Mary, Witness to Death: From the Third of Jesus’s Last Sayings from the Cross

John 19:25-27

Given at Brown Grove Baptist Church on Good Friday, April 15, 2022

“This child is destined to cause the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your heart, too.”  – Luke 2:34-35

I wonder if these words from Simeon were echoing in Mary’s ears as she stood near the cross, as a witness to her son’s state-sponsored murder. 

While the seven last words are Jesus’, in these words, I can’t help but think of Mary and loneliness. The loneliness of bearing a son outside of wedlock in a Jewish culture and the knowledge that this conception was miraculous. That she bore none other than God’s son. Who do you share that with? And who would understand the burden of such a thing? Even with a bond that Elizabeth and Mary shared, and with the eventual support of Joseph, Mary must have faced many days when she felt all alone – a young, unwed mother-to-be.

So, what must Mary be thinking and feeling, seeing Jesus on a cross? 

  • Responsible? Parents bear a special responsibility as to how their child turns out. She was first to be told Jesus would be special. She encouraged him to do the miraculous at the wedding in Cana – even before “his time had come.”
  • I know mother’s take seriously their burden to raise their children right. I see it in my own mother. She still wants to correct my grammar on the texts we share.  Point is the actions of sons and daughters reflect the character and parenting of the mother. 
  • Did she push him too much? Not enough? Was she mistaken about his identity? 
  • Or was God mistaken? 
  • Did Jesus take this Messiah thing to far? I wonder if she thought back to that time when she and James came to retrieve Jesus away from a contentious crowd he was addressing. Yet there he seems to reject his mother and brother. Rather, he asked “who is my mother and brother? Those who do the will of my Father in heaven is my mother and my brother and my sister.” Matthew 12:46-50

What about Jesus’s thoughts to Mary?

  • He cares for those he loves, even in his moment of agony.
  • Many become apathetic in their suffering and pain. We know those who focus on their pain and make sure everyone knows they are suffering.
  • Jesus makes sure, in accordance with Jewish customs, that his mother is cared for.
  • In doing so, Jesus becomes alone among humans – the disciples have fled “each to his own home,” while the disciple he loves has accepted Mary “into his own home.”
  • We hear this “to his own” language at the outset of John’s gospel (John 1:11) – the Word came ‘to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.’” Bookended with the beloved disciple taking Mary to “his own home,” and in 16:32 when Jesus predicts that the disciples will be scattered, “each one to his own home, and you will leave me alone,” we can truly sense how alone Jesus is on the cross. 

Finally, in our contemporary culture, I think of mammas whose sons are condemned to die.  Unlike Jesus, they are not without sin.  But that is true of all us sinners. We carry the burdens of the consequences of our choices – our actions. But aren’t some consequences unjust? Like the scandal of the cross, so the death penalty is a scandal in our day. And so, with this scripture, I think of the pain the family of the condemned suffer. No less than the pain of the victim who suffered at the hands of the condemned. Either way, life is being snatched from the healthy. How do the mothers who gave their children life cope with the burden of watching their child’s mistakes be paraded out publicly and their unnatural death celebrated as a cautionary tale reminding us all to keep to our lane? And so I wonder how Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands in solidarity with the mothers whose children have not lived a model citizen’s life but no less bear the image of God? 

I went searching for an honest account from a mother who was willing to share her suffering with us all. I found the account of Marilyn Shankle-Grant and her son, Paul, who was convicted of killing 28 year-old Jonas Cherry while robing the putt-putt golf course where Cherry worked. 

I will let her story have the last word: 

Click here to read Marilyn Shankle-Grant’s account, as told to the Marshall Project.

Life Together During a Pandemic

In 2020 we have experienced more disruption, change, suffering and loss than imaginable.  Much of what we have come to depend on has either been put on pause or stopped altogether.  Such large-scale change and disruption can tear at the fabric of social institutions.  The church, however, when at its healthiest, expects these storms to come and is nimble enough to weather them because its hope isn’t found in traditions, status or familiar routine.  Rather, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian community reflects its assurance in God through its life together based on:

  • Spiritual love for one another rather than emotional love
  • Spiritual practices that keep God in the forefront, not the background
  • Solitude before God rather than noise of self-righteousness  
  • Service to another through listening, active helpfulness and forbearance
  • Confession of sins from one Christian sinner to another 

Bonhoeffer devotes a chapter to each of these in his classic book, Life Together.*  Bonhoeffer knew something about Christian life lived together before God; as a professor at Finkenwalde Seminary he was molding the lives of seminarians in the face of the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.  Everything that Christians had taken for granted about their lives in enlightened Germany were being challenged.  A devout nation, Germany was also on the cutting edge of art, philosophy and innovation.  But out of such success came collapse after the great war, the worldwide depression and devastating inflation that left Germany weak and uncertain. 

Church leaders in Germany traded influence in Hitler’s Third Reich in exchange for a prophetic witness.

The Covid-19 pandemic, a renewed racial reckoning, partisan political rancor, job loss, school closings and no sports (!!!)  have left our heads spinning and grasping for something certain to hold on to.  How should Christians respond in the face of so much change, so quickly?  Bonhoeffer’s Life Together has helped me address this question.  He was clear that an individual Christian’s faith was tied up in the participation and purpose of the larger Christian community.  He believed a Christian community’s life together can withstand these disruptions because its purpose is founded on honoring God’s work in sinful people despite their brokenness.  Their shared daily practices, selfless love, Bible reading, meditative prayer, service to one another and confession didn’t change when the world around them changed.  Rather, these practices prepared them to face difficulties.  They defined the community.  

The world around the faith communities have been altered for the foreseeable future.  Consequently, we have had to change some of the familiar ways we gather for worship and discipleship.  But, has such changes impacted who we are and why we exist as a faith community?  Where we feel it has, we must look at the practices and expectations that make us feel this way.  Are they from God or from our own emotional reaction?  Where we have held firm in devotion to God, we should celebrate and continue in that path.  

