Matthew 28:1-8 Back from the Dead? Really? (Easter Sunday)

31 03 2013

 

Empty-tomb

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” Matthew 28:1-8 (NRSV)

I find it hard to imagine being one of these women.  Their beloved Teacher was brutally murdered and the last they’d seen of Him is when His body was wrapped and placed in the tomb to be buried.

To come to His grave to pray and mourn was probably almost more than they could bear.

Then to be told,”He is not here, He is raised,” would have seemed to be too good to be true.

This account speaks to the cynic in me.  I’ve never seen an angel in real life as far as I know, and people don’t just raise themselves from the dead. I would have a really hard time taking this guy seriously, whether he claimed to be of the heavenly host or not.

I could see me being more like the disciple, Thomas.  I’d be the one wanting see-it-for-myself proof.

“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless 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, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’  Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.'” John 20:24-29 (NRSV)

I have a hard time taking others’ words for anything.  Because I am skeptical and cynical and stubborn by nature, I see exactly where Thomas is coming from.  My response to those who promise monumental deeds or fundamental change is generally, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

skeptic

This is where a good number of people out in today’s world stand as far as Christianity.  As a person with more than a few atheist/agnostic friends, if the topic touches upon my faith, they ask me questions such as:

“Who cares about some Jewish dude who supposedly came back from the dead 2000 years ago?”

“What does the “Kingdom of God” mean today when there is so much suffering and evil and corruption in this world?”

I don’t have any scientifically acceptable answers to that question.  There is all kind of suffering and evil and corruption in today’s world.  I can’t even begin to explain how a person like me ever was able to come to faith in God, or what value God sees in an obscure purveyor of automotive parts in an obscure part of the world, let alone why the Son of God would die for someone as inconsequential as me.  It is by the grace of God in Christ alone, and that’s the only answer I have.

godsgrace

I’m not a theologian or a scholar or anybody important, but I do pray that by the grace of God I can help build His Kingdom here on earth, and that by His grace maybe I can show someone else what that Kingdom looks like.

That is the message of the empty tomb, for those of us who believe to go out and live in a manner that reflects that faith- even though we have not seen the wounds in His hands, His side and His feet- we still know that Jesus is Who He says He is- the Risen Son of the Living God.

he-is-risen

Advertisements




Matthew 27:62-66 Jesus in the Tomb (Holy Week- Holy Saturday)

30 03 2013

jesus in the tomb

The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise again.” Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day; otherwise his disciples may go and steal him away, and tell the people, “He has been raised from the dead,” and the last deception would be worse than the first.”  Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.’  So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.”  Matthew 27:62-66 (NRSV)

The last thing the Pharisees wanted was a risen Christ.  They were convinced that Jesus’ disciples would raid the tomb, claim Jesus had risen from the dead, and cause even more uprising among the people.

So Jesus was sealed in His tomb and guarded by soldiers- ostensibly to assure the Romans that the disciples could not stage a phony resurrection, which was a logical step, given the Pharisees’ assumption that Jesus was just another false prophet and fake.

The disciples could not move the stone, but all things are possible with God.

The disciples were having enough problems with believing Jesus.  Although Jesus had hinted at the necessity of His death and had given the promise of His resurrection, they were confronted with what they could see.  Jesus was dead.  People don’t just come back from the dead.

Maybe they were wrong about Jesus.  Maybe He was just another snake-oil salesman, a charlatan, and a fake.  He was their beloved Teacher, but had they been naïve and been deceived?

Today we as Christians know the rest of the story, so in our liturgical traditions  Holy Saturday generally doesn’t invoke the same maelstrom of emotion that it would have held for Jesus’ followers that first Holy Saturday.  They were afraid- both of the Pharisees and of the Romans.  They had deep and lingering doubt between what Jesus said and what they were seeing unfold before them.  They mourned the loss of their Friend and Teacher.

mourning

The irony is that we as Christians today don’t really say much about the tension and anguish and doubt of Holy Saturday, even though we live in a Holy Saturday kind of world.

