Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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You may have wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday.

Here is the spoiler: Jesus went to the cross to be able to say three words: “It. Is. Finished.”

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well.

The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth was the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

I was a Young Life leader for 25 years. Young Life focusses on explaining Jesus to the high school kids who don’t go to church. Every semester YL leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room, as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe hundreds of thousands of high school kids are hanging on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. After the message kids sat in stunned silence. Except for one kid, a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran right up to my nose and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life and I have NEVER heard this. My dad was a youth pastor, my mom a Sunday school teacher, but I’ve never heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?

Without really thinking I said, “I don’t know. Maybe we are so busy telling you what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was (accidentally) a pretty good answer. But, Josh says, “I don’t know about that.” He turns and practically runs out the door saying, “I’m going Starbucks.” He rips open Rawleigh’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open for me to tell people what Jesus did for them!” The door slams and Josh is gone.

…For the first time Josh knew what Jesus did on the cross in detail. And for the first time, Josh knew that Jesus did it to satisfy a debt that only God could pay…Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do – Why he would go to the cross. In the Good Friday Gospel reading (John 18:1-19:42) Jesus told us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the salvation of humanity, the opening of relationship with God for you. Forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha, on a cross between two thieves. The universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said, “Kings shall shut their mouths.” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

Isaiah said, “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus said, “It is Finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It Is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” That as well is finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what?” That, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet, Satan stood up in hell clapping. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

And now, ever since that day, regardless of what you see, or hear, or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

 

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The True Cross

Church of the Holy Sepulcher at sunrise.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher at sunrise.

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Is the cross a sign of your life?

You probably missed it. It didn’t show up in most calendars and you would have to have been born under a lucky star to have heard it mentioned in the media. Monday marked the observation of the Feast of the Holy Cross. On September 14, 335 the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem was dedicated. On that day the “True cross,” discovered by Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, was brought into the church she had commissioned over the sites of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. But the Feast of the Holy Cross is much more than the celebration of a historically unverifiable artifact. Commemorating the instrument of Christ’s death is appropriate because the central focus of the Christian life is the Cross. The Cross is more than an event in history. It is the event in history.

The Cross is an eternally present reality for those allowing their lives to be hummed in the key of Jesus. The Cross is the unveiling of God in the world. It defines the proper shape of human existence. But what does a cross-shaped life look like?

Mainly it means that a truly meaningful life can’t be found in the self-centered life. We simply were not created to be self-fulfilled. We were not designed to be drinking bird contraptions, endlessly and mindlessly bouncing up and down after whatever fluid the world says we should peck at. Our lives, especially in the midst of trials, find our purpose as we give ourselves away. The way of the Cross, is the way of the other. And God is the ultimate “Other.” St. Paul says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3). The great truth of the Christian life is that we only find ourselves outside of ourselves. Orthodox priest, Fr. Stephen Freeman, offers helpful advice for living the cruciform life:

 Pray. Prayer is directing our hearts outside of ourselves towards God.

 Be kind. Kindness puts others ahead of ourselves.

 Give thanks always, in all things. Giving thanks acknowledges that our lives are not the products of our own efforts, but a gift from God.

 Forgive. Forgive everyone for everything. The refusal to forgive is the radical separation of ourselves from others.

– Give stuff away. The more, the better. We do not exist to consume. Satisfying our daily needs is enough. When our true life is found outside of ourselves, then sharing what we have with others is the most natural thing to do with our possessions.

 Do not lie. Do not participate in other’s lies. Lying is an act of selfishness – an attempt to create a false reality in order to duck the truth.

I would add: Receive God’s grace: In all of life, but especially in the Eucharist. We do not grab grace in the Eucharist. We make, as Cyprian said “A throne for God with our hands” and receive him.

The Cross is the way of life so, finally,

Embrace the practice of the Cross. Even Protestants can tangibly remind ourselves that we live in the shadow of the cross by making its’ sign frequently. In 250AD church Father Tertullian said that we Christians, “in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross” (De corona, 30).

The Cross is the remembrance of Christ and points to the great truth that our lives are not our own. They belong to the Crucified One – A Savior who bids His friends to join Him an act of pure love: self-sacrifice.

