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April 9, 2017 is Palm/Passion Sunday

Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Processional Psalm and Gospel

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter… Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Matthew 21:1-11 – Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on a donkey.

Lectionary Texts

Isaiah 50:4-9a – Game face: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting… therefore I have set my face like flint…

Psalm 31:9-16 – In you, O Lord, I take refuge. Let me never be put to shame. I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Christ hymn: Have this mind, that was in Christ, who didn’t count on his equality with God, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant, and becoming obedient, even to death on a cross.

Matthew 26:14 – 27:66 – The Passion. Judas’ betrayal. Peter’s denial. Pilate. Barabbas. Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
OR
Matthew 27:11-54 – The Passion. Pilate. Barabbas. Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

The Sunday before Easter usually begins with a blessing of the Palms outdoors and a processional. All participants are given palm branches to wave. Information on the procession can be found in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Leader’s Desk Edition, p. 662-626. The Procession with Palms (Year A) is available as a leaflet from Augsburg Fortress, if you like.

Lutheran World Relief offers fair trade “eco-palms”. Here’s why: this year we’ll purchase $4.5 million in palms. Most of them will be harvested in Latin America. Very little of this money reaches the actual farmers. This program gives $.05/palm back to the community and pays farmers fairly, eliminating the large corporations that pocket the profits and underpay workers. Creating a steady market in communities means they will care for and keep up their palms, rather than devastating the forest. By this time you have probably already purchased your palms, but consider making a note of this for next year.

After Palm Sunday worship, some palms should be dried and stowed for burning to make ashes for next year’s Ash Wednesday.

Pre- Vatican II, Passion Sunday was the fifth Sunday of Lent (the beginning of Passiontide) and Palm Sunday was the sixth. Dominica in Palmis, Dominica or Dies Palmarum was the beginning of Holy Week. In 1969, Pope Paul VI, moved Passion Sunday to Lent VI, creating “Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord.” In Germany it was called Black Sunday, since the crosses were all draped in black on that day for Holy Week.

I grew up with Passion and Palm Sunday mixed. I am told that the passion was read on the Sunday before Easter, because many people did not attend Good Friday services, and therefore would never hear the story of the cross. They would skip from a festive entry into Jerusalem to Easter. Easter with no cross.

Recently there has been a move back to letting Good Friday carry the weight, and allowing Palm Sunday to be just that, a celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.

I’m including several reflections this week. The first is on the Old Testament text from Isaiah. The second is on Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The third is on the Philippians 2 Christ Hymn.

Before that, as you prepare for Good Friday, check out Mark Mummert’s helpful blogpost: the Solemn Reproaches for Good Friday.

Let us pray.

Sovereign God, you have established your rule in the human heart through the servanthood of Jesus Christ. By your Spirit, keep us in the joyful procession of those who with their tongues confess Jesus as Lord and with their lives praise him as Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Game Face

The Hebrew Bible text is Isaiah 50:4-9a about the abuse the suffering servant is to endure. In Isaiah, Israel is the servant, God’s servant, called to be a blessing to its own people and a light to the nations/the Gentiles. Israel will not be great because of their power and glory, but because of their humble servanthood.

In chapter 50, part of Second Isaiah, coming out of the Babylonian Captivity, Israel, the suffering servant speaks. “I have been given the tongue of a teacher.” Is suffering not our teacher? Do we not learn by our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings? The suffering servant is not arrogant, but now a listener, a learner. “God has opened my ear.”

“I gave my back to those who struck me… I did not hide my face from those who insulted and spit on me.” One lesson in humility can go a long way. There is nothing like being thrown into the dog house to teach us humility. “Therefore, I have set my face like flint.” Everybody plays the fool, sometime. No exception to the rule.

In the midst of this humility, the suffering servant is able to see God’s deliverance. There is hope. “He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me.” Paul echoes something similar in Romans 8. “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

I can see why the early church latched onto these passages to describe Jesus, the suffering servant. The cross is about power through weakness. The cross is about God’s vindication of the powerless and outcast. Jesus is the ultimate suffering servant, show us what true glory is about.

The Triumphal Entry

Zechariah 9:9 says,

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

The donkey is actually the mount of royalty arriving in peace (Genesis 49:11, Judges 5:5, 10:4), on a horse, if in war. This Jesus is royalty, but he is the Prince of Peace, and he is arriving in peace, not as a conquering hero. This king practices humility, as Paul also expresses in Philippians 2.

Charles Spurgeon writes, “Brethren, let us be lowly. Did I hear one say, ‘Well, I will try to be lowly’? You cannot do it in that way. We must not try to act the lowly part; we must be lowly, and then we shall naturally act in a humble manner. It is astonishing how much of pride there is in the most modest.”

Jesus’ entry is not a pseudo-humility. The donkey is royalty. The palms signify victory. There is a greatness here, but it is a greatness expressed not in pomposity, but in humility. Those who are truly great need not prove it. Einstein had a humorous humility to him. It is the nature of true strength to not have to posture.

I have often thought, that if we, the church, could learn this kind of humility, the world would pay careful attention. It could be our greatest form of evangelism, living lives of humility. As someone has said, your life is the greatest sermon you will preach. Jesus showed his greatness through lowliness, his power through humility. The lesson for me this Palm Sunday is humbleness.

