From Praise to Pillory

We can be so inconsistent. Just consider the inconsistency of the crowds in Jerusalem. In less than a week they swing from “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”[1]; to “Crucify him!”[2]

This morning, in this one service of two liturgies, we experience this inconsistency within the span of 15 minutes. We go from triumphal Liturgy of the Palms to the heart-rending Passion. We get this abbreviated version of Holy Week today because of a cultural reality. In many churches, lots of people will not attend Holy Week services before Easter. This is a shame, because the pattern of this Holy Week, especially the Triduum, the three sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, help shape our understanding of the Passion, our understanding of Easter, and our understanding of ourselves.

Traditionally, it is on Good Friday that we hear the Passion Gospel. While the Passion Gospel is heart-breaking, it is absolutely essential to our understanding of Easter. We need to immerse ourselves in the Passion Gospel before we meet our resurrected Savior so that we can adequately appreciate our need for redemption. Thus, because so many miss the Good Friday Liturgy, today we get to hear of both Palms and Passion.

In the Gospel lesson from the Liturgy of the Palms, Jesus, the disciples, and a large crowd of other pilgrims are descending on Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. Imagine yourself surrounded by this crowd, immersed in their enthusiastic energy as we are caught up in the cheerful anticipation of our messiah’s coming.

Now imagine the landscape of all this. Jesus and his disciples are coming to Jerusalem from the east, from Bethany by the dry and dusty Jericho road. As they wind down the Mount of Olives, which overlooks the city of Jerusalem across the Kidron Valley, we and the crowds join them before climbing the up the temple mount to enter the Eastern or Shushan Gate of Jerusalem.

This uneven topography makes it is easy for the Roman garrison at the Antonia Tower next to the Temple to observe the road that winds down the side of the Mount of Olives; in fact one has an unobstructed view. Thus the Roman occupiers have a clear view of us raucous pilgrims, with Jesus and his followers Hosanna-ing our way into town. Of course everyone else near the Temple has a good view of this procession as well; and they are marveling at the scene and our enthusiasm.

However, just below the surface of this enthusiasm, there is a tenseness and anxiety. Because of the potential for unrest among such large crowds during the Passover festival, Pilate has come to Jerusalem with reinforcements from his palace on the coast to make sure the lid doesn’t blow off.

But today will end quietly without incident after Jesus surveys the temple. Tired and hungry he and his friends retrace their steps back up the Mount of Olives to Bethany and the home of Simon the Leper to rest in preparation for the eventful week to come.

Having witnessed a quiet end to the first day, now we find ourselves confronted with the story of Jesus’ Passion. Again, imagine ourselves among the crowd as we watch the heart-breaking reality of Jesus’ “hour,” which is in fact the sacred three days. We were expecting a victorious messiah; instead we are crushed by grief and loss. In our grief, it is convenient to blame Judas; after all we’ve just heard it is he who betrays Jesus. And perhaps we blame Peter too because his resolve fails him in the face of danger. But I think such scapegoating is a convenient way to avoid recognizing ourselves in the crowd.

Yes, Judas makes Jesus’ arrest possible, but as we’ve just heard, it is the “crowd” that turns on Jesus; and Judas, whose motivation appears to be greed, does after all repent before killing himself. In comparison, the crowd is never presented as repentant – as acknowledging its complicity in its manipulation by the temple authorities into making Jesus a scapegoat for the sake of preserving things as they are.

At the end it is only the Roman centurion – not the crowd – that upon witnessing Jesus’ death acknowledges, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”[3] In the end, it is those at the periphery of the crowd – the women, the Roman centurion, and Joseph of Arimathea who have the strength to stand in that awful place and know who Jesus is. Even the disciples, who flee, will not know until his Resurrection.

But the point is not how Jesus is set up by religious authorities, or who is to blame for his murder on a cross. No, the point of this swing from praise to pillory is for us to be transported to a place of self-recognition – the recognition of our inner Judas, the recognition of our inner Peter; to be borne to our place of deepest sorrow, for us to be shocked and saddened to the point of reflection upon our own inconsistency – our simultaneous betrayal of our Savior, and our need for him.

It is in our deepest sorrows – those dark places and low points in our lives – where our most profound and penitential encounters with God occur. It is also in the deepest sorrows of others that we have the opportunity to be Christ-like amid their pain.

Our self-recognition and our encounters with Christ in these dark places begin to unbind us from our inconsistency. Therefore, embrace these dark places and be liberated so that we can consistently keep this life-giving vigil with Jesus during this Holy Week of Passiontide.

