Saturday, March 18, 2017
Doubt is a dirty word for most Christians—and in most churches. When confronted with doubt, most Christians don’t know what to do or say. We aren’t sure how to respond to someone who expresses doubts regarding their faith. And, truthfully, Christians don’t get much practice in responding to someone who articulates doubt. Most people who have doubts are reluctant to share them with Christian friends—or, in church contexts. We are afraid that, if we share our doubts, we will be judged and condemned for being weak in our faith. We fear that our church friends will exclude and avoid us because we are not really “true believers.”
Yet, for many, doubt is an integral part of their Christian faith.
I realize that this is a very bold claim to make about the Christian faith. Nonetheless, we have the words of Jesus on the Cross in support of my claim:
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ ~ Mark 15: 33-39
In his very words from the Cross, Jesus seems to proclaim his own doubt and sense of abandonment. Jesus words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are a direct quotation from Psalms 22:2. Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament. As with most laments in the Bible, it ends on a note of joy and hope. Some Biblical scholars have argued that, when he uttered these words on the Cross, Jesus intended for us to remember and supply the ending words of vindication and hope. However, this seems like a stretch to me and I do not find it persuasive at all. Instead, it seems more prudent to hear Jesus’ words as he uttered them and to avoid adding nine more verses from Psalm 22, which are not spoken.
It is hard to overstate the significance of Jesus’ concession. Here is the Messiah, the Son of God, proclaiming that he has doubts and feels abandoned. At the brink of completing his mission to bring salvation to human persons and all of Creation on planet Earth, Jesus utters his doubts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” With these words, Christ models the reality of doubt as an integral component of faith.
Later, after Christ’s Resurrection, Thomas the doubting disciple, denies the Resurrection until, “I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side…” (John 20:25). As we know, a week later, when the resurrected Christ appears again to the disciples, he invites Thomas to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side where the soldiers thrust the spear (John 20:26-29). For our purposes, what is interesting is how Jesus responded to Thomas’ doubt. Jesus did not respond with anger, or with condemnation, neither did Jesus banish Thomas from the band of disciples. Instead, Jesus accepted Thomas’ doubt and provided Thomas with the evidence Thomas had demanded.
During the Lenten season, my proclamations are examining "Jesus’ Words from the Cross.” These are the sayings of Jesus during his crucifixion, as recorded in the four Gospels. As we reflect on these sayings of Jesus from the Cross, our central question is this: “What do these sayings teach us about Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century?” What can we learn about contemporary Christian discipleship from these words of Jesus on the Cross?
Jesus said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It seems clear that these words indicate that we should accept doubt as an integral component of faith for many Christians. Even though doubt can be a harsh, painful, anxious, lonely process, many Christians have experienced profound spiritual growth through struggles with their doubts.
For example, in his book, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recalls a “dark night of the soul,” when he experienced doubt that he was called by God to lead the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King recalls sitting at his kitchen table, pouring out all of his doubts to God. Then, he describes how God spoke to him and strengthened his faith and conviction: “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”
Currently, the fastest growing religious group is the “nones,” those persons who check “None,” when asked to identify their religion. In surveys and interviews with “nones,” sociologists have found that this cohort tends to reject Christianity and the Church because of a perceived Christian intolerance for questions and doubts. Perhaps we in the church should get started sanitizing the word, “doubt”? Wouldn’t it amaze “nones,” if Christians reassured them that in having doubts and questions they were actually sharing in an important characteristic of Christ and one of his closest disciples?
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, March 19th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we explore what it means to become a community of faith, where it is safe to share and examine our doubts, as well as our certainties. Our church is located at 4530 A Street. Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.
Everyone—especially doubters—is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, March 11, 2017
During the Lenten season, my proclamations are examining "Jesus’ Words from the Cross.” These are the sayings of Jesus during his crucifixion, as recorded in the four Gospels. As we reflect on these sayings of Jesus from the Cross, it seems to me that the central question we should ask is this: “What do these sayings teach us about Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century?”