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being.
Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility.
The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.
– Saint Augustine

The gospel writers present Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a kind of anti-triumph – a parody of Caesar’s pompous march into Rome after each military victory.

Dan Clendenin calls it a counter-procession that ends with the death penalty. He highlights three reasons Jesus is crucified:

  • Subverting the nation
  • Encouraging people to not pay taxes
  • Calling himself a king

While these are probably trumped up charges, the sign over his head on the cross confirms that this was probably the line of thought: “King of the Jews”.

Jesus was popular. He drew large crowds. Anyone who could draw a crowd of 5,000 men, plus women and children, was a dangerous person. Clogging Jerusalem’s streets drew attention to Jesus. An anti-imperial, anti-triumphal procession of peasants would capture attention of the authorities, who were expected to put down riots, much like we see in many places today. Jesus had to have known what he was doing by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey – what he was saying.

What does it mean for us to participate in subversive counter-processions today? What does it mean to empty ourselves as Paul talks about in this coming Sunday’s epistle text (Philippians 2)? What does it mean to pour ourselves out like a drink offering (2 Timothy 4:6)?

It is all well and good to ogle and reenact Jesus’ own procession, but how do we process into the world as a subversive community exposing systems of power and privilege? I think first we have to acknowledge them. They have to become topics of discussion. We have to name who is powerful and who is powerless.

Then we will be the voice of the people, the voice with the voiceless, and the voice with the powerless, who live under the power of those who wield the threatening death stick.

To walk the way of the cross is to tap into the power of compassion, listening, enlightening, and emptying. It’s the power of powerlessness.

Julius Caesar was born 100 years before Jesus. Known for his incredible speaking ability, his magnetic personality and his military genius, he was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 B.C. at the age of 37. Today the Pontifex is the Pope, but back then it referred to the Pagan High Priest of Rome.

By reducing the taxes of the rich and by giving land to the poor, he became extremely popular with all levels of society. He conquered what are now Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany, west of the Rhine, making him the greatest military leader of his time. He is reputed to have known the names of every one of his men in battle. You can read more about this and what follows in Jesus the Last Day, A Collection of Essays published by the Biblical Archeological Society.

As popular as Julius Caesar was, the senate nevertheless elected Pompey instead, another military leader with his own faithful armies. The senate told Caesar to give up his army. He did not know what to do: submit to the will of the senate or enter Civil War? On January 19, 49 years before the birth of Christ, Caesar said, Iacta alea est – the die is cast – and his armies crossed the Rubicon River, entering Italy to change history forever.

From there he conquered Spain, then Greece and Egypt where he lived with Cleopatra, then on to Syria and Pontus. He conquered the Mediterranean world with such ease he reported his victory with the words Veni, Vidi, Vici – I came. I saw. I conquered. He never once doubted that he had done the right thing. Because Rome needed the best general in charge, right? His victory proved that he had done the right thing; the gods were on his side. The victor is the winner and the winner is the gods’ choice, right?

When he returned to Rome, the people lined the streets for his triumphal march. They waved branches and threw their garments before him as he rode into Rome on his horse. Some in history see him as the greatest military commander ever. Others see him as one who destroyed democracy and the Republic.

In subsequent years, every time land was conquered there would be a triumphal procession. The historian, Dio Cassius, tells us the triumphator would gather his armies and the Praetorian Guard, and enter Rome clad in armlets and a regal purple robe embroidered with gold after the rites of Dionysus. With a gold laurel crown upon his head that had been borrowed from the Temple of Jupiter, he held a branch in his hand.

The racially-diverse, conquered prisoners of war would march ahead of him, Africans, Jews, and Arabs – proof the victories he had attained. When the triumphator arrived at the Roman Forum, he would command some of the prisoners to be put to death and the rest imprisoned or enslaved. He would ride up to the Capitol and perform certain sacred rites to the gods. The word “capitol” just means “the head” – the head of Italy, the head of the world. Later a triumphal arch would be erected to commemorate the event.

Each leader felt his triumphal march had to upstage the others. So the processions became more and more complex and lavish. Perfumes would be distributed to those along the way to create an aroma or aura. By 20 B.C, 20 years before the birth of Christ, the triumphal procession became the sole privilege of the Emperor, who would parade through the city as people shouted, “Hail Caesar!” A bull would be dressed up and led along in procession to be sacrificed to the gods at the end. A priest would walk behind the bull with a double-bladed axe for the sacrifice.

The Emperor’s face would be painted red like Jupiter’s statue so that he would be identified standing in for the deity. Indeed, Gaius insisted on being addressed as Jupiter and Nero was called Apollo.

Just before the sacrifice, the triumphator would be offered a cup of wine, but he would refuse, and instead the pour the wine out on the bull or the altar. The wine symbolized the precious blood of the sacrifice.

After the sacrifice, the Emperor would then sit on his throne in glory.

Both Luke and Matthew base their version of Jesus’ passion on the Gospel of Mark, which was written in Rome, for Christians in Rome. They could not possibly fail to see what we 21st century American Christians almost always miss: Jesus’ procession to the cross is a parody of the Roman triumphal march. It follows a formula.

