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Monday, April 16, 2012

Peace be with You

“Peace be with you,” Jesus said as he appeared in resurrected form before his followers. They were behind locked doors, afraid that the people who crucified him were coming for them. They had last seen him on the cross. All of a sudden, there he was, wishing them peace.

I would imagine George Zimmerman has not had peace ever since he spotted a black youth in a hoody and decided he should confront the boy because black teens in hoodies are naturally to be suspected of something. An unarmed 17-year-old was gunned down even after police had expressly told Mr. Zimmeran to avoid the confrontation. No, he has not had peace.

In my own neighborhood, someone saw some two black teens going door-to-door. Not knowing that these were high school football players doing fund-raising, this concerned individual wondered if she should call the police. In 10 years, someone will wonder that about my own son who is also black.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma several black men have been randomly shot. Now two men are custody, one Caucasian, the other Native American. It made me think back to 2002, several months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the time I lived just outside of Washington DC where a sniper was randomly picking people off. First, planes crashed into buildings, then snipers were shooting people. Those shootings, not racially motivated, but produced in people a nagging tension that hung in the air. My then girlfriend and now wife, Candy, and I would go out on dates and constantly watch out for the snipers.

I remember in Florida the renegade pastor threatened to burn a Quran, and all the trouble that caused people in many communities.

And Afghanistan: 3rdworld Muslims and American soldiers repeatedly find ways to fuel the fires of hate.

Black-white-hispanic; 3rdworld, 1st world; Muslim world v. America; where is this peace Jesus promised?

He said it twice. “Peace be with you.”

20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Thomas, of the disciples, wasn’t there when Jesus appeared and refused to believe. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later, again they were behind closed doors and again, Jesus was just among them, and again he said, “Peace be with you.” We recall John 14. Jesus gathered with the disciples for the Passover meal.

He unexpectedly washed their feet and said, “27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

To their confused minds, Jesus bid them peace. Post-crucifixion, in the height of their fear Jesus showed up to extend to them peace. To Thomas’ doubts, Jesus said “peace.”

To the Martin family in their grief and the Zimmerman family in his guilt, Jesus bids peace.

To Muslims who hate America and to Muslims who are American citizens, Jesus sends his peace.

To American soldiers and to the people they fight, he gives his peace. To the mourning families in Tulsa and to the killers and their family members Jesus gives peace.

This would not make everyone happy. Those who cry for justice through frustrated, angry tears do not want to hear Jesus give his peace to terrorists and snipers and killers. They want justice! They want the guilty punished! And make no mistake about it. There will be a judgment and the guilty will have to face God in their sin. God is loving and wrathful at the same time.

But, while justice is right and we should demand it, it does not bring peace.[i] In August, 1989, Anneliese MacPhail got a call. Her son Mark, a security guard, had been murdered. In September of 2011, the man convicted for killing her son received the lethal injection from the state of Georgia. The CNN story about her that I read on the website last weekend made a point quite emphatically. In the six months since her son’s killer had been executed, she has not had peace. What she thought might bring closure to the ordeal, did not. The killer’s execution has not eased her troubled soul. Though I personally oppose the death penalty, you might say justice was served this case. But it did not bring peace. Only Jesus can do that.

Racial killings, murders, tension related to war and to Muslim-American relations – this does not connect with everyone here. For some, these stories are on the news and we see them, but then we turn the news off and they don’t affect us very much. So, do we have peace? Examine your own life.

For me, anticipation of like special worship services and big trips and big events brings anxiety. I have sat in the hospital waiting room with people and the uncertainty and the fear take peace away. Maybe this day – April 15, tax day – maybe today is a day where peace is hard to come by. Maybe relationships do it. Our parents and siblings and spouses and children are the ones who make up our closest relationships and often, our happiest times come with these people we love. But just as often, we spend frustrating energy in impatience, anger, and hurt that can only come from someone who is extremely close. That’s not exactly the definition of peace.

To our nervousness, Jesus says, “Peace.” At the hospital bedside,“Peace.” When financial worries weigh us down, he offers peace. In the midst of our family feuds when emotion boils hot, the resurrected one steps in and says, “Peace, be still,” the same way he said it to calm the waves on the Sea of Galilee. Does this peace given by Jesus help? In the midst of turmoil, Jesus says a simple five-letter word. But all the stressors and sources of pain are still here. His so-called peace has not taken danger, death, and evil away.

And yet, these disciples who huddled in fear where changed men and women after meeting the risen Lord. In Acts 7, we see Stephen. As his body is pelted with rocks thrown by people determined to snuff out the Jesus movement, he calmly says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He’s dying a slow, painful death, yet he has peace. James of the inner circle of Peter, James, and John, the disciples closest to Jesus of the 12 is executed for his allegiance to Jesus (Acts 12:2). Faced with Herod’s threats, he maintains his faith and is beheaded. He was not rescued. He died. But he had peace. And because of that many heard the story and decided they would follow Jesus.

Even when I have major stress, when I slow down and pray and rest in Christ, I can face them in peace. How does the peace of Jesus help us face the world – simply daily stressors and major ills that assault all of humanity? How in the worst of times can we rejoice as resurrection people?

21Jesus said to them … “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.

Just as promised, when Jesus departed, the Holy Spirit remained as the tangible presence of God with the church. Our peace comes when we are in fellowship with God’s Holy Spirit and with God’s church.

It doesn’t mean the relationship with the church is always perfect. Sometimes we get angry with the church. Sometimes the church or someone in the church does things we do not like. But, we stay connected both with God and with God’s people. We do not turn our back on the church or on God. Even when storms of pain and tension and angry upend us and toss us about, we stay in full contact with God.

