Monday, April 23, 2012

The Gospel of Peter

Acts 4:1-22
by Daniel Harrell

With the Titanic Centennial having sunk back below the surface, it is time to recognize another 100th Anniversary, that of the “lyric little bandbox” known as Fenway Park (yesterday’s disaster of a game against the Yankees notwithstanding. Thankfully they’ve got the Twins starting tomorrow.). My thanks to Rob Kirsch for bringing me a commemorative copy of the Boston Globe. And my greetings to Boston friends here today, one of whom works for the Globe. They’re visiting their daughter at Carleton. I don’t know if you caught any of the Fenway Centennial celebration on Friday. Every former Red Sox player was invited back, with over 200 of them emerging onto that ancient field of dreams: Carleton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez and of course Carl Yastrzemski, Bobby Doerr among so many others. I had the pleasure of being there for 25 of those hundred years, mostly as a guest of the team itself. For years the Red Sox passed out free admission to ministers. You’ve never seen a city with more ordained people. I’m sure the free pass was out of deference to the Kennedys and the Catholic priesthood, but we Protestants were more than happy to go Roman if it got us into Fenway.

The team held chapel before Sunday’s games and customarily invited a local Reverend to bring some inspiration—Lord knows they’ve needed it. I don’t ever remember being as nervous as I was when my turn came. I read some Scripture, gave a short meditation and then said a prayer, after which I went and did the same for the visiting team who had to have their chapel in the shower room (it was the only space available). I’d like to think that the Holy Spirit calmed my nerves, giving me the worlds to say like with Peter here in Acts 4. All I can say is that the Red Sox did go on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years. Pedro Martinez also came to a service at our church, though I don’t know what the Holy Spirit did to him. I do know he didn’t tithe. Our treasurer would have noticed that.

If Peter and John were nervous before the Jewish ruling Sanhedrin, they didn’t show it. Jesus promised them back in Luke that because of him they’d get dragged before the authorities, but not to worry about it, “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” Peter and John’s only crime was healing a panhandler who’d been crippled from birth. When he begged Peter and John for money, he given his legs back instead. Calling on the name of Jesus, Peter commanded the crippled beggar to rise up and walk, using the sweet language of resurrection. The man rose up and danced and gave glory to God, astonishing the crowd who marveled at the surge of power. It was much more impressive than the surgeon was able to do with my knee. I’ll not be dancing for a few weeks yet. Modern medicine is amazing, but it’s not miraculous.

Peter went on to hit a homerun sermon—his third in Acts—and church membership exploded to more than 5000. However, the gospel’s popularity with the people threatened the religious establishment, especially the Sadducees who get special mention here because they did not believe in the resurrection. This is what made the Sadducees so sad, you see. They were a by-the-book bunch who rejected the resurrection on the grounds that they couldn’t find it explicitly mentioned in the Old Testament—even though there are lots of hints. The Sadducees were also a practical bunch, choosing to cozy up to the Romans for the sake of the benefits (much like baseball-loving Protestant ministers did in Boston). And they were well-heeled. The Sadducees controlled the Sanhedrin by virtue of their pedigree, a privileged DNA stretching back to Israel’s bluest blood.

We read that they were “much annoyed” about Peter’s sermon—we preachers can relate. But it was the real life application that really got their gevalt. It’s one thing to preach Jesus heals. It’s another thing to do it on the spot. If the Sadducees didn’t nip this in the bud, they’d lose their entire membership to this upstart church plant.
As the ruling aristocracy with political power, the Sadducees had the authority to haul in Peter and John for questioning, just like they’d done with Jesus back in the gospels. Peter had crumpled up like a Kleenex that time, but now filled with the Spirit, he was both bold and brassy. His newfound nerve was nothing to sneeze at. He stepped up to the plate and said to the Sadducees: “You’ve locked us up because of a good deed done to someone who was sick? And now you want to know by whose name we did it?”

Peter told them, of course: “Jesus of Nazareth, whom you killed, but whom God raised from the dead” (sticking it to the Sadducees one more time). Peter went on to quote their own Bible: “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, has become the cornerstone.” The religious establishment had likely understood this stone from Psalm 118 to be referring to them, the rejected nation of Israel, a small rock of a people whom God would make into the cornerstone of creation. But Peter reinterpreted the Psalm in light of Jesus. As their Messiah, Jesus single-handedly fulfilled Israel’s destiny. Because God’s chosen people failed to keep faithful, God kept faith for them in Christ. All they had to do now was to believe in Jesus as their true Cornerstone. Reject him instead, and things would end up as Jesus predicted when he quoted Psalm 118 in Luke’s gospel. “Everyone who stumbles over the stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on.”

Peter put this same message in different words here in verse 12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” There is a double meaning here. “Saved” means both “restored to health” and “resurrected to life.” Again, it’s why Peter told the crippled beggar to rise up and walk. Peter deftly moves from the restored physical health of the panhandler, to address the sad spiritual health of the Sanhedrin.

Christians struggle with this verse. It brings up the sticky doctrine of Christian exclusivism, the assertion that Jesus is the only way to God; inappropriate for our pluralistic and more tolerant times. It’s Jesus fault. He’s the one who drew the line: “no one comes to the Father except through me.”