Jesus is taken first to the Praetorian guard, where he is clad with a purple robe and a crown of thorns.

They parade him through the city, shouting, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

His executioner walks alongside him.

The triumphator would be led to the Capitol, the head. But Jesus was led to Golgotha, the place of the skull.

Like the triumphator, Jesus too is offered ceremonial wine, but he also refuses it, echoing his words at the Last Supper, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:24-25).

At the end of the procession, the Emperor would sit on his throne. When Claudius returned to Rome after a military campaign, he ascended the steps of the Capitol on his knees and then sat on his throne with his sons-in-law on his right and on his left. When Titus returned after destroying Jerusalem and the temple, he had Vespasian on his right and Domitian on his left. When Jesus concludes his triumphal procession, he is crucified with two thieves, one on his right and one on his left.

The gospel writers want us to see Jesus’ last day not just as a triumphal march but as a kind of anti-triumphal march. Whereas the world glorifies power and violence and destruction; Jesus encounters the hatred and violence of his own religious tradition and the hatred and violence of the world’s greatest empire. He responds not with hatred and violence,but with submission to God’s will, and in his resurrection, finds a victory that transcends the human condition.

The pomp and pride of Gaius and Nero are contrasted with the humility of Jesus, and so the pomp and pride of the world’s rich and powerful are contrasted with the humility of the world’s poor and common people. In Christ, God is not for the victor, but for the victim. God’s divine favor is not found in victory, but in humility, compassion, and service. In kenosis: emptying oneself (see the next devotion below). Here’s the message: The salvation of the world depends upon God’s way, Christ’s way being made manifest in the world.

As followers of Christ, we are challenged, on this day and every day, to not cater to power and the powerful, but give our lives for the poor and downcast of the world – the innocent, the powerless, the children. We are challenged to reject the hatred, violence, and power plays of the world, and risk living in the humility of Jesus the crucified Jew. We are not promised that there will be no cost. We are never promised that there will be no hour of trial or a cross with our name on it. In fact, Jesus warns us that there will be persecution, by those who reject God’s ways. But in the end, there will be a crown of glory that will outshine the suffering of this world.

Hear Paul’s understanding of the Triumphal March (and Mary’s anointing for burial?) in 2 Corinthians (2:14-15):

…thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him.

There can be no mistaking Paul’s metaphor here: Christ is the ultimate Triumphator because he has destroyed the real enemies: sin and death. Therefore, we are freed to follow the cross in Triumphal Procession all the days of our lives, until we are led to our joyful resurrection.

Philippians 2: The Christ Hymn

Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 comes up on this Sunday in years A, B, and C. The only other time it pops up is on the Name of Jesus, which many Lutheran congregations omit, and Proper 21A/Ordinary 26A/Pentecost +20 in season A, which usually falls in September. This passage is so central to Paul’s Christology in general and incarnation in particular, that one hates to miss an opportunity to preach it.

One of my favorite books is Michael J. Gorman’s, Inhabiting the Cruciform God. The book is subtitled, Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology.

Now there’s a mouthful, but it’s more than gibberish. This is an incredible work of Christocentric theology. Gorman begins with the number of times Paul uses the phrase “in Christ.” When I reread the New Testament scanning for it, I’m shocked by the number of times that phrase is there, and how I’ve taken it for granted. To cite a couple: 

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him. Philippians 3:8-9

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 

I remember Mark Alan Powell telling us that there are no places in the Bible where we are told to invite Jesus into our heart. Not that it’s a bad thing to do, but the New Testament never mentions it. Instead, it invites a flip-flop of that. Not Christ in us, but us “in Christ.” Paul has a robust “in Christ” spirituality and theology. What exactly does Paul mean by this turn of phrase? What does it mean, concretely, for Paul be “in Christ?”

Gorman has four main points:

  • Cruciformity = Theoformity, or what is called theosis in the Eastern Christian tradition. To be in Christ is to live life in a cruciform way. It is to be claimed and shaped by Christ.  It is to be molded into the image of Christ. Theosis means humans becoming more like God. As Irenaeus said, later shaped by Athanasius: “God became what we are to make us what he is.” (See 2 Peter 1:4, Rom 8:29, 1 Cor 15:49, 2 Cor 3:18, 2 Cor 5:21, Phil 3:21). In Philippians 2, cruciformity, theosis, is kenosis: emptying oneself.
  • Justification is theosis. Justification, as Paul uses it, is more than a judicial term, a declaration of “not guilty.” It is more than a label. There is a transformation that begins to take place. Anything less is “cheap grace” a la Bonhoeffer, or “cheap justification.” Justification without justice is cheap, armchair grace.
  • Holiness, then, is conforming to the cruciform character of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Holiness (sanctification) is not a supplement to justification, but the actualization of it.
  • Non-violence is one of the essential elements of participating in the kenotic, cruciform God. To live the cruciform life is to empty oneself, to not lay claim to status and power, but to take on the form of a servant/slave.

That last part is critical: to live the cruciform life is not to lay claim to status and power, but to take on the form of a servant. This is what it means to be “in Christ.”