Did you miss the Feast of the Cross this year? Did it slip past you unawares? Despair not. You need not wait for September 14th to come back around. Simply live a cruciform life.

Because the True Cross is…you.

*This is a riff on Father Stephen’s post for a midweek sermon. If you do not read Father Stephen, you should. http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings And yes, I realize that the final sentence is narcissistic to the point of undoing the entire article. “You” just works so much better stylistically than “us”.  🙂

The Justice-ification of the Church: Where we went wrong and how we can do better

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Years ago a Catholic priest from India told me, “Ghandi said, ‘I look at Jesus and I want to be a Christian. But then I look at the lives of Christians…and I don’t want to be a Christian.‘”  The great scandal of the church, for Ghandi and for us, is the troubling lack of love shown by those of us who call ourselves “Christian.”

Having made pilgrimage to the Holy Land this spring, I was astonished at how small it is: The events in the Gospels can mostly be seen from each other: Bethphage, the village from which Jesus had the disciples borrow a donkey and her colt, is on the Mount of Olives. From this hill you can look across the narrow valley and over the Brook Kidron at the walls of Jerusalem and the gate Jesus rode through on the day we call Palm Sunday. The temple, from whose courts all four Gospel writers record Jesus casting the money-changers, was just inside the city wall. When Jesus entered the temple and focused on the failings of the religious establishment rather than shake his fist at the Roman occupiers whose Antonia fortress stared down into the Temple grounds, Jesus set the stage for the crowd’s turning on him when he stood before Pontius Pilate five days later. You can walk the Via Dolorosa, along which Jesus carried his cross to the place of crucifixion in minutes. The spot where Jesus was crucified and where he was buried are also remarkably close – so close that both the location of the crucifixion, Calvary, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb are under the same roof today. It is stunning how little geography God used in the great saving acts of his Son.

Scandalous also is how small the distance between, “Hosanna. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Crucify Him!”

In the Gospels this took five days. In the Episcopal Church our liturgy places both the Palm Sunday and Good Friday scripture readings on the same day. My guess is that this is, in part, an acknowledgment that many will not prioritize attendance at the commemorations of our Lord’s redeeming acts in the Paschal Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. But it is also an acknowledgement of basic human nature: The distance between celebrating someone and demonizing them is also remarkably short – because, as humans, we have a remarkable capacity for…small.

With just a little dollop of disappointment we can move from kindness to vitriol in a single motion. We look for scapegoats, rush to judgments, and hold others in bondage with binary thinking. We litmus test and sort people into categories of our own devising. And we wish those short of wholehearted endorsement of the platforms we embrace cast into outer darkness. A few exhibits:[1]

  • Several months ago at lunch I overhear the animated conversation between a socially active pastor of another mainline denomination and an atheist college professor sharing our table. The pastor labeled group after group, “Evil!” until the atheist professor finally asked him, “Where’s the love, man?”[2]
  • A student asked me to breakfast the next morning and confessed (tearfully) that he was considering leaving the seminary. He was trying to grow in prayerfulness and was told that his pleas for his fellow students to act in love toward others was evidence of insufficient commitment to the social causes espoused by his peers. He was certain he would never gain their acceptance.

A progressive friend posted on Facebook several weeks ago, “I am uncomfortable that my church’s stance on every issue seems to completely mirror the culture.” I think he is right…

…but I am not nearly so nervous about aping the culture as I am about the next exit on this highway: the justice-ification of the church.

The conflation of church and culture is surely foolish, and I think, also small. But there is a great Protestant tradition of church by focus group. What I cringe at is the way Christians (progressive Christians in particular, but we are not alone in this), have managed to systematically turn social causes into “justice issues.” We do this with seemingly little self-awareness of the ramifications of these crusades. When we label an issue “justice” we stop working for sensible public solutions and begin brandishing swords. This is never so clear as on social media…

We call the press, issue positions, and forward polemics on our Facebook feeds.

