April 30, 2013
Yesterday I spent a good part of the day participating in an online discussion, trying to sort out what appeared to be a miscommunication through the halls of Facebook. A post appeared within a Facebook group, other members of the group reacted while others tried to ask helpful questions. The “conversation” escalated into paranoia at times, and without any more substantive information to feed it, speculation took over. I finally called the original poster (is that a word?) to clarify the genesis of the issue that had come to light, and by day’s end it appeared resolution was around the corner. But wow, it was a time-consuming and upsetting affair for some.
So this morning, I brought up the general topic of communication with the Peet’s conversation group, and noted how unusual it is for such a group to get together face-to-face on a regular basis, without an agenda, to listen and encourage one another. This is really what the gym rats are doing, and it is a beautiful thing.
So beautiful, in fact, that this morning a store patron stopped at our table and said, “I’ve seen you here two days in a row, and I just have to tell you, my mother met with a coffee shop group daily for decades.” Tears welled up in her eyes, and the group immediately pulled up a chair for her and invited her to sit with us. We drew out her story: her mother, who died just a few years ago in her mid-90’s, formed lasting and deep friendships in her small town. She sounded like quite a woman, active in her community, involved at school, encouraging of the next generation. She tapped into the social network of a town, but never did she gossip, L said. She was present and available, and her daughter misses her very much.
The two situations I have just described illustrate the complicated challenge we have as 21st century western citizens. Communication has taken new forms, increased to lightning speed, and depersonalized in some venues. Information can be passed quickly, but feelings can derail in the process of transmission. So much depends on the actual words, without the supporting evidence of gestures, inflection, or facial expressions. [And people can be particularly clumsy with their words.] The personal touch is remarkably important to getting a message across, and yet we live in an age in which “touch” has become a FB “poke,” and “personal” is masked by a User ID or fantasy-land avatar.
A recurring discussion question has arisen periodically in the Christian church: “What if Jesus’ ‘fullness of time’ had been the 21st century instead of the 1st century?” How would Jesus have communicated the arrival of the Kingdom of God and taught his lessons on discipleship if he had come this year instead of ~29 ad?
I think Jesus would have done this year exactly what he did then: he would have looked people in the eye, addressed their particular concerns, and demonstrated the good news in his actions on their behalf. I think there would be plenty of pictures posted on Facebook of healed persons, YouTube videos of the lame now walking, and perhaps wall-to-wall coverage of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. But Jesus himself would probably not be posting or tweeting, preferring to give people his full, personal attention, discern their needs, address their questions, and respond to the raised eyebrow or frowning visage. Even back then, Jesus was unconcerned with reaching “the whole world” himself. His disciples would be commissioned to do so later, instructed to “make disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching them.” Jesus’ method was to exert the maximum impact in tailor-made fashion, investing in the lives of a few, and yes, talking to crowds on occasion but always following up with personal encounters.
It is for this reason that I think the Church must rethink its methods of communication. Sure, a church website is a great, efficient way to give notice of upcoming events and distribute registration forms. But for too long, the Presbyterians and Lutherans I know from personal experience have relied on a detached method of sharing the gospel, believing that attracting people to church accomplishes that. I am not so sure anymore that this is the best approach. It may be time to mingle at the coffee shop, notice the tears welling, pull up a chair, and just listen with empathy. When we interact with people at this level, the opportunities to share Christ’s love and his gospel can’t help but surface. I experience this dynamic just about every time I join my gym ladies with my decaf sugar-free mocha, non-fat, no whip: a meaty question, a significant problem, an appeal for insight comes bubbling to the surface. These are the teachable moments in which an informative conversation can make the difference between chaos and meaning, sorrow and joy, confusion and clarity, or falsehood and truth. And it is very good to be there to see their faces, to be welcomed, and to love their idiosyncrasies even while hearing all about the life they are experiencing in this bewildering 21st century.