It may be helpful to remember that at this point in the Biblical narrative, salvation is solely a Jewish concern. As I mentioned last Sunday, there are no Christians yet in the non-Jewish sense of that word. So far, only Jews believed in Jesus. Only Jews, for the most part, had ever heard of Jesus. Even Peter, bold and brassy as he was about sharing the gospel here with the Jewish leaders, doesn’t say a word to non-Jews for six more chapters. Gentiles were unclean. Peter never would have said anything to them had God not given him that vision with the sheet full of non-kosher animals from heaven and declared them fit to eat. A voice will say to Peter, speaking of Gentiles, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The gospel welcomes the whole world to the table. This passage isn’t so much about the exclusivity of Jesus as it is about the identity of Jesus as Israel’s Savior, the one their Scriptures had promised and their hearts had longed for. And the one through whom all the world would come to God.

Jesus may be the only road to God, but many roads lead to Jesus. Nobody was more surprised about this than Peter once it became clear that the Holy Spirit had come upon Gentiles too. “And since God gave them the same gift he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter declared, “who am I to stand in the way of what God is doing?” –be that the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, life everlasting, all things made new, or that inclusive multitude from Revelation that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, worshipping together in one voice, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Certainly the Sadducees did not appreciate Peter taking them to school like this. Who was he to preach to them? They had their pedigree and their seminary degrees, he had his fishing license. But what could they say? What could they do? Peter delivered the better sermon. He made a lame man walk. He had the Spirit. But they had the political power. So they ordered him to keep quiet and say no more about Jesus. However, keeping a Spirit-filled preacher quiet is like trying to keep the wind from blowing. Peter replied, “You’ll have to judge whether it’s right in God’s sight for us to listen to you instead of Him. How can we keep quiet about what we’ve seen and heard?” Scoring them points for their courage, and concerned about inciting a popular riot, the Sadducees just let them go.
Peter and John’s boldness made an impression on the Sanhedrin, and it impresses me too. Theirs was an act of moral courage—something you don’t see a lot of anymore. Sure, we see occasional acts of bravery now and then: the New Jersey mayor who rushes into a burning apartment building, the Minnesota State Trooper who lined up tractor trailers to break the fall of a suicidal man. But then again, we’ve taken to calling baseball ballplayers who dive for line drives “courageous.” On the other hand, it’s rare to see acts of moral courage, like that American Airlines CEO who resigned rather than file bankruptcy because he didn’t think it right to use the law to avoid financial obligations to workers. Or the Goldman Sachs fund manager who publically resigned on the Opinion Pages of the New York Times because he could no longer in good conscience work for a firm that so devalued its customers.

Even more rare, and less admired, are acts of courage staked out explicitly because of one’s Christian faith: be it the public rejection of violence and cruelty, the deep suspicion of worldly wealth and power, the insistence on chastity, monogamy, and fidelity in personal relationships, the resolve to forgive at all costs. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson asserts that such acts of faithful courage suffer due to what she calls “the tyranny of petty coercion.” Courage,” she writes, “is rarely expressed except where there is sufficient cultural consensus to support it.” This is why people are generally so quiet about being believers. Coming clean about one’s Christianity is un-cool, unless you can play football like Tim Tebow, or dribble like Jeremy Lin, or pitch with a bloody sock like Curt Schilling (who by the way didn’t show up at Fenway Park on Friday). Take away the celebrity, and it’s hard to do the Jesus thing acceptably in America.

Marilynne Robinson’s friends, who know she’s a Christian, poke fun about her being “born again.” They try to rescue her with little lectures about her religion being a cheap cure for existential anxiety. Is she not worried about the embarrassing associations? The assumption that she’s a Jesus freak in cahoots with the lunatic fringes? The fundamentalist home-schoolers and the science-deniers? Though Robinson has spent decades immersed in the virtues of her faith, virtues she’ll carry to her deathbed, she admits being affected by these little coercions. Trivial failures of courage in response, keeping quiet about what you believe because it is un-cool and uncomfortable, may seem minor enough in any particular instance. And yet they have changed history and society. Martin Luther. John Calvin. William Wilberforce. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Rosa Parks. Chuck Colson. Even Tim Tebow. Robinson writes how “cultures commonly employ the methods of cults, making their members subject and dependent. And nations at intervals march lockstep to enormity and disaster. A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage.” Abdications of conscience can never be trivial.

Who would have ever imagined a faithful band of uneducated fishermen upending the Roman Empire? Who would have ever thought that individuals convinced of the resurrection enough to die for it would shape all of Western civilization, law, economics, art and science? Even now, courageous believers in China and Indonesia and throughout Africa are subversively reforming governments and shaping a new status quo. “How can we keep quiet about what we have seen and heard?” Peter’s rhetorical question still applies.

Not that I am very courageous myself. Even as a professional Christian, I can be pretty quiet about Jesus in public. I’d like to say that I’m reluctant to talk about my faith because it can’t be reduced to simple statements; but mostly it’s because I feel those petty coercions too. I keep quiet even though the dangers I face are pretty insignificant—a little ridicule here, a slight professional disadvantage there, some awkward silence now and then. Never mind that Jesus said if I’m ashamed of him and his words “in this adulterous and sinful generation,” he’ll be ashamed of me “when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

I want to be more courageous. Or at least less ashamed. Maybe that means refusing to take offense when people say things I don’t like. Or better yet, refusing to participate in the offending things that get said about others. Maybe it’s choosing to be more generous than I usually am, or volunteering more time to people who might need me. Maybe it’s choosing to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, to support a just cause, to stand up for the disadvantaged, to say something un-cool. And then when people ask me why I act like I act, I can come clean about my faith in a way that brings glory to that name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and tongue confess he is Lord. If Jesus is Lord, how can we keep quiet?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Just Happened?

