Monthly Archives: March 2012

A Homily for Palm Sunday

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, March 15, 2008

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 27:1-54
Psalm 22:1-21

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, so I guess today is Palm Saturday, though that sounds really strange and quite inelegant.  Palm Sunday—or Palm Saturday, or Palm Weekend—is the day we celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, when he was welcomed by the Jews with celebration, everyone shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!”  It’s a scene of rejoicing and triumph, and so that’s why Palm Sunday is typically remembered as a celebration.  It’s a great and very happy day!

Of course, as it turns out, this Friday we celebrate Good Friday, the day that marks Jesus’ death.  So, even though we want to remember Palm Sunday with rejoicing and celebration, we have to remember that Good Friday lies just ahead of us.  Rejoicing is going to be followed by rejection, betrayal, suffering, torture, and death.  Though the entrance of Jesus was met with triumphant celebration, in one sense at least, it isn’t going to go well.  You can imagine that as Jesus is entering Jerusalem being hailed by the crowds, he probably has very mixed feelings.  Probably some kind of surface joy, but there’s also the underlying knowledge that his journey must go through the cross.

There are surely loads of things we can stop to ponder and meditate upon today and tomorrow, in thinking about the meaning of the Easter season, but I want to hold up before us this thought, this question: What makes us different as followers of Jesus?  What is unique about us?

This question obviously can be answered in a zillion different ways – lots of things make us different from other groups and from the world in general.  But there is something very specific about the rhythm of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday—that specific trajectory, they go together—that represents the most profound difference about us as Christian people, as followers of Jesus.

The prayer for this evening points in this direction: “Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility (pay attention to what follows, now) Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”

That is the difference between us and everyone else – what makes us different is that we as a people were created by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and we recognize that our lives must be shaped by death and resurrection.  As the prayer says, “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”

This pattern must find its way into every area of our lives, every nook and cranny of how we conceive of our relationships, how we conduct our friendships, how we think about others who give us trouble, how we behave in our marriages and families, how we imagine our futures, how we go to church – everything about us must be drenched in and reconfigured by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Palm Sunday, in one sense, is great, but in many ways I think that we love it because it makes perfect sense to us.  It’s exactly how we would script things—Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey (well, maybe except for the donkey part;  we’d have him on a fierce beast), but anyway, Jesus rides into Jerusalem and is welcomed by the crowds.  It’s almost like a fighter on his way into the ring, he’s focused, he’s decisive, he’s fearless, he knows what needs to be done, he sizes up his opponents and gives confident, reassuring looks to those who see him as their Savior.  The camera pans across his eyes, fixed, determined, resolute.  Then we see the crowds, chanting wildly as they sense that all their hopes and dreams are being realized right before their eyes.  This is so ideal, it’s so perfect!  The story, at this point, is going so well!

Of course, if we were writing the story, if we were making the film, Palm Sunday would be the end.  There would be no Passion Week.  There would be no Last Supper, there would be no betrayal.  There would be no Good Friday.  Jesus dying?  That makes no sense.  It doesn’t fit!  Yes, the fighter in our Jesus film might absorb some punches from his opponents, but of course he ends up thrashing them.  That’s how you win, right?  That’s how you solve the problem, isn’t it?

But this is exactly the point.  That’s what makes us different.

Jesus’ mood is mixed as he enters Jerusalem because he knows that Palm Sunday is not the final scene; it isn’t the end.  In fact, from this point the story takes some unexpected turns, some painful turns, some very dark ones.

As it turns out, it is through his death on the cross, and his resurrection that Jesus accomplishes salvation, and through which he gives us life from the dead and unites us together in one new body, giving us the promise of enjoying God forever when his Kingdom comes to earth.  God solves the problem, and makes all things new, not on Palm Sunday, but on Easter Weekend.

Therefore, what makes us different, what makes us absolutely unique, is that our mode of life is thoroughly shaped by suffering along with Christ, by dying along with Christ, so that we can experience now and forever the power of the resurrection of Christ.

