Sunday, April 22, 2012
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Monday, April 16, 2012
What is the gospel? According to Paul, the gospel contains three parts, as he describes in 1 Corinthians 15: Jesus Christ died and was buried for our sins AND he was raised on the third day, both according to the scriptures. These are the first two parts of the three-fold gospel. The third is something that is neglected but is just as important as the first two parts: witness.
As Paul writes, Jesus appeared to Peter and then to the disciples, and then to more than five hundred people at once, and then to the apostles, and to James, and then last of all to me. The reason this part of the gospel is so important is that it is through eyewitness testimony that this gospel gets passed on. Christianity would have died out without it. We, too, are witnesses, because Jesus has appeared to us as well, in our hearts, in our minds, through the testimony that has been passed on to us. We believe because we have seen him working in the world. Jesus is like the wind. We cannot physically see him, but we see the effect has has on the world, and so we can “see” him. We can see his work in progress. We know he is there.
Today's scripture readings are all about witness and the power of witness. This is such an important part of the gospel that you can see it all throughout the Bible. In our Acts passage (4:32-35) it looks like we are reading about how the early Christians were communists, but what we are actually seeing is the power of witness: “With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.” The communal sharing of property is a voluntary reaction to the witness of the apostles. How many communist countries do you know became that way because the leaders bore testimony about Jesus' resurrection? Zero.
Our first letter of John is all about testimony: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and we declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us.” This is the witness part of the gospel, and is such an important part of the gospel. Without it, there would be no gospel.
In my private devotionals, I read all of second Peter this week. Here is a passage of witness that I came across: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Peter then describes Christ's baptism with the dove and booming voice, and then he describes the transfiguration on the mountain, also with the booming voice. Peter was there. He was an eyewitness to Christ's glory, and he passes that eyewitness testimony on to us.
Notice what Pete says about cleverly devised myths. Eyewitness testimony dispels myths. The apostles speak the truth, because they witnessed the risen Christ. What about us? A couple thousand years have passed since these things happened. We have been listening to the testimony, but isn't it just hearsay? Aren't people today telling us again that we believe cleverly devised myths with no truth in them. How can we respond? We weren't eyewitnesses.
The answer to this is the Holy Spirit. He is the eyewitness. He lives in our hearts, interpreting scripture for us, revealing God in creation for us, revealing Christ in the world for us. He is the perfect eyewitness, and when we see something with God's fingerprints all over it, the Holy Spirit points out that this is the risen Christ. We become eyewitnesses through the Holy Spirit. When you know something is true, you have that feeling that you are a witnesses to the truth. You may try to explain why that thing is true, and you may fail at describing why it is true, but you know in your blood and bones that it is true. “I can't tell you why,” you may say, “but I KNOW that it is true.” That is the Holy Spirit acting as eyewitness in you.
We have this knack in our modern times, due to the modern mindset, to say that we will not believe without concrete evidence. And yet, so much in this world is held on faith, that we take so much for granted. When it comes to science, there is so much unseen faith. For example, scientists may use the scientific method, but how do they know that the scientific method is reliable? Faith based on the eyewitness testimony of others.
When Thomas says that he will not believe that Christ has risen from the grave until he actually puts his fingers into his wounds, we point to “Doubting Thomas” as being a scientist, a modern doubter, who must have concrete evidence or he will not believe. Well, when we read today's gospel passage (John 20:19-21), we see that Thomas rejects eyewitness testimony, and this testimony by people who have freshly received the Holy Spirit, so it does sound like Thomas is a modern doubter. But in the next scene when Thomas is there, and Jesus appears among them, and he tells Thomas to start performing his scientific study and observation and hands-on evaluation. Does it get that far? Is Thomas a modern doubter? Is he a skeptic after all? No, all he has to do is lay eyes upon the Risen Christ and he responds, “My Lord and my God!” Thomas is an eyewitness. All he needs to do is “see” Jesus to believe.
Jesus tells Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That is us, but we HAVE seen. The eyes of our heart have been opened by the Holy Spirit, who has seen and bears testimony to the truth. We know with all our heart it is the truth, because the eyes of our heart have seen. Blessed are we who have not seen but know the truth, because Jesus Christ has given us a vision of his majesty.
