Saturday, March 30, 2013

Dying to Live

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12.24)

Easter expects us to believe the most supernatural event ever recorded in history. A man is tortured within an inch of his life and nailed to a cross, where he’s exposed to the elements for nine hours, bleeds out, and eventually suffocates beneath the pressure of his weight. His body is rushed into a borrowed crypt, with a massive stone and two guards placed at its entrance to prevent grave robbers from stealing his corpse. (There’s some wild talk predicting he’ll rise from the dead. So it’s best all around to ensure his burial site isn’t tampered with.) Two days later, his friends return to check on the grave and discover the stone has been moved and his body is missing. That’s when they learn that he has indeed come back to life and freed himself from the grave—an amazing feat for a man of uncommon physical strength, let alone someone whose body has been ravaged and who was undeniably dead.

That’s the story and if we’re to believe in the power of Christ in our lives and the world, we have to believe that’s what happened. We can puzzle out all sorts of alternative scenarios. Yet none of them satisfy. Maybe Jesus never died; maybe He lapsed into a coma and His disciples assumed He was dead. But if He was buried alive, how could someone in His condition muster the strength to push back the enormous tombstone? Maybe He was dead and His followers managed to abscond with His corpse. Then how do we explain the random sightings that occur in the weeks after His resurrection? Maybe the whole thing was a hoax. Then how do we explain why this myth has survived two millennia? On some level, this story was, is, and will always remain very real. And for us to benefit from all that it represents, we must retire our logical skepticism and accept its supernatural mysteries by faith.

What’s most interesting is that, six days prior to His death, Jesus explains the mechanics of His resurrection in the most mundane natural terms. He compares the process to a planting cycle. A wheat grain is buried in the ground, where it dies, and resurges to abundant life that produces more grain, which in turn will be buried, die, and yield even more life. In this context, the Resurrection is the most natural occurrence known to humankind. Although we don’t understand the actual phenomenon, the concept of dying to live is one we encounter every day. It’s what puts food on our tables, fills our gardens with beauty, and provides shelter in the shade of vast trees and lumber we use to build our homes.

As we anticipate tomorrow’s Easter celebrations, we listen closely to Jesus’s explanation, because He expands His story to include us. We carry in us the seeds of His resurrection. We are the fruit born from His death. And we must also die so that we too can bear fruit. How does this work? We can’t really say. All we know is it happens in us just as surely as one wheat stalk yields hundreds of grains that are sown into the ground, die, and resurge into new life that produces exponentially more grain.

It is the most natural process we know. Yet it is also the most supernatural transformation we can possibly experience. Our faith is perpetuated by willingness to release ourselves from the fear of death and all that it triggers: hatred, competitiveness, insecurity, materialism, and every other life-limiting woe we cling to in hopes of survival. We arrive at the empty tomb, astounded by its miracle, while also realizing the very thing that perplexes us is at work in us. We are dying to live. The resurrection phenomenon doesn’t end with Jesus at Easter. It resurfaces every day in our lives, in every moment when we refute the fear of death by placing love for others alongside love of self and love for God—the Creator Who ordained this astonishing life-death-life cycle—above all.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Crucial Decisions

For our sake, God made Jesus to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5.21)

Our word “crucial” is rooted in the Latin word for “cross”—the same word from which we get “crucifixion.” Over time, “crucial” has been diluted to mean “urgent” or “essential.” But in its strictest sense, it implies the right to choose. The geometry of the cross mirrors that of a crossroads, or intersection, at which the traveler must decide which way to go. She/he can either continue down the path of origin or go a different way. Choice is what makes the decision “crucial.”

The Holy Week narrative is riddled with crucial decisions. Faced with the option of entering Jerusalem anonymously, like any other Passover celebrant, Jesus chooses to ride into the city to the acclaim of His followers. He chooses to purge the Temple of thieving merchants. He chooses to return to the Temple throughout the week, where He teaches in an open forum, almost taunting the authorities to arrest Him. He chooses to expose Judas’s treachery at the Last Supper and then decides to facilitate His own arrest by taking the disciples to pray in Gethsemane. During His trial, He chooses not to defend Himself, allowing the crowd’s hatred and suspicion to run its course. Even while on the cross—where the skeptical thief challenges Him to save Himself—Jesus meets death at the crossroads and decides to die.

But all of these choices are a subset of a far greater crucial decision God makes in advance, a choice that ultimately brings us to a crossroads where we face crucial decisions about the direction our lives will take. In 2 Corinthians 5.20-21, Paul defines the terms of this decision, saying, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake God made Jesus to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” When faced with the prospect of remaining estranged from us due to our waywardness, God provided a means of reconciliation through the cross. We've been given a choice.