We know Who Jesus is.  We know what He said- but all around us we see plenty of evil that would seem to contradict the Good News that Jesus has risen.  His Kingdom is all around us, but it’s pretty hard sometimes to see it.

violence

It’s easier than we think to imagine the anguish of Jesus’ friends and followers when they viewed His dead and broken body lying in a cold, dead tomb.

It’s the same disappointment we feel when tragedy happens to us, or when events unfold that we didn’t expect and can’t comprehend.  We are left to wonder, as Jesus’ friends and disciples were, “Is God really with us, or are we just following a false god and deceiving ourselves?”

Tomorrow Jesus’ friends and disciples get to see that He is real, that His promises are good, and that He is Who He claims to be.

I pray that in the moments we feel abandoned or betrayed by God that the Holy Spirit will help us remember, yes, Jesus is Who He says He is, and that yes,

He is Risen, He is Risen, indeed.

not in the tomb





Matthew 27:51-54 The Curtain is Torn (Holy Week- Good Friday)

29 03 2013

curtain-torn-small

 

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection andwent into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” Matthew 27:51:54 (NRSV)

At the moment of Jesus’ death, there was a fundamental change in the relationship between God and man.

At the very moment His suffering and sacrifice were complete, the barrier between the Presence of God and the mundane world of humanity was broken.  God’s Presence broke free from the Holy of Holies.  The barrier between God and man had been broken forever.  God was no longer confined to a “holy space” where regular people were never allowed.

In some Christian traditions the tendency is to glaze over the experience of Good Friday and Calvary and fast forward straight to Easter Sunday.  That discomfort with the Passion of Christ is easy to understand.  It’s not pleasant to relive the gory and painful reality of Jesus’ torture and death.  It is not comfortable to know that our salvation came at such an awesomely exorbitant price. It is important for us to come to some understanding of Jesus’ suffering, however, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that the grace that was freely given had no cost.  Grace is not cheap.

We need to remember Jesus’ Passion.  We need to understand He did not die an “easy death.” We need to know that we are just as responsible for Jesus’ death as the people in the crowd who shouted “Crucify Him!”   It is good for us to enter into the experience of the Passion, at least on some level, though I would caution, it is also important to remember that death and suffering are not the end of the story.

If not for Jesus’ sacrifice and His total surrender, there would be no setting the Holy Spirit afoot in and through the world as the curtain was torn.  There would be no redemption of our broken and often profane world.  The sacred would still be beyond the reach of common humanity.  If not for Jesus’ sacrifice there would be no salvation for humanity, and no life beyond physical death and the grave.

crucifixionphoto

“From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?‘)” Matthew 27:45:46 (NRSV)

As we contemplate on and remember that Jesus died to save me, and you, and that cranky old guy across the road, and the convicted murderer consigned to prison we have to remember that in His eyes we are all on the same footing.  Lost, fallible, flawed, makers of bad decisions and law-breakers- all people fall into that category.

All people fall into the category of those Jesus came to save and redeem.  All people are invited to breathe in the Holy Spirit that was set free the day the curtain was torn and to participate in the Kingdom of God.  No one is “too far gone” to be beyond the reach of Jesus.

Death and suffering are not the end.  But today, we remember just how high the cost of our salvation was.

 





Matthew 16:15-16 How Deep is Our Love? (Holy Week: Maundy Thursday)

28 03 2013

last supper

“He (Jesus) said to them, ‘But who do you [yourselves] say I am?  Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.'” Matthew 16:15-16 (AMP)

Early in Jesus’ ministry, the apostle Peter got it.  At this time, at least on an intellectual level, the apostle Peter understood Who Jesus is.

If we fast forward to the night of the Last Supper, after Jesus had shared His Body and Blood with the disciples, the apostle Peter still maintained what he knew about Jesus:

“Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd,  and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 

But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.”  Peter said to him, ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples. Matthew 16:15-16 (NRSV)

acts of the apostles

The spirit is willing, and Peter knew in his rational mind that Jesus is Who He claims to be.  Head knowledge, in this instance, wasn’t Peter’s problem.  Unfortunately, the things we humans do when our hides are on the line sometimes defy rationality.  Our flesh is weak, especially when that primal self-preservation instinct kicks in.