The resurrection legacy is not that things get easy but that God is with us. Matthew 28, Jesus tells his followers, “Remember I am with you always to the end of the age.” This is completely true even as He ascends bodily. We are filled with his Holy Spirit. So the circumstances of the world do not determine whether we have peace or chaos; when we are tuned into Christ, He gives us peace no matter what’s going on in our lives.

In 1950’s, missionaries in South America were murdered. Their wives continued and led to faith the natives that killed their husbands.

Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer did some of his best work while in a Nazi concentration camp.

Some of my own moments of feeling closest to God have come at times of tension or loss. This is not a case of “that which doesn’t break me makes me stronger.” This is the real and living and all-powerful God showing up in life, in the form of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of the resurrected one is present now.

Perhaps your life is sorely lacking peace and you need hope and you need something different than what you have right now. In the afterglow of Easter, I urge you turn to Jesus. Rather than listening to familiar stories of thriving in the face of turmoil or hearing me share how Jesus has strengthened me, in the midst of the difficulty you are facing today, why not come to Him. Why not open your heart and invite His Holy Spirit to take over your life. To each one of us He says,“Peace.”

Today, come and receive the peace He gives.



Easter Sunday, HillSong Church, April 8, 2012

Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus Sunday morning after he had been crucified and buried Friday afternoon. She believed he was dead, so she was confused when she arrived and found the stone that sealed the grave rolled away. Someone had to have to taken the body. Who?

She ran to Simon Peter. They have taken the Lord out of the tomb. Who did she mean by ‘they?’ The Romans? The Jews? Peter and John raced to the tomb and confirmed Mary’s story. So what happened to the body?

The disciples did what Mary did not do. First Peter and then John went into the tomb for further investigation. They were under the same assumption as Mary. Someone had stolen Jesus’ dead corpse. The mystery thickened when they saw what was inside the tomb.

Grave robbers would have been in a hurry. They’d have to elude the guards stationed at the grave site. It would be the darkest time of the night. Would they pause, unwrap the dead body, and then reshape the burial cloths in the configuration of the body in the place where the body had been set. No! For grave robbers it would be grab and go. They could unwrap the body once they were in the clear. Peter and John stepped into the tomb and saw that things were in order. The burial clothes were where they should have been. The only thing missing was the body itself. The head wrapping was even formed as if the head were still in it, like a pillow that maintains the shape of the sleeper’s head. This made no sense.

Verse 8 says John believed, but what? At that moment did he know Jesus was alive? He knew this was something more than a grave robbing, which was common in those days. Something else happened. John knew Jesus was more than a wise teacher and he was ready to accept all that Jesus had said. But he too was confused. They all were in the early hours of that morning.

Mary followed the male disciples back to the tomb. She lingered, and then when in. Two angels were waiting for her.

She didn’t even ask about the two men sitting in the tomb where the body should have been, she wasn’t curious about that. She did not see that they were angels, not men. They asked, “Woman, why are you weeping?”“They have taken my lord,” Mary said. She said, “They have taken my lord.” She didn’t give the angels an opportunity to say a word. She turned and left the grave.

Immediately, she bumped to another man who she supposed was the groundskeeper. He must have taken Jesus’ body. He spoke. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”“Sir,” she said,“If you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” How was she going to do that? How would a woman, all by herself, move the dead body of a man? And, where was she going to take his body anyway? If the cemetery groundskeeper had in fact moved the body, it would have been to another grave. Mary’s hopes were gone when Jesus was nailed to the cross. Then the gardener spoke. “Mary.”

What changes when I hear Jesus speak my name? Rob. James. Tabitha. Heather. Jesus looks and speaks. Starlyn. Roger. Bryce. Sharon. Jenny. Alan. Albert. The eyes of the resurrected, glorified Christ are described as “a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:14). Those eyes look your way, burning with love, and they speak. Ben. Ginger. Michael. Jina. Josh. Cathy. Laura. David. Tom. Mary.

And, she knew this was no gardner. Mary’s eyes were opened. She became the first human being to see the resurrected Christ, she reached out to him. Before coming to Jerusalem, a woman, in an act of worship, washed Jesus’ feet and anointed him with expensive perfume. She exalted him before his death.

Now, on resurrection morning, Mary Magdalene did the same. She threw herself at his feet; clung to them; weeping, she worshipped. She also held on for dear life because she wasn’t going to let anyone take him from her again. But he said, “Do not hold onto me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Was the resurrection of Jesus really so unique? Monk is a TV show about a neurotic man named Adrian Monk. His phobias drive himself and everyone around him crazy. His idiosyncrasies are fueled by the pain of losing his beloved wife Trudy. In one episode, the quirky detective was at Trudy’s grave site. He feared that he had seen her on the street and he wanted to be sure she was still in the grave. So, he went and while there, he saw another mourner visiting the grave site of her husband. He turned to her and with a smile on his face confidently said as he pointed to his wife’s grave, “She’s still dead. She’s still in there.” Then Monk pointed at the woman’s husband’s tombstone, and said, “I am sure he’s still dead too.” He gazed around at the field of graves and said, “This is a good cemetery. They know what they’re doing! I am sure most everyone here is still dead!”

We agree, don’t we? When someone dies, he is dead and that doesn’t change. So, the story of Jesus that ends with Him alive after he had died is unheard of. Actually, in the Bible, it’s heard of a lot. In the Gospel of Mark, chapter 5, we meet the leader of the synagogue, a man named Jairus. He asks Jesus to come and heal his daughter. Jesus agrees but as he goes, he is delayed by a woman who has bleeding that won’t stop. As he heals her, the waiting, sick little girl dies. Those around Jairus tell him not to bother Jesus any more, but Jesus comes anyway. He calls the girl from death and she rises to life.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 11, the narrator says Jesus’ good friend Lazarus is extremely ill. When Jesus is told, he lingers where he is for two more days. It takes a couple more days to get to Bethany, where Lazarus lives with his sisters Martha and Mary. By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. Jesus calls him from death and Lazarus rises back to life.