At Christmas, we marvel at the Incarnation, when God voluntarily takes on human flesh to live among us, as one of us. That is also a crucial decision. Yet today, as we rehearse the agonies of the Crucifixion, we see Jesus as more than “one of us.” The brutally maimed Savior has now become all of us. God made Jesus to be sin in its entirety—each of us at his/her worst and weakest—so that every one of us might become the righteousness of God. This was inconceivable before Good Friday, because such a choice was unavailable to us. So, while Jesus remains the central figure in the Crucifixion narrative, this gruesome story is ultimately about us, and our decision to be reconciled to God. We stand at a crossroad that that asks us to choose how we will live. Will we continue down a path that takes us farther and farther from God’s plan for our lives? Or will we turn away from selfish, unhealthy living to follow God’s way?

Because of Calvary, no one is denied the right to decide. Romans 3.22-24 assures us, “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by God’s grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Our right to choose isn’t based on the nature or extent of our failures and weaknesses. Since we’ve all sinned, we’re all given the gift of choice—to be reconciled with God or to pursue paths that distance us from God’s love and acceptance. No one is excluded.

Standing before the cross hands us crucial decisions that we make every day we live. If we allow the power of what we see to come alive in us, we will make the right choices.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Shadows Fall

What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1.4-5)

The first time I attended our church’s Maundy Thursday service, I was completely unprepared for the emotional wallop it delivered. By the time it ended and I made my way to the street, I was in shock. I couldn’t describe the feelings that surged in and around me. And I wasn’t alone. As we stood on the corner, waiting for the light to change, members of our congregation searched one another’s faces, as if to say, “What just happened in there?” Now that I’ve been to the service several times, my initial sense of being overwhelmed has eased. But the extraordinary feelings of loss remain, and exiting the service still puts me in an uncomfortable state akin to suspended animation.

They have taken Jesus away, and His absence turns the world into a cold, dark, and distressingly hollow place.

The service is commonly known as Tenebrae, its name drawn from Latin for “shadows” or “darkness.” The liturgy is simple: hymns and music commemorate Jesus’s last night with the disciples while a series of readings revisit the events of that fateful evening. The sanctuary is candlelit and with each reading, another light is taken away, so that the church slowly descends into darkness.

We gather around the table, just as Jesus did with His disciples, and we remember Him in the cup and the bread, just as He commanded. Yet the encircling gloom heightens our awareness that this is part of something much darker than we want to admit. Almost unconsciously, we slip into the disciples’ mindset and emotions. We hear the same Communion service that, on the first Sunday morning of every month, beckons us to “share in the Lord’s death until He comes.” But the gravity of this particular night is nearly suffocating. This is the last supper. The disciples will never again break bread with Jesus in His mortal life. When He washes their feet and takes their hands, they will feel their last touch of His earthly flesh. When they go with Him to Gethsemane, it will be the last time they pray together. (And their inability to stay awake will haunt them forever.)

As the sanctuary grows dimmer, our spirits grow heavier. The final hymn is sung, the last passage read, and then comes the final blow. With a single candle flickering on the altar—in stubborn hope—the pastors and elders systematically remove any sign of Jesus from the sanctuary. The communion set is taken away. The cross comes down. The altar dressings are struck. The oversized pulpit Bible is removed. We sit in silence, watching symbols of our faith—and Christ’s presence among us—vanish into the night. The grief is palpable.

There is no benediction. Before the sanctuary is stripped and left to slumber in the shadows, the pastor tells us we’re free to leave after the last item is removed. No one rushes out the door. You sit there, numb, confused, and straining to remember that, in three days, this dark and lonely place will explode in victorious life. All that’s been taken away will be returned, and with it there will be banners and flowers and vibrant anthems of hope and faithfulness and joy.

They have taken our Lord. Shadows thicken and sorrow overwhelms. An aching hollowness carves itself into the marrow of our souls. They have taken our Lord. But they have not defeated our God. Death is no match for this great God of love and power.

Don’t fight the darkness. Let it descend. Go there—into that land of shadow and feel how empty the world becomes when Jesus is taken from it. But know the story doesn’t end in the dark.

What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it — John 1.4-5

The shadows may fall. But our Savior will rise. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


All the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 55.12-13)

As I write this, PBS is showing Jerusalem: Center of the World, a detailed history of the city. Much attention is being paid to the sacred sites—for Jews, for Christians, and for Muslims. It’s fascinating to hear about the need to memorialize key events in each religion’s story. No one can say for certain if this or that place is actually where a famous event occurred. The words “legend has it” carry tremendous weight in the absence of scientific proof. So it is that claiming Jesus died here, was buried there, ascended over here, and so on—without any reliable evidence—inspires faith and worship. Does accuracy of the claim really matter? Not really, as long as its identification with specific moments in Jesus’s life encourages belief.

This concept of memorializing our faith interests me. We do a great job of memorializing our lives. We take many pictures, we return to spots where events transpired, we etch our names into trees and scroll them into wet cement. But do we recall where we were when belief in Jesus started to make sense? Do we remember our baptism or confirmation or first communion—or any other rite that solidified our identity as part of God’s family? Where were we when we decided a cursory relationship with Jesus wasn’t good enough? What brought us to the place of need for God—and what was that place?