Acts 3:1-26
by Daniel Harrell

Today being the hundredth anniversary, I probably should say something about the Titanic. The deluge of retrospectives, TV movies, documentaries and commemorations are but the tip of the iceberg. James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic is now out in 3-D following an 18-million dollar conversion. One historian has argued that “the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic,” not necessarily in that order. Why does this tragedy grip us so? Some call it schadenfreude, that twisted pleasure people experience at another’s misfortune. Others cite a recent study suggesting that witnessing tragedy makes us happy because we’re then prompted to count our own blessings. At the existential level, Titanic provides the quintessential lifeboat dilemma. It poses big questions such as: How would I have responded? What matters most? Who gets to survive?

First-class men aboard Titanic, collectively glorified for letting women and children go first, actually survived at a higher rate than the third-class children did, proving the true rule of the sea to be “every man for himself.” And yet stories of the Mr. Guggenheim changing into formal wear on that night to remember, Mr. and Mrs. Macy going down together, the orchestra continuing to play “Nearer My God To Thee” still fascinate. Had the luxury liner not sunk on her maiden voyage, it probably wouldn’t haunt us so. As one writer put it, “it’s the incompleteness that never stops tantalizing us, tempting us to fill in the blanks.” Titanic, of course, was named for the Titans, that mythical race of super-humans who fought the gods and lost. This theme of hubris defeated has survived as the classic lesson. As a Titanic deck hand, beforehand, famously and ominously quipped, “God himself could not sink this ship.”

Applied to this Sunday after Easter, hubris defeated also works as a lesson. Here in Peter’s second sermon in Acts, the first of three I plan to explore this month, the Pentecost-powered apostle takes on the hand-picked people of God, who, thinking they knew better than God, handed over the Son of God to be strung up on a criminal’s cross. Peter pinpoints their culpability, accusing the Jews of “rejecting the Holy and Righteous One and killing the Author of life.” This is a sensitive passage with a long and regrettable history of stoking anti-Semitism. But this was not its intent. Though God’s people sunk Jesus, God raised him up for their sake; for their repentance and restoration.

The story begins with a crippled beggar panhandling by the Temple gates. It was sweet coincidence to hear this passage read at the Minnesota Prayer Breakfast on Thursday. Peter and John pass the beggar on their way to an afternoon prayer meeting. The beggar wanted money, but Peter didn’t have a nickel to his name. But he did have the name of Jesus—a name he’d denied three times ever knowing. The risen Jesus restored the repentant Peter, who now boldly evoked Jesus’ name and commanded the crippled man to rise up and walk. The language is pure resurrection. The man rose up and danced and gave glory to God, astonishing a crowd who marveled at Peter’s titanic power. Seizing on the teachable moment, Peter immediately discredits himself. It was not by any power or piety of his own that this beggar was healed. This was the risen power of the sunken Jesus—the same sunken Jesus they had tried to keep down.

Titanic director James Cameron tried to keep Jesus down. You may remember the 2007 documentary he produced for the Discovery Channel which made the “shocking” claim that Jesus wasn’t resurrected. Cameron had discovered his bones buried near Jerusalem. With the help of statisticians, historians, DNA experts, robot-cameras and NCIS, a case was made that bones unearthed back in 1980 were in fact those of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene. Why did this take so long to make the news? Well, as it turned out, it wasn’t news. The burial cave wasn’t extraordinary and the names on the bone boxes were very common for that period. That they echo the names of the Holy Family was a fluke.

Dr. Joseph Zias, the Jewish museum curator who originally catalogued the discovery, remarked: “These guys are pimping off the Bible. They’ve got this Cameron guy, who made the movie Titanic or something—what does he know about archeology? Projects like these make a mockery of the profession.”
God’s people made a mockery of their profession too. They professed to be the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the followers of Moses, adherents of Torah, subjects of David, obedient to the prophets who eagerly awaited a promised Messiah. Moses predicted another prophet like him, one who would rescue God’s people not from slavery in Egypt, but from slavery to sin and to death. Isaiah the prophet spoke of a suffering Messiah, one who “was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities” and how “by his wounds we are healed.” King David sang in the Psalms of the Messiah whom God would never abandon to the grave nor let rot in the ground. The prophet Daniel envisioned a glorious “Son of Man” who would come on the clouds to heal and restore and make all things new. He would be the rightful recipient of “dominion and glory and kingship, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingdom is one that shall never be destroyed.” It was all in their Bible. It’s was what they always wanted. But when it finally happened, they wouldn’t believe it.

The point is sometimes made that the reason God’s people rejected Jesus was because he wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected. They wanted a superhero, not a suffering servant. But Berkeley Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin, in his recent book, The Jewish Gospels, demonstrates how Jesus was exactly the kind of Messiah first century Jews had in mind. A Messiah who suffered for the sins of the world was not an early Christian concoction. Jews always believed that their Messiah would look like Jesus. Boyarin writes “A people had been for centuries talking about, thinking about, and reading about a new king, a son of David, who would come to redeem them from oppression, and they had come to think of that king as a second, younger, divine figure on the basis of the Book of Daniel’s reflection of that very ancient tradition. So they were persuaded to see in Jesus of Nazareth the one whom they had expected to come: the Messiah, the Christ. Details of his life, his prerogatives, his powers, and even his suffering and death before triumph are all developed out of close reading of the biblical materials and fulfilled in his life and death.”