Bonhoeffer is teaching me that while changes will come to society and to our churches that are scary, not only can we find blessed assurance in the core practices of our faith, they can pave the way to new life and vitality for our tomorrow.  Pray for the church and its leaders as we navigate this path.  May we do so with humility, forbearance and grace toward one another, because otherwise, change is so hard.  

*Check out Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together.  There are editions available from Harper Collins and Fortress Press.  It is a brief but “meaty” volume that will have you chewing on God’s wisdom for days and weeks to come.       

Our Collective Liminal Moment – Musings on Holy Saturday and Liminality

Sometimes old words just won’t do.  I’ve tried to tell that to my much smarter wife when she is lovingly critical about words I use like “paradigm” or “liminal” in reference to describing an active and growing faith.  “No one talks like that!” she chides.  

But sometimes we need new words to describe what we face, collectively. And folks, if ever we were in a collective liminal moment, it is now.  

The other night, Beth described the feeling many of us have.  “It’s like we all need to throw up but we dread the discomfort.  It’s really painful and we’d rather put it off but at the same time, we just want to get it over with, so we can feel better afterward.” We are all stuck.  Waiting for what’s next.  Helpless to do much but keep our distance and hope it passes soon. 

The church mission team met the other night to formulate the beginnings of a plan to respond to the growing needs and how we might offer the community a hopeful word.  But there was so much we couldn’t predict. Our normal plans and actions just won’t do in this period of social distancing. And social distancing is the correct response right now.  In doing so, we show that our neighbor’s lives are as important as ours. We are all willing to sacrifice in order to slow the spread.  

But what will the world look like next month, in six months, or a year from now?  Are we just on a brief holding pattern, waiting for things to return to “the way it’s always been” or is this moment pregnant with new possibilities?  In times of crisis, it’s always easier to hunker down and wait for the trouble to pass and for things to get better. But, we can’t assume things will be the same.  And while that reality is potentially sad, it doesn’t have to be the last word.  

In the middle of all this disruption, I have been so tickled with how my church has responded to the need to distance ourselves.  Like most other churches, we didn’t close up shop just because we couldn’t meet together for worship like we had been doing. Instead, we allowed the moment of crisis to force us to re-vision what worship could be like from a distance.  We decided to go live with the acceptable skeleton crew of ten in our church building, using Facebook live as our primary platform for worship. We hoped we could reach as many families as possible this way while acknowledging we would be leaving out some of our members who do not have computer access.   We thought through the changes we needed to communicate and the skills we needed to learn in a hurry and then put together the best livestream broadcast given the means and know-how we had. A month in, we are still learning and improving.  

But we also found a large majority of our members were willing to shift their behaviors to be sure they stayed connected to their church during the pandemic.  Many signed up on Facebook for the first time. Our email news subscription saw newcomers who realized this was the best way to stay in the know. The worship service time changed since we were doing one service instead of two.  Traditional service attendees commented their appreciation of the contemporary service style during the first weeks we live streamed. When the calendar turned to Palm Sunday, we got the same positive reaction when the service went traditional, complete with organ.  But, so far, what has been best is seeing the interaction of our intergenerational congregation throughout the service, over the Facebook stream. Everyone appreciates being virtually together. There seems to be a new appreciation for worship now that we have been spread a part. It is a new energy that can get lost when meaningful experiences fall into habits and we begin to unknowingly take our weekly gathering for granted.  

Liminal space – a period in which someone leaves the comforts of what was but hasn’t yet reached the sure footing of what will be – is admittedly a scary time.  But it also offers the greatest potential in which impactful transformation can take place. Liminal time forces us out of our comfort zone and demands us to think creatively.  

Our whole world is in a moment of liminality.  The thought of that is stunning! What new responses to this jarring moment are we going to create?  What good ideas will come from our time of discomfort? In what ways will this pandemic allow us to create a better world? 

God knows something about liminality, too.  Surprising, right? One could argue that the whole of Jesus’ life was a liminal experience – giving up all claims of divinity in order to live fully as a human on earth.  But two events in the life of Jesus really stand out. Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, after his baptism and Jesus’ death and burial. The wilderness was lifeless and difficult. The wilderness prepared Jesus for all the times he would be tempted to step out of his humanity and display his God-like qualities in a self-serving manner.  The cross was a symbol of Roman superiority and the ultimate symbol of defeat. Jesus’ lifeless body hanging on the cross had to have felt like defeat to those closest to him. But it ended up being the farthest thing from defeat, which is where we find ourselves on Easter morning – basking in the joy and wonder of the risen savior.

Jesus’ resurrection is something we need to hold on to on this Holy Saturday, during this dark liminal moment in our present reality.  God did something utterly unthinkable but equally creative. God took what on the surface appeared to be the end of another revolutionary at the hands of the empire’s might and intimidation strategy and created another, far reaching outcome.  Like his wilderness temptations, Jesus could have avoided the cross. He could have said, “Do you know who I am?” and revealed his majesty and glory to a stunned crowd. And they would have crowned him king then and there. And his kingdom would have become the Roman Empire.  No better or worse. But instead, Jesus trusted his father and stepped directly into the ultimate liminal moment between life and death. What waited for Jesus on the other side of death wasn’t just his resurrection but the opportunity for new life for all of us who are walking in the valley of the shadow of death.

We are certainly in a liminal moment.  We can’t just wish away this hidden virus.  It certainly appears to be dictating how we live our lives.  But, if we look prayerfully with our heart rather than just our mind, we can also walk confidently into the future with God, leaving what was behind and embracing what appears like death but what just may be a new way of living. 

Lent 1 –

“To be black and to be conscience, is to be in a constant state of anger.” – James Baldwin.

May we amend that to say, “to be conscience is to be in a constant state of anger?” I heard this question posed on a recent edition of the podcast “On Being.” Perhaps this is a little bit of what it means to be prophetic, too. To become transformed into the likeness of the homeless rabbi, means we too must learn to deeply love the creation we find ourselves a part, and not become satisfied to see it continue to slog along the painful path that pits us against them; of winners and loosers; of fear of others, lest we have to share what we have.