Head knowledge is something to be sought after, but not simply for the sake of knowing facts and figures.  Knowledge without practical application is at best, superficial, and at worst, pointless.  Knowledge that rests on the surface, but that really hasn’t sunk in and become part of one’s deepest heart of hearts is not of much value.

shema1

There’s a reason why the Israelites were commanded in the Shema, which is the primary prayer in Judaism, (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) to keep on repeating and meditating on Scripture at all times:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NRSV)

It is a good thing to internalize the Scriptures, and the act of reading, reciting, teaching and memorizing them does serve to write them not only on our minds but also on our hearts.

Even considering that the apostle Peter would have been taught the Shema from his earliest days, and he spent three years with Jesus, it’s still one thing for us weak humans to know Who Jesus is, but it’s quite another for us to act accordingly.

Jesus knew the disciples’ weaknesses, including Peter, who shared with us the human flaw of having a crocodile mouth but a canary patoot.  It’s one thing to pledge to follow Jesus to His death, but the irony is that it’s impossible to do that apart from the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ statement directed toward the disciples on the night of the Last Supper is telling: “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd,  and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’”(Matthew 16:15)

garden

Apart from the Shepherd, no matter how much they might know, the sheep don’t have a chance.

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” John 14:6 (NRSV)

There are deep spiritual benefits of studying and meditating upon Scripture, but the point of any spiritual discipline, and the point of our faith is always to remain connected with Jesus.  Knowledge is meaningless if there is no practical application of that knowledge, and faith is pointless if we believe in the wrong things.  The scattering of the disciples after the Last Supper simply proves that we humans (even disciples who walked and ate and took part of the Body of Christ in an intensely tangible way) cannot stay faithful to God apart from Jesus.  It’s impossible to stand strong, no matter what you know, no matter what kinds of high spiritual experiences you can claim to have experienced, if you are apart from Jesus.

Jesus said that if a person loves his/her life, he/she will lose it. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12:25 (NRSV)

This statement speaks to our self-preservation instinct.  Most of the time it’s wise and prudent to heed that instinct, but if and when our choices come down to this life and this physical body versus things of God’s Kingdom, we should choose the things of eternal life over ease and expediency in this life.  It’s easy to say, but infinitely hard to do.

The good news is that Jesus came to live in this world to show us how to do that, and to give us the strength we need to do what He calls us to do.

I pray that we will find strength in sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ with other believers, and that Jesus will hold us up to stand for Him when our weak flesh cannot.





1 Peter 1:18-19 The Paradox of Judas and Jesus (Holy Week Wednesday)

27 03 2013

jesusdiesonthecross

 

“You must know (recognize) that you were redeemed (ransomed) from the useless (fruitless) way of living inherited by [your] forefathers, not with corruptible things [such as] silver and gold, but [you were purchased] with the precious blood of Christ (the Messiah) like that of a [sacrificial] lamb without blemish or spot.” 1 Peter 1:18-19 (AMP)

Interesting, the paradox of this week.  First, Jesus rides into Jerusalem seated on a donkey, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 –

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Zechariah 9:9 (NRSV)

Then just a few short days later, Judas betrays Jesus and offers him up to the high priests for the equivalent of less money than it would take to fill up a Honda Accord.

Jesus freely gave His precious blood, that has value way beyond any material currency here on this earth, to redeem us from the conditions of sin and death that humanity put in motion to begin with.

Somehow, it seems like a rather raw exchange.   Even I want to say, “Jesus, you got ripped off!”

I can’t help seeing a deep injustice here.  Jesus was sinless, yet He had to endure the torture and death on the Cross?  Crucifixion wasn’t really done in the neat and easy and clean way that medieval and Renaissance authors usually depict it.  The artwork is aesthetically pleasing, but not terribly accurate. It’s a lot more bloody and dirty and nasty than the sanitized painting above.  Mel Gibson had the gory details of Roman torture and crucifixion portrayed pretty closely in his movie The Passion of the Christ.