Not that Professor Boyarin actually believes Jesus to be the Messiah. Like Jews of Peter’s day, he can’t make that leap. “That is surely a matter of faith, not scholarship,” he writes. But other Jews believed. Jews like Mary and Martha and Salome and Peter and John and Paul and James and Matthew, Mark and Luke and hundreds and thousands more. Peter’s speech in Acts 3 is not a Christian apologetic. There are no Christians in the non-Jewish sense of that label yet. In the early chapters of Acts it’s all about the biological descendants of Abraham. However being the biological descendents of Abraham wasn’t what made them chosen people. The Professor is right: it was always a matter of faith.

Peter declares how “The God of our ancestors glorified his servant Jesus… God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” Jesus fit the bill. So why didn’t they believe? How could they trade in their long-awaited Savior in exchange for a murderer? It’s one thing to turn down what you can’t believe could ever be true, but how do you reject what you’ve always wanted when it finally appears before your eyes?

Why weren’t they more like Kate Winslett? Albeit a first-class debutante, engaged to marry into fabulous wealth and position, she nevertheless saw the light and made the leap from a secure lifetime of misery into the improbable arms of a steerage class savior who sacrificed his own life for her sake. She found not only the freedom to be who she was meant to be and live the real life she longed for, but in the end she’s welcomed aboard that heavenly home she had always hoped for, a place prepared just for her, and eleven Academy Awards to boot. Clearly no Christian himself, James Cameron still produced a heck of a gospel story.

What would you have done? Could you have lost your life to find it, even for a savior who looked like Leonardo DiCaprio? It is the quintessential lifeboat dilemma. What matters most? How would you have responded? What do you believe? Isaiah the prophet foretold of a time when “the lame man leaps like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy.” Peter showed that time was now. “By faith in Jesus’ name, his name itself has made this lame man strong,” he said. “And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, also predicted these days.” Prophets like Daniel and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Micah who predicted how “Nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall study learn war any more; … and no one shall make anybody afraid.”

I got a glimpse of some plowshares at the Minnesota Prayer Breakfast—my thanks to Dave and Sherry Hall for the invite. Not only was the Hilton Ballroom luxuriously decked out like that last heavenly scene in Titanic, but all kinds of peoples, nations, languages and political persuasions gathered in Jesus’ name, just like the prophet Daniel envisioned. As for the plowshares, Republican and former first lady, Mary Pawlenty, graciously and honorably introduced Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, who in turn courteously recognized as his friend, the Republican House leader Kurt Zellers, all under the banner of spiritual unity. Talk about the power of prayer. Yet even though I witnessed it with my own eyes, I found it hard to believe such cordial camaraderie could last very long. I read the news. I hear the rhetoric. I know how things will likely go once the next piece of legislation comes up for debate.

 It takes more than seeing to believe. I remember one Easter Sunday some years ago, I was shaking hands with a few folks after church when a visitor walked up with a theological question. She wanted to know how she could know that the Bible is true. I reeled off seminary reasons like how the Bible is the most authenticated text in antiquity, its reliability corroborated by reams of archeological evidence. I mentioned how countless billions of people have been totally transformed by its words. And then there’s the church itself. Had Jesus been a fraud and his words a joke, how is it that the church continues to thrive? Christianity is neither illogical or unreasonable. The visitor simply shrugged her shoulders. The evidence wasn’t sufficient to convince her. The Professor is right: “It is surely a matter of faith, not scholarship.” “You have to see it to believe it” may apply to some things. But when it comes to the gospel, you have to believe in order to see.

It’s like another visitor I met who was considering Christianity but first wanted to know Jesus’ political position. Would he have been a Republican or a Democrat? A socialist or a capitalist? Big Money or Big Government? How would he pay for a new Vikings stadium? Sensing a set up, I responded by asking the visitor whether he believed Jesus rose from the dead. He said, “I’m not sure. You know, that Titanic director found Jesus’ bones.” So I said, “if you don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead, why does it matter whether Jesus was a Republican or a Democrat? If Jesus’ bones are still in some graveyard, who cares what he said about anything?”

As we saw last Sunday, the resurrection is Christ’s validation, his vindication, the proof that all he said was true. Take the resurrection away, and he’s nothing but a fly by rabbi with a few pearls of wisdom you can make into a charm bracelet. However if Jesus was raised from the dead, and you believe it, then it shapes not only how you think and act about politics and power, but about success and money and ambition and possessions and love and forgiveness and relationships and life and death and just about everything else. What you believe matters because what you believe changes your life. And if it doesn’t change your life, then you probably don’t believe it.