Monday, April 9, 2012
Also, all good news has an element of divine intervention. Whenever something good happens to someone, it is like a miracle. “God is really favoring me today! Wow, God did something amazing in my life!” Whenever we get that personal good news, God is definitely involved.
This is not new. Personal good news that involved divine intervention has been happening from the beginning of time. Here are a few from the bible: Remember Abraham, leading his son up the mountain with the intention of sacrificing him? God stopped him from doing it. God intervened. Remember how Esau was determined to kill Jacob, and yet when they finally met up, Esau embraced him? Even though their descendants would be enemies, God prevented Esau from killing Jacob. Remember when Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery and Egyptians witnessed against him so that he ended up in prison? God released Joseph from prison to save the entire region from famine.
Remember when God's people were being oppressed and killed in Egypt? God sent Moses to free them from bondage. Remember when the Israelites refused to enter the promised land and chose to die out in the wilderness? God raised up Joshua to help Israel conquer the land. Remember when Israel kept getting invaded by other nations and put into slavery? God raised up Judges to drive those conquering nations out.
Remember when Israel decided it wanted to stop being special and get a king like every other nation? God raised up David, the best possible king for the people. Remember when David was being chased around by the murderous Saul? God kept and protected him. Remember when the wicked kings of Israel turned their nation away from God and were conquered by their enemies? And the whole nation was taken into exile? God protected the captives and sometimes they, like Daniel, would convert their oppressors. God also allowed the people to return to their land.
Remember when even though the Romans had conquered the area, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion and live protected in their land. All of these things, from Abraham until the time of Christ, were situations where God's people could have died or been vanquished or ruined or destroyed utterly, and yet God always protected them, at least a remnant. God always reached in and put his mark on the situation. As Joseph told his brothers, what they intended for evil, God turned into good.
So, something happened three days ago. It looked like a similar situation to every other event in the Bible. God's chosen, Jesus Christ, was about to be killed. He was led up to the mountain, like Abraham led Isaac, and he was crucified on a cross. The people watching heard him cry out to God, and they said, let's see if God will save him. It was possible, because it had happened throughout all of Israel's history. God had always turned the tables to protect and save his people. Would this time be no different?
No, it was different. God did not act. The father did not come down from heaven and save the son. He let it happen. He didn't stop the Romans. He didn't give everyone a change of heart. He didn't send ten plagues to destroy Christ's killers. He didn't part the red sea and give his son an escape route. He didn't conquer the whole region and raise up Jesus as king. He didn't send an army of angels. He let Jesus die.
Why? Because Christ died for our sins. All of us. The sins of the whole world. Isaac could not die for our sins. He was not a perfect human sacrifice. Jacob could not die. Joseph could not die. No single person in the nation of Israel could die. Neither Moses nor Joshua nor David. None of them could die for the sins of the world. Only a sinless man could die. Only a perfect sacrifice. Only Jesus Christ could die for our sins. And he did. And the father let him. No divine intervention for Jesus.
But there WAS divine intervention. It was on the world scale. It was the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus coming to earth to save us is the ultimate good news. This is the only piece of good news that is worldwide and is God's intervention. As I said before, every war has a losing side, but God saving the world through his son Jesus Christ is the only worldwide news that is good news for all people. The incarnation of Jesus Christ was the intervention, and it was for the entire world.
God reveals the good news to us on this day—Easter—by raising his son from the dead. God has revealed to all mankind the Good News in the resurrection, and it is the best news possible.
Pontius Pilate said these words as he presented Jesus to the Jewish people. The soldiers had flogged and beaten Jesus. They had put a robe on him, a crown of thorns on his head. Pilate said he found no basis for the charges against him. Yet here stands Jesus, dressed up in a robe and crown, looking like a king. If the Jews saw him like that, they would go nuts! And then Pilate has the nerve to say that he finds no fault. Such contempt for both Jesus and the Jewish people. What a clever, clever Roman you are, Pilate. Because he doesn't believe Jesus is God.