But in the public sphere in a pluralistic society there will always be those who do not endorse our worldview. Can we make room for them? Can we “seek to understand before being understood”? Can we begin with the presumption that people are generally of good will and work from there toward solutions? What if, instead of “justice,” we argued our great disagreements starting with, “How do we find a ‘win’ for everyone?” And, “What will lead to human thriving?” Or better yet, remember that the church is first and foremost a place to worship Jesus Christ. How did the church become ground zero for the activism industry?

“But Matt,” you say, “justice is biblical. The Old Testament prophets spoke truth to power.” Yes, but you are not a biblical prophet, and this is not 2600 years ago. In our day “justice” is not helpful because it can never make room for another. Enraged justice usually results in the shaking of fists and mobs with torches in the night. When we drop the “justice” card then someone is guilty…and they must be punished. “Justice” is not served until the evil is purged.

When we label a disagreement “justice” it generally ends one place: “Burn the witch!”

But I do see examples of hope in the emerging generation of leaders: Two weeks ago a friend who is active in LGBT politics asked me if I would organize a meet and greet between an LGBT political action group and evangelical pastors. Yesterday seventeen young evangelical pastors and thought leaders met with Matthew Vines and others engaged in promoting same-sex marriage. While there was clear theological disagreement, it was a time of relationship building, healing, and mutual respect. Here is another: Next week I will be at a luncheon in the Roman Catholic bishop’s office to discuss spiritual unity between evangelicals and Catholics as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is a short way down the hill to Jerusalem. It is a short way from the cross to the tomb. It is a short way from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

But it is also a short way the other direction.

Going from “Crucify!” to “Hosanna!” is the exact same distance. It does take more work, but the Prince of Peace went up to Jerusalem and was crucified so that no one else need be.

Next week we will celebrate the forgiveness of both human and institutional sin on the cross. We could join Jesus in the way of that cross, extending our arms in love to all who are near. Perhaps if we did that, those who are far will see and notice. And the scandal of the church will be swallowed in the scandal of the cross.

As that old Indian priest said that day, “I implore you. Make Ghandi wrong. Be Easter people. May the love of our Lord Jesus Christ so shape and form you that all the world would see his mercy.

 

[1] Out of politeness I will only use examples from my own tribe. Evangelicals and Catholics will be able to think of many of their own examples.

[2] These evils included fracking, pipeline building, driving petroleum based cars, failure to recycle, and the fact that Darren Wilson had not been lynched. (The pastor was white.)

 

Todd, adoption, and a briar patch: Glimpses of God at work

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Facebook gets a lot of grief, but I have a confession, I like Facebook.

It allows me to peek into people’s joys and struggles, rejoice and grieve with friends, and spurs me to pray more. I keep in touch with people I would never see.

One of those I would never see is Todd. We went to elementary and high school together. We were never really close. Todd and I didn’t run in the same crowd. I always appreciated Todd. He was kind to a girl with special needs once in 6th grade. Kids were not nice to people who were different back then. But Todd was. No one can remember the girl’s name even though she went to our school for two years. We just called her “Gomper,” the name of a local program for kids with disabilities. She had a neck brace and her head seemed too small. Social Darwinism was the rule of the day and we all wanted to be part of the crowd. Make no mistake, the crowd” was the one above you, not the one below. So no one talked to Gomper. Some talked at her, but only if they were getting social mileage at her expense. Not Todd. One day Todd stopped a spring loaded door from smashing Gomper. Some kids were waiting to see it happen. They were upset with Todd.

Thirty years later Todd hit me up on FB. I was having a bit of a bad week when his friend request came. I asked him why he had looked me up after all these years. His answer stunned me: “You were the only cool kid who was nice to me.” First of all, I wasn’t actually a cool kid. I was more associated with cool kids. Second, I was not aware that I had been nice to him at all – my lack of social awareness is not a new thing.

I closed my laptop and reflected on my life – my history and the events that have shaped me. It dawned on me: Although I have inadvertently been a jerk to a few on my journey, I  go out of my way to be kind to people. Looking back this seemed odd since I really didn’t have much spare social capital. As I sat wondering why I had spent the better part of a life giving status away, it dawned on me: I  know what rejection feels like. And I don’t want others to feel it.