Gorman’s scholarship and exegesis is impeccable. The first part of the book focuses on Paul’s Christ Hymn in Philippians 2, which he calls Paul’s “Master Story.” His brilliant work has huge implications for the church, especially in this postmodern context. Hear this ancient hymn, perhaps one of the first Christian hymns. Imagine the first Christians singing it in worship…

The Christ Hymn
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God,
 did not regard equality with Godas something to be exploited,but emptied himself,
 taking the form of a slave,
 being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,
 he humbled himselfand became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross. 

Therefore God also highly exalted himand gave him the namethat is above every name,
 so that at the name of Jesus
 every knee should bend,
 in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
 and every tongue should confessthat Jesus Christ is Lord,
 to the glory of God the Father.

Of course the big argument in church history was the pre-existent camp versus the adoptionist camp. The pre-existent folks point out that Christ was already in the form of God and had to empty himself to become human. My systematics professor called this “theology from above.” The adoptionists pointed out that the phrase “Therefore God highly exalted him…” means that Jesus became Christ, and therefore God, because of his obedience unto death. God adopted him as Son.

Gorman’s work here is brilliant. Christ’s kenosis, his self- emptying reveals the character of God, and forms the key to understanding Paul’s theology, Christology, and ethics. The theology of this seminal passage permeates all of Paul’s letters. Gorman suggests that a kenotic Christ means a kenotic God. Paul’s understanding of Christ, and thus his understanding of God, is in two parts:

  • Humiliation, verses 6-8
  • Exaltation, verses 9-11

Gorman draws two conclusions:

  • Humility is the character of Christ. Therefore, humility is the character of those “in Christ,” and
  • Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore, also the character of God. Christ reveals the true, though often hidden truth about God: humility.

Humility is the character of those “in Christ.”

Although… not… but.

Although Christ was in the form of God, he did not count on it but emptied himself.

Do you see the rhythm of this? Gorman points out that time and time again. Paul displays this pattern in his own behavior, probably unconsciously. And, this underlying pattern is woven throughout his letters. Here is the formula:

Although [x], not [y] but [z].

x=status
y=selfishness and
z=selflessness

Although [status], not [selfishness], but [selflessness].

Now watch. Examples:

  • In 2 Cor. 8:9, Although Christ was rich, he became not rich, but (so that) by his poverty we become “rich.”
  • In Rom 15:1-3, Although they are “strong” they must not please themselves, but humble themselves and put up with the scruples of the “weak” so that the body might be built up.
  • In 1 Thess. 2:6-8, Although Paul’s status as apostle allowed him to make demands, he did not, but rather he was gentle.
  • In 1 Cor. 9:1-23. Although Paul has the apostolic privilege to have a wife and get paid for his his work, he does not exercise this privilege, but (v. 12) endures these sacrifices for the sake of the gospel.

Paul is himself, doing what he sees Christ doing in Philippians 2. Possessing status carries with it an inherent mandate to deny oneself, practice humility. This does not deny his apostolic identity. It fulfills it. Although he has authority as an apostle, Paul empties himself, exercising humility as a Christlike act of love. For Paul, love seeks conformity to the self-emptying image of Christ. Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore the character of the one who is “in Christ.” Paul exercises his true apostleship by acting in conformity to Christ.

Humility is the character of Christ, and therefore, it is also the character of God.

Not only is Christ defined as kenotic, or self-emptying, not only is the Christian (the one “in Christ”) defined as kenotic, or self-emptying, but GOD is therefore defined as kenotic or self-emptying.

Jesus expresses his very divinity in “downward mobility.” Gorman cites Hellerman, saying Phil. 2 is a contrast to the Roman “cursus honorum,” a lifelong, upward mobility to honor in the Empire, from slavery, to peasant, to aristocrat, to divinity (like Caesar). Jesus instead moves backwards, from equality with God, down the ladder to slavery, then even to public humiliation by death on a cross. The phrase “in the form of God” is Paul’s clearest Christological statement.

“In the form of God” vs. “In the form of a slave” was common parlance. For a god to be in the form of a slave was inconsistent in Roman thought. A god does not divest power. Divinity and kenosis don’t go together. Erik Heen points out ἐν μορφn θεοu is a phrase used in Emperor cult worship. After Augustus, the phrase was only used for the Roman emperor. So this hymn sets Christ up against the Emperor. Remember, it is most likely that Paul didn’t write this hymn but is quoting something early Christians sang in worship. We are hearing echoes of the first Christian hymns and theology.

As to the debate about whether Christ already possessed divinity or ὑπάρχων, grasped (or “exploited” in the NRSV) it, Gorman points out that the exaltation cannot be a promotion to divinity, as if one could earn divinity by being humble, or doing good works. The hymn clearly says that Jesus was already in the form of God and emptied himself. The exaltation is not promotion, but a confirmation of his divinity.

But is this emptying in contrast to what God is like? Is God in Christ doing something completely out of character? Or is self-emptying revealing the most intimate and profound character of God?

In other words, Gorman says, there are two possible readings of this text:

  • Christ renounced his deity: “Although Messiah Jesus was in the form of God, a status that means the exercise of power, he acted out of character – in a shockingly ungodlike manner, contrary in fact to true (imperial) divinity – when he emptied and humbled himself.” Or…
  • Christ exercised his deity: “Although Messiah Jesus was in the form of God, a status that people assume means the exercise of power, he acted in character – in a shockingly ungodlike manner, according to normal but misguided human perceptions of divinity, contrary to what we would expect, but, in fact in accord with true divinity – when he emptied and humbled himself.”