This week, we began our Lenten journey by considering how slavery, segregation and racism is has created a rift in our country between the very good creation of God. In order for us to truly seek repentance (to turn and move in the other direction) we have to understand how deeply this sin of seeing our brothers and sisters as the “other” has led to devaluing, exploiting, and outwardly hating each other. Why has this been a feature of human kind throughout the ages? Does the holy scriptures have anything to say to the contrary – to make us repent of such behavior, whether due to our implicit or complicit action? (We know scripture has been used to justify such a worldview – and to that we also lament.)

Please join me in sharing your reaction to the following questions, found at the end of week one of American Lent:

  1. Did beginning this devotional each day allow you to hear the words printed in a different way? How does prayer help us receive challenging words from God and neighbor?
  2. On day one, we were invited into an assessment of “godly grief that leads to repentance.” What did you discover in assessing your giving, praying, and fasting? To whom are you generous? For whom do you pray? For what do you need to grieve?
  3. On day three, we discussed the three-fifths compromise and the temptation to treat people as resources rather than as image bearers of God. How might you be tempted to treat people as sources of support for your interests? Are there systems your participate in, even unwillingly, that treat people as tools to advance others’ interests? What insights or questions emerge from this consideration?
  4. In what ways might your grief over these things produce the fruit of repentance, a change of mind and actions?
  5. How can this group best pray for you this week?

Yes, Virginia, Redemption is Possible

I attended the 53rd Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast last month, on the first day of the  2019 General Assembly’s session.  The prayer breakfast is a good-faith attempt to foster a foundation of good will, cooperation and collaboration built on faith in God.  This year’s theme focused on a crisis in civility that is pulling our nation’s leaders and the country itself a part.  Two former Faith-Based Initiatives Directors for former presidents, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, spoke passionately on behalf of civility in the public sphere.  Eloquent prayers were lifted on behalf of our state by our governor, lieutenant governor, state attorney general, Richmond Mayor, a senator, a house delegate, and a state supreme court justice.  I hope they meant what they said.  We left with the feeling and hope that our elected officials, having broke bread and lifted prayer together, could see the best in one another.

That same month, Huguenot Road Baptist Church, the church I serve, hosted our annual winter lecture series. There, guest presenters challenged us to see God’s presence in the person across the table from us and to seek reconciliation with those from whom we differ because God, through Christ, reconciled us to him when we were far away.   Such reconciliation and a genuine desire to know and love our fellow humans, is how we bring a foretaste of God’s reign to our communities.

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of our presenters, David Bailey, was present with our current Governor, Ralph Northam, and former Governor, Bob McDonnell, as they announced that this year, Virginia would focus on reconciliation in recognition of the 400 year anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in Virginia.  This, certainly, is a needed step in dealing, head on, with the state’s dark past and the way the government has treated many of its citizens.  Certainly, 2019 was getting off to a good start.

Then, one week ago, we learned about a photo in the medical year book of Governor Ralph Northam, in which he is alleged to have worn black face at a party thirty-five years ago.  This, for sure, was startling and painful news. To say the least, it was insensitive and made light of many citizens of the commonwealth.  If true, it was a disgraceful mistake that will stain his legacy moving forward.  Making fun of any race by making one’s self look like an African American, Asian American, or Native American is unwise and demands self reflection, especially given the history of how white Americans have treated minorities throughout our history.

But, is Governor Northam’s mistake unforgivable?  Can he continue to lead based on a poor choice he made 35 years ago?  How does one respond as a Christian to the tumultuous week that saw not just Governor Northam questioned, but also Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax accused of sexual assault from some years back and State Attorney General Mark Herring admit he, too, wore black face to a party in 1980?

The overwhelming response this week from politicians, the media, and the public has been to accuse and distance themselves from the sitting governor.  Unfortunately, I haven’t heard much nuance discussed in light of this revelation.  As Christians, do we believe people can change?  I hope so!  It’s what my faith is predicated on.  As the Holy Spirit does its work in my life, it brings to light the mis-guided values, ideas, and prejudices that I hold and then demands that I make a choice.  Do I continue to live life my way and be closed to living more like Jesus?  Or, remembering that God, through Jesus, has provided a way for me to start fresh and to live more like Christ, do I embrace the change that God wants?

The good news about Christianity, is that we expect people to change when they encounter Christ!  This is the good news of the Apostle Paul’s life, who went from persecuting and even overseeing the killing of Christians to being the faith’s most prolific evangelist.  Such a change was startling and it took time for early followers to trust Paul.  But such amazing changes are evidence to the God of second chances that Christians follow.

I know I have changed and continue to change as I submit my life to following Jesus each day.  And this change isn’t limited to small areas of life.  It’s in all areas – they way I think about my neighbors, my enemies, and the people who make my life difficult.  I change with God’s help and I believe anyone can change, when confronted with God’s love.

Which begs the question, has Governor Northam changed in the 35 years since his alleged black face incident? I can’t say with certainty and its not up to me. But change yields fruit and it seems that based on his work as Lieutenant Governor and as Governor, he has sought to serve the best interests of all the citizens of Virginia.

My thoughts aren’t written at all to diminish the mistake that Northam made if and when he put on black face.  It is a part of the troubling past that Virginia and all of the United States has to continue to face up to and correct.  But if we as a diverse commonwealth want to earnestly seek reconciliation and common ground so that we together can work for the common good, we have to expect that people are not perfect but that people can change.  I for one am glad people change.  It is evidence that God is at work among God’s people.

I genuinely hope the news of the last week hasn’t completely destroyed the foundation laid at the prayer breakfast back in January or the announcement that our leaders want to seek reconciliation for the evil of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow that defined Virginia for so long.  The news of the last week certainly has disrupted the good spirit.  But it is really up to us, the citizens, to decide if the game of power politics will determine whether we can really be civil toward one another and expect that change can happen among our neighbors.  Will we continue in our cynicism and distrust?   I pray that we can live up to the high standard set by Christ and not only forgive but expect a real change of heart in those who acknowledge they fall short.

