This is Love: Resurrection

My handwriting looks just like hers…

I had this realization as my pen flew across the page of my notebook moments ago, furiously trying to get the thoughts out of my easily distracted mind and into real words on real paper. As I turned an ink-filled page and continued to fill empty lines, my breath caught in my chest. The lump that had formed in my throat as this post came to life in my heart grew a couple sizes larger when I noticed it–the messy mix of cursive and print that I would recognize anywhere. It is my Mom’s handwriting. If I hadn’t watched myself move my pen across the page, you couldn’t convince me that it was I who wrote it…

Why right now? As I scratched down notes like my life depended on it because I knew if I didn’t, I’d lose them?

Because, I think , it connects beautifully to where this post is headed…

I want to walk you through my Easter Sunday, and–if all goes as planned–when I get to the end, we’ll circle back around to my Mom’s handwriting.

My Sunday began with church… Pastor John preached on the resurrection of Jesus, from Mark 16:1-20. He concluded our “This is Love” series by expounding upon what we may regard as familiar stories, but he did so with a freshness that led me to a new sense of wonder over the events. Many of his words will make an appearance in this post, but I won’t spend any more time on it right here…

Between church and a meal with family, I was devastated to read about the horror of  what our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka experienced. Nearly 300 families on Easter Sunday mourned the senseless deaths of loved ones, killed by explosions in churches and hotels while much of the world celebrated Jesus’ victory over death. The words, “O death, where is your sting?”, reverberated throughout sanctuaries everywhere, while hundreds felt the very real sting of death.

At home, after sharing a meal with family, I watched the movie “I Can Only Imagine” for the first time. Hot, salty tears ran down my face several times as I took in this story of pain and redemption, grief and joy, love and loss… It hit me on many different levels, but it pierced my heart deeply for one specific reason: My mom loved that song... From the day it debuted on Christian radio until the day she told me which songs she’d like on the playlist at her funeral. It gave her hope and breathed life into her dying lungs on her worst days. I haven’t listened to it much since we lost her. It’s not sad, necessarily. The song is gorgeous in its simultaneous simplicity and depth. It speaks of hope beyond the pain of today. But it stirs memories. And memories can rarely be classified in either/or categories. Most happy memories aren’t solely happy, but rather contain traces of other emotions, feelings we don’t always want to access. This song is like that for me. I can’t hear it without thinking of her… The moment the first few piano notes grace my ears, I’m transported to another place and time… And I don’t always want to remember. It was this week in April, five years ago now, that she was re-diagnosed with the disease that would take her from this world. Every year around this time, my subconscious reminds me of the pain–hers and mine both. Sixty days after that diagnosis, she breathed her last. Her death still stings…

After the movie, I opened my Twitter app to find the hashtag #prayforRHE all over my feed. Following the hashtag, I found out that author and faith leader to many, wife and mommy to two littles, Rachel Held Evans, is in the ICU in a coma due to constant seizures in her brain that were discovered as she was being treated for an infection. Rachel, while controversial in some circles, is a woman whose voice I have come to deeply respect, and whose authenticity encourages so many others to bravely explore the questions that can, left suppressed, terrorize our souls. I read posts from her friends, from people whose lives she has impacted greatly, as they shared prayers and thoughts about all Rachel means to them. For those closest to Rachel–and for anyone else in a battle for life and wellness–the fear of death stings…

O, death, where is your sting?

Everywhere. When death–or the fear of death–comes, it stings. It hurts like hell. It aches with a ferocity I didn’t know I could live through.

But there is another line that accompanies this one… A companion question that sits beside it in scripture (1 Corinthians 15:55) and in every song we’ve written about it since:

“Where, O death, is your victory?”

The answer to this question changes everything…

It’s why I call Jesus my Lord. My King. Why I identify as one of his followers.

Jesus transforms lives. Period. I, admittedly, don’t have exhaustive knowledge of other faith traditions. I know the basics about some, and I respect the heart and intentions of them all. One of the most beautiful, insightful conversations I’ve ever had was with a devout Muslim brother who shared with me about what loving one’s neighbor, and forgiveness, mean to him. I have a lot to learn from other traditions that differ from the framework I was raised in and identify with today. But this is what I know…

One God came down into human history, suffered in solidarity with the suffering of humanity while enduring our brutality and our violence. One walked in skin he created and modeled self-emptying love unto death, at the hands of his own creations. One rose again to lead us on in his ways.

His name is Jesus, and this is why I follow him–and why I always will. Because no other story rewrites my story. No other story ignites hope that outlives death. Because only one defeated death itself. Pastor Brian Zahnd said, in his Good Friday sermon, “Death swallowed Christ, but death cannot digest divinity. Christ did not descend to the dead to be dead, but to do something else!” 

The story we celebrate every Easter is the story of resurrection, of the ultimate Life, the ultimate Love, defeating death. We rejoice over the account of the stone being rolled away, and Jesus’ absence from the tomb. But, as Pastor John preached on Sunday, “The stone wasn’t removed to let Jesus out, but to let us in!” For us to believe, to be filled with awe and wonder over the miracle of resurrection, we had to see that Jesus wasn’t in there. The tomb was empty–but if the stone hadn’t been rolled away to reveal that truth to watching eyes, it would have stood between us and the risen Jesus. Doubt, fear, conspiracy theories–these arguments would have won… but a few women saw the empty tomb. They looked up and saw inside, and there the preaching of Jesus’ resurrection began…

Death, where is your victory? It’s gone. Forever. Because Life has the final word.

