thusly, justice and judgment are two sides of the same coin: justice lifts up those victimized and judgment brings down those who are victimizing others.

Rightly understood then, perhaps kindness is only truly kind if it is aligned with God’s justice. Applied to today’s text, we’re forced to wrestle with whether it truly would have been kind for Jesus to permit a predatory and unjust system to continue unopposed.

If kindness is an extension of justice for God, and justice/judgment is an extension of God’s love, then what Jesus does here looks a lot more “kind” than it might at face value. It’s simply that Jesus is showing kindness to victims instead of showing kindness to those profiting off of religion and poverty.

Isaiah 58

This wouldn’t be the first time in human history that God has worked to correct our faulty conceptions of compassion, justice, and love. Here in the season of Lent, my mind continually echoes with the words of the Isaiah reading from Ash Wednesday:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6–7 NRSV)

As Isaiah tells us, loving God isn’t rooted in religious piety or believing the right things, but demonstrating justice for the downtrodden.

Good Samaritan

Jesus, of course, aims for a similar correction in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. “Who is my neighbor?” he is asked. And in a very “Mr. Rogers” kind of way, Jesus realizes that the reason for the question is because the one asking does not know what it means to be neighborly……to be kind, as we’re talking about it today. You remember the story?

Someone is down and out—taken advantage of, treated as less than human, abused, and completely uncared for—left for dead, as Jesus says. Discarded by the side of the road like an apple core or banana peel.

A pastor comes walking by—someone who is regarded as spiritually astute, who has responsibilities in the Church, and who many consider “closer” to God than any ordinary person ever achieves. This pastor sees the story’s victim—that’s important (I think) and not included by accident. The pastor recognizes that there is a person here who has been chewed up and spit out by life. This person may even be dead, and dead people take up a lot of a pastor’s time when they come our way. So whether for this or another reason, the pastor denies what he sees, and she passes by without a word or interference.

Some time later, a deacon comes walking by—someone who knows the bible inside and out, who has important and visible responsibilities in worship, a person who (like the pastor) is an important spiritual role model for the community. But also like the pastor, the deacon sees the man in his destroyed and vulnerable state—perhaps even dead—and he slips along as though the man were a discarded McDonalds bag, caught in the grass.

Finally, a third person comes by. This person doesn’t go to church. He has a different religion than you and than the victim of Jesus’s story. He’s the kind of person you’ve been warned about by your culture. So while it might make us uncomfortable, considering this man a Muslim is a pretty close parallel in our modern version. (This is, after all, a parable Jesus tells with the purpose of making people uncomfortable). The Muslim man is moved with compassion for the perhaps-dead body on the side of the road. Whereas the good, “Christian” folks were too busy, or too pious, or too judgmental, or too whatever to be bothered, the Muslim man goes out of his way and allows this encounter to cost him in time, money, and energy. Not content to pat himself on the back for a singular act of compassion, the Muslim man commits to the victim’s ongoing welfare and well being.

That is, of course, what happens when we genuinely feel compassion for someone else; our lives become entangled in ways that are not easily undone.

Who is my neighbor?
What does it mean to be neighborly?
What does it mean to be kind?

It means that compassion moves through us as we participate in God’s justice.

It means our religion or faith is an expression of the love of God.

It means that the love of God finds action in our lives through our participation in the pursuit of justice and the fight against injustice.

It means that sometimes we (like Jesus in the Temple) have got to stand up against the unjust systems of this world, even though people will point at us and use our stand to manipulate and discount the message we seek to live out.

Trust?

But if we trust God enough to follow Jesus, then we already know that they will not succeed.

God can and will manage our reputation, if we are actually risking it for the kingdom.

God can and will advance the Kingdom, even if the forces of darkness in this world seem to undermine and manipulate it.

God can and will bring about justice, because God’s heart is love.

What needs to die in order for us to live into who God has called us to be? Our tolerance for injustice needs to die, or else we will find ourselves working against—rather than with—our God and savior.

Amen. May it be so.