I realized that there is something Gospel happening in me that I did not expect: God is redeeming my dysfunctions. The great act of redemption, or as the last centuries preachers called it, “the great doctrines of the cross” do involve God forgiving the penalty of sin. But God is also healing the pain of sin. Over the course of my life, with the help of good friends, God, and time, the deep wounds have healed over. The scars are fading. The stories I tell about the lack of hope under the surface of the snarky and attention seeking teenager I once was, feel like I am telling someone else’s stories.

But here is the big surprise, God has not taken away the power of sin in my life. That one God is doing something very different with: redeeming it. Through the fierce grace of the crucified and risen one, the Holy Spirit is reclaiming and transforming my dysfunctions, the sins committed upon me and by me, the ones that held sway over how I saw myself and how I behaved – those are the places my life is actually having the most impact. And that, I am learning, is “thy Kingdom come.”

Don’t misunderstand, my life hasn’t been horrible. But it hasn’t been a bed of roses either. Maybe more of a briar patch: Green yes, but some sharp stuff there too. But God is taking my brokenness and using that which caused the most pain to bless both me and others. Here are a couple for size…

-I was an unwanted child. Given up at birth. Today I instinctively look for the neglected in a room.

-My dad, whom I love dearly and have a good relationship with today, was busy. He eventually left our family for another woman. God is redeeming that too: Being a man my children can do more than love, but like and respect is a true joy. The value I place on remaining close in head and heart with Kari was birthed in the briar patch of infidelity.

-I grew up outside the faith, outside of the message of God’s relentless grace. I first heard the story of Jesus’ crucifixion as a fresh high school graduate at a Young Life camp in 1982.  It was all I could do to keep from standing up in the middle of 300 students and yelling, “Tell me more!” It was too good to be true, this message of God’s unearned favor. Favor purchased not by my ability to get the attention of my father, but by the Father’s attentiveness to the world to gift his son. This son offered himself on a cross, as St. Peter says, “the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God.” God is redeeming even my lack of knowledge of him: To this day I cannot speak of Jesus’ passion without tears in my eyes. I am still grateful to my toes for the hope God brought me through his passion.

My deepest wounds have taught me that all is grace.

Or could be if we would allow it.

Don’t mistake me. I am not winking away pain. I’m not pretending that the hard things didn’t hurt. They did. I have seen too much pain, wept with too many who have been harmed, and sat with too many in death. But those things are being transformed by a God who stared death in the face, took everything death could dish out and handed it back saying, “not today, sir.” For the high price paid by Christ and offered freely – How could I possibly respond to God with anything but the “thank you” of my life? How could we, as  family of grace possibly do life without room for others?

So I give grace. To a fault. I get burned. I get ripped off. I have to be mindful not to expose those under my care to dangerous people. I give too much grace. How can I not, so much has been given to me? Living in the desert I only discovered a few years ago that my favorite food, blackberries, grow on briars. It seems appropriate somehow, God bringing all that tart sweetness from a bramble.

In the movie “Prince of Persia” there is a scene in the desert. The prince is marching across a wasteland into the enemies’ territory. The captured princess (and love interest) is frustrated at his foray. She mocks him. “You even walk like one, the arrogant walk of a prince of Persia.” Dastal, the prince, confesses his secret, “I wasn’t born  a prince at all. I was an urchin.” It was an era without social mobility, so amazed, the princess asks, “How?” “I don’t know,” Dastal responds, “He chose me. He found me and brought me into his home. He is all I have.”

Gratitude. Dependence. Loyal love. Those are what knowing that he was adopted gave Dastal. It is what my welcome into the Kingdom, by our adopting God, has given me. It is what God offers you. On Ash Wednesday we say, “Remember we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” This is not medieval self-abasement. It is remembering who we are and whose we are: chosen, adopted children of the King. It is about remembering so that we  live a Eucharistic (“thanksgiving”) life.

I give grace because I have received it. And the grace I give will never begin to equal the grace I have been given. Partially because when we extend grace, more grace if given. Have you experienced grace, the absolute unearned love of God showered upon your heart? Have you experienced the reality that John describes: “To all who receive him, even to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.”