Holy Interruptions

Who likes interruptions?  For most of us, interruptions are a frustration, meaning we have to stop what we are doing in order to give our attention to something or someone else.  I’m especially frustrated with interruptions when I have limited time with which to finish a task.  These days, most all of us seem to be working with limited time.

Is there a way to understand interruptions in a different way?  What are interruptions?  Simply put, it is something or someone who disrupts an order of things – be it our current task at hand or a systematic course of actions we have come to rely on.  Take for instance my day, today.  I have the family van in service to correct the malfunctioning automated sliding doors that do not close properly.  Each time these doors close incorrectly, our family trip is interrupted as one of us must get out of the car and manually close the door.  But today, I was planning on the service work being completed by noon.  That’s what the service center told me upon dropping off the van.  Then they called letting me know they needed a part that wasn’t in stock.  They needed to run to a dealer in Colonial Heights to get the part, delaying the completion until late in the afternoon.  Which would be OK but then Beth reminded me that the kids had dentist appointments at 3:30 this afternoon.  It was an appointment I scheduled six months earlier, at their last appointment.  Who knew then what my day would be like today?  She couldn’t reschedule her patients last minute – I would need to take kids.  This required a jockeying of our one good car and a major change of schedule.  Could I afford to miss some of the work I planned to complete today?    Interruptions can be frustrating and can be a source of anxiety.

But certainly, there are welcome interruptions, too.  When an old friend drops in to say hello.  When your called out of a company meeting that has no end in sight.  When the ice cream truck shows up during a hot afternoon of yard work.  When it comes to interruptions, good or bad, I guess it all depends on our perspective.

In a culture that values productivity, interruptions just won’t do.  Our value is based on what we can produce.  We have no room for interruptions.  After studying the gospels and Acts, however, I am convinced we follow a God of interruptions.  After all, what was Jesus to the powers and authorities of his day other than a disrupter of the status quo?  He often appeared to interrupt those he encountered – calling folks to follow him who were busy at their trade; fishermen and tax collectors alike.  He then would interrupt those he called when they thought they knew best.  Examples like urging children to come near when his disciples wanted to send them away or when Peter wanted to stand in his way of the cross.

In Acts, we see Jesus exit the earthly scene early on but in his place comes the promised helper, the Holy Spirit, in whom Jesus told the disciples they would do even greater things than he.  And if Jesus was disruptive to his disciples’ plans, the Holy Spirit would be even more unpredictable in the way it showed up, where it showed up and in whom it showed up.   I mean, the Holy Spirit first shows up during the Pentecost festival, filling the disciple’s voices with languages in which all the visitors in Jerusalem could understand.  No, the disciples weren’t drunk, but would they have even dreamed this sudden baptism up, even if they had the choice?

Following this scene, Peter heals a crippled beggar at the temple gate (at three o’clock).  Peter could have easily dismissed him.  Certainly, there were many beggars who gathered there daily.  Rather, he heals him and testifies to Jesus’ resurrection.  Peter and John get arrested due to this scene, certainly an interruption.  The Spirit interrupts Ananias and Sapphira, when they make a big deal about giving all they made from the sale of their land.  They are suddenly struck dead when it is revealed that they secretly held back some of the proceeds for themselves.

The whole fledgling community of believers are interrupted when Stephen, one of the first deacons, is stoned to death for his commitment to Jesus.  This interruption had always proven effective in past movements.  Make an example of one, send fear among the rest, watch them scatter and return to the “normal” way things were.  But while the community of believers scatter, the power of the Holy Spirit remains active wherever Christ followers are found.  Which included once unthought-of places and people like the Samaritans and the Gentiles.  Through this disruption, Philip, also a deacon, begins to bear witness to the Spirits movement among Samaritans, he hated rivals of the Jews.  And then suddenly Phillip is summoned to a desert road to interrupt an Ethiopian official on his chariot ride home, explaining the scriptures he was reading and baptizing him.  Even Saul, one of the leading persecutors of Jesus’ followers is interrupted on his way to intimidate more followers when he is struck blind on the road to Damascus Road.

So today’s lesson on Holy Spirit interruptions merely continues a trend.  At this point, one thing is clear:  no one can control or predict the moving of the Holy Spirit.  And in this scene, more walls of tradition appear to be crumbling.  Particularly for Peter.  Peter, raised a Jew, at least had the life-altering experience of knowing Jesus and seeing him crucified and raised to new life.  Then, there was the aforementioned Pentecost scene.  At this point, couldn’t anything happen?  Still, the vision of unclean animals suddenly being acceptable was confusing for Peter.  Do I turn my back on what I’ve been taught?  Whether this vision just serves to prepare Peter for Cornelius’ visitors or not, the tension of the moment has been exposed.  How far does the good news of Jesus extend?  Just to our Samaritan “cousins?”  Or to those who occupy our homeland (Romans) and to those who eat food deemed unclean?

The Spirit bids Peter go and find out.  So he makes his way to the home of the centurion, a God-fearing man and a person who it seems has already heard a word from God (10:3).  Peter’s reception must have been enough proof that he begins to preach the good news of Christ.  Here is where the interesting thing takes place: being already deemed worthy by God, the Spirit once again interrupts Peter’s sermon, lest he think he was saving this family.  All the Gentiles present begin to speak in tongues and praising God.  Peter, who just days ago was struggling to relinquish the tradition of clean and unclean meat was now ready to approve what was already clearly happening – Cornelius’ family was filled with God’s Spirit.  “Can we withhold baptism from this family?” he seems to ask no one in particular.  And more walls that separate God’s children crumbled.

  • What are barriers that keep us from knowing our neighbors today?
  • In the story,  what prompted Cornelius and Peter to cross established boundaries?
  • How do we become present and aware of the Spirit that is at work in us and all around us, even in people and places we least expect?
  • How do traditions provide insight into faith?
  • When do traditions stand in the way of maturing faith?
  • How do we pass on meaningful traditions while remaining open to the wind of the Holy Spirit that will blow where it will?