So on a Resurrection Sunday when the families of Sri Lanka, and many around the world, weep and mourn; when a faith leader fights for her life as doctors work round the clock to find answers; when we are reminded of, and grieve, our own many losses and heartaches–all of the stories where the sting of death is very real–we can know that death won’t have the last word. Fear no longer rules the day. We don’t have to live in the miry, regret-filled pits of the past.

Because Hope LIVES. Joy LIVES. Forgiveness LIVES. Love–a Love like no other–LIVES. Because Jesus LIVES! This. Is. Love. That our God came down and entered into our stories to show us that there is another way. That our ways of law-making and rule-keeping could never lead us into love, but would only ever lead to more rivalry and competition and violence. But his way? He showed us that his way can handle the both/and of a grief-filled Easter Sunday. His way can hold the tension of life and death, suffering and hope, joy and grief. He came into our suffering and suffered with us, not promising a life of ease without struggle–quite the opposite–but bringing tangible hope to the realities of pain and death.

I experienced the tension of the “both/and” a few times on Easter Sunday. I saw it expressed in the authenticity of a precious worshiper who praised with fervor and enthusiasm–undoubtedly moved by his deep love for Jesus–and then wrestled, pacing near the altar, after the service concluded. Real joy and real suffering graced his face. He expressed both, and didn’t attempt to stifle one or the other. I saw the presence of real worship and real wrestling. The tension of the both/and…

I saw it in the prayers that many have posted for Sri Lanka. Many of these posts, written on Easter Sunday, contained words of grief and sorrow for the ache of our world and words of hope, solidarity, and life–in the face of so much death. As days pass, I believe we’ll see what we always see when tragedy strikes–we’ll see helpers and stories of beauty and hope that rise up from the ashes of death and destruction. The tension of the both/and…

I saw it as I read a twitter thread between prominent Christian women who find themselves sometimes at odds theologically, but who love one another and who came together with love and prayers for Rachel, despite the many differences between the three of them. I cried as I read their exchange. It was beautiful, because it was the way of Jesus. The way of self-emptying love. These three women may not have a lot in common–and their respective followers may find even less to agree upon–but they modeled the love that binds them to the One they follow, the same love that binds them also to one another. They have different beliefs–and…love supersedes their differences.

And I felt the tension as I saw my own handwriting… The bitter with the sweet. The memory–both happy and sad. The awareness of how much of her lives on in me, even though she is physically gone. The ache over my mama’s death, and the pulsing Hope that lives to tell me I’ll see her again.

Easter Sunday isn’t only a celebration, though it is one, certainly. It isn’t only life, though life will conquer all death in the end. It is a collision of the tension of living in the now and the not quite yet. It is the kingdom of God absorbing the kingdoms of this world–but absorption can take time. We live with the presence of both at the same time. We live with the sting of death, and with the guarantee of victory.

As long as we can look up at Jesus and see that the stone has been removed, as long as we can peer into the grave and find it empty, we can hold the tension of life and death until we, too, enter into the victory Love won for us all. But all of us, at certain points, find ourselves face to face with a stone that obscures our view. We can’t see into the empty tomb. It may be partially blocking our view, or it may be covering the opening entirely, but we all have things that keep us from seeing the truth. The sting of death–or even just the fear of it–can be a major culprit that keeps us from the truth that death holds no claims to victory. There are other things, many things, that can keep us from seeing.

Throughout this series, Pastor John has asked us questions each week, to get us to think a little more deeply, to get us involved in the story in a more intimate way. This week, the question is:

What’s your stone? 

Whatever it is, it isn’t keeping Jesus away from you. He keeps coming, keeps moving toward us all. But it may be preventing you from seeing the truth, from recognizing that no matter how hopeless you feel, no matter how dire your circumstances might be, the suffering Savior fought death–and won. Death and the pain that comes with it does sting–but Jesus holds the victory. And that is a truth worth celebrating, even as our lives and our world groan in pain. Death has died–and Jesus lives.

–Laura

I almost hesitate to write this week; Laura’s post has so much beauty, so much truth, so much real and raw that I find myself wanting to sit with it for awhile before moving on. Death has a very real sting. Grief for those we’ve loved and lost to physical death cycles in and out of our lives and it never waits for a “good” time. All of a sudden we find ourselves in that place–a song, a smell, even our own handwriting–and there we are remembering and feeling the sting of death. And yet…death never has the final word. The final word belongs to God alone–always.

The resurrection is what sets the Christian faith apart from all other faiths. Like Laura, I have learned and continue to learn much from people of other faith traditions; they are not my enemy. However, also like Laura, I have met a very alive Jesus and He is still transforming my life. Everything about the version of Christianity–of Christ following that was lived out in the early days was about transformation– love breaking down barriers,  and hope–incredible hope.

Before I continue, I want you to think about where “your” Jesus is. Is he the Christmas Jesus born in a manger? Is He the crucified Jesus still hanging on the cross? Or is He the risen Jesus who Peter, in his first bold sermon after the resurrection declared God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. (Acts 2:36).  Some versions translate the word Messiah as Christ. Both are powerful words, hard for those of us who’ve never lived under a king to grasp well. Both mean The anointed One. 

How we see Him matters.

All of Jesus’ earthly life He was shaking things up. His conception was announced to a single woman. His birth was announced to “unclean” shepherds by angels. King Herod wanted to find him and kill him because he was a threat to earthly power. Magi of a different faith tradition and from a different country traveled a long distance to see him, bring him gifts, and worship him.

As a child we learn that he grew in wisdom, in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52), and when he was twelve he stayed behind in the temple in Jerusalem during the Passover listening and asking questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2: 47). 

