Friday, April 18, 2014

To Be or Not To Be

At our Maundy Thursday service, the passion narrative was read from the Gospel of John. As the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion was read aloud, candles were gradually extinguished, plunging the congregation into total darkness.

This year the worship service coincided perfectly with sunset, and so the light coming through the high windows dimmed as the light in the church dimmed. The darkness was broken at the end of the service by relighting a single candle, representing Christ’s resurrection.

It is one of my favorite services of the year. It is also one of the few worship services where I do not have to preach. The whole service is scripture and music. Therefore I was open to hear the biblical story without having my mind preoccupied with what I was going to preach.

I did not follow along in my Bible as I often do when scripture is read.  I simply listened to the story. Two passages collided with each other in my heart: Christ’s confession in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the counterpoint of Peter’s denial in the courtyard.

The authorities came to the garden to arrest Jesus. They asked for him by name, and he responded, “I am he.” This is where it is good to have studied Greek. I have read this passage in the original language, and I know that literally Jesus says simply, “I am.”

Jesus is making reference to the name of God given to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus. It is a theme that runs throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus is “I AM.” Jesus was asserting his identity with the Divine, which is why those who came to arrest him recoiled at his words.

Later in the courtyard of the High Priest, the disciple Peter is asked if he is a follower of Jesus. He responds, “I am not.” It was the contrast of these two different responses that struck me so powerfully during that candlelight communion service.

Being versus Non-being. They are both here. Christ is “I am.” In Christ I share his Being. My existence is the extension of God’s Being. I exist only by the grace of God. I have no independent existence apart from God. “I AM” is the core of my essential nature in Christ.

But the void of Non-being lurks in the shadows. With Peter we think “I am not.” This is the daily experience of most people. Most humans are lost in non-being. They do not live in the Beingness of God but in the denial of their essential nature as human “beings.” To use the language of the story, we deny Christ and thereby deny our relationship to God.

“To be or not to be,” questioned Hamlet. Christ made one choice, and Peter made the other. Ultimately it is not really a choice. It is acknowledging what is true, or a denial of it. Jesus said, “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”


Art is “To Be Or Not To Be” by Chris Kontogeorgos

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cross Purposes

Holy Week is a time to contemplate the suffering and death of Jesus. I confess that it is a difficult time for me for a number of reasons. The first reason is that I take it very seriously. Many Christians and churches do not take it seriously these days.

Recently I read an announcement about a church in nearby community that is having a potluck supper on Good Friday that promises to be “a fun time” with “amazing food.” Call me a traditionalist if you want, but that does not capture the spirit of Good Friday for me. Good Friday used to be a day of fasting and prayer. A day that commemorates the torture and death of Jesus deserves more respect.

The second reason that Holy Week is difficult for me is the way the Cross is theologically interpreted in churches. I have studied the theology of the Cross. I have read the theories of the atonement. Most of them deal with some type of heavenly transaction involving sin and divine retribution. Some theories talk about the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus on the cross.

Many churches believe some form of “penal substitutionary atonement.” God punishes Jesus for our sins. I am traditional enough to believe that “Christ died for me.” But I don’t get into the idea of a vengeful deity taking out his anger on an innocent man. The idea of a wrathful Heavenly Father torturing and killing his own Son sounds like something out of a horror flick. It is not worthy of a God of love.

I see Jesus more like a hero laying down his life for others. When I preach the Cross I use analogies of soldiers dying in battle (in this case a spiritual battle), firefighters dying to save people in danger, or police officers dying in the line of duty. The heroic spirit seems more worthy of my Lord than some type of judicial game played by God, Satan, and Christ.

The third reason the Cross is not easy for me to contemplate is because I see myself there. It brings me face to face with my own mortality. The Cross is a powerful spiritual symbol of the end of my physical existence and the death of my separate self.

The apostle Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” That verse represents my experience and my best understanding of the Cross.

In the end, even this understanding falls short. The Cross is a mystery. The more I contemplate it, the more I am humbled by the depth and power of it. It is worth devoting a few days of Holy Week to. It is worth devoting Good Friday to. It is worth devoting my whole life to.