Read the book of Acts, chapter 9. A godly woman named Tabitha dies. She has a heart for the poor and is a skilled seamstress. She is beloved, so those around her summon Peter. He comes as quickly as he can, but her body is cold and cleaned and set for burial. The mourners have gathered. Peter dismisses them and then prays. He calls for Tabitha to arise and she does exactly that. He helps her to her feet, back to life. In the Bible, death is not always the end. Sometimes, under the power of God, people who have died come back to life.

Is the story of the resurrection of Jesus different from other occasions where people come back? What happened with daughter of the synagogue leader Jairus? She came to life when Jesus called her. When Jesus was resurrected, there was no one else there to offer assistance. No human being called him back to life. When Lazarus was resurrected, he stumbled out of the tomb still wrapped in the grave cloths. When Jesus came to life, his grave cloths lay in their place, undisturbed. Was Jesus a ghost without physical form? No, Mary held onto him after he was raised. He told Thomas that he could touch and feel the holes in his hands. The resurrected Christ had full human form and yet he could pass through walls and through grave clothes without disturbing them.

In the resurrection of Tabitha, Peter had to be there. He prayed and then helped Tabitha to her feet. No one prayed for Jesus’ resurrection because no one expected it. No one thought it was possible.

Finally, the daughter of Jairus may have lived a long full life and done great things. But, she would die again. Her bones have decayed and gone back to the earth long ago. The same is true of Lazarus. He’s dead gone. Have you bumped into him? I have not. And Tabitha; if she were here today, she’d be about 2007 years old, give or take. The media would know if someone that old was walking around.I am not sure the daughter of Jairus, or Lazarus or Tabitha were to be envied. Each had to go through death of the body twice. Each would have a funeral they would not come back from.

When Jesus walked out of the grave, death itself had been defeated. His glorified, resurrected body was changed. He was physical, but different in a way we cannot explain. He was in a body; but the body had an incorruptible, eternal quality. He who rose from death, whose eyes burn with fire hotter than man can produce, who knows my name, who calls your name, this Jesus promised he would go and prepare a place for his followers.

We will be resurrected as he was. We will live in bodies that cannot die.

From 1 Corinthians:

15:42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. 49And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

On the morning of the resurrection, when Jesus told Mary to let him go, he spoke words of love. He knew she loved him. He needed her to let go so that he could appear to the disciples whom he would give them the great commission. He would empower them to build the church. He would send His Holy Spirit to dwell in His churches and in the hearts of all who put their faith in Him.

The church, from the time of the resurrection until today, tells the world how people can receive the gift of eternal life and a relationship with God by trusting in Jesus. What difference does Easter make? Because Jesus defeated death, he has the power and authority not only to walk in a resurrected, glorified body, but to invite His followers to come along with him. Because of Easter, we have the hope of resurrection. We know there is life after death, life that is glorious and joyful, life that never ends.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Easter Sunrise - April 8, 2012

Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome set out at first light with a purpose. They carried spices and headed to the tomb that held Jesus’ dead body. It had been around 40 hours since he was taken off the cross and they couldn’t preserve him before now because it was the Sabbath and such activity would be forbidden. There were no funeral homes. Someone he knew, someone who loved him a lot, would have to do one last act of kindness and attend to his corpse. The job was for these women.

They went to tomb to anoint him for death. Along the way, a problem was raised, and it was pretty significant. “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” Mark doesn’t mention guards stationed there. That’s Matthew. But, reading Mark, even if we include the guards because we also read Matthew, it is unlikely Roman guards would have rolled aside the stone to help the women. The purpose of the guards at the tomb was to keep Jesus’ followers out, not help them get in.

What would these women do? In all likelihood, it was a stone that would require at least two strong men and maybe more. The women did not think it was in their power to accomplish the feat. “Who will roll away the stone for us?” This was the question they asked each other. It seemed to be a problem that couldn’t be solved.

I wonder how many people accept problems like that throughout life. I think of Helen Keller, the famous author who was both blind and deaf. Her family did not know how to relate to her, so, she was never given boundaries. She was treated like an uncontrollable animal. Her family accepted her problem and theirs. She was a child who could not communicate and thus must be mentally incompetent.

I think of Joni Erikson Tada. She was a beautiful young woman who was talented, athletic, and had her whole life before her. Then she dove into water that was too shallow and her neck broke. She was 17 and had completely lost use of her body from shoulders down. She was a quadriplegic.

I think of a couple I know right now. They desperately want to be parents. They want to have a child, but to this point have been infertile. I don’t know why, but a baby hasn’t come. It has put a strain on their marriage. They fight. They wander into dangerous temptations, sexual, drug-related, and other. They have a problem. There are so many problems and so often we accept them, learn to live with them, and cannot imagine life without them.

The Apostle Paul had a thorn in his flesh and flatly declared that he asked God to remove the thorn and God would not. In fact, it was a problem given by God, Paul thought (2 Corinthians 12). We just learn to live with our problems and carry on. There is nothing else to do.

But what if the problem goes away or is solved? What then? “They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been moved back” (Mark 16:3-4). Now what?

Helen Keller’s family brought in a young woman, a teacher, Annie Sullivan. Through trauma and tears and unyielding persistence, she broke through the darkness and silence and taught Helen to communicate through touch. Now what? Helen’s family discovered they did not have an unseeing, unhearing wild animal disguised in human skin. They had a daughter who grew to become a writer, a college graduate, and one of the world’s most famous activists, advocating for people with disabilities. The problem had become normal, but once Helen was released from the prison of her limitations, she and everyone around her would have to find a new normal.