The people Peter indicts did not believe in Jesus, and they did all they could to sink him. Peter delivers their verdict in verse 23: According to their own Bibles, “everyone who does not listen to the Christ will be utterly rooted out and completely cut off from among their people.” They will go down with the ship. Yet because Jesus rose from the dead, going down with the ship did not spell their doom. “Father forgive them,” their Savior prayed, even as he went down with them. “They know not what they do.” “My friends,” Peter echoes, “I know that you acted in ignorance.” You did not realize the tragic mistake that you made. And yet the evil you intended, God redeemed for your good. This is the power of resurrection. They committed a hideous deed, a deed in which our sins make us likewise complicit. And yet through that hideous deed, we read, “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. … You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring, by faith, all nations of the earth shall be blessed.’ God raised up his servant Jesus to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”

“Therefore repent,” Peters says. It is a remarkable offer. Clearly there remains no sin so severe that grace cannot reach it; no rejection so complete, no death so final, no submersion so deep, no hubris so great, no deed so evil, no grave so dark that resurrection light cannot break through. God give us faith to see it. God give us grace to repent and receive and it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Winning Number

Mark 16:1-8
by Daniel Harrell

I stand before you this Easter morning because I did not win the Mega Millions jackpot. No 640 million dollars for me! I know, I’m supposed to tell you that my life would not have changed had I won. Lottery winners always say that. It’s what the three actual winners will probably tell you if they ever go public. But life always changes for lottery winners—and not always for the better. Take Jack Whittaker who was a wealthy businessman already when he won what was at the time the largest jackpot ever by a single ticket: $315M on Christmas Day, 2002. After collecting his winnings, $113M after taxes, Whittaker was sued for bouncing checks at Atlantic City casinos; was ordered to undergo rehab after being arrested on drunken driving charges; had his vehicles and business burglarized; was drugged in a strip club by robbers who took more than $500,000 from his car; was sued by the father of an 18-year-old boyfriend of his granddaughter found dead in his house from a drug overdose, and most recently sued by a woman who claims Whittaker assaulted her. Regarding his lottery win, Whittaker said, “I wish I’d torn that ticket up."

Even responsible winners have ended up miserable. One couple took home a cool million dollar prize, paid their taxes and deposited the rest into a retirement fund. But due to the publicity, they got hounded relentlessly by get-a-lifers wanting them to participate in all kinds of questionable investment schemes and causes. Folks grabbed at them on the streets hoping some of their good luck might rub off. Others, so-called “lotto snobs,” turned up their noses in disdain at the couple’s fate, verbally deriding them for being so fortunate. And yet, despite countless more stories like these, millions of people still buy lottery tickets. $1.5 billion was spent to win that huge Mega Millions jackpot. Households earning less than $13,000 a year reportedly shockingly spend 9% of their income on these games—games they most always lose.

As for me, I can honestly say that my life couldn’t have changed by winning Mega Millions because I didn’t play. I wish I could honestly say this was because of my righteous lottery scruples, but it actually has more to do with how the lottery messed with my head the one time I did play it. I picked some numbers once when the payout was a big one, knowing full well I had no real chance to win. I held tight to my ticket though, fantasizing about how I’d blow my windfall, the luxuries I’d splurge on, the places I’d go, all the envy I’d generate. I amassed enough imaginary plans to work myself into a tight neurotic knot, glued to the TV in a compulsive sweat on the night the numbers were revealed. Not a single one showed up on my ticket. The letdown was dramatic and hard. I sat there stunned and dismayed, all my dreams of glory reduced to a worthless scrap of paper. I was embarrassed for misplacing my faith onto something that could never have done anything but disappoint me. It was a pathetic display I swore then and there I’d never repeat.

Was this how it was for the disciples who put all their money down on Jesus? Watching their own dreams of glory vaporize with his arrest, does this explain why Peter, who was Jesus’ best friend, denied ever knowing who Jesus was? Remember that story? Jesus gets hauled in for questioning, accused of being blasphemous and seditious, a threat to Rome for calling himself King and a threat to God for saying he was God’s only son. Jesus performed all sorts of fancy tricks and made all kinds of fancy promises about moving mountains and answering prayer and then rising from dead. And gullible Peter had been taken in like so many others. He’d left his wife and kids and house and job to follow this pretender. And for what? I bet he wished he’d torn up his ticket. It was a pathetic display which he swore three times he’d never do again.

At least Jesus was dead now. He couldn’t delude anybody anymore. No more misplaced faith. No more false hopes. No more dashed dreams. Granted, there’s a bunch of silly women still feeling sorry for him. They show up at the graveyard to pay their respects. But clearly they didn’t believe any of that crazy “rising from the dead” talk. You don’t show up in a graveyard with burial spices if you’re not looking for a corpse.

What were the odds of somebody being raised from the dead anyway? Better than the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot? Lottery officials placed those odds at 176M to one. What kind of ridiculous odds are those? Perhaps you caught the story of the Wichita, Kansas, man who bought his Mega Millions ticket and then joked to a friend how he had a better chance of getting struck by lightning than he did of winning the jackpot. Then he walked out into his backyard and got struck by lightening. BOOM!—a powerful jolt knocked him flat to the ground, sent his heart to thumping and scared the living daylights out of him.

Sort of like the angel did to these unsuspecting women in Mark’s version of the Easter story. Mark doesn’t explicitly say “angel,” but his description of a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” of the empty tomb is only missing the halo and wings. The angel told the women to “fear not.” Angels always say that. The stunned women tremulously tip toe backwards, away from the empty tomb, their hearts thumping, their eyes and mouths wide with panic. This was not what they were expecting. The angel asked if they’re looking for the crucified Jesus, but then adds the obvious, the words you came to church to hear this morning: “He’s not here. He has been raised. Go tell his disciples. Even Peter. He’ll meet you in Galilee like he told you he would.” Even Peter. I’ll say this for Jesus. He’s loyal. He specifically remembers Peter even after Peter did everything he could to forget him.