When it was time for his public ministry to begin, he was baptized by his cousin who supernaturally knew that Jesus was the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. (John 1:29).

And then Jesus really started to shake things up. He called normal, regular, guys to be his followers. His group was an eclectic mix–fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, etc. And his followers included women. He touched lepers, he ministered to people who weren’t Jews, worked on the sabbath, reinterpreted the law,  he valued and “saw” the unimportant, the invisible, and he confronted the religious leaders of the day, which eventually led to his crucifixion and death. And everyone thought it was over. The religious leaders, his followers, his mom.

Mark tells us in Chapter 15 that at the crucifixion Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. (40,41).  Don’t you wonder how many women were there? We picture in our minds three; however, Mark tells us that there were “some” women from Galilee and some from Jerusalem who were present with Jesus in his suffering. It had to have been excruciating to their hearts, but they loved him and weren’t going to leave him alone. Presence—what a huge gift. 

I cannot begin to imagine how frustrated the women must have been to leave the body of Jesus and rush home to begin Sabbath. But when Sabbath was over, and the sun began to appear in the sky–a daily reminder of resurrection–the three women who were mentioned by name at the foot of the cross bought spices and took them to the tomb.

They were not expecting resurrection. They were prepared to encounter a dead body. They were women on a mission. I love the fact that they were just going…they didn’t have all the details worked out, which is indicated by the fact that they wondered who was going to remove the stone for them. (16:3). It was the mission that mattered, not the details.

But when they looked up they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb… (I love their boldness) they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side (little details) and they were alarmed.

From this point on, the white-robed young man fills them in on what happened. He tells them not to be alarmed because Jesus is no longer dead but has risen. He asks them to go tell his disciples, and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ (Mark 14:28). 

So many things are happening in this moment. One, the most important message of all time was being entrusted to women during a time when the testimony of women was not to be trusted and when religious leaders thanked God in their prayers for not making them women.

Two, they were entrusted with a message that was a reminder of a conversation that Jesus had with his disciples just a few days before at the last supper before his arrest.

Three, during that same conversation in Mark 14, Jesus told the disciples that they would all run away, but Peter declared that he never would, that he would die with Jesus if it came to that, and Jesus told Peter that no, in fact Peter would deny him, which is exactly what happened.  So the young man in the tomb tells the women–go tell the disciples, and Peter…

The beautiful grace of Jesus blows my mind every time. He wants Peter to know that he hasn’t blown it, that he is still loved, still chosen, still has a place in the Kingdom.  (And so do you–no matter your story).

The resurrection is not an event. It is a paradigm shift that changed everything; it still changes everything. Christianity didn’t begin before the resurrection, it began after. The second chapter of the book of Acts describes what happened. Christianity didn’t start as a religion of rules, it started as a transformation of lives by the power of the Holy Spirit that would spill out to every tribe, tongue and nation as the followers of The Christ shared the message of God’s love, God’s nearness, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace, and invited people to live in a new kingdom under the reign of a loving God right here on earth.

Christianity is not about death, it’s about life–and it’s about life that is full of hope.

When did the ways of the world begin to change? After the resurrection.

When were there no longer hierarchical structures and sub-groups such as slave, free, male, female, Jew, Gentile (or any other opposing categories you can think of) for all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28)?   After the resurrection.

When were the followers of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit? After the resurrection.

When did the previously afraid Peter preach a powerful message of hope that led to 3000 people coming into relationship with God? After the resurrection.

When did the disciples fall so deeply in love with Jesus that they no longer ran and hid, but gave their lives for him?  After the resurrection.

When did death lose its victory? After the resurrection.

We are post resurrection people.  The same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us (Romans 8:11).

This is the Spirit who, when we lean in and listen, transforms us. We are all at different places on the journey, but there are ways that we can tell if we are living in the Kingdom of the resurrected Christ. Is our heart position becoming more “we” than “me”, and is that “we” expanding more and more as we grow in the ways of Christ? Do the people that mattered to Jesus matter to us? Do we find empathy growing in us? Are we using our voices for good and not evil, to unite and not to divide, to lift up and not to tear down? Do we love people, whether or not they ever see the world like we do, or do we make people our projects? Do we embrace everyone, no matter their lifestyle, because God is love—always, and His kindness, shown through us, is what leads people to Him? Is the fruit of the Spirit becoming evident in our lives?

Resurrection living is not a “to do” list. Resurrection living is not based on a set of theological statements. Resurrection living is Spirit living which only happens when we fall deeply in love with Jesus, spend time with Him, get to know Him, and allow Him to live His life in us and through us–and as He does His work in us, as we become more fully alive in who He has made us to be, hope, love, mercy, co-suffering, joy, and grace become contagious, leading to resurrection all around us.

Are we people of death or people of life–pre-resurrection or post resurrection?

Oh may we be people of the resurrection!!!

–Luanne

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This is Love: The Death of Jesus

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.  And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”  Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.  The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.  And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.  Mark 15:33-41

After typing the scripture above, I’ve found myself sitting quietly for a few minutes taking it all in. There is too much in this passage to do all of it justice in one blog post. As I think through the four signs that Pastor John highlighted from this passage (Eschatological, Christological, Revelational, and Redemptive), and the words in the passage itself, I keep coming back to “darkness covered the whole land”. What must that have been like–three hours of darkness in the middle of the day? For those at the crucifixion, and for those at home completely unaware that a significant execution was taking place, what was going through their minds? Was it like heavy cloud cover, or did if feel more supernatural in nature? Was it scary?