Unbridled Spirit

Church in the western world has enjoyed an elevated status for many years.  That status, as we are painfully aware, is no more. And so we mourn the loss of what once was.  But how intently do we look for what will be? Like the exiles in Babylon, do we hang our “harps” on our trees, refusing to sing songs of praise to God (Psalm 137)?  Or, like Jeremiah, do we seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves planted, no matter the circumstances (Jeremiah 29:7)? Perhaps what’s lost on we who have had the fortune of growing up nurtured by Christian culture is the notion that God’s spirit is not absent, even when we feel it is.  When the Holy Spirit finds welcome and space to work, there is still no holding it back. Which means many churches need to do some soul searching. Because culture has shifted away from the institutional church, will we become paralyzed and thus unreceptive to the Holy Spirit? Or, might this be just the time when God is prepared to do something new among those who are looking for God’s Spirit, loosed among the people?  With this in mind, Acts 8 and its surrounding context is instructive.

Throughout the gospels, we see God at work in a new way through Jesus.  Jesus is not against the purpose of the law, the function of the temple, and the role of those who serve it.  Jesus’ growing concern is that the law and the temple have become a means unto themselves rather than something that points participants to someone far greater.  But the Jewish religion had become an institution that conferred power and prestige back on those who served in its system – giving priests, pharisees, sadducees and the ruling class meaning and clout.  Citizens of Israel identified with the Temple, too. It was the most important monument and the most significant national and religious institution for Jews of the first century. Over time, the function of the temple as a place to worship God had morphed from a dynamic, formative act to an institutional checklist.

Jesus’ challenge to the temple institution, to rediscover and implement true worship, is much of what sends him to the cross.  And the story continues as the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to those who follow the Spirit into places and to people that the temple doesn’t touch or allow.  This movement of the Spirit is acutely evident during pentecost, when the Spirit enters people who are able to see God working in new and even unexpected places. And it doesn’t stop there.  As those among the ranks of Christ followers grow, so does the anxiety of those institutionalized places of power and privilege. In earlier chapters in Acts, we read of the growing power of the apostles who can’t help but continue to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, who call for repentance in order to receive forgiveness, who heal all sorts of sickness and mental illness, and in doing so expose the failings of the current temple culture.  The Sanhedrin’s response to each episode is to react defensively, with fear that this new movement could mean a diminished place of power at best and at worst lead to a change in the people’s traditional view of the temple and God’s unique work in it.

Before completely dismissing the Sanhedrin as selfish men who tried to stand in the way of God’s new Spirit work, can those of us nurtured by the traditions of Christendom try to relate?  In the Temple system, people practiced thousands of years of tradition that, in its best practice, pointed them to the saving work of a God who called them to live committed lives for God’s sake and the sake of the world.  It did have meaning and power. But its meaning and power had shifted over the centuries from an empowering movement to an institutional power that was controlled at all costs. The deliberations of the Sanhedrin in Acts show shrewd planning on how to handle the growing Jesus movement but no active discernment of God.

“What are we going to do with these men?” they asked.  “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it.  But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no linger to anyone in this name” (Acts 4:16-17).

However, what marked the Apostles growing movement was prayer and discernment.  What were the apostles response after the threatening words of the Sanhedrin?

“On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.  When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God… After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:23-31).

So, as we approach our focal scripture in Acts 8, we see tension mounting between the temple tradition and the apostles who demonstrate a new power and authority found outside of the temple.  The apostles continue to gain an audience and larger numbers of followers until things come to a head when Stephen is seized and stoned to death. This, according to Acts 8:1, marks the beginning of a persecution against the Jerusalem church which leads to its scattering throughout Judea and Samaria.  But instead of having a cooling effect on these new believers, it galvanized them more as they continued to preach the word, wherever they went. It is as if the Spirit, not being welcomed in the temple or the holy city, went wherever it was given room and welcome.

This seems to mirror a similar scene in the gospels of Mark 6:8-11, Matthew 10:9-15 and Luke 9:1-6 where Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs with authority to cast out demons and cure diseases and to proclaim the Kingdom of God.  He instructed them to taking nothing with them for the journey but to depend on the hospitality of strangers. Further, he told them if no one is welcoming of them, to shake the dust off their feet as they leave the town. Here, it seems striking that the very city that hosted God’s presence in the temple is the same city that cannot contain the new movements of the Holy Spirit.  And so they scatter to the outcast places, like Samaria, where people receive them and are eager to hear their message.

Enter Philip, one of the deacons chosen in Acts chapter seven.  He makes his way to the place where devout Jews would never want to be found – Samaria.  Yet it is the Samaritans who are enthusiastically responding to the gospel message; who are being healed and cured.  What is most striking is the free way in which the apostles share the Holy Spirit with these new believers. Rightly recognizing that they cannot contain the Holy Spirit, Peter and John pray for the Samaritan believers to receive the Holy Spirit.  The alternative, of course, would be to try to withhold the Spirit from these new converts. What would be the outcome of such a decision other than a repeat of the disaster unfolding in Jerusalem? But the Holy Spirit cannot be bridled. It cannot be controlled.  It moves where God directs it, in unlikely places, among unsuspecting people and in unpredictable ways. Either we get on board with following the Spirit or get out of the way. The apostles chose to follow.

Which makes Philip the perfect candidate to follow the Spirit further, into more unexpected and unchartered waters.  Our focal scripture tells of an angel instructing to Philip to “go south to the road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  This is a unique set of instructions. So much so, many Bibles footnote it. Check it out. The Greek word is used as both a location (south) and a reference of time (noon).  In this case, the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza is a southward direction. But the timing may also be important. After all, who sets out by foot down a barren road at the noon hour?  Traveling habits of the day incorporated morning and evening travel. In other words, no one travels when the sun is at its highest and hottest. And who else would be out on such a road? Yet, Philip obeys and who does he find but an Ethiopian eunuch on his way back to his home country from Jerusalem.