The women, however, were too terrified to tell anybody anything. Mark reports that “they fled and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” And that’s it. End of story. End of gospel. Happy Easter. Now go have brunch.
Mark’s abrupt Easter ending reminds me of one summer vacation with my family. We decided to take advantage of a beautiful Cape Cod evening and grill lobsters outside. The house where we stayed had this huge brick gas grill, but I neglected to check whether the tank was low on propane. It was. There was enough gas to get the grill lit, just not enough to keep it lit. Thinking it was heating up, I got the lobsters prepped, popped a cold one, set the table. My mom and sister, the women in this story, joined me on the patio to enjoy the sun set. Meanwhile, the grill flame flickered out. But fumes from the tank still collected underneath the grill lid. Noting that the thermostat registered zero, I absent-mindedly pushed the automatic igniter a few more times to see if I could get it going again and… BOOM!! The lid blew off, followed by flying iron grates that whizzed past my sister’s head. My mom’s mouth fell open and her eyes bugged out at the blast. The rest of the family came barreling down from the house, including a neighbor from a block away who had heard the explosion. My wife Dawn remained inside, bracing herself for her pending widowhood. But I was not dead. I was raised! Well, the hair on my head was raised. And my eyebrows were singed off. Soot and grease splattered my face. It scared the living daylights out of everybody. But we were still hungry. So we ordered pizza.

And that’s it. First fear, then food. The end.

Naturally the early church couldn’t tolerate such a non-ending to a gospel, so somebody decided to cobble together a more fitting conclusion. Twelve and a half extra verses which your pew Bible labels with parentheses as “the shorter” and “longer” endings for Mark. The cut-and-paste job on Mark features Mary Magdalene being possessed by seven demons. Jesus appears to a couple of his followers out for a country walk, a take-off on Luke’s road to Emmaus story. The part I like best is where the risen Jesus shows up while his disciples are having pizza and raises heck at them for their having been such weenies. He says if they’ll just have a little faith going forward, they’ll be able to pick up snakes, drink deadly poison and heal the sick. Of course you’d need to be able to heal the sick if you start playing with snakes and drinking poison.

Scholars who argue for the authenticity of these verses go on to suggest that there’s likely more where these came from. Who knows? Maybe there’s a missing verse where Jesus says he was only kidding, you don’t really have to love your enemies. Or another one where he says you can keep all your possessions for yourself, worshipping God and money together works just fine after all. (But we already knew that, didn’t we?)

Why does Mark end so abruptly? And why end with fear? Why is no word the last word? There are a number of places in the gospels where Jesus does instruct his followers to keep quiet. The thought is that since they didn’t really get what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah yet, they’d best wait until after the resurrection before spreading the news. That’s what Jesus told them to do. Jesus had grown immensely popular by the time Holy Week rolled around, huge crowds mobbed him everywhere. They were ready to crown him King. They wanted some more miracles. But unlike comic book Mega Messiahs, Jesus wasn’t going to swoop in and save the planet with super cosmic powers. He’d do it by getting hammered to a cross. His coronation was a crucifixion. His victory looked just like defeat. Hailed by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” Jesus went out looking more like a black sheep, his sacrifice now suspect.

Maybe Mark should have just left Jesus dead and buried and spared everybody the disappointment. That way the women could have come by, brought their spices and paid their respects. His failure as a King could have been chalked up to overzealousness, and he could have still been memorialized as a wise sage for some of the things that he said: sayings like “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Everybody likes that one. Leave Jesus dead and buried, and those ridiculous lines about loving your enemies or selling possessions could be ignored as anomalies; eccentric utterances of a man out of touch with the times. “Do not worry,” Jesus said. But that’s just silly. And seriously, who’s ever heard of losing your life to find it or plucking out your eye if it causes you to sin? Ignore-ignore. The same with praying for your persecutors and forgiving without limit. Leave Jesus buried in the ground and you could leave all that crazy talk buried with him.

Except this is the thing about Easter. Jesus doesn’t stay buried. Those women showed up at the graveside and BOOM! The stone was gone and the angel announced that Jesus was gone too. He. Was. Raised. From The Dead.

What are the odds of that? Better than the odds of winning Mega Millions? I do know that with lottery odds at 176M to 1, you not only have a better chance of getting struck by lightening, but based on U.S. averages, you’re about 8,000 times more likely to be murdered, and about 20,000 times more likely to die in a car crash. How’s that for adding some fear to your Easter? Toss in cancer and heart disease and every other reason people perish, and it’s a safe bet to say you’re 176M times more likely to die than you are to hit the lucky numbers. Death carries even odds.

Except this is the thing about Easter. Because of Jesus, rising from the dead also comes in at even odds. Because of Jesus, when your number is up, so are you. Up. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Believe in me and even though you die, you will rise up to new life.”