Of course, Gorman’s point is the latter. Jesus redefines divinity, and this ultimately changes the world irrevocably. Jesus subverted and deconstructed concepts of divinity when he emptied and humbled himself. This is an absurd story of God in first century Rome, which is Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 1:18-25.

Christ’s self-emptying then is not a termination of his deity; it is the fullest expression of it. Gregory of Elvira said that Christ’s majesty and divinity, though never lost, were “momentarily hidden,” as the sun is hidden behind a cloud. Gorman argues that Paul’s point is quite the opposite, that the humility of incarnation and the cross in fact reveals divine majesty. Like Father, like Son. Christ reveals the true nature of God.

Therefore, Gorman would rather translate hyparchon “because” he was in the form of God not “although” he was in the form of God. Because he was in the form of God he emptied himself… Placher calls this the “Narrative of a vulnerable God.”

Vulnerable God: Now there’s an oxymoron.

So what?

Oh, I think everybody knows so what. They may not like it, but the implications for the church are pretty obvious. If we follow a self-emptying Christ, who reflects a self-emptying God, then being “in Christ” means to be a self-emptying church, a self-emptying people, that the world might see the true God.

The preacher might give self-emptying examples from individuals in the congregation to make it personal, or stories of saints and/or ordinary people. Schindler is a great example of one who poured himself out for others. The preacher might find examples from the congregation’s history or other congregations’ histories. One congregation I served in a changing neighborhood, while in seminary, turned part of their parking lot into a playground for neighborhood children. That’s rerooting.

Bishop Brauer-Rieke from Oregon told me of some congregations in Portland, who were struggling in this difficult economy, with a colder-than-ever winter. Many were unable to pay their astronomical heat bills. One congregation, Redeemer, strongly rooted in the community realized that the houses in their neighborhood were built about the same time as the church, and therefore, the people in the neighborhood must be going through the same thing. They turned their focus from inward (their energy bills) to outward (their neighbors’ energy bills).

One pastor in our synod tells me his congregation was dying when he arrived. They figured, if we’re going to go out, let’s go out with a bang. They used their coffers to bless the neighborhood. They gave and gave. And of course, they started to grow. This is, in part, why, even when times are tough, cutting back on our percentage of giving is not appropriate. A church that doesn’t give isn’t a church.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and0 be found in him.
– Phil 3:8-9

The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 echoes another ancient hymn in Isaiah 40-55: The Song of the Suffering Servant. God’s power is made known to the world in self-emptying. To paraphrase Irenaeus and Athanasius: “God became what we are to make us what he is.”

There’s no wiggling out of this.

The good news is, when we give ourselves away, that’s when we really begin to see what life is about.

Displaced Persons Act of 1948

This is how Americans handled refugees in 1948. 
At the end of WWII in 1945, 7-11 million displaced persons were living in Germany, Italy, and Austria. President Harry S. Truman called upon Congress to enact legislation that would allow some of these wartime refugees to come to the US. 

The law passed in 1948 authorized 200,000 displaced persons over the next two years. When the act was extended for two more years in 1950, it increased displaced-person admissions to 415,000. And that’s when the US population was half what it is now. 

Even though some people cried that we would be bringing in Nazis, the 1948 act passed with more Republican votes than Democratic votes. 

This year the administration has set a cap of 50,000 refugees, while we are in the greatest refugee crisis in world history. 

April 2, 2017 is Lent 5A

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – The Valley of the Dry Bones. I am going to bring you up from your graves, my people.

Psalm 130 – Out of the depths I cry to you.

Romans 8:6-11 – If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

John 11:1-45 – The Raising of Lazarus

Raised

Another long gospel reading, with a million sermons that could be preached. This is where we’ve been this Lent:

  1. The temptation of Christ
  2. John 3 – Nicodemus (physical/spiritual rebirth)
  3. John 4 – The Woman at the Well (physical/spiritual thirst/water)
  4. John 9 – The Man Born Blind (physical/spiritual blindness)

So now what are we to make of John 11 – the raising of Lazarus?

Permit me some random exegetical musings and then a playful look at art.

My favorite commentary on the Gospel of John is by C. K. Barrett, a volume bequeathed to me by my father, published in 1958, the year he entered seminary in Columbus, Ohio. A lot of research has been done in the last 50 years, but this work holds enduring insights for me.

For example, Barrett points out that it is unlikely that John had access to the Gospel of Luke, written decades before John, but there are some striking similarities, even if not. John and Luke are the only two gospels that mention the sisters Mary and Martha. Consider also the relationship of Luke’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus to this story. The rich man begs Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool his tongue. When this is not possible, the rich man begs Abraham to send someone to warn his family. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets.” The rich man replies, “If someone rises from the dead, they will believe.” In the final scene, Abraham says, “Even if someone rises from the dead they will not believe.

In John’s story this week, Lazarus does in fact come back from the dead. Considering this, it is hard to believe John had no access to Luke’s parable. It is possible, and perhaps plausible, that this resurrection story comes from John’s tradition, but is then edited to suit John’s theological purposes.