This is Paul’s point in Philippians 2.

Every group wants problems solved, every school of thought has strategies for family life, for friendships, for personal fulfillment, for self-improvement or for meaning in life.  What makes us different is that we’re the kind of people who pray this prayer: “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”

How are problems solved?  Through power moves or by manipulating others?  What are God’s strategies for how life should be lived?  The pursuit of my dreams and self-advancement?

God’s way is the way of suffering and death, the way of the cross, which is the only path to resurrection.

We love resurrection, don’t we?  Just like we love Palm Sunday.  But we only get Palm Sunday and we only get Easter Sunday when we embrace Good Friday.

Well, what does all this mean for us?  Let’s make all of this live among us for a few minutes:

Some of us are dealing with some difficult relationships right now, in various ways, suffering the pain and frustration of dealing with people who refuse to change or who refuse to love us, who are manipulating us or causing destruction.  Parents.  A spouse.  A child.  A friend.  A co-worker.  How do you “fix” them?  How do you sort people out and solve the problem?  Well, you die.  You walk in suffering in the hope of resurrection.

What does that mean, how does it look, what specific actions does that entail?  I don’t know.  But perhaps that’s the sort of thing that needs to happen here on Saturday nights, where we share our situations with the church and brain-storm to come up with strategies that are shaped by Jesus’ suffering and death—strategies that are not manipulative, that put aside power-moves, but that help us to approach others from a posture of weakness, hoping to unleash resurrection power into the situation.

How do we operate as families?  How do we function as parents who follow Jesus?  I’m not exactly sure, but I am confident that resurrection power enters a home when we follow Paul’s words in Philippians 2—looking out for others’ needs and concerns rather than our own.  We refuse to demand that others conform to our standards, and we die to our own selfish desires so that we may experience the life of Christ in our homes and families.

How do we a find a way forward as a church?  Well, we’re working that out, but it must be shaped and determined by the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We will experience the resurrection power of God in our community when we give ourselves over to suffering and death, putting aside our own preferences, holding our own concerns lightly for the sake of our brothers and sisters and for the sake of God’s pursuit of this neighborhood.

I’m not sure how the rhythm of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday needs to move into your life and shape the way you think and behave, but perhaps this ought to be our prayer: “grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection…”

Prayer for the Weekend

Show us your mercy, O Lord;
And grant us your salvation.
Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
Let your people sing with joy.
Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
For only in you can we live in safety.
Lord, keep this nation under your care;
And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
Let your way be known upon earth;
Your saving health among all nations.
Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
Create in us clean hearts, O God;
And sustain us with your Holy Spirit. 

Jesus’ Resurrection & Other Things

It seems to me that so much modern Christian thought about the resurrection goes in the wrong direction.  It moves to the resurrection.  That is, we feel the need to think toward it, to establish it, to prove it.  So we argue that it did indeed happen, and once we’ve made our case, we imagine our work is done.

Reading through Acts recently, I was struck again by how so much early Christian thought moved from the resurrectionThat it happened was a given, but that was only the starting point.   They proclaimed the resurrection and then got to work.

The early Christians began with the reality of the resurrection and then  asked these questions: What exactly happened when it happened?  And, how does this now change everything?

Starting with the resurrection, rather than ending with it, allowed them to talk about the new world that God had brought into being by raising Jesus from the dead.

They thought from the resurrection about all of life.  If God raised Jesus from the dead, how are relationships now reconfigured?  What do marriages look like in light of the resurrection?  How should friendships be reconfigured?  How does parenting look in light of God’s transformation of all things?  How do we resolve conflicts in light of this new reality?

How does the resurrection reorder how we think about owning and sharing our possessions?  What does a resurrection economy look like?  What about resurrection politics?  If God raised Jesus from the dead, should I think differently about putting myself on the line for what is right?  What should a community shaped by the resurrection of Jesus look like?