The world did not know him, as John chapter one tells us. Jesus came into the world and it didn't know him. Friday is all about the world. Sunday is all about the truth. Friday is all about lies, the lies that the world tells itself, to avoid believing.
Behold the man!
Remember the Mel Gibson movie, “The Passion of the Christ?” It's all about “beholding the man.” Sure we see Jesus rise at the end, for a brief second. But the movie is all about beholding the crucified man and about all the horrible things the world can do to a man when it thinks that he is just a man. I asked a friend of mine if she had seen Mel Gibson's movie. She said: I don't want to see a man get tortured for two hours. She didn't believe in Jesus' divinity. She didn't know him. Jesus could be standing in front of her now, and all she would see is a man.
Behold the man!
This is Good Friday. Tonight we see what the world did to the man, Jesus. Tonight we celebrate his humanity. Tonight in our passion reading, the Jews tell Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the son of God. And Pilate got very afraid. Why are you superstitious now, Pilate? He's just a man, right? Behold the man, you said. Do you regret dressing Jesus up like that? Pilate even tries to free Jesus and the Jewish leaders blackmail him. And the whole time, he keeps insulting everybody: continually mocking the Jews and Jesus by calling Jesus a king. He even puts it in writing on a sign above Jesus' head on the cross. All this infuriates the crowd. But still Pilate does not believe. Behold the man, not the God. Beat him, torture him, taunt him. Crucify him. He's just a man, so why not do these things?
So, the world didn't know him as a king. They thought he was just a man. There's another way the world doesn't know him: thinking that he's just a God. I have a friend who says that Jesus played a trick. He pretended to die. He was God, he says, so he didn't really die. He was God. God cannot die. He pretended to die. It was a trick.
If he was only God, he wouldn't get thirsty. Jesus was a man. Fully human. He did not pretend to die. He died. He was killed. Dead. His body was flogged. He was beaten. He was hung on a cross. He suffocated to death. He died. No trick. He died.
That's all we have tonight. That's all we have until Sunday. Luckily we know what happens. We know that Jesus died. No trick. He died because there had to be a sacrifice. We were doomed. Eternal death for all of us. That was the only option. But God does not want that. God wants us to live. So there has to be a sacrifice. All of humanity must be sacrificed. All of sinful humanity. Or! Or one perfect man. Jesus was that man.
Behold the man.
Crucified. Died. Buried. He is dead tonight. No trick. Not a game on us foolish mortals. Not a sly wink, and when our backs are turned, Jesus runs and hides. They pierced his side and he didn't flinch. He is dead. No life is in him. He breathes not. They carry his lifeless body to a tomb, put him in the darkness, and roll a stone in front of the door. Jesus is dead. He has been sacrificed. We can now live, because he has died. Justice is satisfied. The scales that justice holds are balanced. They are even. All is now right that was once wrong.
And Sunday, “dead Jesus” comes back to life. No trick. He was dead. As dead as the nails that pierced his hands. But Sunday we'll see that Jesus lives. He does not bring himself back. He's not hibernating. He's not a butterfly coming out of a cocoon. He was dead. And we know that the Father is the one who will raise him. Is that a parlor trick? If it is, then we should consider ourselves lucky. Because the Father does it again and again. And the Father will do it again and again. Jesus was the first, and we are all the rest.
This was the way to beat death. This was the only way to satisfy God's sense of justice. And yet he loves us so much that he wanted us to live. Forever. With him. That's why Jesus had to die. That's why that perfect, sinless man had to die. My friend who refused to watch the Passion is right. He had to be a man. Only a man could be tortured for hours in the place of all men. So Pilate is right. He had to be a man. Only a man could die in the place of all men. Jesus was fully man.
Behold the man.
But this is just Friday, and we'll find out on Sunday that he wasn't just a man. He was God. In three days we'll say “Behold God.” Behold the one who was and is and is to come. Behold the first and the last. Behold the Alpha and the Omega. Behold the one who holds the keys of death. But it's Friday, so all we can say right now is:
Behold the man.