Joni Erikson Tada went through two rigorous years of rehabilitation, and when it was done, she was a world-class artist whose sketches and paintings, usually printed on greeting cards, became in such high demand, she became famous. She wrote her biography, which was a huge seller. In those two years of physical rehab, did she regain use of at least her arms? Nope. She is as much a quadriplegic today as when the accident happened so many years ago. What happened is she learned to paint with her teeth. Can you imagine? Joni is a devoted Christian and her art and her books line the shelves of Christian book stores. She went from tragic figure to famous evangelical author – a new normal.

Talk about new normal; if the infertile couple I know has a miracle and they get pregnant and have a child, or if they pursue the miracle through the adoption process, their days of longing for parenthood will be over. Those days will be replaced by the thrills, joys, wonder, and sleeplessness, frustration, and headaches of parenthood. The three greatest blessings of my life aside from my walk with Christ and my relationship with my wife are the three kids we adopted. When each one came into our family, finding the new normal took well over a year. Our youngest has only been with us 10 months. We are still searching.

Mary, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome went to the tomb operating under a sense of normal that every human being can understand: death. When someone dies, they are dead. Jesus died and had been dead since mid afternoon Friday. It was early Sunday. There was no mistaking it. He, who had loved them like no one ever had, compassionately, generously, and altruistically, was gone. He was dead. That was it.

Maybe they would solve the problem of the stone and get in and do the morbid task of anointing a lifeless corpse. Maybe they wouldn’t. Maybe their last effort toward Jesus, besides him remembering him, would be their frustration at having rough, Roman guards block their entry. Either way Jesus was dead and there was nothing they could do.

“When they looked up, they saw the stone … rolled back. A young man dressed in a white robe … said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. … He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him” (16:7). The final verse says the women ran out of the tomb and said nothing because they were terrified.

Resurrection should terrify. It should have the same effect on us, if we truly believe it. Really? A dead body, raised to life? Can it be? From the other gospels and the rest of the New Testament, we know those women did not maintain their silence. They told what they saw and heard, and everyone they spoke to had just as much difficulty accepting it as they did.

The 12 disciples; many other male and female Jesus-followers; all had come to accept that they lost and the temple rulers won and the Roman overlords determined the outcome. God could not possibly be as powerful as evil religion or demonic politics. The way of Jesus was the way of forgiveness, grace, mercy, compassion, and inclusion of the least of these. Every single one of Jesus’ followers accepted that his way lost out, the world was cruel, and God couldn’t win. That’s normal!

To follow Jesus is to believe what the New Testament emphatically states in numerous ways. The way of Jesus is different than the normal we humans live, a normal completely stained by sin. To walk in his way and be one of his people, we step out of the norm and into God’s calling. We come at God’s invitation which is seen through the New Testament but especially in John 3:16. Everyone who believes in him will not die but will have everlasting life.

Even stating that is tricky because out bodies die. Have you been to the funeral of a Christian? I have, about 40 of them, give or take. Christ-followers die. The only way John 3:16 and the rest of the New Testament can be true is if resurrection truly happened. Every Easter, we declare that it did. He rose and He is alive. And, He invites us to join Him in resurrection. Knowing that and giving our lives to him, we know that today, we live as resurrection people.

What is our new normal, now that our death problem is gone? What do they women do after they get over their shocked silence? They tell. So how do we live, once we get past the amazement and realize, yes, our deceased loved ones will rise and we will see them because we will rise too? What does that mean today?

First, we shouldn’t get past the amazement. Rather, we bask in it. This is a day of celebration unlike any other. Our songs have energy and our worship is vibrant. We stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. Second, we turn to the rest of the New Testament for guidance in living in the resurrection. One excellent place to go is the last chapter of Hebrews, Hebrews 13. There we find a series of instructions and when we follow these in every area of life, our lives changes. That change in turn as an enormous effect on those around us.

It says, let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality. Let marriage be held in honor by all. Do not commit sexual sin, but preserve the beautiful gift of sex for the marriage bed only, one man, one woman. Keep life free from the love of money. Remember your spiritual leaders and do not fall for false teaching in matters of theology. Our savior endured much suffering, so when we are called to do so, we willingly, joyfully suffer in Jesus’ name.

Furthermore, the author of Hebrews tells the church to continually praise God, even in extremely bad times, to do good and not neglect good works, and to pray. The author unabashedly asks for prayer because prayer is a staple in the resurrection, the new normal. These and other activities are recommended repeatedly in Paul’s letters, in James, the 1st & 2nd Peter, and here. The message from many different authors is so consistent and so outside of what the fallen world expects.

We live in the midst of the fall, but we are defined not by the problems but the solution which is the resurrection of Jesus. We celebrate that resurrection today as we are called out of the chains of our sins and out of the slavery imposed by death and into resurrection living. This is life, our new normal and Jesus offers it to us. He is alive. Hallelujah.


Good Friday, 2012

Everyone in the story seemed to wind up at the foot of the cross when Jesus hung their and died slowly and in agonizing fashion. He suffered as he died for the sins of the world. It’s not something I would want to see, yet, somehow, the cross became a gathering place.

Of course there were Roman soldiers. They had to administer the crucifixion and they did so with a demented joy. They performed the task of hammering nails through the hand of another human being – this after they had mercilessly whipped and teased him. It wasn’t enough to beat Jesus up. They had to enjoy it and let him know they enjoyed it.

They were quite busy at the cross. It’s not easy to erect a pole with a man affixed to it and they had to do three of them. One of the soldiers was charged with sticking a spear in Jesus’ side to make sure he was dead, while others used bludgeoning instruments to break the legs of the other two convicts. Yet, for all the work, the soldiers had time for fun. Specifically, they rolled dice to see who would get to keep Jesus’ cloak.