This Ethiopian traveled in style, shaded by the heat and sun by a chariot and all that came with such travel.  I take that to mean he had at least a driver. Maybe an attendant, too (8:38). He had to have someone else driving the chariot; after all, he was reading from the Isaiah scroll.  This Ethiopian is a fascinating character study. He was wealthy and in charge of an even larger wealth as the queen’s treasurer. He was a foreigner, and is described as an Ethiopian.  If he had dark skin, he was not looked down upon because of his color. Rather, Ethiopians were idealized in ancient classical writings as people of great piety and beauty. Herodotus extolled the ‘burnt-skinned’ Ethiopians as the tallest and most handsome of all humankind; and Diodorus of Sicily commented that ‘it is generally held that the sacrifices practiced among the Ethiopians are those which are most pleasing to heaven.’” Further, the Jewish scriptures speak highly of Ethiopians for their upper-class status as powerful people economically and militarily.

The Ethiopians high standing, however, does not get in the way of his humbly seeking and accepting the instruction of divinely-directed wisdom from the prophet Isaiah and the interpretation of a fellow traveler on this wilderness road at such a strange hour.  In fact, it is humility that has intrigued the Ethiopian as he reads the scripture of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. Perhaps it was not just humility in the positive sense of the word that attracted him to this scripture. Of course, I haven’t mentioned his other descriptive quality that was certainly humiliating; his identity as a eunuch.  It is likely that his role as treasurer to the queen, which brought wealth and prestige, also brought with it the necessity to be castrated in order to serve in her court. For the Jews, whom he had been worshiping among in Jerusalem, his state as a castrated male would have placed him in a position of dishonor and impurity. Deuteronomy 23:1 states that no male in his situation should be admitted into the assembly of the Lord.  Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, regarded eunuchs as unnatural monstrosities who must be shunned on account of their gross effeminacy and impotence. Philo considered eunuchs as ‘worthless persons.’ Whatever economic and political worth he possessed in some circles and whatever value he attached to the Jewish faith, the Ethiopian eunuch was regarded as socially and religiously worthless among leading segments of Israelite society.

Yet, the Jewish prophetic scriptures also offers more hopeful prospects for eunuchs.  Isaiah foresees a day when pious eunuchs and foreigners, which this man was both, would be welcome into the temple and given a permanent place in the household of God (Isaiah 56:1-8).  In fact, one cannot escape the imagery here: eunuchs will be given a monument and name better than sons and daughters (which they cannot have) and a name that cannot be cut off (well, you know how that works for eunuchs).

So the eunuch is certainly intrigued by this suffering servant Isaiah describes.  But there has been no one to help him understand who Isaiah is speaking about. “How can I (understand what I am reading) unless someone guides me?” he asks.  And how could he know? While he was in Jerusalem to worship, his status prevented his acceptance in the temple courts. As he was heading back to his home, there must have been a mix of confusion and frustration as he continued to wrestle with the scripture in front of him.  He identified with the situation of the man described in the scroll. But what became of him? What did it mean? And Philip was there, as directed by the Holy Spirit, to help him understand the scripture in light of Jesus.

The scene ends with the eunuch’s simple question:  “what is to keep me from baptized?” The answer seems so clear to us: nothing!  There is water, there is his confession that Jesus is Lord. But for the Ethiopian eunuch, the question also points to more than function and pragmatism.  What lingers in his question quite possibly is the rejection he has felt among the temple in Jerusalem. There, as the law made clear, he was not allowed such privileges.  Would the Jesus way be any different?  Philip’s response gave a clear indication. And since Philip was directed to this desolate desert road by the Holy Spirit, his purpose was to continue the kingdom building Christ had started in Jerusalem by replying to the eunuch’s question in the affirmative.  Nothing is to keep you from being baptized! Nothing is to keep you from being given a name that cannot be cut off.
The work of Jesus has opened up to the outcast, foreigners and the unclean what once appeared to be off limits.  The early Christians sensitivity to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit provided them the joy of participating in God’s growing mission in the world.  For Christ followers today, What traditions in the current church may keep us from sensing the movement of the Holy Spirit?  What practices can we foster so that we can recognize and be responsive to God’s mission and movement in our culture?

The Model Shepherd

John 10:11-18; Ezekiel 34; Psalm 23

Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story which we all can relate.  Her husband and a friend went duck hunting on the Flint River.  After a full day on the river, the time came to return to shore and load up for the trip home.  After beaching their boat on the shore, the two men began loading their decoys and guns in a car parked near the shore.  When they returned for the boat, it was no longer there but was floating back in the river some ten feet from the bank. As they waded in after it, the motion their bodies made in the water only pushed the boat farther from them toward the main current of the river.  It soon became apparent that one of them would have to jump into the water and swim to the boat. Taylor’s husband told her he knew it wouldn’t be him. “After all, it wasn’t my boat.”

Jesus is making the same point when he identifies himself as the good or model shepherd. And this metaphor works for his purposes because the vocation of shepherding was both a major economic activity in Palestine in Jesus’ day and was emblematic for the relationship between  God and God’s people in the Hebrew Bible. Here is what we know about shepherding during the time of the gospels, from Jesus and His World, An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary:

Shepherds led their flocks by walking ahead of them, in contrast with butchers who drove them to slaughter.  Shepherds had individual vocal signals to call their own sheep, and it was effective even if the animals were mixed with other flocks.  The sheep recognized and obeyed the voice of their own shepherds.

Shepherds were expected to see that sheep had food and water; they had to account for the animals in their charge.  When a sheep stumbled into a ditch or crevice, the shepherd pulled it out with a crook or curved staff. If the sheep was injured the shepherd carried it to a safe place across his shoulders and attended to its wounds.  In order to protect the flock against thieves and many predators, including wolves, hyenas, jackals, bears and leopards, shepherds were often armed with a slingshot, a rod, a club and a knife.