438px-Christ_Carrying_the_Cross_1580

Unfortunately we are more like Judas than we want to admit.  How often do I sell Jesus down the river for trivial things that have no eternal value?  How often do I overlook or miss an opportunity to be a part of His Kingdom to do something else?  How many times do I make decisions without thinking about whether or not my actions are pleasing to God?

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10:32-33 (NRSV)

This statement Jesus makes is scary.  I know that I don’t acknowledge Jesus in everything I do 24/7, 365.  Sometimes my behavior and actions and the words I say betray my faith.

I don’t want Jesus to look at me come Judgment Day and say, “I don’t know you.”

The good news is that (paradoxically) Jesus forgives us when we ask Him.  He forgives the penitent sinner, no matter how badly we have screwed up.  We are not forgiven because we are such great people.  Left to our own devices we end up like Judas- selling out Jesus for the most trivial and mundane of things, and sinning over and over and over again in spite of “knowing better.” Our salvation is made possible only by the greatness, love and mercy of Christ.

Mercy

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39 (NRSV)

I thank God today that Jesus took the punishment that I deserve.  I pray that the Holy Spirit will help me live in response to His priceless gift of salvation.





Proverbs 16:25 The “Right” Way? (Holy Week Tuesday)

26 03 2013

choice

There is a way that seems right to a man, and appears straight before him, but at the end of it is the way of death.” Proverbs 16:25 (AMP)

It’s easy to malign Judas.  After all, he betrayed Jesus to the high priests for what would (roughly) be about $42.97 in today’s money.

The Author of the Universe, sold for less than fifty bucks.

It’s no wonder there are no pretty stained glass windows with “St. Judas” in them.  Nobody is naming their kids “Judas” either – it would be as bad as naming them “Pontius Pilate,” or “Hitler” or “Stalin.”  The name Judas equates to evil and treachery because of the deed he committed.

But before I’m too critical of Judas, I need to listen to what Jesus said to the Pharisees and others who were itching to stone a woman caught in adultery:

“When they kept on questioning him, (Jesus) he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” John 8:7-8 (NRSV)

writing on the ground

Some scholars and theologians speculate that Jesus might have been writing names and deeds on the ground- calling out the would be stone-throwers to be mindful of their own sins.  Others suggest that Jesus might have been simply doodling on the ground.

If Jesus was naming names and deeds, perhaps He was saying something to the effect of, “Hey, Jack- I know what you did in Vegas,” or “Hey, Cindy, what about that money you embezzled from your employer,” or “I know every single sin you’ve committed since you first drew breath!”

If most of us were confronted with a frank and all-encompassing assessment of our sins, (known and unknown) we would be dropping the stones too.

As far as Judas goes, it’s hard to say what his motivation was in selling Jesus down the river for less than what a full tank of gasoline costs most people today.  Perhaps he feared the power of Rome, as the high priest and Pharisees did.  Maybe Judas disagreed with Jesus’ methods.  Or maybe his motive was more self-serving than that?  Perhaps he needed money to support a gambling addiction, or to satisfy a taste for fine wine.  Scripture doesn’t spell out Judas’ reasons, although it does tell us that Judas did occasionally pilfer a bit from the treasury box.

Maybe Judas thought that surrendering Jesus was the right thing to do, which is even more troubling.  Maybe it was poor judgment rather than malicious intent or a love of money that motivated Judas.

How many times have we done what we thought was the right thing at the time only to find out later that it was a dreadful mistake?  How many times have we rationalized a wrong choice, and told ourselves that the end justified the means?

The sad thing about history is that it tends to repeat itself.

hitler

Millions of people thought following Hitler- and going along with mass genocide- was the “right thing to do.”

Like Judas, and like all the people in the world remembered for their evil deeds, we make decisions that cause harm to myself and others.  The irony of this is that that those who are remembered for their evil deeds often thought that they were doing the right thing.