I’m not saying that the apologetic task is completely wrong-headed.  But it sure seems that we’ve neglected to make the moves the New Testament does–purposefully re-imagining all of life in light of that world-altering and cosmos-transforming reality of God raising Jesus from the dead.

Choosing Your Regrets

Last fall, David Brooks asked readers over 70 to send him “life reports,” autobiographical essays evaluating their lives.  He posted many of them and they’re fascinating and insightful to read. 

Some have bitter regrets and in almost every case they have to do with broken family relationships (see my post on this).  They chose what seemed right or preferable or advantageous at the time, and their lives were never the same.  The sacrifices weren’t worth it.

I’ve thought often about what sort of “life report” I want to write when I’m 70 or 75.  In one sense, life comes down to what regrets you want to have when you’re old.

There are some regrets I won’t mind having. 

I’ve always wanted to run another marathon, but if I don’t, it won’t be that big of a deal.  I’ve always wanted to see a baseball game at every major league ballpark.  I’ve been to a bunch, but I may not reach that goal.

I may not publish that one article or book I wanted to write, I won’t be the best writer, the best biblical scholar, or the best teacher.  But I’m confident that I can deal with those things when I’m 70.

Here are the regrets I don’t want to have.

I don’t want to regret deeply wounding someone I love by saying something profoundly hurtful.

I don’t want to regret failing to initiate reconciliation sooner.

I don’t want to regret pursuing a professional achievement at the cost of being present with my family.

I don’t want to regret that I didn’t laugh with Sarah and the kids more.

I don’t want to regret that I didn’t listen more to my kids.

I don’t want to regret that I took myself too seriously.

I don’t want to regret that I didn’t enjoy my life more and make the effort to bring joy to those around me.

I don’t want to regret failing to put myself on the line for a friend or colleague who’s been treated unjustly.

I don’t want to regret not affirming my kids enough or making sure they know I love them.

It can be a seriously clarifying exercise to think about what sort of “life report” you want to write when you’re 70.

The Quest for Certainty and Jesus’ Humanity

A few days ago, I wrote about Jesus’ humanity in Hebrews.  I’ve been thinking over the last few days about obstacles to taking seriously the humanity of Jesus in Hebrews.

When I taught undergraduates, I routinely encountered Christian young people who were certain that Luke 2:40-52 was not portraying Jesus as learning anything.  He was God so he must have been omniscient!  The fact that this seems to be the very point of the narrative and that Luke frames the episode by mentioning Jesus’ growth in wisdom didn’t convince them (vv. 40 & 52).

Our hopes and desires are shaped by cultural pressures and social forces and we end up making Jesus in our own image.

There are many ways we do this; here’s just one. 

I think the quest for certainty inhibits us from taking Jesus’ humanity with full seriousness.

Because of our situation in a post-enlightenment, post-scientific age, we idolize knowledge.  We are frustrated by what we don’t know and what we need to find out.  Driven by desires for something like omniscience, we create the image of a superhero who would know everything, have access to all knowledge.

Jesus, of course, must be like that!  He wouldn’t be hampered by a need to learn or discover anything.

Further, we all face uncertainties—both in our close relationships and in our experience of the wider culture.  We crave certainty.  We want guarantees that everything is going to be okay.  Driven by desires to escape the contingencies of daily life, we create the image of a superhero who has no doubts about life; one who doesn’t need to navigate the uncertainties of the future the way we do.

Again, Jesus must have been like that!

Shaped as we are by our fears, desires, fantasies, and experiences, it is difficult for us to take seriously the passages in the New Testament that depict Jesus’ human experience.  It was very much like ours.

The writer of Hebrews stresses this in several passages in order to encourage his readers to remain faithful.  They have a fully sympathetic high priest, one who has fully experienced the stresses, trials, and temptations of life.

He knows all about facing an uncertain future, struggling to clarify calling and vocation, navigating an uncertain world, and striving to remain faithful (Heb. 5:7-10).