Barrett also points out that there are resurrection stories in the synoptic Gospels as well (Mark 5:21–43; Matthew 9:18–26; Luke 8:40–56; Luke 7:11–16). Still, there is no parallel to this story in the synoptic tradition.

I find it encouraging that Barrett writes, even in 1958,

“It is evident that it was not John’s intention to write a work of scientific history. Such works were extremely scarce in antiquity, and we have seen that John’s interests were theological rather than chronological. Moreover, his treatment of the only source (Mark) we can isolate with any confidence from his gospel is very free; there is no reason to think that he followed other sources more closely. He did not hesitate to repress, revise, rewrite, or rearrange. On the other hand, there is no sufficient evidence for the view that John freely created narrative material for allegorical purposes. His narratives are for the most part simple, and the details generally remain unallegorized.” (p. 117)

Barrett continues,

“It was of supreme importance to him that there was a Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died in Palestine, even though to give an accurate outline of the outstanding events in the career of this person was no part of his purpose. He sought to draw out, using in part the form and style of narrative… the true meaning of the life and death of the one whom he believed to be the son of God, a being from beyond history. It was for this interpretation of the focal point of all history, not for accurate historical data, that we must look in John. Yet at every point history underlies what John wrote. The reader is reminded of ancient Egyptian figure drawing…”

I often try to describe the Gospels as works of art. When one looks at a Rembrandt, one can ask the question, “Is this historically accurate?” The answer is difficult. Yes, the event actually took place. But did the people look like that? Were they standing precisely there? Did it happen with Renaissance landscapes in the background? No, the Gospels, like art, are interpretations, with a very mild nod to historicity.

This is to say, Barrett would suggest, the story in John 11 is a theological statement about who Jesus is and a foreshadowing of the resurrection of the dead, in the life to come. Jesus is life. Jesus is the resurrection, both now and in the coming kingdom.

Barrett seems uninterested in debating the historicity of the event. Here are his words:

“What is the historical value of the story? This question depends mainly on the view taken of the sources and purpose of the gospel. It is of course possible to take an a priori view of miracle which rules out the possibility of such an event as this. If such an a priori view is taken there is clearly no further room for argument, and it is not within the province of this commentary to discuss the philosophical aspects of miracle.”

He seems to be saying, if you don’t believe in miracles, then there’s no point in debating whether this event took place or not. Do bodies come back to life? Is there room in your cosmology for such a thing to take place? If you enter into the narrative already saying no, then there’s no point in bothering to argue about it. If, on the other hand, you imagine that John gives a whit about historical accuracy, you don’t know how to read ancient literature, which shows little interest in such post-Enlightenment categories.

Back to the story. Jesus loves Lazarus and his sister Mary (one of the seven Marys mentioned in the gospels) and his sister Martha. They live in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Some have suggested that Lazarus (not John) was the disciple whom Jesus loved because of this passage. The story of Mary (sitting at the feet of Jesus) and Martha (working) is Luke, not John. But the personalities of the characters in the these stories seem consistent in both gospels: Martha, taking center stage, wracked with grief, complains that if Jesus had been on time, none of this would have happened in the first place. The voice of grief.

This is the only place in which this story is recounted. Jesus pushes Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life.” This passage is read at most funerals. “Do you believe this?” Martha’s confessional response should be right up there with Peter’s: “Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” This is every bit as striking as Peter’s confession.

Since we have spoken as the Gospels as art, I would like to consider art as gospel. Let us allow the world’s great artists to tell this story, a story that has been captured in art more than most gospel stories.

This first is from the year 1304, by Giotto di Botone (1267-1337). It’s at the Arena Chapel in Padua:

Nearly 160 years later, Nicolas Fromen (1425-1486) did this piece, below, on wood. It’s part of a triptych. Bodone painted this to keep his father, who had committed usury, out of purgatory.

Note the artist painted himself in the upper left hand corner of the picture. Froment has painted himself into a corner. Notice also he’s the only one looking at you.

Eerie how the artist stares out at us through the portals of time. Lazarus is up in this picture, but he’s not looking so good. Perhaps like the guy in The Mummy. He’s been dead several days. I don’t look so good after a night’s sleep.

Mary and Martha are in the lower left, weeping. People to the outside of the crowd are probably Froment’s contemporaries. One (upper right?) may be his patron.

Note the disciple to Jesus’ left is reading a book. This work is 1461. The printing press was invented in 1450. Interesting that Froment paints people in contemporary outfits, using the new technology of the day. It would be like painting a Raising of Lazarus today and having someone reading from an iPhone, in blue jeans.

I love how the Renaissance artists painted the Bible stories into their day and age: scenery, architecture, clothing. I wish artists did more of this today. Our desire to portray things as closely as possible in their original context is good, but we’ve also lost something: imagining these things in our day and age.

Here’s one by Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans. It’s a Northern Renaissance classic. He painted this when he was 20 years old, around 1480. It’s been in the Louvre for over 100 years. Note Mary and Martha to the lower right and the Pharisees at the upper left.

