Shame, but Glory

File:Brooklyn Museum - The First Nail (Le premier clou) - James Tissot.jpgGood Friday
March 30, 2018

We have come to the middle of our three day observance of the cross and resurrection. Last night we heard the story of the Last Supper when Jesus stripped himself of his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, and bent to wash the feet of his followers.

They were gathered at Passover, when Israel remembers how God saved them in the night that death swept through Egypt and touched every home. The royal throne in Egypt had not only oppressed the people of Israel who had come to their land as refugees, but grew fearful of them and commanded the death of Israel’s male children. The midwives refused the order to kill the infants at birth, reporting that the Israelite women were like animals and gave birth before they could arrive. So the command was given that all male infants be thrown into the Nile – food for the crocodiles.

It was Egypt’s war against the children of Israel – a people that God called “my son” – and their refusal to let them go, that led ultimately to the death of their own sons. There is a price to pay for hardness of heart. But by the blood of a lamb, God protected the Israelites. And in that night of Egypt’s sorrow, they were able to flee.

The week-long festival of Passover celebrates that moment when imperial power was overthrown and God’s people gained their freedom. It is why the Roman imperial forces were so nervous during the celebration of Passover in Jerusalem. Vast crowds came to the city to celebrate this moment of national liberation and Rome feared the spark of rebellion.

When Jesus arrives in the city, and people are crying out “hosanna” as if he were a king, the powers that be sent a mob to grab him in the night and hand him over to the authorities as a rebel threat to the leadership of the nation and the might of Rome.

The punishment for rebels was crucifixion. It was a terrible way to die, but a thoroughly effective way to quash any challenge to the ruling powers. The victim was stripped not only of his clothes but any shred of dignity. It is why we end the service last night with the stripping of the altar.

Jesus is abused, tortured, mocked, scourged with a whip that has sharp bits of metal inserted into the ends of the thongs. He is driven through the streets for people to look on with horror or abuse, and impaled along the public roadway so that all can see the consequences of resisting those in power.

It is compelling to ponder how this Galilean healer and teacher should so incite the fear and hostility of Judah’s leaders that they would hand him over to the Roman authorities to be crucified. Why is Jesus such a threat to the way of the world? And why do we not see him as a threat in our time?

It is interesting to consider that, in his time, Martin Luther King, Jr. was regarded as such a dangerous man, and so widely disliked and hated. But now he is a safe and tame national hero.

We have done something of the same thing to Jesus. We have made him safe and tame. Jesus has become the defender of polite society rather than a challenge to it. What he said about the care of the poor and vulnerable, what he said about those outcasts on the margins of society, what he said about the treatment of those society sees as “sinners”, what he said about the dangers of wealth and greed, what he said about our concern for honor from society rather than honor from God – all that seems safely packaged up and stored on the shelf. But Good Friday reminds us that Jesus was not so safe and domesticated. He wasn’t interested in us being religious; he called for us to do justice and mercy. And it got him killed.

Think how easily protesters of injustice are attacked as troublemakers, whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or high school kids protesting the proliferation of military weapons in civil society. The police beat the protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as brutally as they beat the striking coal miners in West Virginia in another era. The powerful family of Caiaphas wasn’t going to hold back against a Galilean peasant who said that debts needed to be forgiven.

The church has helped to domesticate Jesus by making the story of Good Friday a story of personal sin and redemption. We have taken this complicated and powerful story and turned it into a rather simple religious formula: we are sinners, God is righteous, God’s righteousness demands that we be punished, Jesus takes the punishment that we deserve, if we accept his forgiveness we get to go to heaven.

I understand this idea. I understand the truth of it. There is, indeed, truth here. Jesus does take upon himself the judgment that belongs on us. There is redemption and forgiveness in these outstretched arms. But it is much more complicated than such a simple formula.

There is a profound difference between thinking about the suffering of Jesus as part of an abstract equation, and truly seeing the horror of what was done to him. And it doesn’t matter that Jesus was innocent. It’s not like it was a shame about Jesus but those other two guys deserved what they got. No one should be crucified. Something has gone deeply wrong in the human heart that we are capable of such cruelty.

Something has gone deeply wrong in the human heart that we can fail to see the humanity of others. Something has gone deeply wrong when we can write off people in categories like immigrants, criminals, Nazis or Jews. Something is deeply wrong when American citizens get rounded up and put in interment camps because they are of Japanese descent. Something is deeply wrong in the human heart when “homosexuals” and “communists” and “Jews” are rounded up for the gas chamber. Something is deeply wrong when people are classified as “enemies” and “terrorists” allowing them to be tortured or bombed. The crucifixion of Jesus is a mirror of the human heart. And what we see there should make us ashamed.

This is where we can talk about redemption. It’s not that there are some black marks in my record I need Jesus to erase; there is something broken in me. And it is in that moment when I see that something is broken in me – then I am ready to truly hear Jesus say “Father, forgive them.” Then I can understand what redemption truly means.