April 26, 2013
Yesterday, I pondered spiritual boldness and the need for Christians to pray for it in an increasingly pluralistic society. From a cultural point of view, uttering certain viewpoints is risky and costly, leading some Christ-followers to be circumspect if not silent about their faith. I found out yesterday that one of my former students, applying for a ministry internship, was challenged by the interviewer for having me as one of her references, “because [I am] against gay ordination.” The student, taken aback by that attitude in what was supposed to be an ecumenical environment, stood up for me. [For the record, they never called me, but they probably googled my name out of curiosity. Great way to “check references,” when it becomes an evaluation of the reference rather than the applicant!] Upon hearing about this uncomfortable interchange, I was sad that my views and actions would penalize her—obviously, a completely unintended consequence. But it would explain why some, with less mettle than my friend, would distance themselves from me if they felt their livelihood threatened.
There is growing concern that teaching a biblical view of sexuality may some time soon be considered “hate speech,” if it includes an injunction against homosexual practice. It doesn’t matter to those of an opposing view whether the speaker is of good character or gracious manner. If she holds the now politically-incorrect view that homosexually committed persons must repent before being ordained to the ministry, she is believed to be a bigot, or worse, a hater, and must be isolated out of fellowship among “rational” and open-minded people.
In any other generation, the constitutional guarantee of free speech and exercise of religion alone should protect a Bible teacher; but alas, now if someone feels hurt by what a teacher says, regardless of the intent or the content of speech, those feelings “prove” a wrongdoing. We are entering a period of serious threat to reasonable discourse, historic constitutional interpretation, and even academic freedom. Some of my Presbyterian colleagues have felt this much more acutely than I have, and I empathize. This is no figment of the imagination.
And even in the PC(USA) I am hearing of more clergy who feel they cannot teach from the Bible on certain subjects, for fear that viewpoint would divide their congregations. There is great timidity out there, based on the desire to keep church members “in the boat” and not lose them. What I hear, however, is that members are leaving congregations for at least two conflicting reasons: the belief that the pastor is too conservative or perhaps not liberal enough. The fact is, because the issue itself exists and cannot be navigated in an emotionally healthy way, church membership is dwindling. Pastors cannot win for losing, so to speak. The challenge to a biblical and confessional belief about marriage and sexuality is slowly (though more quickly now) eroding the heart and soul of the church. Is that really what homosexualists want—to destroy the church?
If it isn’t their church members calling pastors to task, it is higher-ups who pressure conformity to the new standard (which is no standard at all, as I have previously written). What was generally touted as the removal of a restrictive standard has now morphed into a new “standard” forbidding consideration of a pre-established biblical standard of sexuality when evaluating candidates. Whatever happened to “the Scriptures, our only rule of faith and practice”?
So where does boldness come in? What is a person of conviction to do in a world and a denomination growing more hostile to a biblical point of view on sexuality? Careful consideration must be given to consequences, if only to prepare for them. But negative consequences did not deter the apostles from boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ and the transforming gospel. Peter and John, as mentioned yesterday, were strongly exhorted to never teach in the name of Jesus again (Acts 4:18). Paul, previously a persecutor of the church, was challenged constantly for proclaiming Jesus Christ, working miracles, and casting out demons (cf. Acts 16:16-19). And of course, we are inspired by the Savior himself. He knew what his job was—the atonement of humanity’s sin and the ushering in the Kingdom of God—and nothing deterred his progress toward that end. It meant momentary alienation from his family (Matthew 12:46-50 & parallels), the betrayal of friends (John 18), and ultimately his own death.
What about us? As the writer of Hebrews observed, “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). What a convicting word! If our goal, navigating the waters of pastoral leadership, is not to suffer, we are missing the opportunity to develop under Christ’s discipline. If we are acting (or not acting) out of fear, we are to remember Paul’s exhortation:
“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7) The Christian faith is not a security blanket keeping us cozy in the safe confines of our homes and churches. The Christian faith, held with courage and conviction, puts us in danger or at least into trouble, where we can do the most good.
