Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday: The Triumphal Entry and the Betrayal

Today is Palm Sunday, when we commemorate the anniversary of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey -- on a colt, the foal of a donkey -- to welcoming crowds who did not miss the fact that the old prophecy of the Messiah expected him to ride into Jerusalem just that way. Many Palm Sunday sermons claim that, by the end of the week, these same crowds would be shouting "Crucify him!" That's not quite true; the authorities arrested him in secret at night, and held the trial at night, because the crowds were so solidly on Jesus' side that the authorities didn't dare move against Jesus in the daytime when he taught openly on the Temple grounds. Their unwillingness to move against Jesus openly is why they needed to recruit a traitor, and the backstory of the betrayal by Judas Iscariot. It wasn't the people who turned against Jesus; it was one of the disciples. More than that, it was one of the original twelve apostles. And if they could turn, anyone could.

What would make a disciple turn against Jesus? What would make an apostle turn against Jesus? We don't know what happened, and are left trying to reconstruct it from scant information. But in the end, even not knowing the details, there is only one kind of thing makes people turn against another: something else has become more important to them. With Judas, some people speculate that it was money. Some speculate that it was self-love (could he have wanted recognition?), or wanting to see a political victory over the Romans, or a military victory over the Romans. At the end of the day I'm not sure it matters which thing became more important to Judas, only that something became more important to Judas. I wonder: Would Judas have followed Jesus if Jesus had done things his way? (Who would have been following who?)

It is probably a common temptation to wish Jesus were doing things differently. Peter knew that temptation: he scolded Jesus for accepting his upcoming death. The apostles wanted Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel. All of us have something that we want put right, and it may even be something that God will put right when the moment arrives -- like the Messiah living forever. The moment the cause becomes more important to us than our Lord, I wonder if we are at risk of becoming the traitor.

We'll wish our fellow-Christians saw eye-to-eye with us on what was most important. But our unity will not be exactly Christian unity if it's built on something besides trusting Jesus and putting him first. We may achieve some kind of unity around other causes, we may find a group that agrees with us on priorities, we may build a group that pursues a specific goal. But we have to watch ourselves that this is not done at the cost of building on other ground besides Christ. What if some other cause should become more important to us than Christ? I do not say "we hurt Christ's cause" because even Judas Iscariot did not, in the end, harm Christ's cause -- he harmed his own. For all that something else was more important to Judas, it's ironic that we don't even know what it was. It's not even a footnote.

Unity in Christ means trusting that he is, after all, doing the right thing at the right time with the right priorities. It means considering that we may, after all, need to have enough humility to follow him, and all that implies about letting him take the lead.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"Not my will ... "

When Jesus prayed in the garden, "Not my will, but Yours" -- I think it's safe to say that he didn't want to die. He was doing something that he didn't want to do. He was doing something that was not his will -- if there were any other way to do it, he would have taken that other way. He begged for it. What brought him to the point that he was willing to take something he was unwilling to do, and put that into the Father's hands, and say "Not my will, but Yours"?

I look at Jesus struggling with things that are not his will because I'm struggling with some things that are (I think) God's will, but they are not my will. Without going into details, I have been wrestling with how to interact with a few different people who are consistently and reliably hurtful to others. It's not necessarily personal, but that doesn't make it ok. While forgiveness can be a difficult thing, it's more difficult when the other person does not recognize a problem and has no intention of changing. It's not clear to me whether forgiveness alone will really change anything under those circumstances. "My will" might be simply not to interact with these particular people, were that possible. But even if that were possible, that doesn't solve anything, doesn't improve anything, doesn't reconcile anything. So I'm in the uncomfortable place of knowing that "my will" -- what I want to do -- is not going to help. Not only is avoiding the problem not going to help anyone else, it's not even going to help me towards my own goals.

To be clear: I wouldn't compare my struggles to Jesus in the garden. But I do want to figure out how he got to the point of stepping beyond his own will. So right now, thinking of Jesus in the garden, I'm not searching for a recital of the normal pious answers about what his prayer showed; they may be true but I don't know that they were on his mind that night.

By the end of the night he had stepped into a place where he was willing to be hurt, willing to die. Of course, once he'd been born, death was going to be inevitable; if death didn't come now, then when? If death didn't come for this reason, would it even have a reason? I'll say this: if Jesus hadn't struggled with the idea of his own death, I might well have had trouble relating to him; I'm not sure I'd have connected with him or trusted him on the same level, even with all the amazing teachings. What are they worth if he hadn't walked a mile in our shoes? Someone who hadn't balked at his own death, I would suspect of being not-quite-human. The flesh-and-blood of incarnation would seem a technicality if he had shown indifference to his own death. But if he avoided it right here and now, the stakes are whether his life would accomplish what he wanted. The stakes are whether he would back down out of fear if he were powerless enough and the threat was horrible enough. Anyone who has ever struggled with the price tag of a decision can relate to that -- especially anyone who has ever been the one without power, with ruthless adversaries. It's easy to distrust God because God has no skin in the game, and he never gets hurt, and his high principles never cost him anything. Omnipotence is a luxury the rest of us don't have, much like living in a heavenly realm untouched by evil. But a human life, living as a mortal in a world of sinners, isn't safe.

Did Jesus find himself hoping, that last night, that it was maybe like Abraham and Isaac, where it only looked like he had to go through with the sacrifice? Maybe there would be a last-minute rescue, and the willingness was what mattered? In the letter to the Hebrews, there is a comment about Abraham that may have been the standard understanding back then, that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son because he reasoned by faith that God could raise the dead. If Jesus had considered that in the garden, that might be a terrifying variety of comfort to him during the reprise -- or fulfillment -- of that sacrifice.

