Friday, April 14, 2017

"Good Friday Meditations"

       During the six week period of Lent, we have been reflecting 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.”

       As we have reflected on these sayings from the Cross, we have asked one, central question:  “What do these sayings teach us about Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century?”  For Good Friday, we examine the last two of these sayings.  First, in the Gospel of John, we have these words:

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. ~ John 19:  28-30

It is interesting.  In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word which is translated into English as “finished” is the Greek word, “teleo.  As a noun, the Greek word, “telos” refers to one’s end or goal.  As a verb, “teleo” means to complete, as in to complete a task or a project.  Thus, as Jesus’ life ends, suffering on the Cross, he proclaims that his ministry—his mission—on Earth has been completed. 

Earlier, before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus seeks to prepare his disciples for his death in Jerusalem.  To prepare them, Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15: 13-14)  Then, that is what Jesus did for us.  In enduring the suffering and humiliation of the crucifixion, Jesus demonstrated in a profound and poignant way the awesome, incomprehensible depth of his love for us.  Then, his work, his ministry, was completed.

So then, we might ask what does Jesus’ declaration that he has completed his ministry on Earth teach us, who live in the twenty-first century, about faithfully following him; that is, what does this saying teach us about discipleship? 

It seems to me that what this saying teaches is that, just as Jesus had a purpose and mission, so also God has a plan for each of us as followers of Christ.  As Christian disciples, God invites each of us into a junior partnership, in which we are asked to help establish and expand the Reign of God throughout the Earth. The work of building God’s Kingdom is not always easy.  Sometimes it can be very hard and difficult.  Yet, despite the hardships, the invitation to join with God in building God’s Reign is also a profound privilege and honor. 

The second passage for reflection comes from the Gospel of Luke.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. ~ Luke 23:  44-46

Luke records that there was darkness over all the land from 12 noon to 3 pm.  In the scriptures, the darkness points to a distance from God; or, it points to a barrier which separates the created Order from God.  Then, come Jesus’ words”  “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Then, he died.

            The word, “commend,” means to entrust or give over with confidence.  Jesus' prayer is actually a quotation from Psalm 31:5, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.”  Then, the psalmist continues by adding:  “You have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”  Commenting on this passage, the Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper suggests that we should see these last words of Jesus as a “prayer of consecration” for his life.[i]  Throughout his time on Earth, Jesus has set his life apart and dedicated it to God’s service.  Jesus has consecrated his life to God's work.  Now, Jesus confidently gives his life back to God, with a serenity that is possible only because of God’s deep and abiding love.  Jesus accepts death easily because he knows God will care for him.  As the Apostle Paul would later write, “For I am convinced that neither death…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39)

In dying, Jesus gives us twenty-first century Christians the fundamental key for living.  God calls us to consecrate our lives to the Divine and to become faithful disciples.  As we saw earlier in our analysis of Jesus’ words, “It is finished,” God invites us to enter into an affirming, junior partnership, in which we join with Christ in building and developing the Kingdom of God.  We are called to dedicate and even consecrate our lives to the work of establishing the Reign of God on Earth.  This can be hard work sometimes.  Yet, despite the difficulties, when we consecrate our lives to serving God, then we can experience a joyful and flourishing life with deep meaning. 

There is also a second lesson to learn from these last words of Jesus.  When we consecrate our lives to God, then we can face our own death with the same serenity and confidence as Jesus on the Cross.  By dedicating our lives to Christ, then over time we develop a deep and everlasting bond with the Divine.  We grow confident in our relationship with God as we fully experience God’s incomprehensible love for us.  As the Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth, there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness…”  (2 Timothy 4: 7-8).  As we grow in our faith, we become more prepared to face our death, serenely, knowing that God will continue to watch over 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 Easter weekend, April 14-16th, at Christ United Methodist Church.  Our worship services include:

Good Friday Service, April 14, at 7 pm. During this service, I will conclude our reflections on “Jesus’ Words from the Cross,” with Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” This service will also include the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  It ends in semi-darkness with members of the congregation encouraged to help “strip the church” of all its paraments and decorations, as we remember that Jesus laid in a tomb for three days.

Easter Sunday, April 16th
Easter Services, 8:30 and 11 am, with Easter Breakfast between Services
Join us for the Flowers, the Music, & the Joy of Easter.  My proclamation is entitled, “Alleluia!”  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.