Are they to be pitied, those men who epitomized cruelty? Someone has to be pretty numb and pretty hardened to get to the point that they can inflict such suffering. Only one who himself has been dehumanized can be so dehumanizing. Roman soldiers were there.

So too was a man of North Africa, Simon of Cyrene. He was either a Jewish man living in Cyrene, or he was a black African man who converted to Judaism. Whichever was the case, Simon came to Jerusalem from Cyrene during Passover. He was passing through right at the moment the guards were marching Jesus out to Golgotha. Jesus, weakened by the flogging, couldn’t make the walk. The soldiers grabbed an unfortunate soul out of the crowd to help – Simon.

What was that man thinking? Everyone feared the Romans and tried to avoid them. He couldn’t escape into the crowd fast enough. He found himself unwittingly at the center of the story that would change history. My guess is all he wanted to do was get that cross beam to the site and get out of Jerusalem. But in writing about him, Mark says he had his sons with him, Alexander and Rufus. There are so many characters Mark mentions where he never says a thing about familial relations. No character could be more minor than Simon of Cyrene. So why mention his kids? Would Mark’s readers know who Alexander and Rufus were? In Romans 16 names a man. “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother also, a mother to me” (v.13). Is this the same Rufus?

Oh, no. Mark’s just writing his gospel and about at the end, chapter 15, he decides, “I have not included enough detailed information, so, I’ll start now.” And he puts in the names of the sons of a character that is only mentioned in one verse? We don’t know what went through Simon of Cyrene’s head when he was helping Jesus carry the cross. But something happened in his heart that day or soon thereafter. His sons became so involved in the movement of the church, the apostle Paul calls one of them“chosen in the Lord.” And Paul says Simon’s wife was a mother-figure for the apostle himself.

Simon of Cyrene was there. Roman soldiers were there. Who else was at the cross watching as Jesus died?

The religious leaders who condemned Jesus were there rubbing his nose in it. “He saved others, but he can’t save himself.” They had already won by getting the verdict and getting the Romans to do the dirty work (which the Romans were all too eager to do). Now they had to add their two cents worth. “So he is the king of Israel, is he? Let him come down from that cross right now, and we will believe him” (Matthew 27:42).

There were even crowds saying the same thing. People, who had nothing to do with the events or the trial or Jesus, people who were just passing by, stopped the way we do when we see a car crash on the highway. Hopefully when we stop, it is to dial 9-1-1 or help. Not these gawkers. It was like, “Hey here’s someone suffering gruesomely. Let’s watch this, and we’ll play along and mock him as he dies.”

Everyone was there at the cross, watching Jesus’ misery. Roman soldiers; Simon of Cyrene and his boys; religious officials from the temple; anonymous travelers; all get mentioned in the stories in the gospels. So too do a group of women who followed Jesus. Each gospel names some of these women. The list of names is different each time. I am not sure we could put together a comprehensive list of Jesus’ female disciples. They probably included a former prostitute. Jesus’ mother and the mother of James and John were most likely among them. At least a few had money because Luke write in chapter 8 of his gospel that the women disciples were the financial backers who made sure Jesus and the disciples had bread money. We don’t hear a lot of sermons on that passage from the folks who insist that men have to be the head of the household and the boss and the controller of all things in the family and in life. This group of women followed Jesus through every step of the tortured journey. It is also Luke who tells us Jesus speaks to them as he makes his way to Golgotha telling them not to weep for him but for themselves for his passion is a time of judgment and many did not follow Jesus. Those who did not and do not today have to stand before God in their sins without Jesus’ help.

The women were there at the cross. There was a man with them. John’s gospel tells us it was the “disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26). Most readers take that to be the Apostle John, but I am not sure. It says in John 11 that a man named Lazarus was beloved of Jesus. “Beloved” here indicates a special, deep friendship. It is not something erotic or sexual, but filial. I would say of my roommate from college that I love him deeply. John’s gospel says that is how Jesus felt about Lazarus. Was the “beloved disciple” who stood at the foot of the cross Lazarus and not John? I don’t know that we can be sure. Either way, this beloved one stood with the women as they wept and Jesus spoke to him. He entrusted the care of his mother to this disciple. Everyone was there at the cross.

What an odd gathering place. It still is a gathering place, only there’s nothing odd about it now. We’re all here in church on Good Friday. Millions of churches, who like us worship on Sunday, are worshipping today as we are. In languages that would sound strange to most of us – Amharic, Farsi, Mandarin – people around the world worship Jesus. But some of us here, gathered in this place, speak those and a hundred other languages. The universal draw of Jesus’ accomplishment attracts everyone. There are people reading the same scriptures in languages we have found to be hostile – German, 70 years ago; Russian 25 years ago; and languages we find hostile today. Millions of passionately devoted Christ followers worship our Lord and theirs in Arabic. It’s Good Friday. Everyone comes together.

Well, not everyone. Millions of people around us and billions around the world are not in church, worshiping, commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrificial death for the sins of the world. I don’t mean here people who are devoted believers but for whatever reason could not make it into church. I mean billions who are not interested in Jesus’ message. They’re not with the church tonight or at any time. But, they do have a role in the story. They play the role of bullying Romans and scoffing religious leaders and mocking crowds and Greeks who challenged Paul in Athens and legalists who tried to assault the early church by denying the sufficiency of the cross for salvation and Gnostics who denied Jesus’ humanity. All the enemies of the gospel from the days of Jesus and the days of the early church still exist today, just in different forms.