If the Word of God couldn't go through with it when he's given the same stakes as the rest of us, where would that have left us? What, does evil win just because it's willing to be nastier than the good? Do the evil people keep the power because viciousness is so effective at causing other people to back down? (And that's one of the ways that power turns its holders evil, even if they'd once intended good ...) I think, as far as the usual reasons we consider for Jesus stepping out to meet his death, he did want to face death for us and with us, which in turn meant standing up to the earthly powers which had been corrupted by power. He did want to break the power of death and lead the way through death. He did reject the temptation to choose fear rather than faith, even when the cost was his own life, and so solidified his victory over sin and death. He did want to reconcile the world to God, and he did want to ransom us. So he became "willing, against his will" to do what was required. But he felt the same flesh-and-blood panic that is the human condition when a healthy person faces a premature death. He had to step out in faith in his Father: that his Father's will is good, full of love and compassion, that his Father could and would raise the dead. That wouldn't make death any less horrible from the flesh-and-blood angle. It wouldn't make the pain less painful. It simply gives the next gift of faith: that confident hope that because of the Father's goodness, death isn't the final end, and the light in the darkness won't come to nothing. It's enough for him to step out as the light in the darkness.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The perfection of God's love

Some Christians talk as though they think God's perfection is a threat to us: they preach fear of God. They preach God as demanding perfection. They preach God as holy and just and absolutely perfect -- at everything except love. A loveless god is absolutely a threat to us; a loveless god is indistinguishable from a demon.

Have you ever watched a movie and tried to figure out what sets apart the good guys from the bad guys, and see if that's a window back into our own world in the way we'd hope from a good story? To become the hero, it's not the superpowers, or the extent of the power; in any interesting contest, both sides are formidable. It's not whether they have some sense of morality (and all moralities are equal); the "bad guys" are often convinced they're in the right, both in movies and in the real world. Often the difference is love in the sense of that human connection, whether one side recognizes that the other side is comprised of human beings who are worthy of love and compassion. If any group is written off as irredeemable, not worth knowing, not fully sane or not fully human, then atrocities are not far behind. Someone with a lot of power but without love is not the hero but the villain. And so I'd say it again: a loveless god is indistinguishable from a demon.

Thank God that he defines himself by his love, his mercy, his compassion. Thank God that he defines himself by how much he loves us, even while we were still his enemies. It's a wake-up call in that he calls us specifically to love our enemies too, to stop judging each other and condemning each other and devouring each other. As God loves his own enemies, he takes away any excuse for us to use his name to justify bad treatment of our own enemies.

"God so loved the world" -- the followers of Jesus read that today during Lent, those vast numbers of us who follow the common lectionary: God's motive, his reason for the cross. It's not about some judgmental perfectionism, not about his righteous anger. Our hope is in his perfect love. We trust him in the cross because it is there that we see, even as we suffer too: God is not the villain.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Lent: Can we see "competitive" from God's eyes?

I've got a competitive streak. Well, me and the rest of the world. As the Olympics have finished and next is March Madness, when the television stations have ratings competitions and the movie industry has its award season, it's pretty plain that on some level we all enjoy competition. There is a mix of excitement, of stakes of money or fame, an expectation of achievement and excellence. Some of the quest for excellence is about victory and bragging rights, and the type of emotional high that comes from them. It's telling that the best-known official book of world records was started by the folks from Guinness Breweries.

I've heard the claim often enough that competition is inherently wrong because of the potential loss of self-esteem to the many who don't win; I think that's a little over-simplified. Not just because the many who don't win may still gain awareness or accomplishment, may take satisfaction in putting in a good showing or a personal best, or from being exposed to the next level of skill, determination, innovation, and dedication. Also because there are often-unnoticed spiritual risks to the one who wins, in the forms of temptations to pride or arrogance -- or needing and expecting recognition.

Is there such a thing as healthy competition? We have an older letter in which St Paul set up a friendly competition among the churches on his circuit to see who could provide the most disaster-relief in a particular disaster; it seemed healthy enough. "Friendly competition": there is such a thing. It happens when each side spurs the other on to greater heights, to dig deeper into our own determination to do the best we can possibly do. Game on!

It's more typical that we don't use it to spur each other on to greater heights; we use it to try to gain or hoard recognition. For this, the spiritual risks of winning rival those of losing. In the original Lent -- Jesus' journey from the Transfiguration to the cross -- after he told his followers that he expected his own execution as they headed to Jerusalem for the Passover, there were arguments among his disciples about who was the greatest, and about who would sit on his right or left hand as Messiah (when he was crowned king, they may have expected, having missed the point about the upcoming death). They were interested in competition in which the goal seemed to be self-promotion. And I wonder how much the goal of self-promotion would make any competition unhealthy. I wonder how often that is exactly the draw for us.

I also found myself wondering if there are suitable prayers out there to help guide us into the right frame of mind as we enter a competition. I searched and found some online; I've linked some that I found that seemed to build a right heart and mind. I'd like to quote some gems that I found (all available at the linked sites):
  • May I compete with your love shining in my heart. May I push myself to be the best.
  • I feel Your delight when I compete. All of my abilities are from You, Jesus. My heart yearns for Your applause.
  • I am humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
  • Lord, I admit that my prayers before competition are more focused on the scoreboard than on becoming like You. I desire to pour out my heart before You every day that I compete. Develop in me a pure heart.