I recently finished Barbara Brown Taylor’s beautiful book Learning to Walk in the Dark. There were a lot of things that I treasured in that book, but the point she made that I keep finding myself coming back to is the stark difference between what she calls “Solar Christians” and “Lunar Christians”. I’m going to be paraphrase here and interject my own interpretations of what she wrote, but she said Solar Christians are afraid of the dark. They try to avoid it at all costs, they interpret dark as “bad”, and try to either ignore it or explain it away using spiritual terms. Lunar Christians, on the other hand, embrace cycles in life, including the dark ones, realizing that just like the moon has cycles, so do our lives. Some seasons are bright, like the full moon, some dark, like the new moon, and others that happen in between those extremes. Taylor also pointed out, (and this blew my mind), that the new moon phase (when there is no moon in the sky) lasts for three nights, and then light begins to appear. She equated that to a constant cycle of death and resurrection. I had never heard that before. I looked it up and learned that depending upon one’s location in relationship to the horizon, sure enough, there are three moonless nights. Three nights when we can’t see the moon reflecting the sun’s light. Three–what a significant number. And on the fourth night light begins to appear. Death. Resurrection. Every month.

We don’t always know what to do with the dark. It doesn’t feel safe. But just as God is in the light, God is in the dark. God is never absent–including that dark day when Jesus hung on the cross.

There is an interpretation of these events, especially when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that teaches God abandoned Jesus in this moment of his deepest need. It goes something like this: God can’t look on our sin, so as Jesus bore our sin on the cross, God had to turn away. There are two problems with this interpretation. 1: Jesus is God. 2: It’s absolutely inconsistent with the character of God that we see throughout scripture.

What was God’s response when Adam sinned and hid from Him? God sought Adam out. When Cain killed his brother, God showed up and even put a mark on Cain to protect him from harm. In the New Testament, Jesus was in trouble with the religious leaders all the time because he hung out with “sinners”. The father of the prodigal son ran to his son, embraced him and threw a party. Romans 5:8 tells us that God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Amp). God is not distant from our stories, from our weaknesses, from our sin. He meets us in the middle of our mess and says “I love you.” His very nature and character is love. Always. 

So if God did not abandon Jesus on the cross, why did Jesus say that?

When Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”,  Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22–a psalm which truly mirrors all that was happening as he hung on the cross. (I encourage you to read it in its entirety)  As with many of the Psalms, the Psalmist wrote what he was feeling, and then wrote what was true.  The Psalm begins with “My God…why have you forsaken me?”,  and goes on to express other feelings of being abandoned, forgotten, unheard. Then in verse 9 the little word “yet” appears and the Psalmist reminds himself of what is true:

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. 
The Psalmist cycles back into what he is feeling and experiencing until verse 19, where the word “but” appears, and he again declares what is true:
But you, LORD, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me… 
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. 
From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the LORD will praise him—may your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 
for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. 
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him— those who cannot keep themselves alive. 
Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it! (19, 22-31)
Jesus cried out the first line, but had no strength or breath left to finish the Psalm; he died shortly after he gasped out those words, but it was enough. It was enough for those in the crowd who knew the Hebrew scriptures to know what he was saying. Without a doubt the religious leaders who were present knew that Psalm. Could Jesus have once again been inviting them in?
Was the crucifixion dark? Absolutely. I can’t imagine what Jesus was experiencing, what  his followers were experiencing. The women who showed up, who loved Jesus dearly—what was going through their minds? The disciples who ran, hid, feared–what was going through their minds? They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming. All they knew in that moment was darkness–physical darkness, spiritual darkness, and emotional darkness.
Darkness. In the Genesis 1 creation account, darkness was present. God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
In Isaiah 45:3 we read:
I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.
In the Passover account recorded in the book of Exodus, God’s salvation happens during a dark, scary night. In Matthew 24 when Jesus talks about the end of time, he says that after the sun goes dark, then will appear the sign of the Son of Man (v. 30) . 
And on that day, that crucifixion day, while the sun was hidden for three hours, God’s love and presence were on full display in the dark.
I don’t love dark seasons, but in my darkest seasons, I’ve learned that God is present in a different way. In my solar seasons, I see him and his glory in everything around me, and it’s easy to be awestruck by him. In the dark, I don’t see as well, yet he is there. He shows up. He sits with me. He grieves with me. He hurts with me. He suffers with me. He loves me. He transforms me. There are treasures in the dark. There are riches in the dark. God is there, in the dark. And when the dark season ends, I know Him better than I did before. As I type these last words, the sky is just beginning to indicate that dawn is on the way…dark, light, death, resurrection, seasons, cycles– our forever loving God is with us in them all.
–Luanne
Darkness. 
What comes to your mind as you read that word?
My thoughts circle around what occurred in our home last night. One of my sons was up several times, scared with no solid explanation of why. This is not an unusual occurrence in our home. This boy of mine has always hated the dark. He used to have nightmares that would lead to him screaming in his sleep and waking up only partially, then not remembering the event at all when morning came. Over time, he has come to expect to be afraid at night. He tries to fall asleep before the rest of us, because if he is the last person awake in our home, fear overtakes him. He is most afraid of being alone. 
Last night was no different. The only part of his fear that he can put words to is the fear of being alone. I don’t know why this makes him afraid, but to him, it’s very real. In the middle of the night, to him, it is his truest reality. His stomach contorts in pain, his heart races. He has tools, things we’ve taught him to help him get through the overwhelming fear, but in the dark, he feels powerless to overcome what he is most afraid of. He has become accustomed to the presence of fear when darkness falls. And he has been, by the voice of his own fear, conditioned to believe lies about what darkness means.
So have we.
Luanne wrote:
“God created light and separated light from darkness. He calls both light and darkness good. He does not call darkness bad and light good. They both have their place and their purpose.
They both have their place and their purpose. Both. Not one or the other. Both. We humans struggle with “both”. We live in an either/or, right/wrong, good/evil, dualistic culture. This makes faith more than a little difficult… Because faith, to qualify as faith, includes believing in what we can’t see. Yet, we’ve attempted (‘we’ being all of us, the whole of humanity, especially those who would identify as followers of Jesus) to explain the unexplainable, to define the mystery, to understand what is beyond our minds’ capacities, and to fit it all into a neat, tidy box. We’ve sealed the box so that nothing old can get out and nothing new can get in. The box is marked with words like “truth”, “right”, “perfect”, “inerrant” and it’s contents include rules and laws built upon the interpretation and understanding of those who constructed the box. One thing that made it into the box is light. One thing that didn’t is darkness.
Our theology of darkness is a lot like my son’s fear of it. We have been conditioned to believe certain things about it, what it represents, why we should fear it. We have learned to think of it as the opposite of light rather than the companion of light. A dance partner, if you will. Light’s perfect pairing. Instead of seeing the place and purpose of each, we’ve labeled one good and one bad. One safe and one dangerous. One represents God, and one represents evil.
Like my son, I was afraid of the dark as a child. In fact, I was afraid into even into early adulthood. As I grew in my understanding, though–and began to heal from childhood wounds–my fears dissipated. I am no longer afraid of the dark, and in fact rather enjoy sitting in the dark now, because it allows me to see differently than I do in the light.
I am afraid that our theology of darkness, as a whole, has not grown from our first, childish understanding. Our either/or, good/bad mindset kept darkness out of our box and launched us into what Luanne wrote about above–solar Christianity. We’ve lived “in the light”, and it has cost us.
In the gorgeous book Luanne referenced, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes these words:
“From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death. Visit almost any church and you can still hear it used that way today…At the theological level, however, this language creates all sorts of problems. It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time. It implies things about dark-skinned people and sight-impaired people that are not true. Worst of all, it offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things. It rewards them for their unconsciousness, offering spiritual justification for turning away from those things, for “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). To embrace that teaching and others like it at face value can result in a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention…”
If we have never learned how to see in the dark, we will live inside our box of light and miss all that darkness has to offer. We can choose this–and be completely and totally loved and held by God, in our ignorance and unconsciousness. God doesn’t require that we make room within our theological boxes for darkness in order to accept us or love us fully. He doesn’t have a checklist through which we can earn his love. He just loves. Because he is love. We get to be exactly where we are and we can be fully guaranteed that the heart of God is full of love toward us.
But–what if there is so much more to God, to life, to our own journeys, than what can fit inside that box? What if there are vast expanses to explore, adventures beyond our wildest imaginations–if we would just get out of the box?
Outside the safety of our illuminated boxes, though, we will encounter the darkness. It’s why so many of us just can’t bear the thought of even lifting the lid, let alone climbing out. Everything we’ve learned, all that we’ve been conditioned to believe, things we regard as absolute truth–all of it comes into question when we step outside of our boxes. And rather than being excited or even curious about what we might find, our default response is almost always fear. Of the unknown, of being wrong, of being disappointed, of sliding down a slippery slope into oblivion… So rather than lift the lid, we often reinforce it instead. We lock it down and set guards around it so we can keep out anything that might challenge our belief about what’s inside. As long as we don’t actually encounter it, we can think what we choose to think, what we’ve learned to think. And that feels safe…
Until the darkness somehow gets in. Until it crashes in around us and we either have to face it, or run the other way. If we have the courage to face it, to stop seeing it as the enemy, but rather an opportunity to experience God anew, we’ll see things we’ve never seen before. Our right/wrong, us/them, either/or ways of seeing the world will begin to fall away, and the ability to see with a both/and perspective will begin to grow. We’ll begin to see the beauty of mystery and learn to be more at peace with our partial understanding. We’ll begin to see beyond the surface of things, beyond how they appear.
I’ve strayed a long way from the message we heard on Sunday… I didn’t know my words would walk me in this direction today. But I’m grateful I was led here. Because when I sat down to write, I had no idea where I was going. I read over my notes, studied multiple scriptures, looked up some Greek words. I read no less than six or seven different articles and commentaries related to this week’s passage. For three hours. I was up at 4:30 a.m. today, hoping to have this written and published by 6:00. Instead, I found myself drowning in opinions framed as certitudes, fear–and shame–based theology, and assumptions presented as facts. All were sure of their rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. It was a showcase of dualism. Not one of the authors I came across was willing to admit that there could be other correct interpretations, other ways of seeing. Not one admitted that sometimes there is no black and white explanation or that we can’t always understand the ways of God. All of their explanations fit nicely into the safe box.
I was exhausted and frustrated before I typed my first word. My morning had been full of prayers for direction, guidance about what to write. And I stopped again to pray–with a heavy sigh–for inspiration from the Spirit. It was at that point, three hours in, that I thought about my boy and his aversion to the dark. How he’s learning to navigate the rugged terrain of his own fear, and how his beliefs about the dark aren’t yet well-informed, but he’s getting there. Right now, he equates darkness with what scares him most. Eventually, I hope he’ll move from this understanding to one that allows him to befriend the dark, to find peace in the quiet of being alone with his thoughts. But that day is not today.
I can’t help but think about the darkness that Luanne wrote about, the darkness that crashed in around the cross during the crucifixion of Jesus. For whatever reason, I had always pictured the darkness happening as Jesus breathed his last. That as he died, the skies went dark and the earth shook and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. But according to Matthew, Mark and Luke and their accounts, that’s not how it happened. Darkness fell while Jesus hung, alive, on the cross. In the middle of the day, darkness came and obscured what those present could see. I wonder how dark the darkness was? Could the women who were there still see Jesus in front of them? He was still with them physically, yet their ability to see him was diminished in the dark. I wonder if they felt alone in the dark, the way that my son does… Jesus was very much with them, but could they sense his presence in the dark?
Three hours later, the darkness broke. Light returned. The scene was illuminated once again in the light of day. And it’s here, in the light, that Jesus cried out and breathed his last. He died in the light. The eyes of all around him witnessed his last moments in broad daylight. Why did I always assume Jesus took his last breath as darkness fell? Because, I think, for as long as I can remember, I’ve associated darkness with death. And life with light. We know that faith is confidence in what we cannot see, yet we live according to what we can see.
They watched Jesus give up his life in the middle of the day. They saw that he was gone. Their light became as darkness to them because, as Luanne wrote, “They could not see what we now know–resurrection was coming.” 
What we now know… What do we now know? Do we know that God’s presence never left Jesus–or anyone else–alone on that dark day? Do we know that his presence is with us now, on the other side of resurrection, on our darkest days the same as our brightest? Pastor John asked us a question on Sunday, one that we do have to answer, each of us for ourselves. He asked us, “Who do you believe Jesus is?” But after spending time here, reading Luanne’s words and writing my own, I think there is a second question we need to ask ourselves…
Where do you believe Jesus is?
Does your Jesus only exist in the light? Do you have a “darkness” closet where you store all that doesn’t align with “solar Christianity”? How do you see the death of Jesus? What do you believe about the presence of God in those final moments before Jesus breathed his last? How we see matters. As Luanne wrote last week, “How we see is how we love.”
–Laura
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This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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This Is Love: Suffering & Silence