April 25, 2013
Had an interesting experience last night. I, along with three others, was asked to give feedback to a seminary intern on a sermon he is going to deliver at our church in a couple of weeks. The text was Acts 4:23-31:
23After they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them [which was ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’]. 24When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, 25it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant:
‘Why did the Gentiles rage
and the peoples imagine vain things?
26 The kings of the earth took their stand,
and the rulers have gathered together
against the Lord and against his Messiah.’
27For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, 30while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.
The 12-minute sermon was a noble exposition, from a Lutheran point of view, and typical of seminarians stuck in their books without a lot of real-world ministry experience. In the discussion that followed, it became clear that the student was having a hard time connecting with the passage. What struck me was his admission that he has never felt uncomfortable or intimidated about sharing his faith. He also admitted that he had always been in a “faith bubble” at home and in seminary, such that the concept of persecution was incomprehensible to him. He had basically spent his life among people who shared his religious assumptions. I get that. He has never really had an occasion to need or to ask for boldness in his Christian witness.
I’ve been thinking about this interchange, and wonder how many Presbyterians would identify with the cocooned existence of this seminary student. While the world rages and wrings its hands in the face of natural disaster, acts of terrorism, and politically motivated genocide, church people find safety and comfort in their faith communities. They mourn from a distance, but have—perhaps subliminally—avoided close-to-home encounters with those who might resist the gospel of Jesus Christ. That resistance may be the result of religious allergy or indifference or maybe even active rejection of Christianity. Nevertheless, where I live, 93% of the population do not attach themselves to a spiritually hospitable environment, and church people rarely seek them out for wholesome and perhaps informative interaction.
If one were to change that and intentionally rub elbows with the spiritually resistant, it wouldn’t take long to recognize one’s need for the Holy Spirit’s power to witness boldly. It takes a lot of guts to bring up the subject, or nowadays even to pray in Jesus’ name in a public setting. A couple years ago, I had Thanksgiving dinner with a couple—one of whom was a Methodist seminarian—who actually said, “Oh, we don’t say grace at meals” [not even on Thanksgiving!] and then began to parody Christian pietism with jokes about praying in Jesus’ name. It was a most disgusting display, but instructive of the world in which we live and the necessity of breaking down barriers. Just being there required boldness. Just picking up the pieces of a derailed conversation required an inner confidence relying on the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
The surprising thing that came up in the feedback discussion was the reticence of my companions to even want to pray for boldness. Another pastor suggested that boldness was a red-flag word for many in our church family. I can only imagine why: who wants “to boldly go where no one has gone before” (as in Star Trek)? Scary! Risky! Dangerous! Unexplored territory! But God’s will!
God calls the Christian living in a hostile world to be bold about the faith that saves and sustains us! When we embrace that call and appropriate the power of the Holy Spirit given to us, then we will begin to see some things happen, for the glory of God, the demonstration of the Kingdom, and the proclamation of the gospel. I can only hope that as my seminarian friend does his full-time internship next year, he finds himself plunged into situations where he needs and wants to pray for boldness. In the meantime, I am asking God for the courage to bring up Jesus with my gym/Peet’s friends when appropriate and helpful, as this is the setting where God has installed me to represent him.
April 24, 2013
A couple times a week I join a few fellow “gym rats” for coffee at the local Peet’s. This group of women frequents the fitness center and then gathers for a coffee klatch before heading home. They come from diverse backgrounds culturally and geographically and represent the gamut of religious views, from lapsed Christian to Sihk to Jewish to complete blank slate. Every once in awhile, one of them will turn to me for advice, knowing I am a pastor. Lately, however, there has been a communal handwringing over recent events. When the bombs went off in Boston, the questions came again:
“Why do people do what they do?” The related questions tumble out: Why can’t people show more love for one another? What moves people to do such horrible things? Why do people not value human life more than this?
I bite my tongue a lot, until I get the divine go-ahead to offer an answer. It’s all part of the missional teaching (or informative conversation) ministry I am practicing and writing about. When “total depravity” is the answer that first pops into my mind, it takes a bit of skill and courage to ease into those churning waters with something meaningful and helpful.