Looking at this close up reveals quite a few peculiarities. What’s that above Mary’s head? You might not be able to make it out here. You can find it online and view as closely as you wish, all of these pieces of art simply by typing the artist’s name. It is fun to show them on a large screen in powerpoint at an adult ed forum. Here’s Geerten up close. It’s public domain.

This next one is by Benozzo Gozzoli, ca. 1497 (I love his name). Luther was 14 when this was painted. Gozzoli died shortly after painting it. He also painted himself into one of of his works, but not this one (see Procession of the Magi). Besides having a totally cool name, Gozzoli painted a lot of Bible passages. Look at the little people in the lower left. This is a curiosity of Renaissance art I’ve never fully understood. Mary and Martha are on the lower left. The disciples have halos.

have to admit, one of the things that bothers me most is the fact that Jesus in these depictions seems so emotionless. It strikes me that one of the important parts of this passage is the fact that Jesus wept. A very divine Jesus in John’s high christology still weeps at the death of Lazarus. Our hope of the resurrection does not exempt us from deep feelings of grief.

This next is a Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio from 1609. His use of light is incredible. The light emerges from somewhere behind Jesus. The new Baroque (1600-1750) realism.

Note that the light picks up the detail of Jesus’ hand, which looks conspicuously like Michelangelo’s hand of God, for obvious reasons.

Or is he trying to make it look Adam’s hand? Probably not. God’s right hand. Adam’s left. In either case, it appears Lazarus is not so sure about wanting to return to this earthly life, as his hand seems to be up in protest.

This Rembrandt is from 1630. Finally, a little emotion on Jesus’ face.

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet’s Raising of Lazarus (1706) is rather busy. Everyone seems to be shocked, even Jesus.

The Lazarus Raising by Gustav Dore (1865) is part of a long series of Dore’s work on John’s gospel. It’s black and white, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out where the light is coming from.

Van Gogh (1890) starts getting a bit abstract:

But nothing beats the 20th century for abstract. This piece by William Congdon was produced in 1961:

So which of these is historically accurate? Which of them are true? None of them. All of them.

This story is clearly a foreshadowing of the resurrection. It is a message of hope and a message about who this Jesus is, and what his ministry means. There is more to life than meets the eye. God is working life in the midst of death. This Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

Joy in Life

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

George Bernard Shaw

The 2017 MS 150

The MS 150 is a bike ride from Houston to Austin. 13,000 riders raise money to fight multiple sclerosis. Blair Lundborg and I will be riding this year, April 29-30, 2017. To find out more, or to donate/sponsor me, go to:

http://main.nationalmssociety.org/site/TR/Bike/TXHBikeEvents?px=15682232&pg=personal&fr_id=28263

Day one is 76 to 100 miles, depending upon where you start. Lunch is in Bellville, at the Austin County Fairgrounds on FM 529. Overnight is in LaGrange.

Day two begins in LaGrange and finishes in Austin. The route is either 66 miles, or the 77 mile challenge route with rolling hills through Bastrop State Park. Lunch is in Bastrop, at the intermediate school.


March 26, 2017 is Lent 4A

1 Samuel 16:1-13 – Humans look on the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart.

Psalm 23 – The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.

Ephesians 5:8-14 – Live as children of the light. Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.

John 9:1-41 – Healing of the Man Born Blind

Music

  • Amazing Grace (I was blind, but now I see…)
  • Be Thou My Vision
  • Psalm 23: Shepherd Me O God, The King of Love My Shepherd Is

Spiritually Blind

This story comes off as a kind of comedy. It’s long. Consider having a group rehearse it and read it: Shared Reading of John 9.

For another angle on this text, read this article I wrote back in 2011 after the Japanese earthquake: “Is the Earthquake God’s Judgment on Japan?

There seem to be a great many points made in this multidimensional text. I’ll suggest five scenes. Any one of them could be a sermon.

1.It’s dangerous always drawing a direct connection between suffering and sin.

Scene 1: Who sinned?

It’s a quandary. If he’s blind from birth, and if the people in Jesus’ day considered disabilities are the result of sin, then who did the sinning? Did he sin before he was born? Or did his parents sin, and he’s paying for it? In short, what caused his blindness?

Before you laugh, consider the number of children born HIV positive. People always wonder: who sinned that this child was born HIV positive? Before you judge the mother, consider the woman who is HIV positive not because of their promiscuity but because of her spouse’s indiscretions. Still, someone sinned, right? Some disasters are the result of sin. It’s not an unreasonable question. But what about the person with cancer? Must have been something they ate. The person hit by a car? Must have been walking in the wrong place. We can’t seem to get past the idea of karma: If something bad happened to you, it must be something that you did.

Also consider the Final Solution in WWII. The Nazis felt they could develop a Master Race by exterminating all those with handicaps, diseases, homosexual orientation, and, of course, the Jewish people. There is an insidious view of sickness here that makes some clean and some unclean. Who sinned?

Jesus seems to discount this explanation. Blaming the victim won’t wash. Suffering is to be met with compassion not judgment.

Spit and mud. Jesus uses spit in Mark 7:32 and 8:23 as well. We may be seeing through a window into Jesus’ healing style. Using spit was not uncommon among ancient healers. The mud conjures for me God making Adam out of the dust in Genesis. John’s Jesus is one with the author of life in Genesis.