“What if love was greater than…hate, war, fear, failure, brokenness, loss? What if love… came down? Gave hope to the broken? Came to die? Came to save?”

These words are from the video that introduced our new series. We’re staying in the book of Mark, but now we’re looking at the end of Jesus’ life and ministry. The goal of this series is to show us what love looks like. But before we look at what love is, we have to see what it is not.

We picked up the story in Mark 15:1-20, with a quick glance back to 14:61-62. In these verses, we see Jesus questioned by the high priest before all of the gathered religious authorities reach their decision about him. He is then handed over to Pilate for questioning, and, before the end of the passage, sentenced to crucifixion.

Pastor John highlighted four main points from these verses, and a fifth that we’ll look at later. He talked to us about:

The malice of the chief priests… We saw the religious leaders gathered at night, initially, but no decision could be made at night, according to their laws and codes. So they waited until “very early in the morning” to declare what they’d already decided to do with Jesus. But their code-keeping stopped there. Their anger toward Jesus caused them to rewrite codes that they lived by in the moment. They managed to twist the charge of blasphemy (which was not grounds for execution) into a charge of treason–an offense punishable by death. And we see them act immediately once they make a decision, rather than waiting the required 24 hours between sentencing and carrying out the sentence. We see throughout the gospels that the religious leaders had been looking for grounds to kill Jesus for a while. They never really found the grounds they searched for, but we see them here, finally overtaken by their hatred, anger, jealousy–and something else we’ll look at in a moment that I believe might have driven these more obvious emotions.

The political expediency of Pilate… Pilate was available so quickly because he had moved into Jerusalem during this time of Passover. He did this because it tended to be during Passover that riots and rebel activity were more likely to happen. His job depended on his ability to contain the community he oversaw, so he got closer to them during this time. Once Jesus was brought before him, he questioned him briefly, but then relinquished his authority to the masses, though he believed in Jesus’ innocence. Interesting side note–if anyone had grounds to be enraged by Jesus’ supposed acts of treason, it was Pilate. It was the Roman  government he worked for that would have ultimately been threatened by a new “king” rising up onto the scene. And yet… we don’t see anger from Pilate. I believe he, too, was driven by something else…

The fury of the crowd… Pastor John said that there is a good chance of fatal error when the masses are left to make a decision. It is vital that we pay attention to this point. Crowds can be swayed. This crowd was. We see in Mark’s account that the chief priests “stirred up the crowd.” The Greek word for ‘stirred up’, as John pointed out, has the same root word as “earthquake”. The religious leaders (who this particular crowd was pretty loyal to) incited the crowd, and it was like an earthquake as their fury rose. What did the chief priests say that caused this reaction? We don’t know for sure–but we can make an educated guess…

It appears that part of Pilate’s decision to leave Jesus’ fate in the crowd’s hands had to do with his belief that they would surely choose his release over that of a known insurrectionist and murderer, the one called Barabbas. See, it was the custom for him to release a prisoner that the people requested during the Feast each year. Before they made their request, they were stirred up by the chief priests. It ended up that the crowd didn’t want Jesus–they surprised Pilate by, instead, asking for Barabbas.