People in the Reformed Tradition attribute the concept of total depravity to John Calvin’s followers in the 16th century. The idea is that human beings are thoroughly tainted by sin; that is, there is no part of human life that has not in some way been marred by the sin of Adam and Eve (cf. Genesis 6:5). I think it was Augustine who spoke of this inherited trait in terms we would now refer to as gene mutation. So every human being has a gene called “sin” which, if dominant, urges that person on to all manner of evils. We should not be surprised that people are capable of terrorist acts. Along with C. S. Lewis, we should probably be asking why there isn’t more unmasked evil in the world than there is.
Let’s see how far we can go with the genetic analogy. What if we were to see salvation in Jesus Christ as the first step in divine gene therapy? Acknowledging there is still “the flesh” to contend with in this life (Romans 7), wouldn’t our new situation in Christ be like a dominant sin gene engineered into a recessive gene (still there, but not overtly expressed in everyday life)? And our final sanctification/ glorification—once this body has died—is represented by a gene transplant? [I know my readers will hack away at the analogy, but stay with me for a minute.]
For those in whom Sin is still the dominant gene, anything is possible, according to Calvin. Living according to the flesh brings death; living in the Spirit brings life. Society can make laws, remain vigilant to restrain evil, and educate people; but none of these laudable activities addresses the root problem, which is the condition of the human soul without Jesus Christ. Any solution to the problems our society faces are going to have to include a genuine grappling with God’s salvation offered in Jesus Christ. This prophetic and pastoral role is the unique and essential activity of the Church. If we seek to know Christ and to make him known and to submit as the Body of Christ to the will and way of the Head, we will have a transforming effect in the world.
However, in a post-Christian western world, I have seen signs that the Presbyterian Church has loosened its grip on the transforming gospel. Many Presbyterians see salvation not as a life-and-death matter, but only one of preference. If we really believed that Jesus Christ has the power to change what people do (and why) and if we personally experienced that transforming power in daily life, I think the situation would be different. But our witness to the world is weak and ineffective, precisely because we have traded in God’s Word and Way for an ear-tickling false gospel that says “Do what you want; God will bless it.” We should not be surprised at all, in that environment, if radical _____ists do anything extreme, for it is the same spiritual condition working itself out into behavior contrary to God’s will and ultimately destructive of human life.
April 11, 2013
Friends of “Bringing the Word to Life,” I submitted the following letter to Presbyweb in response to a letter to the editor by Mike Garrett. I believe the fray is going to start up again, and commend to you as a catalyst a very thoughtful and well-written “prophetic word” by Jim Goodloe, found here.
In response to Mike Garrett’s letter which observed the “deafening silence of disengagement,” I want to agree and to explain further.
As one who has contributed to the debates in the last several years and lately by blog, I can acknowledge the truth of his observation in my own experience. There are a few factors contributing to, for instance, my rather sporadic blog coverage of PCUSA matters lately:
1. The Presbyterian decision-making process is rigged, and thoughtful discourse has nowhere to go to make a difference. I have read the most reasoned and helpfully clarifying pieces by colleagues, directed both to GAPJC and the General Assembly, but they get nowhere because decision-makers choose to remain so open-minded that their brains fall out. What we have going now is not debate based on Scripture and reason but on emotion, experience, and a worldly view of unlimited personal rights. Interjecting a voice of common sense and Scriptural sanity, for the moment, is an exercise in repetitive head-banging with no appreciable result.
2. I struggle with soul-care in the midst of the fray. Topics and discussions that have the ongoing effect of raised blood-pressure, sleep deprivation, and a constantly critical attitude are not good for my spirit. I am still learning how to stay in the discussion with eyes on Jesus without sinking into Galilee’s waters.
3. Who is the audience? Those a theological conservative like myself might encourage to action are opting for alternative ways of being Presbyterian, either by sheltering in place or dismissing to other denominations. Those to whom truth must be spoken are not listening, or if they are, they are patronizing and even, at times, abusive in response. The role of the prophet within and to the PCUSA is not acknowledged or respected because the church has lost sight of what constitutes the Word of God. So what else is new?
