Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Dying and Rising
Dying and Rising
The men gathered at the table of the last supper understood Jesus Christ imperfectly. Peter saw him as a messianic warrior king who would expel the Roman oppressors. James and John saw Jesus as a man of political and religious influence to which they could attach themselves. The other disciples, the ones who failed to cast the demon out of the epileptic as Jesus was transfigured on the mountain top, probably saw him as someone who could perfect their remarkable experience in ministry. However the disciples understood Jesus, they still grumbled among themselves about who was the greatest. After three years of seeing incredible miracles and being taught at the feet of the Son of God, they still understood him as a person who could bring worldly change and gain. They may have been fish, hooked or netted by the Lord and hauled into the heavens, but they still understood the world and Jesus Christ according to the paradigm of their former lives. The only one of the twelve who understood Jesus clearly was Judas who learned from Jesus’ costly anointment of nard that the only thing that his master would ever produce of worldly power and influence was a body. From that point of understanding Judas went on to be an instrument in the hanging of Jesus’ lifeless body on the cross.
It is to these disciples who misunderstand and betray Jesus Christ that he serves the bread of his body which is broken for them and the blood of the new covenant which is poured out for them. How many of us go the table of the Maundy Thursday services still misunderstanding and betraying the person who lays down hxis life so that we may live? We hear that Jesus Christ’s kingdom is of another world, but somehow we keep expecting the precious sacrifice of his body and blood to bless and accommodate our worldly ambitions. After the last supper Peter was still carrying his sword and all the ambitions it represented. John was still determined to stay by his Lord’s side, especially when his Lord came into his glory. Peter still seeks the glory of armed combat and perhaps even an honorable death when he cuts the ear off the high priest’s servant. John follows his Lord, perhaps hoping and trusting that his Lord’s unique love will somehow triumph at the Sanhedrin trial. Whatever hope and trust he had is dissipated by his desperate struggle and the need flee naked from the mob. During Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter three times denies that he follows or knows his Lord.
What is Good Friday, except confirmation that the world and its powers and principalities will destroy every worldly ambition of the Christ follower. The more closely linked we are to Jesus Christ, the more complete the destruction. If we die on the cross with Christ then our sins, our worldly ambitions die with us. Since we are sinners and inherently connected to this world. The death of our sins causes our own deaths. We are too dependent on the world to live when it is dead. What were the disciples thinking when the High Priests, the holiest and most pious leaders in the land reveled in the crucifixion of the Son of God? For the first time, they had clear, unambiguous and undeniable evidence that their world, their domain, the place where all their ambitions and understandings resided was implacably hostile to God and his love. Compared to this realization that all the toil, blood, sweat and tears that a person pours out go to serve a system of hate the thought of nuclear winter seems downright cozy. Jesus Christ died and descended into hell. So, also, did his disciples. They descended into a world bereft of value, meaning or hope.
The fires of hell failed to destroy, enslave or enfeeble Jesus Christ. Why? The answer is not that these fires destroyed the flesh, but left the spirit intact. Such destruction would forever alter the nature of the Christ and sever the bridge between God and humanity. What defeated the powers and principalities of hell was the unity of God and human being in Jesus Christ. It is in this unity of God and human being that the all-important product of love is produced.
When Jesus Christ died on the cross, he and his followers died to the ambitions of the world, the most tempting and intoxicating of these ambitions is to try to mold and shape the world into God’s image. How many Kings, priests, bishops, popes, nobles, revolutionaries, legislators and presidents have taken what they perceive to be the divine mantle of authority only to discover that the world they shape through power, influence, wealth and strength of arms is but a grotesque shadow of the intended kingdom of heaven? As much as we may not want to hear, Jesus Christ’s death on the cross makes clear that we cannot use our affinity or relationship with Jesus Christ to justify our thirst for more worldly power, influence or prestige. The Christian who dies on the cross with Christ goes through the pain racking experience of understanding that these worldly trappings are good for little else than anointing Jesus Christ’s body with costly nard. The kingdom that Judas or the Judas within us all would build is a grotesque defamation of all that is holy and good.
The resurrected Jesus Christ and the resurrected follower of Jesus Christ knows that life, the resurrected life, is in the unity of God and human beings working together to do God’s perfect will of love. This unity is only achieved through a complete surrender on the human beings part to the Holy Spirit, the love of God. We seek to imitate the mystery of Jesus Christ’s perfect surrender to the Father and the spirit that descended like a dove. The average Christian surrenders imperfectly and incompletely. During the Battle of Gettysburg, an unexpected bayonet charge from the Union troops defending Little Round Top produced a series of panicked surrenders on the confederate troops. One Union soldier described an instance in which a Confederate officer was handing his sword in surrender with one hand while attempting to fire a pistol with the other hand. All too often Christians are just the same, surrendering one area of our lives to God, but reserving or omitting other equally serious areas from the great surrender that allows God and human beings to live and work together.
The resurrected Christian remembers the pain, shock, embarrassment and helplessness of dying to their sins. They remember the dark place of Good Friday night when hope was unseen and could only be vaguely believed in, between the wrenching sobs and eclipsing darkness of despair. The resurrected Christian surveys their former life as one surveys a city utterly cast down by fire, wind and earthquake. Amidst the ruins and the lonely desolation, he or she realizes that the city should never have been built. Whoever tells you that they have died to their sins but has not experienced the sting of death is either a liar, a fool or an initiate blissfully unaware of the pain and trauma to follow.
Dying to our sins is a disorienting experience. The normal quadrants we use to navigate life are either destroyed, obscured or distorted. Amidst the whirlwind of pain there are some behaviors that we tend to default to. We can respond to the pain by focusing our anger an our most immediate antagonists. It is human nature to blame and feeling that someone else is responsible for our pain is often therapeutic. The biggest problem with this approach is that our immediate antagonists are only cogs in an immense system dedicated to the destruction of those who champion God’s sovereignty. The system causes far more pain, disgrace and discouragement than any its individual cogs could ever be responsible for. When we focus our anger on our immediate antagonists we risk entertaining an anger, even a hate, that is disproportionate to anything those individual cogs could ever actually do or even understand that they were a part of.I take a lot of strolls through the ruins. Sometimes I find myself lifting a brick to rebuild a wall. Then the wind blows and I remember that the foundation is broken and nothing built will ever stand. That part of me that rises understand that the buildings are dead, but it doesn’t tell me where to go or how to stop existing like a ghost. People still walk inside the buildings which for them are luxurious towers. For me, the buildings are death, the death that I’ve already died. The risen Christian does not fear to die again. I walk the fields lonely, hurting depressed. The fields become an empty wilderness and then the city of light appears in my head. I embrace the warmth and promise of life, singing the sweet and irresistible song. I hold the ancient brick in my hands ready to lay foundation to this marvelous plan. Then I remember the fury and the ruins no city made with human hands can withstand that human fury or avoid becoming grotesquely misshapen. The brick drops from my hands and is soon buried in the splattering mud. The city, if it is to be, must be woven in my heart.