[i] R. Alan Culpepper, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 9, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

“Father, Forgive Them, for They Do Not Know What They Do”

I’m resuming my blog after a two-week break from the pulpit, as we welcomed a guest speaker the first week and were inspired by a Lenten Cantata the second week.  Returning to the pulpit and preaching this Sunday, April 9th, I will resume my reflections on "Jesus’ Words from the Cross.”  These are the sayings of Jesus during his crucifixion, as recorded in the four Gospels.  Recall that during these reflections, we have been guided by one, central question:  “What do these sayings teach us about Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century?” 

This Sunday, April 9th, we will examine Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness to those who are crucifying him.  This prayer appears in Luke’s account of the crucifixion:

“Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing.” 
  - Luke 23:  34-35

The Christian Lenten season is time for self-examination and repentance, as we reflect upon our brokenness and need for reconciliation with God.  When many of us read this scripture, our minds naturally turn to our own sinfulness and need for forgiveness—and rightfully so.  However, there is a second way to approach this text, and it is this second approach which comes closest to our central question:  “What does this saying from the Cross teach us about Christian discipleship in the twenty-first century?” 

This second approach looks at what Jesus does, as he suffers on the Cross:  Jesus forgives those who are crucifying him.  Jesus forgives.  But, who does Jesus forgive?  Does he forgive the Roman soldiers charged with carrying out the crucifixion, who pounded the nails into his hands and feet and then lifted his body on the Cross?  Or, does he mean the Jewish leaders who conspired to have Jesus arrested, convicted, and crucified?  Or, instead, does Jesus mean the Jewish crowd who cried out, “Crucify him!” when Pilate wanted to release Jesus? (see Luke 23:  13-25)  Perhaps Jesus meant to forgive Judas Iscariot, his disciple, who betrayed him?  Or, perhaps Jesus intended to forgive Pilate, the Roman prefect, who succumbed to pressure from the Jewish leaders and sentenced Jesus to crucifixion? 

I believe that Jesus intends for his prayer of forgiveness to include everyone who had some role in his suffering and crucifixion; the soldiers, the Jewish leaders, the crowd, everyone. 

So, the response to our central question is that Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness on the Cross teaches us that, as disciples of Christ, we should be willing to forgive everyone who has wronged us.  For many of us, this is very hard.  There are persons whom we have difficulty forgiving.  There can be many reasons why forgiving someone is difficult:

1.  The pain and harm caused by the other person is just so great that we have trouble forgiving them, even if they are genuinely penitent.  Consider, for example, the difficulty most parents would have forgiving a drunk driver who caused the death of their child.

2.  We feel betrayed by someone whom we trusted and that betrayal is so profound that we have trouble forgiving them, even if they are genuinely apologetic.  For example, consider how hard it would be to forgive a trusted work colleague who went behind our backs and caused us to lose a promotion or a job.

3.  We are angry and seek revenge on someone who has wronged us.  Therefore, we refuse to forgive that person, even if they are sincerely regretful.

            In these circumstances, it can be extremely difficult to forgive someone who has wronged us, even when they are genuinely sorry.  Yet, if we are going to truly follow Jesus, we must forgive.  For the Gospel writer Luke, Jesus models the life of a Christian in his death on the Cross.  This is a special emphasis of this particular Gospel.  For Luke, Jesus models the depth of his faith and obedience to God by accepting his crucifixion.  Similarly, Jesus models discipleship by forgiving those who are crucifying him.  But, why is that? 

            Why does Christ call us to forgive those who harm and betray us?

            I believe that the interpretive key here is love.  To be genuine, all acts of forgiveness must be grounded in love.  We truly forgive someone because we love that person.  As Christians, God intends for us to love all persons.  We love all persons in response to God’s love for us.  As it is written in 1 John 4:19, “We love because God first loved us.”  When we open ourselves to receive God’s love, then God fills us to overflowing with love and—in response—we love God and all other persons.  (Of course, we can love someone, even if we don’t personally like them.)  When we love a person, then we can forgive them, even if it is difficult. 

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, April 9th, at Christ United Methodist Church, as we explore Christ’s call to forgive those who harm us.  This Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as the people waved palms and sang, “Hosanna!!  Hosanna in the highest!!”  Everyone will receive palms and be invited to wave them as we sing our opening hymn, “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna.”  Our church is located at 4530 A Street.  Our traditional worship services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday mornings. 

Everyone—including doubters—is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

     During Holy Week services on Wednesday and Thursday, I will complete my ruminations on Jesus’ words from the Cross, reflecting on:  “It is finished” (John 19:30) and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  Please watch for a special, mid-week blog posting on these two final sayings of Jesus from the Cross.  Then, watch the blog at the end of the week for my post on Easter.