There are also themes of sin and baptism. We too are sinners from our birth. We too are called to wash in the pool of Siloam, the waters of baptism.

2.Compassion and the law

Scene 2: In verses 13-17, we are informed that Jesus healed the man on the Sabbath. So, the religious leaders, more concerned with dogged adherence to the law than compassion for the blind man, bring the man in for interrogation. Their legalism blinds them to the Gospel: the beautiful thing that God is doing in the world.

What happened?
He put mud on my eyes, I washed, and now I see.
This man is not from God. He doesn’t observe the Sabbath.
But if he’s not from God, how can he perform such signs?
What do you say about him?
He is a prophet. 

This is an unauthorized healing. Jesus does not have the permission or authority to heal. No one should break the law in such a flagrant way. Luke’s Jesus says, “If one of you has a child or a donkey that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on the sabbath day?” (Luke 4:5) Compassion is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14)

3.Triangulation and exclusion

Scene 3. Enter mommy and daddy. In verses 18-23, the Pharisees, who suspect the whole thing is a hoax, bring in the parents.

Is this your son, who was born blind?
Yep.
How does he now see?
Dunno. Ask him. He is of age. He can speak for himself. (Snark) 

They said this because they were afraid: Anyone who confessed Jesus as messiah would be put out of the synagogue.

Kicked out of the synagogue.

This is not like getting kicked out of a club. This is getting kicked out of one’s most central community.

See also 12:42, “Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…”

And 16:2, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

There seems to be a theme here. Some suggest that this was something that John’s church was experiencing: the exclusion of Christian Jews from the Synagogue. These 2nd century Christians resonated with Jesus’ sayings about exclusion.

The list of those who are not welcome in the Temple or Synagogue was staggering: gentiles, women, blind, lame, deaf, mute, lepers, anyone unclean. Exclusion became a way to cut people off from community. The law gave the privileged power over others. It is precisely toward these outcasts and sinners that Jesus directs his ministry.

To whom is your ministry directed? Who are the objects of your compassion? Your judgment?

4.Who is this Jesus?

Scene 4. In verses 24-34, the investigation continues, preparing us for the punch of the text. The man is grilled again.

This Jesus is a sinner.
I don’t know about that. I just know he healed me. I was blind, but now I see. (Seems like an obvious cue to sing “Amazing Grace”)
What did he do to you?
I already told you. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to be his disciples? (More snark/sarcasm)
You are his disciple. We are Moses’ disciples. We don’t know who this upstart is or where he comes from.
This is an amazing thing. You don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. You say God doesn’t listen to sinners, so…
You were born in sin, and you would educate us? And they drove him out.

Of course they did.

The blind man’s witness may be the most effective. Rather than a creedal formula and a doctrinal response, we can say: “I don’t really know about all of that, all I know is that he healed me.”

How has God healed you? Where have you seen Christ’s healing presence in your community?

5.Beware of spiritual blindness

Two weeks ago Jesus began talking with Nicodemus about being reborn. Nicodemus thought he was talking about a physical rebirth, but Jesus was actually talking about a spiritual rebirth.

Last week Jesus spoke with the woman at the well about quenching her thirst. She thought he was talking about physical thirst, but Jesus was actually talking about spiritual thirst.

This week our story is about blindness. Lest we think the story is about physical blindness, Jesus is probably talking about spiritual blindness.

Scene 5. Verses 35-41 deliver the punch.

Jesus heard that they drove out the man born blind. In character, Jesus seeks him out.

Do you believe in the Son of Man?
Who is he?
C’est moi.
I believe.
I came so that the blind might see, and those who see become blind.
Pharisees: Are you calling us blind?
Jesus: Well, if the shoe fits…
If you were blind, you would have no sin, but since you say, “We see” your sin remains.

The Pharisees believe the man’s blindness is an indictment – proof he is a sinner. His blindness is God’s judgment. Jesus does not view the man’s blindness as judgment but rather a malady for which we should have compassion. Jesus tells the Pharisees, in essence, if you were actually blind, you would have no sin. But because you think you see, your hypocrisy indicts you.

The Pharisees think the man is blind. But for Jesus, it is the Pharisees who are blind – spiritually blind.

The real sin, the ultimate blindness, is self-righteousness. Hypocrisy blinds us to the spiritual life. The Pharisees believe that the blind man is a sinner or perhaps his parents. The blind/outcast/unwelcome man is not the sinner in Jesus’ eyes, but those who judge. This mirrors Matthew 7. Self-righteousness becomes the plank in our eyes, blinding us.

The irony is, the more we try to be good (not a bad thing) the greater the danger of feeling morally superior, which is perhaps the greatest sin of all. A smarter person could come up with an equation for this.

I’m not sure what the solution to the equation is. I can only turn to mercy, grace, forgiveness, hope, and compassion. This defines us as Lutherans. While many religions, and various other denominations, define Christianity as a kind of moral contest, the gospel is about God’s love for us in spite of our brokenness.

In practical terms, it comes down to doing the opposite of the world. The world says, mercy for me, judgment for you. The opposite of that is to have very, very high standards for me and radical grace and compassion for you and others. This is what Jesus does throughout the gospels. Don’t worry about the speck in your neighbor’s eye. Work on the log in your own.

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