Saturday, April 3, 2010

Stumbling along the way of the cross

Good Friday
April 2, 2010
Isaiah 52:13-52:12; Ps. 22
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:28-19:16

Each year on Good Friday I am struck by how vivid John's dramatic account of the trial of Jesus is. It is an action story: Pilate goes back and forth between the two courts of his official residence, the praetorium. The calm orderliness of the Roman interrogation is contrasted with with frenzied cries of hate from those hostile to Jesus in the outside court. Pilate's travels from one scene to another, as John dramatically stages this story, reflect the inner stuggle of the Roman prefect, and his increasing conviction of Jesus' innocence in the face of the people's demands to have him killed.

The way John tells his story emphasizes the symbolism of darkness and light, truth and falsehood. Jesus in this gospel is a man of no compromise: "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Those who do not listen to the truth of his voice, or who do not act on those beliefs and follow him, are wrong. They dwell in darkness. Like Judas, they choose Satan. This is how John has portrayed "the Jews," the religious and political authorities of the Jewish people who are hostile to Jesus. Over the centuries, this blaming of the Jews for the death of Jesus has been one of the causes of great evil in the name of the Christian Church. That, too, is one of the legacies of Good Friday, one of the great sins we must live with. For centuries in Europe, Jewish people lived in great fear and terror on Good Friday, for after the reading of John's Gospel devout Christians would leave their churches and go on bloody rampages, killing Jews in their homes and neighborhoods in cities and towns.

Why would John portray the Jews this way? Jesus was Jewish, was he not? And why would John (and Matthew, Mark and Luke, for that matter) go to such lengths to make sure Pilate and the Roman authorities proclaim Jesus' innocence even though they are his executioners?

Palestine in the first century was one of Rome's most troublesome and politically volatile territories. The “establishment cooperated with the Empire, even though by doing that they compromised their faith and religious practice. Other Jews, poor peasants, wanted freedom from Roman oppression. Groups of armed guerrilla bandits were common in Judea, hoping for a political messiah to help them overthrow the Empire by revolution.

When we look more closely at the context surrounding the trial of Jesus, we see why both Roman and Jewish authorities had good reason to want to get rid of Jesus. The Romans could not afford to encourage anyone who might incite the revolutionaries, and the Temple authorities knew that if a Jew could be so accused by the Romans, they could all be demolished by Roman power. Those were the political charges.

The religious threat of Jesus was also great to a devout Jew: Jesus was a blasphemer; he called himself the Son of God.

Jesus’ message held great appeal and hope to the poor; this was a challenge to the establishment. He was labeled a false prophet, like Jeremiah, who also told a harsh, uncomfortable truth to the Jewish authorities of his day.

This is the backdrop against which John stages his dramatic conflict. Those who sought to kill Jesus dwelt in sin and ignorance and darkness. The establishment saw him as trouble-maker. His followers who wanted him to be a political or military hero left the scene of the crucifixion completely disappointed. But at the end of the first century, when John wrote down this account of the death of Jesus, it didn’t matter so much to John what those people thought. The Romans were to be feared. By then they were actively persecuting and killing Christians. Such accounts of Pilate were written, partially, to convince the Roman authorities of the day that Christians, too, could be law-abiding citizens of the Empire.

It is in the confusion and mixed motives and political pressures of this world Jesus that is sent to his death. It is night, the deepest darkness of those who saw him and did not believe, those who heard him and did not listen, those who followed him and did not heed his commandment to love with the great self-sacrificial love in which God gave his only Son to the world, in order that the world might be saved through him.

Maundy Thursday;
April 1, 2010
Exodus 12:1-14a; Ps. 116
1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15

The story which most captured the imaginations of African American Christians was the story of the Exodus: Moses, living the privileged life in Pharaoh’s household; Moses finding out who his real people, and his real God, were; Moses leading the Hebrew children out of slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land. The slaves knew this story on every level. They knew it as a long-ago story of God and Israel, as their masters supposed they knew it. They knew it symbolically as a future story, that one day, in the sweet by-and-by, their troubles would end and in death they would cross over to the Promised Land. And they knew it as a story of the here and now, as a sign pointing the way to real freedom through the dangers of the underground railroad. They knew their leaders would come from among them, like Moses, to show them the way. They knew this story theologically, spiritually, politically, and it is a great gift to us and to our faith, that this interpretation is part of our tradition.

Today’s Maundy Thursday gospel tells the story of a Passover seder, the ritual meal in which Jesus and his followers would have heard once again the familiar story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, the deliverance from slavery into the promised land. Jesus now makes his own life a part of that story of deliverance. This story is now a story about eternal life. This story tells us about how to live that eternal life in this life: “Love one another as I have loved you. ... you ought to wash one another’s feet.”

Jesus talks about cleanliness and leadership here: to be clean is to take on the same mission as Jesus: to share in his suffering and his glory. To be a leader is to be the one who loves, the one who serves, who is humble enough to accept service and suffering as the consequence of love.

Not everyone is clean, Jesus says. He means Judas, the betrayer, the one who refuses to be clean, to come from darkness to light, from death to life. Judas, at some level, seeks to control God’s glory, to channel it by the rules of this world, to place limits on Jesus’ activity by handing him over to real authorities who will keep him in line. Real lords would not wash other, lesser, peoples’ smelly feet. Real lords would not come from “below” to risk their lives to bring slaves out of bondage into freedom.

“Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Unless you are able to accept with love the service of the humble, and then follow that example of love and service to all kinds of people -- rich and poor, smelly and fragrant -- then you will never know the glory of God. Kings, lords, benefactors, those who sit on the boards of charitable foundations, CEOs, presidents, cardinal rectors, senior wardens, gentlewomen clergy and bishops: all of us who live like Moses with the privileges of Pharaoh’s household are called to come out of our privilege; to discover who our real people, and our real God, are; to serve and to be served. It is only by God's mighty hand that we, like Moses, are freed from bondage to our lordliness and benefaction. It is only by Jesus’ invitation that we can come out of the darkness into the light, and it is only by following Jesus’ example that we can be among our sisters and brothers, as one who serves.