It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ Who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2.20)
Saturday, April 7, 2012
Friday, April 6, 2012
The Back Story
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. (John 13.29)
The Great Big Middle
This past Monday I joined over 1000 Chicagoans for CROSSwalk, a solemn, four-mile procession that mourned the loss of our city's youth to gun violence. We wore paper bibs that read, “632”—the number of minors killed on our streets since 2008—“more than we can bear.” In the time needed to produce the bibs, the number went up, as several more youngsters met with untimely death. The procession stuck to the sidewalks, where most of these inexcusable murders occur, where safety must be restored. It stopped at several points for prayer and remembrance before concluding at Stroger Hospital, where many of the city’s young gunshot victims are pronounced dead. The hospital’s imposing edifice reminded me of a tomb that was anything but empty. While we pledged to defeat this menace, inside its walls wounded teens and children were fighting for their lives.
The Right Reverend Jeffrey Lee, Episcopal Bishop of Chicago, closed the event with a quote from Martin Luther: “Pray like everything depends on God; work like everything depends on you.” It summed up the unspoken dilemma resting heavily on our hearts: how do we transform our sorrow and outrage into meaningful action? Yet throughout the walk, we were repeatedly told to “listen to what the Spirit is telling God’s people,” and the message rising in our spirits told us, “I’ll be with you to help you figure this out. You can do it.” I sensed none of the jittery impatience that often infects closing rallies at these kinds of events. The urgency to act was swaddled in calm assurance that, step-by-step, with God’s help, we can and will reverse this cruel tide of destruction and grief. Our commitment surpasses rushing to stop violence; we’re determined to eliminate it. That will take time.
Impatience is the natural-born enemy of kingdom work. All but a very few of Jesus’s parables—His lessons about restoring God’s kingdom on earth—involve patience. Seeds must have time to sprout; fruit and grain must ripen; investments must mature; lost children and sheep and coins must be found. In nearly every story, there is that great big middle where meticulous attention to growth must happen. The great big middle where we work and wait, where everything depends on God and us. The great big middle where we learn that time is on our side, offering a chance to tend to details that ensure bountiful harvests and lasting results. The great big middle is such a standard fixture in Jesus’s teaching that we wonder how Judas misses it. But he does. And that surprises us, as he’s the detail guy who keeps the books and manages the money. It’s his job to maintain what's needed to do the work of the great big middle.
For obvious reasons, the Gospels downplay Judas’s role in Jesus’s ministry. Prior to his betrayal of Jesus, Matthew, Mark, and Luke only mention him in passing as a disciple. They give his full name, Judas Iscariot, and note him as “the traitor.” John foreshadows his treachery by identifying him as the disciple who protests after a woman anoints Jesus with costly perfume that might have been sold to provide for the poor. We’re not really sure what John’s up to with this. Judas’s complaint at first casts him as a misguided activist. But then John discredits him by saying Judas wanted to bank the money because he skimmed from the coffers. That’s hard to swallow, though, since it seems unlikely he’d be given charge of “the common purse” if he were suspected of thievery. So there’s probably some revisionist shading in John’s accusation.
More reliable clues about Judas’s character surface in his surname, and even then, scholars aren’t sure what it means. Some speculate that “Iscariot” refers to a Judean town of no notoriety, while others believe it refers to the Sicarii, a group of Jewish assassins bent on overthrowing Roman rule. Still others theorize the writers assign “Iscariot” after the fact, alluding to Hebrew words that mean “the false one” or “choked” in reference to his suicide by hanging.
Perhaps the clearest window into Judas’s soul opens during the Last Supper when Jesus tells him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” (John 13.27) Quickly. The adverb misleads the other disciples to think Jesus is sending Judas on an errand—possibly to buy supplies to celebrate Passover (which begins the next day) or to donate some of their funds to the poor. In retrospect, of course, we know Judas has jumped sides in collusion with those who want to destroy Jesus. His impatience to see change he longs for (whatever that may be) burdens him with a false sense of urgency. Feeling stuck in the great big middle, forced to work and wait for lasting change, doesn’t suit him. His eagerness to speed progress along urges him to switch loyalties. Realizing He’s lost Judas, Jesus tells him, “Do whatever you need to do, and be quick about it.” Jesus has lost patience with Judas’s impatience. Jesus might have warned, “Rushing to judgment breeds injustice. Your plan is doomed to backfire.” Which is what happens. Both will be dead in 24 hours’ time. Only one will rise again.