[1] Mark 11:9

[2] Mark 15:13

[3] Mark 15:39

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Fruit for the World

Today, there are some Greeks who want to meet Jesus. We know nothing about them except that they want to see Jesus. Still John makes a point of them, so there must be something to these Greeks. But before we go down this rabbit hole, let’s take a closer look at the setting of this story, which will require us to consider the events leading up to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and that day itself.

Days before this, Jesus raised his friend Lazarus, not only from the dead, but from the grave. This was no resuscitation of an unconscious person; this was the revival of a cold, dead corpse. This startling act creates a crisis for the religious authorities who fear Jesus is mesmerizing people and causing them to follow him as pilgrims gather in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. As a result Jesus and Lazarus are wanted men; the chief priests want Lazarus dead – again, and they are looking for any opportunity to discredit Jesus.

Then, just hours before our present story, crowds pour into the streets to watch and cheer Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This spectacle leads the Pharisees to say to each other, “You see, you can do nothing. Look the world has gone after him!”[1] With these words still ringing in our ears, these mysterious Greeks come to Philip and ask to see Jesus.

You may ask, what’s the big deal? Well the big deal is the word “Greeks.” It can refer to gentile God-fearers; those non-Jewish people who worship or follow the God of Israel. As “gentile” refers to anyone who is not Jewish, gentile implies the rest of the world. Thus the statement, “the world has gone after him,” reflects the sense of peril and loss of control that the religious authorities feel right now.

But for Jesus, the Greeks or the world coming to him marks a prophetic fulfillment. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and Zechariah all prophesy that the nations – that is the gentiles – will follow the Lord and will be the Lord’s people. And in particular the prophets testify that the people of the nations will go to Jerusalem and join themselves to the Lord.

Thus, what the authorities are witnessing is alarming because they know the prophets and they know what they are witnessing looks more like the fulfillment of prophecy than it does the fulfillment their plan. But for Jesus this sign is a cue – a marker that indicates his time has come to be glorified.

The problem is that all those who have flooded the streets with their cloaks, palms and hosannas have – like the authorities – a different expectation for the fulfillment of prophecy, and both are at odds with Jesus’ expectation. So Jesus begins to describe what is about to happen as his glorification, it sounds strange to everyone’s ears because Jesus describes it with metaphor and imagery.

When you and I think of glorification we are more likely to think of the triumphal parade we have just witnessed rather than what we now know is coming – the Passion: Jesus’ redemptive suffering, crucifixion, and death. For this reason Jesus describes another type of glorification where a grain of wheat must fall into the earth and die so that it can bear much fruit – both grains of wheat and even bread.

With respect to the grain of wheat dying, when we baptize someone, the priest uses a very similar metaphor saying, “In [Baptism] we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.”[2] In living out our baptismal covenant – by dying to ourselves and being reborn to everlasting life – we too become fruitful stalks of wheat glorifying Jesus by bringing forth new stalks of wheat – new disciples – until all the world knows his sacred name.

As for bread, at every Eucharist we consume the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven. This is the fruit of new grains of wheat that have fallen into the earth to become bread for the world. This bread of life must be broken and consumed by believers so that the whole world may be drawn to God.

In contrast to fruitful wheat, those who love their life – those who cannot loosen the grip of their self-love – will lose everything; whereas those who are willing to let the husk of their ambitions fall away like a seed in the ground will, like Jesus, be honored and have eternal life with Jesus in the presence of God.

Still, because Jesus is also human, his soul is troubled because he knows this hour is bringing him closer to the consequence of his obedience – he must endure his Passion. Like any human, Jesus would like to be spared the suffering that awaits him, but he also knows this is why he became flesh – he came into the world so that all who believe in him would not perish but have everlasting life. He understands that his Passion is necessary for him to become the bread of life – the bread of heaven – so that all the world may be drawn to him.

How often do we reconcile ourselves to our Baptismal covenant and Jesus’ call for us to let our grain fall into the earth so that we can the fruits necessary to draw the whole world to Christ? Sometimes we are inclined to gather our grain to ourselves and neglect others. This is why we need to receive the Eucharist on a regular basis, this is why we need to recall our baptismal promise at intervals throughout the year, this is why we need to be reminded of Jesus’ hour so that we can recall that we are an essential part of Jesus’ mission to reconcile the entire world to God.

May the bread and wine we consume today remind us of the awesome claim that Jesus placed on us at our Baptism, and may it also give us strength to loosen the grip the world and our self-love have upon us so that our fruits may draw the whole world to God.