Just like Jesus himself. The resurrection is Christ’s validation, his vindication, the proof that all his talk was true. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus got hammered by the religious establishment for talking blasphemy. He got hammered by the crowds for talking austerity. He got hammered by his fans for talking humility. He got hammered by his family for talking crazy. He got hammered by his own disciples for talking about becoming a casualty. And he got literally hammered by the Romans to beam of wood. What kind of Messiah does that? What kind of Messiah ends up dead? The kind of Messiah who knows he’s going to rise up from the dead. As the Easter Scriptures sing it: “Where O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

It is possible that there’s more to Mark’s gospel than what we have; but maybe Mark meant to stop here. Rather than tying up all the loose ends, Mark leaves room for you and me to come to the graveyard. To the rolled back stone. Face to face with the power of Easter. What do you do when you see an angel? When lightening strikes? When the lid blows off? When your number’s up? Because of Jesus, you don’t have to be afraid anymore. He has been raised and so will we. Take the fear of death off the table, and every other fear comes off with it. You can love your enemies now because you’re not afraid of them anymore. What can they do to you? You might as well forgive them, just like Jesus said. And why not let go of some of your possessions and give the money away? With resurrection in the bank, what more do you need? And what’s there to worry about either? You might as well stop that too. OK, so plucking out your eye remains a dicey proposition, but with the resurrection, sin loses a lot of its allure. And as for losing your life to find it? With the resurrection, that makes total sense.

Mark tells us the women “said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” He tells us they that “terror and amazement seized them” too. For “amazement” Mark uses the Greek word “ecstatic.” Just like winning the lottery. Except that with Easter, life always changes for the better. Like winning the lottery, the women were too afraid to talk. But they eventually did. They eventually went and told everybody. That’s why we’re here. The Lord is risen indeed.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Jesus in a Bad Mood

Mark 11:1-25
by Daniel Harrell

The last thing anyone needs in church on a Sunday devoted to happy hosanna singing is a grumpy Jesus. What’s the matter anyway? It’s starts off well—he makes his grand entrance into Jerusalem, riding in all Messiah-like—although a stallion would probably have been preferable to a sequestered colt. He waves to the adoring crowds who throw off their coats and wave their palm-palms. It’s all good until for no good reason Jesus lets a helpless fig tree have it, followed by a withering tantrum in the Temple where he impetuously overturns tables and the chairs of those who work there. And don’t get me started about his promises about prayer. “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” he says. “Tell this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” Are you kidding me? Whatever you ask just believe and you’ll get it? We call this the “name it and claim it” way to pray. I don’t think Dawn covered it in her prayer class. It doesn’t work out so well in real life.

As we saw last Sunday, Jesus had grown immensely popular by this point in Mark’s gospel—so much so that the religious authorities wanted him dead. They wanted him dead for acting like God Almighty and for threatening their domination of the religion market. But they had to find a stealthy way to get rid him so as not to incite a mass riot. For the most part, Jesus resisted his fans’ clamor for him to let them treat him like a king. But it seems he finally gave in. Of course these same fans who waved palms start throwing stones once their king goes kong in the Temple courts. Wrecking the Temple was like spray-painting graffiti on the Sistine Chapel. Why would a good guy like Jesus do that? Unless he’s not really a good guy. By Friday all those Hosannas will give way to a call for blood.

 Normally we interpret Jesus’ Temple tirade as an indictment against the commercialization of faith and the love of money as the root of all evil. But if you’ll remember from a couple of weeks back, buying and selling were actually necessary parts of proper Temple business. The Jerusalem Temple was where animal sacrifices happened, over and over, hundreds of times a day for all kinds of purposes, from atoning for sin to expressing deep gratitude. The Temple system was how you managed a right relationship with the holy God. And it had to be done right. In accordance with Torah, a right relationship with God cost you the best of your herds, flocks and crops—flawless livestock with no spot or blemish. However getting a bull or goat all the way to Jerusalem without dinging it up was a hard thing to do in those days. Therefore as a service to the faithful, the religious authorities arranged it so you could buy a blemish-free bull or goat at the door. You’d bring your cash, change it into Temple currency, buy your sacrificial lamb and present it to the priest. It was all very kosher. So what was Jesus’ problem with it?

To understand, Mark employs a literary device we saw him use last Sunday: the Mark Sandwich. Throughout his gospel, Mark sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another so to amplify the meaning of each. In this chapter, Jesus’ Temple clearing is sandwiched by two slices of fig tree cursing. Top Slice: a hungry Jesus looking for some breakfast. Finding a fig tree in leaf, he also found that it had no fruit—sort of like getting to Dunn Brothers only to find that they’ve run out of coffee. Understandably, Jesus got irritated. Humans do that when they’re hungry. Except that Jesus was no mere mortal. He could pray a mountain into the sea, so why not pray a few Newtons to pop out on a fig branch? He comes off as petty and petulant, picking off a helpless plant just because it had nothing to pick. To make matters worse, Mark notes that it wasn’t even fig season. Jesus was clearly barking at the wrong tree—like yelling at your refrigerator when you forgot to buy the milk. Except that what Jesus did was not about the tree but about what the tree represented. That’s right, the fig tree is fig-urative. Jesus provides a parable here, only this time he acts it out for the disciples to see (since they never could understand the parables he simply told).