4. So the question of engagement, for me, boils down to call and empowerment by God. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It is a costly business to put oneself out there with a counter-cultural view, and there have been times and seasons when I have given this service willingly and even joyfully. But now more than ever there is little personal support holding up the arms of a prophet. To answer this challenge, I have tried to balance draining “engagement” work with projects that are spiritually uplifting. In the last few months, I have collaborated on a curriculum for study of the Essential Tenets, reviewed the five-part The Bible series, and now am preparing to speak at a congregation’s all-church retreat. Three books await the daily discipline of personal engagement. This all takes time, which I have in only finite quantity, and the choice about how to spend it is sometimes torture. If, in those daily dilemmas, comments 1, 2, and 3 above seem particularly strong, then “Presbyterian stuff” goes to the bottom of my things-to-do list.
But don’t worry; I’ll be back soon enough. And others will be right there alongside me to try again to help our denomination listen to Scripture and reason. Until then, I remain
Christ’s servant and your friend,
(The Rev. Dr.) Mary Holder Naegeli
Walnut Creek, California
April 2, 2013
My purpose for reviewing History Channel’s five-part The Bible has centered on the ongoing need for Christians, and my Presbyterian tribe especially, to tell the full and accurate story of God’s dealing with human beings through history. The question in my mind has been whether this television series has helped or hurt our efforts, whether there is anything of use in a Christian education setting, and whether it has been a faith-builder or a doubt-caster. To the last question, I would have to say that the episodes have steadily pointed toward a God with power, purpose, and goodness. Miracles have not been dismissed with alternative natural explanations. God has been shown to intervene benevolently. And I am happy to say, in Episode Five the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is not nuanced in anyway: the tomb is empty upon Mary’s inspection and Jesus appears to the disciples as the Scriptures say. That fact alone, not to mention the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, propels the disciples into evangelistic ministry, as well it should!
Makes me wonder if anybody watching this came to their own inevitable conclusion: if Jesus rose from the dead, he must be Lord and Savior, worthy to be worshiped, obeyed, and proclaimed! But I get ahead of myself . . .
The second hour of part five begins with Jesus’ mother tending her son’s body in the place of burial while Nicodemus sings a blessing in Hebrew. When Mary is finished, the large rock is pulled with a thud in front of the tomb’s entry. Meanwhile, the disciples are desolate, and Peter is downcast in his own disappointment at having denied Jesus three times. Mary departs for Galilee (an interesting contradiction to Acts 1:14 which explicitly states that Mary waits for the Holy Spirit’s coming along with the rest of the disciples), and the disciples sit tight for—what? Life looks pretty bleak and depressing on that Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Mary Magdalene makes her way to the tomb early on Sunday morning and, generally faithful to the John account, discovers the great stone rolled away and split in two on the ground! As she inspects the tomb, a voice outside calls out, “Whom are you looking for?” and Mary joyfully encounters the Risen Lord.
As first witness, she rushes back to the Upper Room with the announcement, “The tomb is open! He is alive!” Peter checks things out for himself, finds the white linens, and John with him declares, “He is gone.” Peter, with a smile, counters, “No, he’s back!” Lovely.
The resurrection reality is reinforced with appearance to Thomas the twin breaking bread with the disciples. After forty days of appearances, teaching sessions, and the great commission, Jesus disappears from sight (a faithful rendering of Acts 1:9) with the promise to send his Spirit. The disciples are not sure how they are going to know Jesus’ promised Spirit has come to them. They need not have worried, nor should we. When the Holy Spirit comes upon people, they know it! The Pentecost scene was appropriately joyful; subtitles were used to interpret what the exuberant new preachers were saying in the Spirit—all proclamations of God’s blessing and salvation in Jesus Christ.