The gospel is not that Jesus is exceptional because he isn’t like you.  The gospel is not that Jesus is a superhero who meets our fantastical projections.  The gospel is not that Jesus was a superhero who wasn’t like you at all.

The gospel is that Jesus fully took on our condition and seriously participated in humanity as we experience it.  He was faithful to God unto death and in his death he conquered death itself and the one who held the power of death—God’s cosmic enemy (Heb. 2:14-15).

And the gospel is that we have this Jesus as a sympathetic high priest to call upon.  When we pray to God for help in time of need, there’s no eye-rolling on God’s part.  The one at God’s right hand knows exactly what life is like and is eager to grant help to his sisters and brothers (Heb. 2:12, 18).

Don’t create a Jesus according to your superhero projections.  The biblical Jesus is far better.

Jewish & Christian Identities are Not Incompatible

Non-Jewish Christians are so accustomed to reading Hebrews 7-10 as something close to anti-Jewish.  “At least since the time of John Chrysostom, Hebrews has been read as a stern warning to Jewish converts to the Christian faith not to fall back into Jewish practices” (R. Hays).

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that if the specific situation faced by this community had not emerged, the letter “to the Hebrews” would not have been necessary.  The writer would not have made these sorts of arguments in chapters 7-10. 

We only have this letter because a crisis has driven the hearers to a point where they must choose between their identity as Christians and their identity as Jews.  Apart from that situation, however, there would be no inherent tension between being faithfully Jewish and thoroughly Christian.

That may be a ridiculous understatement to Christian Jews (it certainly would be to the early church), but for many non-Jewish Christians, shaped as we are by a longstanding divide between Judaism and Christianity, it’s difficult to wrap our minds around.

Identity Formation

Welcome to Midtown Christian Community.

Welcome in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came into this enslaved world of oppression, exploitation, and sin, and who took upon himself all the brokenness, alienation, fear, hopelessness, estrangement, frustration, rebellion and sorrow that plagued God’s good creation, and he put it to death when he died on the cross.  God raised him from the dead and now Jesus sits on the throne of the universe as King Jesus.  He sent His Spirit to us so that Jesus is now present with us as King, and we gather together tonight as the Kingdom of God by the power of the Spirit.

And the signs of God’s Kingdom are all around us – it’s just that we need discernment to see them; we need Kingdom eyes and ears, Kingdom senses.  Just as God’s people missed God when he showed up in Jesus, we can often be looking for the wrong thing.  We want to be entertained, we want to be part of something interesting, powerful, something that will burnish our image or improve our social standing, something that will make us look good in the eyes of others.

We’ll miss it unless we have a Kingdom imagination.  The Kingdom of God sounds like warm words of welcome, songs of lament and songs of praise, small kids banging around and probably being a bit too loud.  The Kingdom is people enjoying a meal together, sharing a conversation together—maybe brief, maybe very involved.  It looks like people strategizing to meet needs.  People sharing their griefs, their sorrows, their joys. 

It looks and sounds like a group of people who share life together and receive life from God as a good gift and give thanks together in the name of Jesus.

So you’re welcome this evening to Midtown, and we are all welcomed by King Jesus, to enjoy his goodness together.

May the peace of Christ be with us all.

Lenten Corporate Prayer for the Weekend

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart,
Hear our prayer and deliver us.
From the desire of being esteemed,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged,
Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Heavenly High Priesthood, Cruciformity, & Frightened Rabbit

I love this line from the Hays quote I posted earlier.  It sort of sticks a finger in the eye of a Platonic worldview:

Jesus “has cleansed their consciences through the embarrassingly palpable act of sprinkling his own human blood around in the heavenly sanctuary, in the very presence of God.”

As I read back over it a few times, all I could think of was “Head Rolls Off” by Frightened Rabbit.  Especially these lines:

I believe in a house in the clouds
And God’s got His dead friends ‘round
He’s painted all the walls red
To remind them they’re all dead

It’s a bit of an elusive song, but I love its wonder, its sense of mystery, its hope, and its resolve.