It is guaranteed if the only thing we do is “look out for number one” that we are going to make bad choices.  It is guaranteed that if the only thing we do is follow “common” wisdom and just do what everyone else is doing that we are going to make bad choices.

Even if we try to do the right thing, there are times when our judgment is going to prove dreadfully wrong.  There are times when following the crowd turns out to be a fatal mistake.  There is not always strength in numbers.

The only way that we can make good decisions and have good judgment is by submitting our heart and minds to God’s will.

I pray that the Holy Spirit would guide us when we have difficult decisions, and keep us on God’s path.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. Psalm 119:105 (NRSV)





James 5:16 Being Open and Vulnerable (Holy Week Monday)

25 03 2013

vulnerable

I need to make myself vulnerable.  I need to admit that I am weak and fully dependent upon God.  I need the prayers and intercession of others.  I need restoring for my soul.

 

“Confess to one another therefore your faults (your slips, your false steps, your offenses, your sins) and pray [also] for one another, that you may be healed and restored [to a spiritual tone of mind and heart].  The earnest (heartfelt, continued) prayer of a righteous man makes tremendous power available [dynamic in its working].” James 5:16 (AMP)

Traditionally Holy Week has been a time of prayer, contemplation and reflection.  As we reflect upon Jesus’ journey from the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday to His Passion on Good Friday, we are called to examine ourselves as well.

The apostle Peter (who was anything but a wallflower) thought that he could hang tough with Jesus when the time came, but his reaction was very different when he was thrown into the time of trial.

“Peter said to him, ‘Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples.” Matthew 26:33-35 (NRSV)

I don’t blame the apostle Peter for acting as any scared human being would.  Sometimes we speak with a crocodile mouth, only to discover we have a canary patoot.  I know I’m a coward.  I know that the only way I can muddle through trials is by the power of the Holy Spirit, and even then I struggle.  I could only pray to have as willing a heart as Peter, though my flesh is infinitely weaker.

If I were to enumerate my faults, sins, false moves, bad judgment, poor decisions, and so on, one by one, it would take years.  I do mean years.

I think that it’s important for us to see the apostles and other heavy hitter characters in the Bible for who they are- simple, human people who GOD used for big purposes.  Apart from meeting up with Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the apostle Peter would simply have been an obscure fisherman like so many other fishermen of his day, and his name would be lost to history forever.

That’s why I have a little bit of cognitive dissonance with putting “saints” on a pedestal.  We should examine the lives of the people who are part of the Biblical narrative.  We should thank God for their record and their witness, but to see the players in the Biblical story as serene figures on stained glass windows misses the point.  They were flesh and blood human beings.  They made mistakes.

Saints in stained-glass

I enjoy the aesthetic of stained glass windows, but we miss the point if this is the only way we see the “saints.”

The calling to the Christian life is a bold calling.  It is a calling that requires us to be open and vulnerable if we are to allow the power of the Holy Spirit to transform us- not only through our own prayers but through the intercessory prayers of others.

The Christian community is important- it is the Church Militant here on earth.  Although the military reference is rather un-PC, we are called to fight, not with weapons but with healing actions and gentle words.  We are the ground forces here on earth who live out the Kingdom of God here and now.

I would rather see the apostle Peter as he was- a tough, barely educated, coarse, fisherman who worked with his hands.   I can relate to a guy like that.  He wasn’t some guy with pretty clothes and a halo on a window when he was living and acting down here on earth.  He did some things right.  He made some pretty drastic mistakes.  He was human.  What made him and his witness special was God working in and through him.

This Holy Week I pray for my friends and fellow Christians that we would look to Jesus for our courage- because I know I don’t have any apart from Him.  I pray that the Holy Spirit would open our hearts and make us vulnerable- not so anyone can take advantage of us- (been there and done that too many times)- but so Jesus can give us a new heart and new strength, that He would transform us and invite us into His story.

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”  Ezekiel 36:36 (NRSV)