[1] John 12:19

[2] BCP, p. 306

For God so loved the world …

What’s up with these poisonous and bronze serpents? Having spent a lot of my youth in Appalachia, there’s a part of me that thinks there’s bound to be a good story about snake handling in this. But having planted this suggestion, I’m going to head fake and go another way. So let me tell you another story.

A story about a man named Nicco. As a young man, the time came for Nicco to leave his dusty, rural home and strike out into the wider world on his own.

He had finished his schooling and there were few opportunities at home for him to be self-sufficient; and he was anxious to make his own way in the world. However, what Nicco hadn’t fully anticipated was that in leaving his family and place of origin he was also leaving behind a touchstone of his identity; who he knew himself to be was inextricably connected to his people and their place in his community. A large part of his identity had been shaped by the story telling and shared faith of these people. Nicco had been formed by these stories, the practices of his faith tradition, as well as the ability of his people to question and sometimes argue good-naturedly about political and religious matters. Nicco took much of this experience for granted because it was just another part of a well-formed and practiced childhood. Now he was off to a new place miles and miles removed from his people and all that was familiar to him.

When Nicco arrived in the city, he had no trouble finding work because of his quick and nimble mind, and because he was well trained, courteous and a hard worker. Nonetheless, he did struggle a bit to find his social and religious bearings because the people among whom he was now living were just so different than those at home. These people, despite their metropolitan perspective, were – surprisingly – quite narrow-minded in their views, especially their religious and political views. While Nicco was accustomed to and valued a conservative perspective, he still appreciated hearing other views, and in debate he enjoyed finding values he and others had in common. Yet few of his new acquaintances shared his interest in new perspectives, so Nicco – being an agreeable and sociable sort – went along thinking these folks might still have new things to teach him.

Over the years to come Nicco was very successful and advanced up the social, political and religious ladders to become a very respected member of the community. Still, year after year, Nicco felt something was missing; it quietly gnawed at him in his heart of hearts; there was an emotional or spiritual void within him that felt like a craving to be satisfied. After years of listening to and arguing with his peers, Nicco still was unable to find an understanding that satisfied the craving; all that he encountered was a rehash of the same old tired, narrow-minded perspective.

One day, a stranger came to visit the community bringing with him very different stories; stories that created a bit of an uproar in the community because they were not the tried and true stories; these stories were new in that they revealed a different way of looking at things. All the same, these stories’ teachings conformed to the spirit and intent of the old stories, if not narrowly to the letter. Those who were not part of or vested in the establishment found these new stories exciting; while those in the establishment found them blasphemous. Yet Nicco, despite his hard-earned establishment credentials, was captivated by these new stories precisely because they were different, and because he felt they were true. He yearned to dust the cobwebs off his listening and debating skills to hear a new perspective.

This is where the story of my imagining meets the story of serpent handling in the wilderness. The place where this story flows into, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”[1]

John 3:16 may be the most well known Bible verse of our lifetimes. You can hardly watch a professional sporting event without seeing someone in the crowd holding up a sign that reads “John 3:16.” For those of us who struggled to memorize Bible verses in our youth or even still, John 3:16 is seminal. For many of us, our memorization began here because it was easy to remember and because it is the essence of our Christian identity. But just as Nicco struggled to rekindle the mind-changing conversations of his youth, we too may struggle to recall the context – the place or story – in which this verse abides. Today is one of those times when we would miss the bigger picture if we only heard the appointed portion of the story. Were we to hear the rest of the story, we would recall the story of Nicodemus’ puzzling, night-time, born-again conversation with Jesus, and we might remember that beyond the free-standing nature of John 3:16, there is the story of two people seeking common ground across the contexts that divide them. They seek common ground because they see within each other a common spirit, even as they don’t fully understand each other’s interpretation.

It is this sought out meeting, as well as John 3:16, that will become the glue that connects the two of them and opens Nicodemus’ mind to another possibility. This spirit and mind stretching encounter will lead Nicodemus to later caution the other members of the Sanhedrin that their law does not judge others without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing.[2] This same conversation will have such a profound affect on Nicodemus that even before he sees the Son of Man raised up like a serpent in the wilderness, he will bring 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint the crucified body of the Son of Man as he is laid in a borrowed tomb.[3] In this act, and through his efforts to understand another’s context, Nicodemus will lay claim as a faithful disciple at the end even as others fled or turned their backs.