This Sunday (March 12th), we will reflect on Jesus’ discussion with the pentient thief, who was also being crucified at the same times:
There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23: 38-43, NRSV)
In order to accurately interpret this conversation between Jesus and the penitent thief, we must do some groundwork. We must begin with a discussion of the human soul. Within the scriptures there are two theories of what it means to be a human person with a soul:
1. Dualist. The Dualist theory holds that as human persons we are dually comprised of two different quantities. On the one hand, we have a physical body for this life in the physical, material world. On the other hand, we also have a spiritual self, which is our true essence and who we really are. At death, our spiritual soul leaves our dead physical body and it is through this spiritual soul that we experience the resurrection. An example of the dualist theory in the Bible would be what the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5: 1-10. If you have ever watched Wile E. Coyote or a similar cartoon, then perhaps you have seen this theory of the soul depicted when a cartoon character dies. For example, when an anvil falls on Wile E. Coyote, instantly killing him, then we see a faint outline of Wile E. Coyote, with angel wings rising out of the corpse and flying away. This would be a dualistic perspective. This theory is sometimes called the Greek perspective because it is also the viewpoint held by some Greek philosophers, such as Plato.
2. Monist or Physicalist. The alternative theory holds that the soul is integrally part of the person’s physical body. This view sees my soul as inseparable from my body and who I am as a person. Thus, according to this view, the soul cannot simply detach from the physical body at death, in the same way that a space probe may detach from the mother ship in a movie about space travel. This perspective would seem to require that resurrection be a physical resurrection of the whole body. An example of the Physicalist theory in the Bible would again be provided by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 42-58. This theory is sometimes called a Hebraic perspective because it seems to follow the view presented in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Based purely on anecdotal evidence, I believe that most American Christians embrace the first, dualist theory of what the human soul is. And, at first blush, this passage seems to assume such a dualist understanding of the human soul. However, a careful exegesis of this passage reveals that actually it is the second, physicalist model of the soul, which is assumed. The interpretive key is the word, “Paradise.”
Several Biblical scholars have done an etymological study of the word, “Paradise.” They note that originally in the Hebrew language the word referred to a rich and beautiful garden; perhaps the garden of a king. In imagining this garden, we need to remember that Jerusalem and Palestine are very hot, arid, hostile regions. So, for the early Hebrews, the word, “Paradise,” would conger up the image of an oasis in the middle of a hot, dry desert. This paradise would be located at a cool, refreshing stream, with lush, green vegetation all around.
Etymologies of the word, “Paradise,” suggest that over time, the original Garden of Eden began to emerge as imagined garden. In addition to fresh, clear water and lush vegetation, the Jews would also see the Garden of Eden as the location—or home—of the Divine; that is, God the Creator. As with most words, the meaning of “Paradise” continued to grow and adjust over time. By the time of Second Temple Judaism, which included the time of Jesus’ ministry, the word had become more technical in its application. Here, we should keep in mind that according to Jewish theology, the Resurrection was conceived as a bodily resurrection. From within this framework, “Paradise” had come to mean that place where the righteous dead stayed prior to their bodily resurrection at the end-time.
Thus, we could re-construct the dialogue between Jesus and the penitent thief in this way:
Thief: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom, meaning Jesus’ eschatological Kingdom at the end-time, when Christ returns in all of his glory, (See Revelation 21:1-8) and the bodily resurrection of Christ’s disciples occurs.
Jesus: Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise, meaning not a physical oasis with cool water and lush vegetation, but rather that place where Christ’s disciples stay until the coming of the eschatological Kingdom and the bodily resurrection of the faithful.
Now that we done our due diligence in carefully analyzing and interpreting this text, we come to the fundamental question of these explorations into the words of Jesus on the Cross: “What does this saying from the Cross teach us about Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century?” It seems to me that there are three major lessons for contemporary Christians:
1. Jesus promise to the penitent thief serves to underscore and confirm the promise of eschatological Resurrection which Christ extends to all of his followers. Through his own Resurrection on Easter, Jesus guarantees and points ahead to the eschatological Resurrection of the faithful at the end time. As Christians, God intends for us to be a Resurrection People, living lives of joy, hope, and love, while confidently looking to the future and the full development of God’s Reign.
2. As followers of Christ, we are to mirror his treatment of the thief in our lives. The criminal was an outcast from society, marginalized because of evil deeds which he acknowledges from his cross. Yet, just as he has done throughout his ministry, Jesus offers healing and salvation to the outcast criminal. Essentially, Jesus’s actions demonstrate that in God’s eyes, no one is a lost cause. Similarly, Jesus intends for his disciples to embrace and minister to those whom society marginalizes and calls “losers.”
3. For each of us, just as for the penitent criminal, it is never too late to seek forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation from God. This criminal confesses to a life of evil. Yet, even as he hangs dying, Christ is ever ready to forgive, heal, and reconcile.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, March 12th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we reflect further on these words of Christ from the Cross and how important they are for faithfully following Christ in the twenty-first century. Our church is located at 4530 A Street. Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, March 4, 2017
My blog has been on a hiatus for a month, and I apologize to my readers for this interruption. My entries for this blog focus on the sermons which I preach at Christ United Methodist Church in Lincoln. During February, I was out-of-the pulpit for two Sunday’s and at other times I did not post a blog due to illness.