High-Minded and Shortsighted
Succumbing to impatience with the great big middle is how high minds fall. The compulsion to make something happen soon distracts them from tedious tasks required to get the job done. Everything becomes expendable—ideals, people, loyalties, and even purpose—when the ends justifies the means. And when “any means necessary” becomes the justification for hasty, imprudent actions, we invite chaos and failure to the party.
We talk a lot of big stuff around here: truing our lives to Christ’s example and teachings, loving God and others without restraint, living by faith and not by sight, combatting Christian exclusion, striving for social justice and equality, eradicating violence and abuse, and on down the list of daunting challenges that come part and parcel with life in God’s kingdom. Every personal and social change we seek can’t come quick enough. Every step we make toward progress presses us to move quicker, to put less effort in the tedious necessities and more into giant leaps. We become high-minded and shortsighted and we fall. If, as some suggest, Judas was set on overthrowing Roman oppression, it clouded his understanding that Christ came to accomplish something far greater and more enduring. Jesus had no use for uprooting a regime. He came to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom in the hearts and minds of every human—a kingdom that would grow if carefully, patiently tended. The mission that plays out in His trial, execution, and resurrection is one of reconciliation and redemption, not revenge and replacement.
Faithfulness is lived in the great big middle, where we keep our heads down and do the hard work of God’s kingdom. Is that not Lent’s great lesson? Is it not epitomized in the agony of the cross? Is it not witnessed in the stalwart women who arise early in the morning to tend to Jesus’s grave? Judas teaches us where rushing to judgment and other acts of impatience lead. In our eagerness to reach the empty tomb, let us never forget that the road beyond it is long and difficult, that the work it calls us to do is tedious and time-consuming. There are miles of great big middle that we must travel—as individuals and the Body of Christ—to make good on Calvary’s promise of redemption and Easter’s restoration of life.
While we can’t say with certainty what Judas’s motives were for betraying Jesus, we can all relate to his impatience to act on his compulsions. His high-mindedness leads to shortsightedness and he falls.
Monday, April 2, 2012
He was teaching and saying, “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.” And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill Him; for they were afraid of Him. (Mark 11.17-18)
The Things Jesus Hated
A couple weeks ago, our pastor came across a 1950 directory from our congregation and shared some of its contents with us. From a paragraph called “The Meaning of Church Membership” she read these words:
To be a worthy church member, one must have the temper and disposition of Jesus, taking His attitude toward God and man, looking at life from His standpoint, hating the things which He hated, loving the things which He loved, and doing in cooperation with others the kind of things which He did.
Hating the things which He hated? We’re not the kind of church that ascribes hatred of any kind to Jesus. God is love. Jesus is God. Ergo, Jesus is love. Yet in this context, paired with “loving the things which He loved,” I was struck with a new awareness that Jesus truly did hate many things about our world. Prejudice, false piety, selfishness, violence, callousness, political ambition, deceit, resentment—all of the things that destroy love for God and one another—He despised. He made no room for ambivalence about them. He hated them. What's more, He wasn’t reluctant to say so, regardless how difficult expressing His hatred made His own life.
In fact, as we retrace His steps through Holy Week, we’re initially stunned by what can only be described as conscious acts of hatred from Jesus. In the wake of the Triumphal Entry, we see Him return to Jerusalem on Monday morning, not to bask in the upsurge of adulation, but to express overt hostility toward the religious and political corruption of His day. His audacity and disregard for His popularity, which is at its peak, are breathtaking. And while three of the four Gospels report Monday’s main event—the clearing of the Temple merchants—Mark and Matthew couple it with a rather bizarre incident that shocks us, as it seems completely out of character for Jesus.