In the winter, flocks stayed within a few miles of the villages and at night were brought back to the enclosures of individual farms or put together in a communal fold kept by a guard or doorkeeper.  In the spring and summer, the flocks were driven to higher pastures, in the mountains of Upper Galilee, Samaria and Judea. There, shepherds found large caves or built sheepfolds of dry stones to keep out the wild animals.  In that case, they slept at the door which was the only opening in the wall without a gate.

Shearing occurred twice a year, at the end of the winter and summer grazing; as in the case of the harvest, it was a festive occasion.  Despite the idyllic image of the relationship between shepherd and sheep in popular tradition, the reality is that the animals were raised to be sold, offered as sacrifice, sheared, and eaten.

Shepherding was so much a part of the life of Israel that the word sheep and its cognates, lamb, ewe and ram, appear more than five hundred times in the Bible.  In biblical imagery, God, the king, the leaders, and in the New Testament, Jesus, were allegorized or symbolized as shepherds. The leaders in the biblical story were not always the good “shepherds” they should have been, and many prophets are critical of the corrupt leaders.  (See Ezekiel 34, for a strong example.) The same imagery is found in John 10.

So what does this mean for our lives?  Sheep need a leader. Once they learn the voice of the shepherd, they trust this voice to guide them to green pastures and still waters and deliver them from enemies.  Really, sheep do not know right from wrong without the steady hand of the shepherd. Is Jesus calling us to become “dumb” like the sheep and uncritically trust his voice?  He seems to say a similar thing when he admonished his disciples, saying: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Matthew 19:14).  and “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

I think it is clear that Jesus valued children and didn’t see them as dumb.  Rather, Jesus is pointing out that children and sheep do tend to depend upon and trust adults who have their best interests in mind.  And when both children and sheep recognize a good shepherd, they put their faith in their leadership completely. In other words, they no longer need or want to be the shepherd.  They are willing to be led. What does Jesus’ words about sheep and children say about our need to be in control? How easy is it to relinquish control to someone else? In varying degrees, this is one of the western world’s largest challenges and our biggest sins.  We think we know best and are completely capable of steering our own ships.

So how do we do it?  We learn the voice of the shepherd.  And this is the daily task of learning his voice.  This voice is found in scripture, for sure. It is found also in prayer that begins with placing God as the focal point of our life (Our father, who is in heaven, how holy is your name!).  And prayer that invites God’s values to become our values. (Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.) When the practice of prayer, Bible study and worship become routine in our life, the voice of the good shepherd comes to us more clearly over the cacophony of daily life that wants the individual to be in control and thus to be threatened by others outside of our control.

In contrast, the voice of the good shepherd tells us that he is in control of all the situations around us.  That he would even sacrifice his own life in order to save ours. So there is no need to worry about safety or what’s around the bend.  And there is no need to be threatened by the other sheep who are in other pens. If the shepherd knows them and they know his voice, then they too are ultimately a part of one flock.  In the shepherd’s flock (God’s Kingdom), all are welcome.

The challenge Jesus left his disciples as he ascended to heaven was that the shepherding will still go on.  But, in the short time between his death and resurrection, something happened to his first followers. Their identity as sheep had been transformed to shepherds.  Once their ears were attuned to the sound of Jesus’ voice and hearts equipped with the guidance of the Spirit, their vocation became like that of their master. They were sent out to find flocks of their own and to “do for them as I did for you.”

  • How does our desire for control keep us from trusting the good shepherd?
  • Why does fear keep us from trusting others and from embracing the diversity of God’s Kingdom?

Excerpts taken from:

Taylor, Barbara Brown, Bread of Angels, p. 80.Crowley: Boston, 1997.

Arav, Rami and John J. Rousseau, Jesus and His World, An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary, p.251-253. Fortress: Minneapolis, MN, 1995.

A Living Picture of God’s Kingdom

Jesus does a lot of amazing things in Luke 36-49.  He “appears” out of seemingly nowhere; but he’s not a ghost.  He’s got the skin, the bones, and the scars to prove it. And he eats with them; ghosts don’t get hungry.  And, as if he hasn’t done this over and over again before his crucifixion, he explains why, despite his indiscriminate love, he suffered and died and rose again.  And finally, the light begins to turn on for the disciples!

But maybe the most amazing thing that Jesus does in this scene is something overlooked by we contemporary readers.  Jesus calls them witnesses of these things (Luke 24:48) Jesus doesn’t give them a choice. Not, would you like to be my witnesses?  Can you be my witnesses? No, he states a truth. Because you are here, because you followed me and because I’ve explained to God’s plan as I stand before you in a resurrected body, you are a witnesses.  No avoiding it. No going back.

This may make sense for those disciples who were present in the room where it happened; who saw the risen Lord and experienced his teaching first hand.  But what about us, with 2,000 years of separation between those first eye witnesses? How are we witnesses to this good news we read about in the gospels?

Truth is, Jesus’s empty tomb work is showing up everyday, all around us, if we have the eyes to see it.  For the longest time, I thought I had to be the one to create these situations, as if it was up to me to do the resurrecting!  No wonder witnessing carries a negative connotation for most of us, though many of us wouldn’t want to admit it. But that’s a burden too large and heavy for us.  Besides, God’s already accomplished the work. We just have to point it out when we see it!

Too often, I think I have to be a witness to Biblical theory or doctrine instead of being a witness to the simple story of God’s work.  When I do that, however, I’m making the good news all about me. Its bound to go wrong with that approach. Rather, instead of being in control of God’s witness, I’m learning that God is at work all around me.  Oftentimes, it’s in the hard places in life. All I need in order to be a witness to God’s salvific activity is be present to God’s spirit moving around me. If we believe what Jesus said, that we are witnesses to God’s good news, then we have the eyes and the ears and the heart to be aware of this.