Once again, all this ruckus in Jerusalem raises the concern of the Jewish elites. I mean, what are you to do with these people who are healing cripples right there on the street! And five thousand converts to this new way? Caiaphas is seen shouting threats to the disciples, and forbidding them to speak any longer of this healed beggar or the dead heretic. Peter simply says, “We have to keep speaking, and we are not afraid of death.”
This declaration sets the stage for Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7), the Pharisee Saul’s zeal to wipe out the fledgling movement, and Saul’s dispatch to Damascus to persecute the Christians heard to be there. Saul’s encounter with the Living Christ on the road cuts him short, blinded, and sobered. The next scene captures the fear and skepticism of Ananias, who is visited by Jesus and instructed to go find this guy Saul and tell him he is going to proclaim Christ’s gospel to the world. I loved that meeting: Ananias has his guard up and a few words of recrimination toward Saul for making life unbearable for Christians. But then Saul says he was wrong and begs forgiveness, and Ananias’ face transforms in joy and belief, offering Baptism and healing of his blindness.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, persecution against the new Christians is heating up, and the fellowship must decide whether to go or stay. Again, it is the sort of extreme harassment that forces God’s people to move out into new areas, carrying the gospel with them. But please, in the gospels, Peter does not say, “Good luck!” to John as he departs (an anachronistic lapse if ever there was one).
The rest of the story from Acts is sampled by focusing on the three epistle-writers: 1) Peter, especially his encounter with Cornelius; 2) Paul and his mission around the Mediterranean without mention of the Gentile controversy; and 3) John, all the way to his exile on Patmos, where he received “the revelation” from Jesus personally, and the promise of “no more death, mourning, crying, or pain.” This is the nod to the last book of the Bible, and the rest of the story has been told.
There is so much to digest for the casual viewer. But one strong impression must be that it is costly to hold on to belief in Jesus, and people were willing to die rather than recant their faith. Christendom, on the wane in the United States at least, no longer protects Christian believers from social discomfort and demands for political correctness. I daresay the time is coming when we, too, will experience tribulation as we hold to a biblical faith, a way of life with Jesus as Lord and, yes, King. Some day the gospel will be considered so offensive to enlightened American life as to be completely marginalized.
One question The Bible repeatedly raises: How tightly do we want to hold our faith? Are we serious about the One in whom we believe, or are we doing this church thing for purposes of personal blessing, comfort, and power? The Bible forces us to consider the possibility that saying Yes to Christ is accepting a difficult, narrow road of obedience and faithfulness even as this devotion rattles the powers that be. Presbyterians have been tested within the processes and politics of life together. It is not always easy, in a presbytery meeting, to stand and proclaim Jesus as the One Lord and only Savior, the Bible as the authoritative and sufficient Word of God, and the call to holy living according to that Word. But we are reminded once again by this five-part television series that it is a long road with only a prayer and a promise to comfort us, that God remains sovereign and purposeful, and that he is trustworthy and present to help us persevere to the end. Maranatha!
April 1, 2013
The fifth and last installment of The Bible aired last night, and in my experience it was a fitting end to Lent and Easter Sunday. The series strengthened as it progressed through the New Testament. Yes, there is plenty of condensation but not as much artistic license as we’re used to. The explanatory voiceovers are kept to a minimum, and the story is allowed to speak for itself. And a powerful story it is.
Episode Five opens with the countdown to Passover. The High Priest Caiaphas wants to see Jesus, convicted by the synagogue court as a fraud and a heretic, out of the picture entirely and immediately. But he continues the political dance: how can an execution be orchestrated right before Passover? What would the crowds do if given the chance: support Jesus or turn against him in a riot? He soon hatches a plan to convince Pilate that it is in the common interest of both Roman and Jew to kill Jesus.