On Their Side
The Palm Sunday story ends with a cliffhanger. After the crowd’s enthusiastic hosannas die down, Jesus walks into the Temple, looks around for a moment, and leaves. All that’s missing from the scene is “I’ll be back.” Sure enough, come Monday morning, Jesus’s first order of business is returning to the Temple. He doesn’t even wait for breakfast. As soon as He can get the disciples together, He heads back into Jerusalem—having spent the night in an outlying village—and along the way, He gets hungry. He sees a tree and decides to make do with one of its figs. But the tree is barren because figs aren’t in season. Jesus knows that, which makes His response to not finding fruit curiously upsetting. He curses the tree! “May no one ever eat fruit from you again,” He hisses—so loudly that the disciples hear Him. (Mark 11.14) What’s the problem here? Is Jesus in a bad mood? Is He overtired and impatient? Perhaps. He’s coming off an exhausting day and anticipating an even tougher one, given what He plans to do in Jerusalem. Still, His reaction seems weirdly out of scale.
The Temple is humming by the time Jesus arrives. It’s Passover week and many provincials have turned up early to attend to various sacrifices and offerings before the feast. In the courtyard, moneychangers and livestock traders are open for business, which is booming. As Jesus enters the Temple, He’s keenly aware of stepping into a seller’s market. It’s the ancient equivalent of a modern theme park, where out-of-towners pay ridiculous prices for things that would cost a fraction of the money at home. Jesus hates what’s going on. He goes on a rampage, overturning the moneychanger’s tables and livestock traders’ chairs. Then, in a stunning display of authority, He shuts everything down. Verse 16 says, “He would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” You bet everyone who doesn’t yet know Who He is wants to find out what He’s all about. Jesus begins to teach right there on the spot, knitting prophecies from Isaiah and Jeremiah together as He indicts the price-gougers: “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.” (v17) Mark says when the Temple establishment hears this, it stokes their determination to kill Jesus. They’re afraid of Jesus, we’re told, because His hatred of those who exploit the worshipers resonates with the crowd. Jesus is on their side and He’s unconcerned about what may happen to Him for standing with them. His deep hatred of evildoing gives Him power to confront it head-on.
New Wholeness and Holiness
So we understand Jesus’s actions in the Temple—and we understand how they seal His fate, which will play out in agonizing extremes on Friday morning. Now, what about the fig tree? On Tuesday morning, returning again to the city, Peter notices that it’s shriveled down to its roots. It’s not dead. But it will need to be revived before it can yield fruit. When Peter points out the tree, Jesus explains the situation by saying that faith’s power is double-edged. It can build things up and make things grow. It can likewise cause things to crumble and wither away. “Truly I tell you,” He says in verse 23, “if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.”
This mountain—the Mount of Olives, which they’re descending to reach Jerusalem—is a holy place. According to the prophets, it’s the site where the Messiah will first appear and His appearance will split the mountain wide open. (Zechariah 14.4) Jesus is saying that nothing is ever so sacred—or sacrosanct—that it’s immune to being dismantled and remade. A barren tree can be reduced to its roots to regrow and yield new fruit. A holy hill can be torn asunder and thrown into the sea to make way for a New Order. A Temple defiled by exploitation of captive believers can be cleansed and reestablished as the house of prayer that God ordained it to be. Jesus tells us when we couple hatred of what we know is unhealthy and displeasing to God with faith that it can be replaced with something better, what we say will come to pass. Faithful acts of hatred spring forth in new life and new growth—new wholeness and holiness.
As believers, we are called to hate the things that Jesus hated. But our calling doesn’t stop there. Jesus teaches us to speak to those things, to act against them—and to pay no regard for the consequences that may befall us. We are called to decry and oppose poverty, prejudice, exploitation, violence, hypocrisy, and every other ill that defiles God’s creation. Love that ignores harm or tolerates indifference is harmful and indifferent. It’s no love at all. The world’s evils justify our hatred and the actions we take to dismantle them. As we will learn next Sunday, destructive hatred will never defeat its righteous counterpart. Why? Because hating the things that Jesus hated is an act of love. And love always wins.
In cleansing the Temple, Jesus teaches us that evil merits our hatred—and nothing is so sacred or sacrosanct that it can’t be dismantled and replaced by new life, new growth, new wholeness and holiness.