Jesus promised God would aid us in this work with the gifting of the holy spirit (Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:8), so we shouldn’t be under the impression that this witnessing work is on our shoulders.  If we believe God still works through the Holy Spirit, all we have to do is daily ask that we be aware of God’s Spirit at work and then look for it expectantly. God will use our story and the resurrection story to point out in our work, in our families and in our neighborhoods that resurrection still happens; that there is another story at work rather than power and dominance. The alternative or real story is the Kingdom of God and that everyone is invited to experience.

David Fitch, Professor of Theology at Northern Seminary address this posture of witnessing in his short volume entitled Seven Practices for the Church On Mission:

Every day in our neighborhoods, amid strife, broken relationships, and tragedy, whether we are Christians or not, we need the gospel.  Christians must play host to spaces where the gospel can be proclaimed. As we gather around tables and the various meeting places of our lives, if we will be patient and tend to Christ’s presence among us, the moments will present themselves for the gospel to be proclaimed contextually and humbly out of our own testimony.  And in these moments, Christ will be present, transformation will come, and onlookers will catch a glimpse of the kingdom. This is faithful presence.

The Psalm for this week reminds us that people long for stories about resurrection – that life can be good.

“There are many who say, ‘oh that we might see some good!

Let the light of your face shine on us, Oh Lord!’

You have put gladness in my heart

More than when grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace;

For you alone, Oh Lord, make me lie down in safety.”

Psalm 4:6-8

We are witnesses to Christ’s resurrection story and the Spirit’s ongoing resurrection work today.  People are longing to lie down and sleep in peace, which is to say, they long to be whole. It’s not up to us to make this happen.  Rather, we just need to be available to point to where these deep needs in everyone can be found. And do it with gladness in our heart.

  • What does Jesus mean when he calls his disciples witnesses?
  • What are examples of being a witness in society?  (Witness a car crash, a winning shot, a wedding, etc…)
  • Does a witness do the acting or simply the reporting?
  • What emotions come with being a witness for Christ?
  • What stands in our way of being a witness?
  • What help do we have in being a witness?
  • Do Christians sometimes make witnessing harder than it has to be?

Hope Restored

What happens when hopes aren’t realized?  When the things you have believed in or worked hard for fail?  Is it better to have no hope than to have hopes that are dashed?  These must have been the complex emotions of those people who left their nets, their families and their homes behind and hung all their hope on the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth.  As they followed, they witnessed time and time again Jesus teaching with authority, the healing in his touch, the grace in his voice and the blessing in his eyes. This was no ordinary rabbi.  And he spent his time with such ordinary people, which gave them hope. A hope that something special, even revolutionary was brewing. He spoke in riddles and parables but it all seemed to point to a claim he continued to make.  He was special. He was the son of God. He was Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

But he hung out with the ordinary, even marginalized folk; not people of power, like the priests and lawyers.  He spoke about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, not a violent over-throwing of the Roman occupation. Jesus was different.  His kingdom was about giving up power and trusting the words of God fully. God was in control. God would prevail. God’s people must love God and love neighbor as oneself.  Even their enemies deserved their love. It sure was different than anything they had heard of before but they went along, often stumbling and doubting. Jesus was quick to correct but patient to the end.  Jesus made them believers in the Way. A new Kingdom was on the horizon. It would come about by God’s doing, not human action.

Yet, in the end, were they foolish to believe the world would ever operate differently?  Instead of love triumphing, it was the powerful, the wealthy, the possessors of violence and fear that dashed their hopes.  One of their own sold Jesus out for just thirty pieces of silver. That’s all it took. It’s hard to resist power and money.  Once Jesus was under the authority of the ruling class – the Romans – and their uncomfortable bedfellows, the priests and Sadducees, it all moved quickly.  The revolution was squashed with the violent death of a man who only loved everyone he met. His one crime? Exposing the excesses of the religious elite and their propensity to love themselves rather than embracing the privilege to serve God and others.

In the aftermath of such devastation. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were walking to Jesus’ tomb in the early morning light.  What must they have been thinking and feeling? The man who had so inspired them and gave them a hope they never knew possible was suddenly no more.  The authorities once again had proved who was really in charge. As Cameron Murchison mentions in Feasting on the Word, “The women on their way to anoint Jesus’ body (may have been) making peace not only with the death of Jesus but with the death of Jesus’ claim to embody the reign of God for the well-being of the world.”   What sadness, fear, and even depression must they have been feeling on that early morning walk? Have you ever walked in their shoes?

The utter despair of the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday is all but lost on most of us who follow in the Way.  We leave the Good Friday service touched by the sacrifice of Christ but with chores to do, soccer games to attend on Saturday, and the Easter ham to prepare.  Life goes on. We know how the story ends.

But for these women, who thought the story had ended in death, and for the disciples, who fled in fear for their own lives, the darkness and despair were real.  So imagine, if you can, the disorientation, the confusion, the utter change in perspective the empty tomb and the angel provides these ladies. Utterly stunned? I imagine it would have taken time for me to work all this out.  To hash my experience out with other followers. Then, to begin to comprehend that, in fact, this new Way is possible. It is real. What’s more, the powers of violence and self-preservation had taken their best swing at God’s son and had fallen short.  The cracks of man’s kingdom were showing and God’s Kingdom was possible, after all.

It’s a great story – and a true one, too! So now we must ask: what does this reality, Jesus raised from the dead, mean for me?

  • How do I live in the reality of the resurrection when it seems like the powers of deception, confusion, domination, violence and self-aggrandizing are in firm control all around me?
  • What does resurrection say to me when my life seems out of control and hope is lost?
  • In whom do I trust?  The creator of all things and the one who raises the dead or what I see and touch and hear?
  • How does the power of God and the power of man present differently in our world?  Which is easier to follow?

The angel’s instructions to the women were to go and tell.

  • For the women, who expected to find Jesus’ dead body, would this have been a hard task?
  • When we experience amazing, transformative experiences, how do we respond?  Are we compelled to talk about the news? Is it fun or hard to share our experiences?
  • What happens when the new of resurrection is not shared?

May the sudden, good news of Easter transform our lives and make us eager to go and tell!