Such is the power of John 3:16, and the willingness to grapple with another’s perspective, to cut across divides of all kinds, and to remind us all that what we crave in common is to fill the divine void within us that cries out for understanding and eternal life. May we, like Nicodemus, shake off the cobwebs of social norms and expectations and reclaim the curiosity and inquisitiveness of our inner Niccos so that we can rediscover and share the wonder of a God that loves us so much that he would send her Son into the world that we might believe what seems to be beyond our comprehension, and have eternal life.

[1] John 3:16

[2] John 7:51

[3] John 19:39

Table Tossing

The story of Jesus overturning the money-changers tables is one of my favorites. I think it is the appeal of just being able to give physical expression to my frustration – to do something dramatic so people will know how upset I am about some injustice. Perhaps you too feel this way sometimes – or perhaps not.

We certainly seem to see an abundance of table-tossing in social – or should I say “not-so-social” – media these days; ardent activist giving physical expression to their frustration. But, to my mind, there is a different feel to what we see in these “not-so-social” acts as compared to Jesus’ act in the temple.

But back to our story. You and I know this story so well because it is one of a handful of stories about Jesus that is in all four of the gospels. But John the evangelist being John, of course this story is presented in a slightly different context. In each of the synoptic gospels this story takes place after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, shortly before his arrest and execution. In other words the trashing of the temple is one of Jesus’ last acts as a free man. In this context his act can be seen as a symbolic one marking the coming of a new order. As such it is part of a trail of escalating acts in Jesus’ ministry. In the synoptic gospels, most of Jesus’ acts up to this time are teaching interspersed with dramatic acts of healing. However this act of confrontation is different; it is the beginning of a final series of confrontations among Jesus and the authorities that will lead to his execution.

And then there is John; John, John, John. For those us of a non-conformist bent, John’s the man. And the fourth gospel is our book, in part because it doesn’t conform, but perhaps more notably because of its sense of mystery and imagery.

With respect to Jesus’ to-do in the temple, John places this story near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Rather than mark the beginning of the end for Jesus, John uses it to mark the beginning of his intentional public ministry. The table turning follows Jesus’ first and only coerced public act, when – at his mother’s urging – he turns water into wine in Cana during a wedding feast. Perhaps you recall Jesus’ words to Mary at the time, “My hour has not yet come.”[1] Jesus might have added, ‘Just give it a few days, for then my time will come.’ For within days he will enter the temple in Jerusalem and turn things on their heads.

John’s choice to present this story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry colors the fourth gospel’s presentation of Jesus in a prophetic light. From the beginning Jesus is not seen as conformist in any way. Jesus is acting out a prophetic piece of performance art. In this he is of the same school as John the Baptist, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, Amos, and Ezekiel; those peculiar prophets who demonstrate God’s will through action as often as word.

As Jesus is driving out livestock and overturning tables he is flexing his prophetic chops and reminding the complacent and comfortable that the kingdom of God has come near. And then – when challenged – he channels Ezekiel by prophesying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”[2] This isn’t the act of an anonymous activist trying disrupt in order to drive a wedge between political parties or sects. No, this is a man who, like prophets before him, is creating prophetic disruption at great cost to himself during a moment of despair, not to vilify others but to commend the source of life, light, and incalculable love.

As Jesus proclaims this hopeful and life-giving prophecy, like Ezekiel before him, he stands there fully aware of the consequences for himself, but without flinching. Ezekiel, on the day of his wife’s death – the delight of his eyes and his heart’s desire, stands before the Israelites in exile in denial of his own pain and prophesies the destruction of the temple; “Thus says the Lord God: I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and your heart’s desire; ….”[3]

Like Ezekiel, Jesus and the prophets before him know full well the consequences of their calls, and still they act in the face of those consequences to commend the Lord God, even as those about them may be unable to connect the dots. In their stories, Jesus and the prophets remind us of the call to act upon our discipleship – not as anonymous and self-righteous disrupters – but as public professors of the love of God and Jesus Christ, even (or perhaps especially) in the face of personal adversity. As followers of Jesus we have the opportunity to take up that prophetic mantle and to consider where there are metaphorical tables to be overturned, not for the sake of making a scene, but for the sake and love of God. There are probably tables to be overturned here in this parish. There are some in the communities in which we live, perhaps in the public square and the councils of the county and city. And certainly there is a need in our public discourse.

In John’s portrayal of Jesus’ metaphorical act of overturning tables we witness not a swan song but an invitation to life-long action of overturning tables of complacency and comfort, especially in those places where words are inadequate and acts of love are necessary. It is Jesus’ turning of the tables that redeems us and frees us to come to this table so we in turn may turn others.

[1] John 2:4b

[2] Ibid., v. 19

[3] Ezekiel 24:21