Many of us have seen movies that depict Barabbas as a bit of a crazed lunatic, which makes it difficult to see what was really going on. A more accurate description of this man would be that he was a political leader to many who wanted to see some changes for the Jewish people. He was all about, as Pastor John articulated, “Making Israel Great Again.” He represented loyalty to their people, their ways–he was their nationalistic hope. He led an insurrection, during which he committed murder. He was not a bloodthirsty serial killer, as some of the images of him that have been painted would lead us to believe. The people were not concerned about his crimes–after all, it happened in the name of nationalistic pride, and riots and wars naturally come with casualties…

With this knowledge, it makes sense to assume that the priests stirred the crowd by playing on their political leanings. It is the fastest way to get a rise out of people. We experienced this as we listened to Pastor John on Sunday… He asked us to listen to him describe a few things and rate where our reactions landed on a 1-10 scale. He began by talking about spiritual things, the activity of our church and such. We were attentive as we listened, but the reaction landed within the lowest numbers on our scale. He moved to talking about personal things, how we feel when someone speaks negatively about who we are, our physical attributes and such. This topic moved us up the scale, but not too much.

Then, he began to speak politically. He brought up President Trump, the state of our nation, our feelings about our flag, etc… and the temperature of the room changed. The moment he mentioned politics, there was a palpable electricity in the air around us. People shifted in their seats, cleared their throats, whispered to those near them, laughed nervously… He didn’t take a position, or even speak specifically about a particular policy. All he had to do was mention politics, and we were stirred. (I don’t have time to go into this here, sadly,  but the question begs answering–Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?)

Now, imagine the crowd standing before Pilate being reminded of the nationalistic hope Barabbas represented. Perhaps they contrasted the direction Barabbas wanted to take their nation with the kingdom Jesus talked about bringing–an upside-down, inclusive kingdom that looked nothing like what they expected their Messiah would establish–where the last would be first and the meek and marginalized would be blessed. Could this have stirred them up? Absolutely. Because, once again, they preyed on something that lived beneath their outward fury, something that drove them–whether they knew it or not.

The “humor” of the soldiers… This group tortured and humiliated their prisoners. They represented the military might that people believed then–and believe still–was necessary to establish a kingdom. They replaced their humanity with humor as they mocked and mutilated Jesus. Once again, I believe there was something else driving them.

So what is it? What is this thing that I’ve eluded to in every character I’ve described?

FEAR.

Fear is powerful. And often, it is driving more obvious emotions. These groups may have been afraid for different reasons, but I believe they were all acting out of their fears. Fear, left unchecked, is deadly

The chief priests and all of the other religious leaders saw what was happening as Jesus taught. His following grew, the loyalty of many was shifting from them and their laws to this new way that Jesus introduced. They heard him speak about establishing a new kingdom–one that threatened their power and control and everything they held dear. He introduced a new way of thinking, a way of living that they had never done before. If Jesus took over, everything would change. Do you think it’s a stretch to say that this stirred up their fears? How do we feel when the way we’re used to living is threatened? Is anger our first response, or is it driven by deeper fears?

Pilate appears to be fairly nonchalant during the whole process. But I don’t think he was–not really. His position and his own well-being depended on him keeping the Jews he presided over quiet. It’s why he moved closer to them during Passover. If he failed to put out the fires that started among them, he could be removed from his post…and worse. So, while he disagreed with the crowd’s decision, he knew that agreeing to do what they asked would appease the earthquake of their emotion, and maintain the “peace”.

The crowd… We would be wise to see ourselves in this group, though we might also identify with the religious leaders who were so afraid of change. When the chief priests stirred up the people, they were preying on their fears first. Their fear led to their fire and fury. Fire and fury is never the starting point. It is an expression of a deeper emotion. Sometimes, it is loyalty or love that leads us to anger. In this case, however, I believe the culprit is fear. The chief priests were not fans of Barabbas. He was a rebel, a problem. But not as big of a problem for them as Jesus. And they knew that they could work with what he stood for, and use it to provoke the emotions of the people. Jesus threatened the belief system that their lives were built upon. His new way felt, to many of them, like a betrayal of the religion they held dear, and of them as a nation. Because Jesus’ allegiance was not to Israel. His way would bring a new kingdom in an upside-down way–he was a threat to those who built their lives on power, success, and control. They were afraid. And the fear of the leaders certainly inflated the fears of the people. Anytime a leader operates out of a place of fear, it influences their followers–especially those most loyal to them.

Lastly, we have the soldiers. They had a job to do. A terrible job. Not doing any part of the job they were given would have cost them. Part of their job included carrying out executions. Maybe these men were bloodthirsty sadists who actually delighted in the taking of life. But maybe they weren’t… Maybe they were people who bore the image of God the same as everyone else–including the criminals they had to kill. Maybe they were afraid of what would happen to them if they didn’t carry out their orders. Maybe they were afraid that if they didn’t trade their own humanity for tortuous humor, they wouldn’t be able to carry out the inhumane act of taking life from another human being. I’ve known many soldiers throughout my life. I’ve never known one who doesn’t deal with some amount of fear, no matter how brave and strong they might be. I have to assume these soldiers who mocked and humiliated Jesus also dealt with fear.

Why did I spend so much time talking about fear? Because it’s dangerous. Because it changes how we see, it drives our decisions, and it robs us of our humanity when we let it overtake us. We cannot see the image of God in another–or in ourselves–when fear steers our ship. It leads to blind hatred without reason, and it changes us at our cores. It feeds on our vulnerability and grows like a ravenous weed in the soil of our souls. It leads us to say and do the unimaginable. We’ve seen how, over the last few years, fear of the “other” has led to growing hatred and violence in our own nation. Fear is powerful.

But there is a place where fear can’t live… something that drives it out. Every. Time.

Love. 