What also strikes me most is its blending of cruciformity and mission.  When I speak with people about cruciformity and they’ve not encountered it previously, it inevitably strikes them as passive or escapist.  I think that’s because of the shriveled imagination of our modern world, which is tremendously unfortunate.

As the song says, truly inhabiting our dying in Christ (our being one of God’s dead friends) “isn’t morbid at all.”  In fact, it makes possible a life—and a community—flooded with resurrection power and animated by hope.

And cruciform lives that embody resurrection power are filled with humility.  We take our place in the long train of human experience on this earth, seeking to spread shalom just that much more.  We want to see pain absorbed by relief, conflict overcome with reconciliation, and alienation transformed into embrace.

I just love this tune.  If you find it odd, morbid, or grim, remember they’re a bunch of Scottish lads from Fife.

Here are the lyrics to the entire song:

Jesus is just a Spanish boy’s name
How come one man got so much fame?
And to enemy, it’s pointless to anybody
That doesn’t have faith
Give me the cloth and I’ll wipe my face
When it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
And while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth
So you can burn me
‘Cause we’ll all be the same, the same way
Dirt in someone’s eyes cried down the drain
I believe in a house in the clouds
And God’s got His dead friends ‘round
He’s painted all the walls red
To remind them they’re all dead
And you know when it’s all gone, something carries on
And it’s not morbid at all
Just when nature’s had enough of you
When my blood stops, someone else’s will not
When my head rolls off, someone else’s will turn
You can mark my words, I’ll make changes to earth
While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth
Tiny changes to earth, tiny changes to earth
Tiny changes to earth

Self-Consuming Texts and the Quasi-Platonic Cosmology of Hebrews

Hebrews appears to have something of a Platonic conception of the cosmos, regarding, among other things, the heavenly tabernacle and the exalted Jesus as greater than the earthly realities that bear on the audience.

It may indeed be the case that Hebrews borrows terms and metaphors from Middle Platonism, but ultimately Hebrews’ cosmology is thoroughly faithful to the Scriptures of Israel.  It doesn’t denigrate the physical creation at all.

Paul, Not the Author of Hebrews

Richard Hays, drawing upon Stanley Fish’s discussion of self-consuming texts, suggests that perhaps the author of Hebrews subtly undoes the Platonic framework he uses to advance his argument.

Readers of Hebrews are invited to consider the problem, in terms universally familiar in Hellenistic antiquity, of how they might ascend from the finite realm of sense impression to the heavenly world.  They are offered a way to do this through Jesus, the Son of God, “the reflection of God’s glory” who is exalted above the angels.  But unexpectedly, they discover that this pre-existent heir of all things shared in blood and flesh, that the new means of access to the non-material heavenly realm is through the curtain of Jesus’ flesh, and that he has cleansed their consciences through the embarrassingly palpable act of sprinkling his own human blood around in the heavenly sanctuary, in the very presence of God.  This stunning paradox short-circuits the categories of the Platonic world-view and invites the readers to reconsider the terms—to rethink what they thought they knew about reality, particularly about the relation between God and creation.  Perhaps the heavenly world is not so non-material as we thought (p. 170-71).

I think Hays is spot-on here.  Here’s just a snippet of his compelling conclusion:

Hebrews, then, however elegant its rhetorical surface, is finally a self-consuming artifact.  Readers drawn into this dialectical discourse of the New Covenant will find themselves challenged, destabilized, and ultimately transformed.  The New Covenantalism of Hebrews is certainly not supersessionist in the classic sense that it replaces on religious system with a new stable religious system that allows readers to stand in a position of secure superiority.  Instead, they find themselves “naked and laid bare” (4:13); they are summoned on a pilgrimage in which they identify with Israel in the wilderness and constantly compelled to confess, “here we have no lasting city” (p. 172).

Quotes from Richard B. Hays, “‘Here We Have No Lasting City’: New Covenantalism in Hebrews,” pp. 151-173 in Richard Bauckaum, et al (eds.), The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).