God has seen the worst face of humanity, and still shows love to us. He has suffered our shame. He has carried our burden. Christ on the cross has shown us the dark secrets of the human heart and the bright love of God.

Jesus has offered us his Spirit. He has given us his word. He has shown us the path. He has promised to take us on this journey of being born anew, born from above, born of the Spirit.

He has promised us life and salvation – that is to say, he has promised us healing and wholeness. He has promised to come and reign in our hearts and in our world – and he is offering to come and reign in us now.

The cross is shame, but glory. It is a terrible reflection of the human soul, but a wondrous reflection of God’s love. It is our new beginning. It is new beginning for the world.

Amen

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Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ABrooklyn_Museum_-_The_First_Nail_(Le_premier_clou)_-_James_Tissot.jpg James Tissot [No restrictions or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For the whole world

Friday

1 John 1:1-2:2

File:Meister Theoderich von Prag 013.jpg2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified at the hour the lambs are slaughtered for the Passover. In John’s memory – or in his theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ death – it is not the Passover meal when Jesus arises to wash his followers feet. It is the night before. And the day he is sacrificed, is the day the lambs are sacrificed. He dies as the lambs died, to redeem the nation from death.

Whether John’s account is memory or reflection, the power of the imagery is impossible to miss. Christ is our Passover lamb. In the imagery of the Book of Revelation, he is the lamb who was slain standing in the center of the throne.

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins,” writes the author of 1 John. And with those simple words we are reminded of Christ our Passover Lamb whose blood marks the door and saves us from death.

But the author of 1 John writes more: “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

“For the sins of the whole world.” He is the atoning sacrifice not only for the shame we bring upon God for our pedestrian selfishness – the occasional greed, thoughtlessness, selfishness, betrayal that’s so much a part of ordinary human existence – but for the great shame of fratricide that has plagued us since Cain rose up against Abel: the slaughter of other children of God in the name of God, wealth, power, ideology and simple hate, envy, and vengeance. Unspeakable crimes from every beaten woman to every segregated fountain, from every raped child to every tortured prisoner, from every neglected elder to every stolen pension, from every death camp to mass grave. Unspeakable crimes against humanity. Unspeakable crimes against the children of God.

“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Most of us are likely to excuse our own petty sins. We don’t imagine they need real atonement. And for those other sins we imagine there is no atonement, no way to make it right. But before us stands the cross, the nails, the scourge, the thorns, the grave. Before us stands the stone rolled away. Before us stands the risen one with wounds. And in our hands is the broken bread – the sign of his broken body. Broken for us. Broken for the world. The whole world.

Our hands should tremble as we hold it.

 

Image: Theodoric of Prague [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The new year

Wednesday

Exodus 12 (A Maundy Thursday text)

File:PikiWiki Israel 14865 Jewish holidays.jpg2This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.

God commanded Israel to make the month of Passover the first month of the year. At the full moon came the sacrifice of the lambs and the meal when the ancient story was told: they had been slaves in Egypt and God had set them free. I don’t know when Canaanite culture around them – or Egyptian culture, for that matter – had celebrated the new year other than that it was associated with the natural world and the cycle of the seasons (Baal was the God of the storm and the new year came with the return of the rains). But God has placed his people out of step with the society around them.

The New Year is for us, too, the time of new beginnings, the time of starting over, the time of leaving the past behind and embracing a future that we all hope will be better. There is no small measure of irony in the fact that our culture seems to celebrate such a day of new beginnings with behaviors that are rarely ennobling. I suspect that getting drunk and hoping to get lucky are indicative of our fear of time rather than our trust in the future, our fear of our mortality and the fleetingness of our days.

For Israel, their feet still wet from the waters of the Red Sea, God declares that Passover will be the beginning of their year. It is an act of Lordship: God is giving his people a new calendar than the one given by their slave masters. This day of new beginnings is not linked to the return of the sun or the fertility of the fields but to God’s act in time when he led them through the sea out from bondage. This day leads all the rest. This day defines all the days to come.

We have not made Easter the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, but these are still the days that define all the rest. Every Sunday is a festival of the resurrection; every morning the dawning of the new creation. We live now in the realm of light and life. We live now in the realm of grace and truth. We are defined by an empty grave. We are freed from shame and the fear of death. . “The grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God stands forever.” “(Isaiah 40:7-8) “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)

We still get up and go to work. We still worry about the future and our children. We “marry and are given in marriage.” We still struggle with our inner thoughts and desires, our aches and angsts. But we are sons and daughters of the Most High, emissaries of heaven, agents of blessing, the heart and hands of Christ. We are inheritors of the kingdom – and participants even now. We are children of the resurrection.

All our days are defined by these days, all our hours by these hours – by the new commandment, by the redeeming sacrifice, by the empty tomb, by the commission to go and tell.