We who we weep at his death and rejoice at what comes after (but we’ll save that for Sunday) are not superior to those outside the church. We’re here because we are miserable sinners and we know and we have receive forgiveness, new life, and a fresh start. We receive it all because God gives it. He gives it in the form of his only son, Jesus, dying on the cross for us. As we read in Hebrews 11, “By single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” All who have the Holy Spirit are sanctified. You, me, everyone; all who confess with their mouths and believe in the Lordship of Jesus in their hearts are saved, sanctified, and invited into God’s love. We enter the Bible says by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19). It’s Good Friday, and it is good because Jesus died thus giving us life.

The early church was comprised of late first century communities that reflected on what Jesus and what that meant for their identity. There was not just one answer. Read 1st, 2nd, and 3rdJohn; it’s not the same as James. James is not very similar to 1st & 2nd Timothy. The Timothys and the Johns and Jude are different that Revelation. I don’t find anything contradictory in these early communities, our spiritual ancestors. They all proclaimed Jesus, but uniquely. Their proclamation and their worship was related to their context.

What was going on when the church that received the letter we call Hebrews, anonymously written, celebrated Good Friday? As we have said previously, the writer wanted that church to reflect theologically and also pragmatically on what it meant to be in relationship with God through Jesus. In addressing the cross, the community knew as we know that crucifixion ended in resurrection. The emotion was not grief but joy at knowing forgiveness is complete, and also determination. Because the story of Jesus true, we won’t let it go even if someone tries to force us to, even if they torture us. We hold fast to our confession (Hebrews 10:23).

Moreover, Hebrews 10 says that in light what the bloody cross means – our sins wiped away– we must provoke one another. What? Hold fast to confession; we understand that. Jesus did because it was true. He died, but he held fast. We must also hold fast. But provoke one another? We provoke one another to love, Hebrews 10:24 says, to love and to the doing of good deeds. For that community, Good Friday was certainly an occasion for deep, meaningful worship. It was also a time to remember who they were in Christ and what God was calling them to do in the world on the Easter side of Good Friday. The beauty of having the witness of all those New Testament communities before us the Bible – 1st & 2nd Peter, Titus, Philemon, James, Revelation, Hebrews, and others – the beauty of it is it all informs us as we understand who God is leading us to be.

We are who we are in Christ when we are together. Good Friday is for us because Jesus is for us. One more note from Hebrews 10; it says, “Do not neglect to meet together … but encourage one another” (v.25). The women disciples were together at Jesus’ cross. The men, who ran and hid, were called together by the resurrected Christ. We are together in worship, when we receive forgiveness and when we lift our praise. Together we provoke one another to love and good deeds done in Jesus’ name. Tonight, together, we will hear the entire passion story read in a merging of the four witnesses, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We’ll experience the whole story because Jesus is for us and Good Friday is story of our salvation.


Friday, April 6, 2012

As we read from Luke 22 this evening, listen carefully to what Jesus says as he shares the second cup, the one that comes after supper.

Luke 22:14-20
14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer;16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves;18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Jesus and his disciples were already covenant-keepers, but now on his own authority, which is God’s authority, a new covenant has been established. Jesus and the disciples were covenant people.

Are we covenant people? We know about contracts. If you have purchased home, you had to sign papers until your hand cramped up. A contract is a legally binding agreement. Try getting out of your cell-phone plan if you don’t think this is so. We have contractors come and agree to do specific work for a specific price.

Covenants seem to be more binding at a spiritual level. A contract is signed. A covenant is entered. Marriage is often referred to as a covenant. We say ‘til death do us part.’More than half the people who say those words part from each other long before death. Breaking covenant is accepted in our culture. If I try to violate the terms of the contract, a judge will rule against me. But, in divorce court, the judge rarely takes into account that the husband and wife pledged to stay together for a lifetime. Who is at fault? We don’t worry about reconciliation, but about blame. Or, if there are “irreconcilable differences,” the gavel is wacked, the divorce is declared, the covenant is broken, and our society shrugs indifferent shoulders.

“This cup that is poured out,” Jesus said, “Is the new covenant in my blood.” What did he mean? Are we covenant people?

His blood? The disciples did not know he was about to be arrested. What was he talking about? They understood covenant. They lived in the heritages of God’s greatest covenants made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. They considered themselves in covenant with God. What was this new covenant Jesus mentioned?

We see it described in Hebrews chapters 7-8.

First, 7:18-22.

18There is, on the one hand, the abrogation of an earlier commandment because it was weak and ineffectual19(for the law made nothing perfect); there is, on the other hand, the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God.20This was confirmed with an oath; for others who became priests took their office without an oath,21but this one became a priest with an oath, because of the one who said to him, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind,‘You are a priest forever’”—22accordingly Jesus has also become the guarantee of a better covenant."

The disciples did not understand until after the resurrection. The night they gathered for the meal we call the Last Supper, they did not know. The new covenant accomplished what the covenant of Moses could not – complete forgiveness of sins and uninterrupted relationship with God. The simplest way to explain the failure of the old covenant is sin. God was perfect and kept his end and repeatedly forgave, but his people repeatedly walked away from him and sinned as wantonly and frequently as the gentiles around them and as we do today. Death was theirs until Jesus came to conquer sin and bury death.

In Hebrews 8:7, the covenant between humans and God instituted by Jesus is again called a “better covenant.” Later in the same chapter, it says “In speaking of a ‘new covenant,’ he made the first one obsolete” (8:13).

We as New Testament people are not cut and wholly separate from the Old Law, the Old Testament, and the Old Covenant. Remember that was an agreement established by God and God would not abandon it because God is faithful.Rather, in Jesus, God completes the Old Covenant; it comes to fruition. We are not removed from the Old Covenant. We live in the continuation of it. At Jesus’invitation, we enter covenant with God. The Old Covenant introduces God and God’s ways. The New Covenant brings to fullness the first covenant so that in entering the New Covenant, we enter life in Jesus’ name, at Jesus’ beckoning, and on His power.