The interaction between the High Priest and Pilate follows the gospel account of John 18–19 closely. The issue clearly is Jesus’ claim to be “king” (by Jesus’ definition, not the political one). Spiritual blindness prevents the Priest from recognizing truth when confronted with it. What is stuck in his head is that a mere human cannot make the claims Jesus has, and therefore, by definition, Jesus is a heretic. [We understand from a complete gospel vantage point that the only One who can make such a claim is Jesus, because he is the Son of God, Messiah, and savior of the world.] What John’s account and this television depiction emphasize is Jesus’ innocence. He is not lying. He is not speaking heresy. He is not violent. He is, however, a threat to the political wellbeing of the Jewish elite simply by saying “my kingdom is of another world.” Caiaphas is wily enough to play that hand as a threat to Roman authority, and it is on this basis he finally secures Pilate’s involvement in the case.
Pilate, against the counsel of his wife, examines Jesus and his motives, and ultimately tells the Priest, “He is guilty of nothing more than being deluded.” Nevertheless, as a political expedient, he offers the Jews their Passover prerogative, to release one prisoner from jail. Pilate presents the choice, Barabbas—a notorious thief and murderer— and Jesus—who makes a claim to be a king. The viewer can feel Pilate’s fingers cross in hope that Jesus would be chosen for release; but no, the crowd with a little help from Caiaphas calls for Barabbas to receive the favor and incites the call for Jesus’ crucifixion.
From this point on, the story is bloody, outrageous, tender, and moving all at once. The Way of the Cross is depicted with a few Catholic flourishes to bring it alive (here is the justifiable artistic license). Jesus’ struggle to carry the cross, Mary’s attempt to give aid, his three falls, the ministrations of another women tradition names Veronica. Through all the street scenes along the Via Dolorosa, the figure of Satan lurks, impassive and heartless.
A prolonged scene of great tenderness takes some of the horror away—a much-needed relief—and that is Simon of Cyrene helping Jesus carry his cross. Simon takes the task seriously and one gets the feeling that his faith grows through the ordeal. He is not taking on the physical task alone; his help appears to be a compassionate ministry to come alongside an innocent man unjustly abused.
While Caiaphas dresses for the Passover ritual, the march to Golgotha continues. Jesus’ mother Mary is now beyond crying. At the top of the hill, her son is stripped and abused. And then, at a moment when he could have been completely passive or resistant, Jesus instead crawls to the cross and puts himself upon it, lying there on the ground. This one simple act illustrates the resolve and obedience with which Jesus embraces his mission, and a high point for me personally. Though the sacrificial victim, Jesus retains his sense of calling and continues to obey his heavenly Father and do what he came to do. At this point we cannot help but say, “Jesus was no victim. He chose this.”
The sign announcing “Jesus, King of the Jews” in Hebrews, Latin, and Greek is nailed to the top of the cross. And then Jesus himself is affixed to its members, and the cross is raised in order for gravity to do its work.
As clouds gather, Passover progresses, and the scene sobers, Jesus utters his seven last words. He suffers but watches the gathering storm. Upon the words, “It is finished,” the earth begins to tremble. Caiaphas is approaching the Holy of Holies, only to have the ground shake violently and the curtain come crashing down. Jesus, looking on in wonder and exhaustion, says, “Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” and a full-blown earthquake lurches everything into pandemonium.
The clouds pass, things quiet down. Jesus is dead. The Roman soldier spears Jesus’ side matter-of-factly. Nicodemus hastily approaches with a letter from Pontius Pilate authorizing the Jews to claim the body. Mary is given a moment to hold her son, and then a hasty burial is expedited, since it is the Sabbath.
Just one comment here, and tomorrow I will pick up with “the rest of the story.” Through the millennia, the question of who was responsible for Jesus’ death has been a hot one. Was it the Jews or the Romans who doomed the Savior? The editors of this movie version depict the Jewish pressure to have Jesus removed as a threat to political and religious stability. The Roman involvement as shown was more accommodating to Jewish interests than we have typically seen. The more politically correct choice lately has been to either blame the Romans or distribute the guilt across the board. Though some Christians through church history have blamed the Jews for Christ’s death, and resorted to violent anti-Semitism as a result, I believe the correct theological outcome of this debate is this: human agency to kill Jesus came first from the Jews, but with godless Roman complicity. To cast blame on one or the other of them is to miss the point of the story: Jesus Christ chose to obey his heavenly Father for the sake of all humanity, and after an unjust conviction (for he was innocent), to die as atonement for the sin of all people. It was the sin of all of us that put Jesus on the cross, and it was his power in weakness, obedience in abuse, and surrender to death that fulfilled God’s promise of forgiveness and reconciliation for us.