Love… it is absent in this story… until we look at the fifth and final point Pastor John spoke about:

The silence of Jesus… The mystifying silence of Jesus in this passage speaks volumes. How was he able to stay silent, and to speak no words in his own defense? How was he able to stand as a suffering servant, with humble dignity, in the face of false accusation, humiliation, and eventually torture and even death? In a recent podcast, Father Richard Rohr said of Jesus, “He neither plays the victim, nor does he create victims. That is liberation–first of all from the self…” This is love. Self-emptying love that pours out for others. It is the only force powerful enough to scatter fear. Fear is always connected to self in some way. Loving like Jesus frees us from our fears by freeing us from ourselves. Jesus’ silence was the depths of love on display. And it spoke louder than the chief priests, louder than Pilate, louder than the furious crowd, and louder than the mocking soldiers. Because their voices were driven by fear. Jesus was driven by love…

–Laura

Religious leaders,

Pilate,

The crowd,

Barabbas,

The soldiers,

Jesus.

Earthly power,

Anger,

Fear,

Violence,

Shouting,

Silence,

Love.

Pastor John’s sermon, and Laura’s post above took a familiar passage and broke it down causing us to have to take a closer look. Most of us are familiar with this account of Jesus before Pilate. Nothing in the story was a surprise to us, but like we do with many familiar things, we read it from a detached place. The way that Pastor John broke it down made it impossible to stay detached….and it happened when he mentioned politics. Laura asked Why does politics have the power to stir our hearts and passions more than spiritual matters? It’s worth thinking about, and answering for ourselves. What is our religion, our faith, our loyalty most connected to? Where have we colluded with empire to the point where nothing riles us up as much as political matters do?

These are good questions to sit with. What are your initial reactions to political things? If anger comes up frequently–why?  When I was in counseling a few years ago, my counselor pointed out that anger is often a secondary emotion and that underneath it is typically fear or sadness. We don’t often take the time to get to the underlying emotion because anger feels more powerful. Power can be addictive, yet Laura pointed out above that the power of the Religious Leaders, Pilate, the crowd, and the soldiers was actually a cover up for their fear. Uninvestigated anger, and uninvestigated fear leads to violence.

As I was listening to the sermon, I found myself wondering who I am in the story. I think that’s a good exercise for all of us. We each have within us the capacity for tremendous good, or evil. Sometimes we don’t recognize the evil for what it is, and because of our human nature, we typically like to paint ourselves in a favorable light, but we must be willing to look at ourselves truthfully, see those areas that are not in line with the character of Jesus, and lean into the Holy Spirit’s power to be convicted, counseled, and led into truth.

Are we the religious leaders? Have our traditions led us to a place where there are concrete barriers around our understanding of faith and of God, and anything outside those barriers is a threat to the foundation upon which we’ve built our lives?

Are we Pilate? We, like Pilate, can see that Jesus is unlike anyone else. We know deep within ourselves that to really follow Him will cost us something, and we’re not willing because we’d rather please our leaders and our crowd, yet at the same time we try to excuse ourselves from any responsibility in that decision.

Are we the crowd? Have we become followers of humans rather than followers of Christ? Have we fallen victim to “group think” which is defined as “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”(Miriam Webster Dictionary)? There is much published material about “group think” and one of the characteristics is that it leads to irrational or dysfunctional decision making. People who fall prey to “group think” make group decisions without critical evaluation of different view points; they believe that whatever decision their group makes is the right decision,  even if they have questions, they don’t feel like they can bring up a dissenting view point and therefore they justify the behaviors of whomever they are following in order to feel less inner conflict. Group think is easy for all of us to fall victim to, which is why it is so very important that we follow the advice of Jesus’ brother James who says “if any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault and it will be given to you…Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1: 5, 19-20).  We never see in Jesus’ ministry that He was “mainstream”. We must be willing to evaluate ourselves.

Are we Barabbas? Have we tried to force our nationalistic beliefs into becoming reality? Have we been willing to use or justify violence as a means to an end?  Have we usurped the role of God and His ways and His timing in order to make anything “great again”? Have we viewed ourselves and our interests as superior to those of other image bearers? Have we lost our minds and hearts to nationalism?

Are we the soldiers?  Whether the soldiers enjoyed what they did or not, they were quite obviously detached from seeing the image of God–the value, the divinity, and the preciousness of their victims. Whether they detached themselves as a means of self-protection, or sheer contempt because they thought they were superior, it did not appear to bother them to laugh inappropriately as they inflicted pain. What is our response to the pain of others, especially those who are different from us? Do they deserve it? Are we able to detach ourselves emotionally? Are we able to see the unique image of God in others? Do we value every human equally?

Are we Jesus? Jesus who didn’t fight back against the system–the earthly system. Jesus, who didn’t defend himself. Jesus who could have wiped everyone out in an instant and made himself King. (Remember the temptations at the beginning of his ministry?) Jesus who could have chosen earth’s violent corrupt ways, but instead chose the crazy way of unconditional love.

This morning in my devotional reading I read:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love...” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I have pictured myself many times at the foot of the cross. I have not, until this morning, pictured myself looking out from the cross. It changes everything.  If I have been crucified with Christ (Galations 2:20), the vantage point of the cross is one I need to look through.  We know that Jesus was looking at the crowd, the soldiers, his mother, his friends, all of them with love–with grace–with all encompassing forgiveness–no malice, no grasping for earthly power, no harsh words–just love and a desire for each one to be forgiven. Wow. Is that how I see? Is that how I love?

We can all be any of the human characters in Mark 15, it comes naturally. We absolutely can’t “be” Jesus in our own strength, but we have everything that we need in the Holy Spirit to live with godliness (2 Pet. 1:3). It’s His gift to us. May we seek the face, the wisdom, the ways of Jesus and look at those around us from the vantage point of the cross choosing to be instruments of peace in an incredibly divided world.

–Luanne

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