By following Jesus, we declare ourselves to be covenant people. I did not say by going to church, though Jesus followers typically do attend church. Reading the Bible does not make us covenant people, though those people who follow Jesus do in fact read it and when they read, they seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in order to understand. Good works do not make us covenant people, though being covenant people it is natural that we would love as Jesus loved, in acts of mercy, welcome, and compassion. We are covenant people because of Jesus’ work on the cross and His work in us.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was given a vision of the new covenant and the way Christ would rearrange the world. Listen to Jeremiah 31, as quoted in Hebrews 8:

Hebrews 8:8-12

8God finds fault with them when he says: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;9not like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I had no concern for them, says the Lord.10This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.11And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.12For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.”

This is the new covenant Jesus spoke of with his disciples at the last supper. First, God’s ways are written in our hearts – the change comes inside us. It is seen in how we love, in mission works we do, in our efforts at hospitality and compassion and evangelism. It dictates our life practice and our priorities. But it is a change from inside out. The worker bringing the change, is the Holy Spirit, sent by God.

Second, we’re made clean. God remembers our sins no more. It’s not that God forgets. God knows all the things I have done. But because we are in Christ, the sins have no bearing on the relationship. God loves us and sees us His children. Covenant people live as new creations who are invited into relationship with God. We do not fear of death and are not threatened by sin. Jesus has us covered.

There is a tension there with Jesus and the disciples around the table, even as he speaks of bread and cup, New Kingdom and New Covenant. These 12, so close to Jesus, would betray him, deny knowing him, abandon him completely, and even after the resurrection doubt the truth about him. But each who returns to Jesus from their fear, their denial and doubt, each is redeemed. So are we.

Our call is to live in the Spirit bringing glory to the one who is the author of the New Covenant, the covenant of eternal life and eternal relationship between humans and God. We began Lent praying in certain pathways – some prayed for God to open to them the way of evangelism or in the way of Sabbath. Many prayed for God to make clear the way of compassion and others the way of purity. Sabbath, Evangelism, Purity, Compassion; some prayed along other lines, seeking God’s leadership.

Some gave something up for Lent, as a spiritual discipline. But the discipline failed. It was good for a week. He went without, but then caved. “Jesus doesn’t need me to go without meat.” It’s true, he doesn’t. But, do I benefit from fasting by being drawn to Him. Or did I not benefit because I cheated on my fast? Or, I have succumbed to legalism. I have kept my fast and not cheated once, but the hasn’t made me feel closer to God. I’m just grumpy without coffee or chocolate or whatever.

Our spiritual disciplines are similar to the Old Covenant in that they will not cleanse us, and keeping the disciplines will not make us more moral or more acceptable in God’s eyes. Old Covenant and spiritual disciplines are good and I encourage a love of Torah and the practice of disciplines. But what absolutely need for covenant with God is His grace and that is given freely and seen most clearly in Jesus.

“I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Later, Luke records the risen Jesus saying, “Repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be proclaimed in [my] name to all nations.” We know the Kingdom has come. Now in spirit and in the future in body, Jesus gladly drinks with us. The covenant is unbreakable. Because he gives himself and gives grace and we receive in faith, we are and forever will be covenant people.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Palm Sunday – Story and Significance (Heb. 9:11-14; Mark 11:1-17)

Sunday, April 1, 2012 - Palm Sunday

This day, Palm Sunday, marks a key moment in the Jesus drama as we read it in the Bible. Each of the four gospels has a different slant, but each includes the ride of Jesus into Jerusalem on a Sunday a few days before Passover.

At Passover the people remembered their slavery in Egypt and they remembered how the angel of death, sent from God, killed the first born of all living things in Egypt, human and animal. But, Moses told the people to sacrifice a lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their doorposts. If they did, and the angel of death came, he would “pass over” that home, and not take the first born. After this tragedy imposed on Egypt by God, the Pharaoh released the Jewish slaves. God’s people were free to go.

Since that time, at the Passover meal Jews have annually celebrated their freedom and their unique calling as God’s chosen people. At the end of the first century BC, those celebrations were filled with irony and thoughts of revolution. This is because the people were not free, but enslaved once again, this time in their own land under the heavy-handed rule of Rome. Jesus intentionally came to Jerusalem at this politically heated time, Passover. He came with the purpose of announcing the arrival of the new age, the kingdom of God, founded on his lordship. The people expected the Messiah to usher in a new age and that’s exactly what Jesus was doing.

That’s the background of Palm Sunday.

Here is how Mark describes what took place.

7 And they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. 8 And many spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. 9 And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
11 And he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it.
15 And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 16 And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. 17 And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” 18 And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. 19 And when evening came they went out of the city.

Once again freedom was being declared in Jerusalem as Jesus rode in like a reigning king, but his kingdom was so different than the political machine the Jews had come to imagine and hope for that few recognized him as the Messiah and as the Lord and as the right King. He fulfilled the prophecies. He just didn’t fulfill them the way most thought the Messiah would.

As we think about Jesus and the scriptures we have for Palm Sunday, the verses we read from Hebrews give us a way of understanding what took place when Jesus came, rode in as the King, cleared out the money changing tables, and in doing so claimed authority over the temple. Hebrews 9:11 says, Jesus entered the holy place and came before God “through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation).”

The temple was thought of as the point at which human and divine would come into contact. The priests, and once a year the high priest, would sacrifice on behalf of the people so that sins were covered. Worship was probably bloodier than we can really imagine. Our church services are musical. And there’s a teaching/preaching element. We respond with prayer and giving. We greet one another. Our time of worship is social. The ancient worship included some of the elements we have, but the big event was the slaughter of the animal and then the burning of the animal so that it was a burnt offering.