March 29, 2013
Today I gave blood. I do this each year as an intentional expression of my Christian faith and gratitude for what Jesus did for me. I sat in a comfy chair in a clean, safe environment. The procedure did not hurt. The company was congenial. And when I had deposited my pint, I was bandaged, fed, and sent home to take it easy for a few hours.
I give blood on Good Friday as a spiritual discipline and an opportunity for contemplation. I was quite conscious of the fact that the conditions under which Jesus gave his blood for all of humanity were completely unlike mine.
Jesus’ own spiritual discipline and contemplation prior to the Passion had reinforced his security in the care of his heavenly Father. Though he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to Judas’ betrayal, he chose to give blood for the salvation of all humankind as the fulfillment of the Father’s promised care for us. In the process, he was abused physically and psychologically. He was not fed during his ordeal; betrayed by a friend and falsely accused by his countrymen, he was whipped and spat upon, crowned with thorns and mocked by Roman soldiers. No one offered solace, according to biblical accounts, though the fourteen Stations of the Cross imagine the ministrations of comforting women along the way. When Jesus faltered on the Via Dolorosa, Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to relieve him of the cross for a short respite. By the time the actual crucifixion took place, Jesus was a physical wreck.
But only then was his blood fully spilled. And he did this for us, offering himself willingly as the atoning sacrifice for our sin. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
The nurses today at the blood donation center were quite eager for me to donate, for the need is great. Their attitude reminded me of the urgency the Church should maintain in sharing the story of Christ with the unchurched and the unreached. Presbyterians rarely articulate the urgency of evangelism, and certainly not in terms of Christ’s shed blood, more along the line of “new congregations.” Our responsibility is so much more than programmatic. When will we feel the urgency to pour ourselves out for the lost and independent people around us, so that they, too, can live in the security of the Father’s love and care? At what level must we encounter people in order to appreciate the darkness they walk in or the confusion that disorients them? How willing are we to enter their world with the urgent grace of Christ’s gospel?
These are the things I thought about as I gave blood today.
March 26, 2013
Good television and good storytelling involves, among other things, setting up a conflict and working it out to its conclusion. How we tell the gospel story—or more importantly, how the Bible tells the story—builds suspense by illustrating the problem of human rebellion against God, exposing the conflict generated by that problem, and finding resolution. So often in evangelical presentations of the gospel, we cut right to the chase with an invitation (demand?) to seek forgiveness of one’s sin by believing in Jesus Christ. But without a backstory, that invitation can come across as meaningless to the postmodern or very possibly be misunderstood.
This is why New Tribes Mission, connecting with unreached people groups in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Pacific islands, does not present Jesus Christ as its first Bible story. Missionaries spend weeks if not months directing a dramatic presentation of the Old Testament, much as History Channel’s The Bible has done this month, from the very beginning. In a long, fruitful conversation with NTM’s Director of Field Ministries, Don Pederson, this morning, I asked him what the greatest benefits of a narrative/chronological presentation of Scripture are to the biblically illiterate. After decades of practice and research, he offered three primary advantages NTM has observed:
A narrative approach enables a change in worldview based on the character of God. “In the beginning, God created . . .” establishes God’s holiness, righteousness, faithfulness, truth, power, and authority overall creation. Belief in Christ starts here with a shift from, say, animism or pantheism to monotheism.
Narrative establishes an Old Testament framework for understanding otherwise cryptic references in the New Testament, like “the Messiah,” or “atonement,” or even “In the beginning . . .”
After learning the full message starting with Creation, those who confess faith in Jesus Christ give testimonies that demonstrate a better understanding of the gospel, adoption of salvation by faith (not works righteousness), a full grasp of costly grace, and Christian discipleship relying on the power of God.