There is an undeniable brokenness that comes with being human. And, lest we forget, life reminds us all sooner or later. We can deny it. Pretend it doesn’t hurt. Tough it out. But why? Our pain has been purchased. Redeemed like a soda bottle bought back by the corner grocer. There has been a transaction on your behalf. You aren’t just God’s child by birth. You have been chosen and redeemed on a cross. You have been adopted as God’s own: a prince/princess of the Almighty, called into relationship with the entire Holy Trinity for all eternity. You have been given a task and a mission to accomplish. God desires to give each of us grace, and through us, to extend that grace.

For you to be someone’s Todd.

And for someone else to be yours.

So there is no such thing as the unwanted in God’s economy.

No such thing as being Fatherless.

No such thing as a life without a high and holy calling.

But we can live like there is. Some here are walking away from their adoption. Some are keeping the Father at arms length. For you I have one question: ARE YOU NUTS!

There is an expression that kids were using a few years ago. “Are you pickin’ up what I am layin’ down?” God sent his son to lay his life down for you. So that you could have life. Are you picking up what he laid down?

It is specifically through brokenness that God brings forth beauty. But God is no bully and only works when our brokenness is surrendered.

Empty briars or ripe berries? Orphaned or adopted? Sin that so easily entangles or pain fiercely redeemed? The “yes” of your life by faith makes all the difference.

They Didn’t Call Him “Golden-Mouthed” for Nothing…

They didn’t know what they were doing when they made John Archbishop of Constantinople. They learned not to give a captivating speaker a microphone if you don’t know what he is going to say. John Chrysostom or “golden-mouthed” had a promising career in Greek rhetoric that he dashed by becoming a Christian, then a hermit to memorize the Bible. When his health forced him back to civilization, he became a preacher of great fame. He taught the scriptures practical everyday application, including preaching against the hoarding of wealth (angering some of the wealthy), and that priests should serve where assigned rather than touring for honorariums (angering the priests). He was the first (that I am aware of anyway) since the biblical authors to treat intimate marital relations as a good thing.

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Here is a sermon excerpt from the late 300’s.  Homeboy could preach!

On the burial place and the Cross 2: Adam and Christ, Eve and Mary

Have you seen the wonderful victory? Have you seen the splendid deeds of the Cross? Shall I tell you something still more marvelous? Learn in what way the victory was gained, and you will be even more astonished. For by the very means by which the devil had conquered, by these Christ conquered him; and taking up the weapons with which he had fought, he defeated him. Listen to how it was done:

A virgin, a tree and a death were the symbols of our defeat. The virgin was Eve: She had not yet known man; the tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the death was Adam’s penalty. But behold again a Virgin and a tree and a death, those symbols of defeat, become the symbols of his victory. For in place of Eve there is Mary; in place of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of the Cross; in place of the death of Adam, the death of Christ.

Do you see him defeated by the very things through which he had conquered? At the foot of the tree the devil overcame Adam; at the foot of the tree Christ vanquished the devil. And that first tree sent men to Hades; this second one calls back even those who had already gone down there. Again, the former tree concealed man already despoiled and stripped; the second tree shows a naked victor on high for all to see. And that earlier death condemned those who were born after it; this second death

gives life again to those who were born before it. Who can tell the Lord’s mighty deeds? By death we were made immortal: these are the glorious deeds of the Cross.

Have you understood the victory? Have you grasped how it was wrought? Learn now, how this victory was gained without any sweat or toil of ours. No weapons of ours were stained with blood; our feet did not stand in the front line of battle; we suffered no wounds; witnessed no tumults; and yet we obtained the victory. The battle was the Lord’s, the crown is ours. Since then victory is ours, let us imitate the soldiers, and with joyful voices sing the songs of victory. Let us praise the Lord and say, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”

The Cross did all these wonderful things for us: the Cross is a war memorial erected against the demons, a sword against sin, the sword with which Christ slew the serpent. The Cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the Only-begotten, the Spirit’s exultation, the beauty of the angels, the guardian of the Church. Paul glories in the Cross; it is the rampart of the saints, it is the light of the whole world.