It was such a massive operation, and so valued by people, that the temple leaders made a nice prophet changing currency. They of course would not accept Roman coins in the temple treasury. So if people wanted to make a monetary offering, they needed temple coins. They had to do the exchange. Again, many people, maybe most, who came to worship in the Jerusalem temple wanted to offer an animal as a burnt offering. And they especially wanted to do so at the time of Passover. They couldn’t travel 100’s of miles with a dove or a goat in tow. So they would buy one at the temple. And to do so, they had to change out their money.

In a rush of anger, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers. Then, throughout the week, before he was arrested on Thursday, Jesus had verbal sparring matches with the scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees. Finally, as he talked about the work of God and the new beginning in Mark 13 and in other places, he declared the temple finished. One of his disciples was thrilled with the architecture, but Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings [of the temple]? Not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down” (Mark 13:2). John records Jesus as facing off with temple leaders when he said, “Destroy this temple and in three days, I will raise it up” (John 2:19).

What does he mean? Mark 13, Matthew 24-25, and Luke 21 (and other sections of Luke) each record Jesus teaching in apocalyptic language. The images he uses tempt us to think he’s referring to the end of time, but I don’t believe that is the case.
I am convinced that all the events described in apocalyptic language Mark 13 (and also in Matthew and Luke) took place in the first century with the death and resurrection of Jesus. I know the more popular reading associates Mark 13 with events imagined in the popular Left Behind series, but my thought is Jesus was talking about what happened in his coming and his rising from death. He said the temple would come down and then be raised in three days. Did that happen? In 70AD, the Romans destroyed the temple completely as Jerusalem burned. Was it rebuilt in three days? It was not.

Jesus meant that he was now accomplishing what the temple was meant to accomplish. People had thought they were to go to the temple to find God. Jesus identified himself as the place where God is found. He was the new temple. As N.T. Wright says in The Challenge of Jesus: “Jesus was deliberately acting in a way as to say that where he was and where his followers were, Israel’s God was present and active in the same he normally was in the temple.”

Furthermore, Wright asserts that much of what the first century Jews were doing – fasting at certain times and holding to particular religious austerity indicates that they considered themselves to be in exile because Rome ruled over God’s land – the city of Zion. Jesus came to say the bridegroom is here; it’s a time of feasting, not fasting. But the feast only comes with the arrival of the Messiah. On that Palm Sunday, amidst cries from many Jews for a military revolution, the prince of peace, who taught us to turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute us, was saying the Messiah and the new age of God had arrived.

The stones of the temple were obsolete because he, as Hebrews says, went before God through a different tent. The writer of Hebrews casts a theological light on the story that Mark and the other gospel writers told. The stone and gold of the temple, so beautifully designed and artfully built, was as rubbish to Jesus who died and rose to life and rose to Heaven to go before God on our behalf. His gruesome death and then his appearance in God’s throne room where he sat at God’s right hand did what generations of sacrifice in the beautiful temple could not. This gets weighty and confusing as we consider that Jesus is God and went before God, but that is the mystery of the trinity that we cannot grasp. We accept it by faith. What’s more, by faith, we accept that Jesus is our salvation.

Mark tells this truth in story form – the drama of Jesus riding in on what we now call Palm Sunday. His disciples cheered him, religious leaders plotted to kill him, and the watching world wondered. Mark’s telling of this story – and by saying it is story, I don’t mean it isn’t true; it is absolutely true and real – Mark’s telling has inspired people to faith for the last 1900 years.

So too has the theological reflection on the events of the Jesus story that we find in the letter to the Hebrews. If the Hebrews 9:11-12 shows the difference between the way Jesus goes before God and the way the temple priests did so, then verse 14, gives us a bit of what happened when Jesus did his priestly work by sacrificing himself. We are purified of dead works so that we may do something alive – worship the living God. In the Message version it is rendered, “Christ offered himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God.”

Seeing Jesus on Palm Sunday – Jesus the King who displaced the temple not as a rejection of Old Testament religion so much as a fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament and a reaching back to God’s original intended relationship with humans, with us – see Jesus this was, we know we are freed to answer God’s call. We are called to worship. This is not a case of prematurly jumping to the resurrection before we’ve walked through the shadow of death the cross casts. We know we have to go through Friday to get to Sunday. But, we also see the story in light of the big picture because we live in an age when we have the New Testament and we have the Holy Spirit.

Jesus came and died to free us so we could follow the Holy Spirit in our lives. The Spirit leads us to worship and to tell of Jesus’ kingdom. This is the gospel and it – the narrative of the coming of Jesus – shines through both in Mark (story) and Hebrews (theological reflection).

What appeals more in your thinking? Some enjoy stories – telling and hearing them. Some enjoy slipping serious matters into casual conversation. Some are thrilled by diving in head-first into deep waters of theological dialogue. Some enjoy communicating through friendship, acts of love and then invitation – inviting a friend to church so the friend can hear the gospel in the worship setting. What’s most natural for you? How has God created you as a storyteller or gospel sharer?

The story in Mark and the reflection in Hebrews were preserved believers through the generations would know what happened and how to understand it. But it is not ours. It is Gods, a story and a reality he gives as gifts and we only truly receive the gospel when we share it. Palm Sunday – Good Friday – Easter; this is a time to share. Live in the story. Live in your salvation. And notice someone nearby who appears to be hurting or lost, confused or frustrated. Invite that person you notice to come hear the Jesus story for him or herself. In sharing, we fully realize the magnitude of grace as it flows through us.

Thursday of this week, we continue in the story, going from the cheers of Palm Sunday to the sober mood of Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper. Come back to church that night and bring a friend because this story if given to us by God and it is to be heard, understood, and shaed.