Every time something significant happens, the ancients memorialize for it. Sometimes it's nothing more than a pile of rocks. Sometimes it's an elaborate altar. But the point is very clear: this moment is not to be forgot. Of course, we’re moving toward the ultimate of all memorials: Mount Calvary and the site of the empty tomb. But we all arrive there from many different places. We bring an infinite range of personal experiences. And in our individual pasts, each of us has moments in time that belong to only us, yet exemplify something universal and powerful and incontrovertible in their evidence that God loves us.

In Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s intervention, thorns give way to cypresses and briers are swallowed up by sweet myrtle. The trees of the fields surge in applause for God’s love and grace. This miraculous turn of events, of course, presages Calvary’s tree and its restorative power to reunite humanity with God. The prophet says, “It shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (Isaiah 55.13)

Holy Week isn’t only about what happens at Calvary. It’s about what happens in us. Our hearts are sacred sites. Our lives are sacred stories. As we stop by the signature sites of Holy Week, let us pause to revisit our own memorials. We have, all of us, come a very long way, led to faith and called to love by God’s sweet Spirit. There are moments and people and places that we associate with grace’s miracle in our lives. We can close our eyes and recall when thorns vanished and mighty cypress trees rose up, when briers disappeared and lovely myrtles took root in us. These are our holy places, our memorials.

As we press closer to the cross, may we cherish the holy moments and places that brought us here. Thank God for grace, for forgiveness, and for faith’s determination. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12.20-21)

One of my favorite episodes in the Holy Week narrative turns up in John 12.20-26. I’m probably drawn to it because it’s so often discarded to focus on more famous events that transpire during Jesus’s final days. But I love it because what happens here is a major breakthrough in His ministry—a momentary glimpse at what the Church will look like and what will be required of it. I believe this moment gets overlooked because it’s not overly complicated. But what happens is most unusual.

We start by noting that first-century Judaism holds tremendous appeal for many non-Jews. The God of Israel is unlike most deities, in that God remains in constant dialogue with the people. This God is known for mighty works and exhibits no mortal frailties. So, the power of God is the main attraction. Quite a few foreigners convert to monotheistic Judaism completely, while a large group worships YHWH as a God above all gods. At high holidays like Passover, the mainly Jewish crowd that flocks to Jerusalem is peppered with people from pagan traditions who come to pay homage to Israel’s God. While their status prevents them from being admitted into the Temple’s inner court, their faith compels them to participate in the festival from afar.

It happens that a group of Greeks is in Jerusalem for Passover. Evidently they’ve heard of Jesus, catching wind that His disciples say He’s the Promised One. It’s rumored that He raised a man from the dead and He’s created quite a stir since arriving in town. If, as some say, He is God, they want to meet Him. They go looking for Jesus. When they find one of His disciples, Philip, they say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip needs to clear this with the higher-ups. He takes their request to Andrew and the two of them approach Jesus. (For the record, this is the same Philip who, in the Book of Acts, becomes the first Apostle to baptize a non-Jew—the Ethiopian eunuch—into the faith. So there’s some poetic foreshadowing underway here, too. Nor can it go unnoticed another group of foreigners, the Magi, seek the newborn Jesus out.)

Jesus’s response is rather curious. He doesn’t ask one question about the Greeks—who they are, what they want, what they said. Indeed, there’s nothing in the text that implies their request surprises Jesus at all. Instead, Jesus reminds Philip and Andrew that His death is at hand. God’s plan is at work, and this out-of-the-blue appearance by the Greeks indicates the full extent of what God intends to do. Of course, He will see them.

The real point of the story arises in verse 26, where Jesus says, “Whoever serves Me must follow Me, and where I am, there will My servant be also. Whoever serves Me, the Father will honor.” The Greeks have come looking for Jesus. When they meet Him, they’ll find what they’re searching for. The nonsense about ethnicity, religious background, circumcision—all the criteria the Temple officials employ to segregate worshippers into “us” and “them”—is passing away. A New Order is coming into fruition, born of a single Divine Root that will spring up out of Its burial ground to spread Its branches over all of humanity. Jesus doesn’t simply invite the Greeks for a courteous chat, as if He’s campaigning for office and needs to shake as many hands as possible. He welcomes the Greeks’ request to get to know Him, fully confident that their encounter with Him will transform them into true followers. Finding Jesus puts them in the right place at the right time.

I sometimes think Holy Week’s epic emotions and tragic events eclipse what it’s really about: finding Jesus in the midst of chaos and treachery. We worry about the disciples. We hiss at the villains. We wring our hands in despair that no one will come to His defense. Yet to the end, from a group of curious Greeks to the believing thief hanging beside Him, Jesus keeps welcoming people who, according to tradition, are unworthy of His attention.

As we revisit this familiar story we love so dearly, our prayer should be, “We wish to see Jesus”—not through the lens of His enemies nor the frightened eyes of His followers. We wish to see Jesus as He wants to be seen: welcoming, accepting, willing to see us, regardless who we are or where we’re from. Inner court, outer court, Jew, Greek, male, female, straight, gay, saint, sinner—none of it matters. Finding Jesus. Meeting Him. Seeing Him as He wants to be seen. Being where He is. These are the things that mark us as His followers. 

Where I am, there will My servant be also.