Throughout the Bible, God’s people are compared to fruit trees, expected to flower and bloom and produce a crop that accords with their godly nature. Yet God’s people resisted their nature, treating grace as permission to do as they pleased. The prophet Jeremiah had stood in the same Temple courts centuries prior to convey the Lord’s displeasure. “You have no shame,” he howled, “you do not even know how to blush. When I would gather you, declares the LORD, there would be no grapes on your vine, nor figs on your fig tree; even your leaves are withered…” Their sin ran deep. They cheated and stole, they murdered and committed adultery, they lied and chased after shiny idols on weekends instead of worshipping God. But the topper was the way they used the Temple system to cover their backside; they’d sin and sacrifice and sin and sacrifice, only to go out and sin some more. Jeremiah yelled, “Will you steal and murder and cheat and lie and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?”

Jesus yells out this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you get how it was that people treated the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so furious. By turning the tables he jammed the Temple trafficking and effectively brought a halt to the whole sacrificial charade. By blocking their access to God he threw a wrench into the whole relationship. Also citing Isaiah, Jesus cried out how the Temple was supposed to be a “house of prayer for all the nations.” The idea from day it opened its doors was that outsiders would always be welcome inside. The Lord is the Lord of all nations. God chose Israel, but as an example of his grace, not as sole beneficiaries. It all went to their heads, so that by the time we get to Jeremiah, the Temple had become some exclusive country club. Rather than putting out the welcome mat for their unbelieving neighbors, God’s people treated the Temple as a sanctuary from their unbelieving neighbors. Refusing to let his house to be so mistreated, God let it be leveled by the very pagan neighbors his people tried to keep out. And though the Temple was eventually rebuilt, the behavior never changed. Which was why Jesus pulled a Jeremiah.

Inasmuch as Israel’s story is our story too, we should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we treat church as a safe-haven to protect us from the secular world. We should presume the same sort of divine disdain whenever we take our relationship with God for granted, whenever we treat grace as insurance against our own bad behavior and bad choices. Grace is a free gift and there’s nothing you can do to earn it, but you still must do something to show you’ve received it. “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ,” Paul wrote to Christians in Corinth. “You can tell a tree by its fruit…” Jesus said, “and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Bottom Slice: Jesus and his disciples came upon that fig-less tree again, and Peter said, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed is toast.” It tasted a lot like Jeremiah too. “While you were doing your sinful deeds,” declared the Lord through the prophet, “I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen. I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore I will now do to the house that bears my Name, to this temple you trust in, to this place I gave to you and your ancestors, I will [destroy it and] thrust you from my presence.” The fig-less tree was cut down before. It would be cut down again. This is the moral of the parable—except that Jesus’ response to Peter seems oddly off track. “Have faith in God,” he replies, “and you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea’ and it will be done for him.” In other words, shriveling a fig tree is nothing. Believe without doubting and you can transform the entire horizon.

OK, so maybe moving mountains is a bit of hyperbole. But I bet none of you can even muster enough faith to wither a houseplant unless you stop watering it too. This is the problem with prayer. It doesn’t really work the way Jesus says it does. Who ever gets whatever they ask for every time? Mountains remain where they’ve always been, diseases go uncured, marriages unrepaired, kids unruly and jobs unavailable. Nobody has enough faith. But even if we did have the faith to move mountains, that’s no guarantee that they’d go anywhere. The strong link between prayer and faith is not the link we think. Jesus is not talking about the amount of faith here, but the direction in which it’s pointed. Have faith in God, Jesus said, and you’ll get whatever you ask in prayer because of the way you will pray. Prayers pointed at God sound like the prayer prayed by Jesus: “Not my will, but Thy will be done,” as impossible as that can be sometimes to pray. Prayer is not about getting God to do what you want as much as it is getting you to do what God wants.

But why this digression on prayer anyway? Because Jesus was standing in what was supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations. But now that it had been reduced to a robbers’ den, God would leave it to suffer the apocalyptic ruin Jesus portended in chapter 13: not one stone would be left upon another. Note that Jesus did not say faith in God can move any mountain, but specifically this mountain, which for the disciples hearing Jesus say it in the shadow of the withered fig tree would have been the Temple mountain. Jesus was still on his jeremiad. If you tell this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” Because it’s going to happen anyway. About 40 years after Jesus said it, Rome would level the Temple as flat as the Babylonians leveled it some 600 years prior. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ.

Taking for granted that the disciples were able to put tree and Temple together (which I know may be a reach given Mark’s portrayal of the disciples), I doubt their takeaway was that they too could wilt plants and move mountains, but I bet they did think they could turn the tables on their own enemies. It’s no secret that the religious authorities were gunning for Jesus’ followers too. Why take out a tree when you can take down a Pharisee, obliterate your obnoxious neighbor, your conniving ex-wife or the boss who just laid you off? Knowing how human hurt craves such vengeance, and concerned perhaps that his own volatile actions would be perceived as condoning vigilante violence, Jesus quickly added a caveat: “Whenever you pray, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

For a guy in such a bad mood, this was a remarkable concession. He angrily kills a tree to forebode the end of relationship between God and sinners, then prays to throw the whole mountain of mess into the sea, only to turn around and extend grace? It sounds so strange until you remember that whenever Jesus spoke of the Temple he also spoke of himself. Both were the dwelling places for God. And both would be destroyed. The curse Jesus hung on the tree and the Temple was finally the curse he hung upon himself. The end Jesus forebodes he fulfills. As Isaiah foretold, “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” God wants grace for us so much that it kills him. Jesus became for us the perfect sacrifice for all time and for all people—the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.