Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Holy Week Reflections

Hi friends:

I'm just getting ready to dig into the first draft of my Palm Sunday sermon and it occurred to me to put a few thoughts down on the old blog site. Maybe we might get into some theological conversations here.

I just read a story about a strange man at a museum who stood very close to every painting he looked at, about an inch away from the canvas, and studied every single detail with care. When everyone else trying to see the paintings became irritated with him, he told them they couldn't appreciate the paintings unless they studied them very closely.

Of course, we know that this man probably was missing the real point of all of those paintings. By focussing so closely on details, he lost sight of the larger pattern. It's really another version of "missing the forest for the trees."

It seems to me that a lot of Christians are dazzled by teachers and preachers who get into intense detail about their biblical interpretations. They quote little verses one after another and do long-winded studies of single words or phrases. But the big picture either gets lost, or worse, is made up by the teacher and imposed on the "detailed" study. And these teachers and preachers sound so convincing!

But the upshot is that most believers I know seem to have preconceived ideas about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit that they impose on every story or lesson they hear from the bible, without ever having really looked at the big picture of the biblical story. They presume that the "theology" they have been taught over the years represents the true biblical witness and regard each passage or story as fitting into it in some way.

Some have said that the gospels are each just preludes to the Passion ("passion" refers to the arrest, trial, torture and execution of Jesus). In all four, the Passion is the longest moment-by-moment narrative. There are many elements to the story, but they are all connected, and there is meant to emerge a great pattern, a main idea. Yet too often, we get focussed on the details to the point that we miss the great pattern.

I wonder at this story. It seems to reach into places within us that are ineffable. It defies speech. You read it (or better, hear it), and you think, "there's nothing I can say."

But of course, we must say something. The thing that emerges for me when I stand back from this great work of God is first of all just that: it is all a work of God. I am awe-struck that even the evil that is done emerges from structures put in place by God. I am amazed at how God brought about the person Jesus, his Son, quite literally through the centuries-long development of a whole nation in which such a man could finally be raised and shaped.

What I see is a kind of beautifully-wrought trap. By setting God above the powers and principalities of the world, Jesus drew upon himself the wrath of every one of them. Of course, these powers and principalities were themselves created by God, and in themselves are perfectly good and lawful. What Christ exposed through his ministry was the human corruption of these institutions, which itself is the great problem of the whole bible.

What gives the powers and principalities their potency is the threat of violence, particulary legitimate violence. However the justice system was perverted in this story, all the proceedings are basically legal. Even the motives of the Jewish religious leaders are laudable; they wish to protect the majority from repercussions from the Romans that might arise from Jesus' intemperate remarks about God's rule.

And so it is that the powers and principalities rush in to do what they have the God-given power to do: to torture and kill Jesus the Christ. They do it all by the book, however brutal it may appear to us.

What they don't realize is that this is precisely what God expects and plans for them to do. He's been preparing Israel (and the rest of the world) for this moment from the time he called Abram and told him to "get up." The wonder and the awe for me comes from the realization that these powers, all of them under the rule of hasatan (the accuser) who himself fully expects to trap all of humankind in the ultimate crime, are tricked into coming to a service of worship at the foot of the cross.

And so it was that one of the centurions who killed him said, "Truly this man was the Son of God."

By bringing the whole world and all of its powers to this moment, God brings them, against their will, under the forgiving power of his Son. His innocent Son (St. John's "lamb who was slain") suddenly has the power, the right, and the responsibility to forgive. And as the good son of God, he does not disappoint. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do."

And so God in Jesus Christ set into motion and unstoppable train. This ineffable thing, this "kingdom," about which we still know so little, is unfolding, and nothing anyone can do can stop it. Hasatan (the devil) is hoisted by his own petard. Everything he does now merely brings the blessing of forgiveness.

For none of us really know what we do.

Weigh in, won't you?