During the Lenten season, my proclamations will focus on "Jesus’ Words from the Cross.” These are the sayings of Jesus during his crucifixion, as recorded in the four Gospels. They are:
1. Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
2. Luke 23:43: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
3. John 19:26–27: “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.”
4. Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34 “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
5. John 19:28: “I am thirsty.”
6. John 19:30: “It is finished.”
7. Luke 23:46: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
I began these explorations at our Ash Wednesday service by focusing on Jesus’ exclamation, “I am thirsty!” (Number 5 above). This Sunday (March 5th), I will focus on Jesus’ words, “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.” (Number 3 above).
As we reflect on these sayings of Jesus from the Cross, it seems to me that the central question we should ask is this: “What do these sayings teach us about Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century?”
In the passage we are examining, the Greek syntax of verse 25 is very confusing. Consequently, translators have struggled with this verse and there are substantive differences between various English translations. I prefer the translation in the New International Version:
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[a] here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
In verse 26, “the disciple whom he loved” refers to the disciple, John, who was the brother of another disciple, James, and the son of Zebedee.
There are several ways to interpret this saying from the Cross. One method of interpretation would be to look at this passage symbolically. Biblical scholar Gail R. O’Day suggests that we read this passage in that manner. Dr. O’Day argues that for the John the Gospel writer, Mary symbolizes Jesus’ earthly ministry because she was present at the beginning of his ministry (see John 2: 1-11) and she was present at the end. Meanwhile, she argues that the Apostle John represents the future when Jesus is resurrected. O’Day concludes: “When Jesus entrusts his mother and the beloved disciple to each other, then, the Fourth Evangelist [John] points to Jesus’ death as the link between the past of Jesus’ ministry (represented by Jesus’ mother) and the movement of that ministry into the future (represented by the beloved disciple).”[i]
I find Dr. O’Day’s symbolic interpretation of this scene instructive. However, for the purposes of illuminating what we can learn about faithful discipleship in the twenty-first century, it seems to me that a more straightforward reading is more beneficial. Read from this perspective, what we see is a very poignant act of familial love.
Even in the midst of a crucifixion’s brutal pain and exhaustive exertion, Jesus exhibits this profound love and concern for his mother. We must remember in the time and context of Christ, there were no social provisions for the care of widows or the elderly; no Medicare or Social Security. Women were especially vulnerable because there were no employment opportunities for women outside the home. So, even dangling from the Cross, Jesus seeks to insure that his mother will be cared for after his death. He proposes that his mother look upon his favorite disciple as a son, “Woman, here is your son.” And, he asks John to care for Mary as though she were his own mother, “Here is your mother.” And, we learn that “From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
From the twenty-first century perspective, Jesus’s act of concern and compassion on the Cross mandates that faithful discipleship includes caring for those who are weak and vulnerable within our families, within our communities, within our society, and indeed throughout the world. This may become even more important within our communities and society, if our federal government finds it necessary to radically curtain social support for the weak and vulnerable in our society, as some elected governmental officials have proposed. However, for this Sunday, I will focus my attention on the gathered community of faith—our church.
For twenty-first century congregations, Jesus’ concern for his mother, even when dangling from a Cross, provides critical instruction: The church is called into being as a gathering of love, support, and friendship. Like a family, the gathered community of faith provides a place to belong, a setting to be in ministry, and the source of pastoral care and support when needed. Just as Mary received concern and care from her son as he died on the Cross, so also individual disciples should receive concern and care from Jesus through their church; their gathered community of faith.
But, there is more. The Church is also an eschatological foreshadowing of the community of Christ at the end time, when Christ returns and the Kingdom of God is fully established here on Earth (See the Revelation of John 21: 1-8). We experience this eschatological promise most fully when the community of faith gathers around the Altar table and celebrates the Sacrament of The Lord’s Supper. Each time we celebrate the Sacrament, we hear these words from the prayer of institution, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his heavenly banquet.”[ii] When we celebrate The Lord's Supper, then we are looking ahead to that future, when we will share in a heavenly banquet with Christ and with all of our loved ones, even those who have passed on ahead of us.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, March 5th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we reflect further on these words of Christ from the Cross and how important they are for faithfully following Christ in the twenty-first century. Our church is located at 4530 A Street. Our classic worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings.
Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.