April 24, 2011

Easter Triumph

This morning we celebrate the true Truimph of Christ. The women sadly come to the tomb, prepared only to offer a final anointing of their Master and Teacher. They are met by angels announcing “He is not here. He is risen!”

Our truiumphant Easter anthems ring out in churches this morning with trumpets and “Alleluias.” The ancient greeting is exchanged again and again:
Alleluia! The Lord is Risen!
He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ transformed the world. It transformed the disciples and each person they talked to. As it says in the Book of Acts (17:6) “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also.”

Although we are ending our Walk Through Lent, we never end our Walk with Jesus. I invite you to come back and meditate with me, throughout the Easter Season, on some ways that lives are transformed by Christ.

Easter Blessings!

April 17, 2011

Triumph of Christ

Palm Sunday seemed to be the ultimate triumph of Jesus of Nazareth. He entered the city of Jerusalem to shouts of acclaim. “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord,” the crowds shouted. Jesus was welcomed as a conquering King. Many churches will re-enact the Palm Sunday procession today. Some with palms in church, others with an actual donkey and costumed actors. It is a vivid reminder of the way the people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus. The event has been replayed since at least the 4th century and depicted in art in many ways, including this Russian icon from the 15th century.
The crowds expect God to act in a mighty way. God is victorious and will overcome the Romans, like the Egyptians generations before. But, wait, his triumphal entry is on a donkey, not a warrior’s horse. Thus Jesus fulfills the prophecy from Zechariah 9:9 “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jesusalem! Lo, your king comes to you: triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.”

Jerusalem, capital and religious center of Israel welcomes Jesus as conqueror and Messiah. Within the city walls, and above the city homes stood the Temple. This was not Solomon’s Temple, destroyed by the Assyrians. This was the Temple of limestone built by Herod the Great. He doubled the size of the edifice and according to John 2:20 “took 46 years to build [it].” The Jewish priests were forced to live with the Fortress of Antonia on the north side of the Temple. This housed the Roman cohert and overlooked the holy precincts. They worked hard to maintain a working relationship with the Roman authorities, in order to preserve the status quo and safety of the nation.

Just as there is a Palm Sunday procession on Palm Sunday, many churches also read one of the Passion Gospel accounts during the service. This reminds us that there is but a short step from the triumphal entry to betrayal, conviction, and the Cross.
Jesus threatened the balance of power. As Caiphas prophecied “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:49-50) He was articulating the concerns of the Sanhedrin. The leaders found a traitor in Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver.”

Jesus is arrested, tried by the Sanhedrin, Herod, and finally sent to Pilate for judgement. Trumped up charges are presented: “They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribut to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king.’” (Luke 23:2. Pilate bows to the political necessity and orders Jesus put to death when the crowds cry out to “crucify him.”

The Roman government used crucificion as a punishment for notorious crimes and deterent to criminals. Outside of most large cities were places for crucificion. North of Jerusalem, on a small hill called Golgotha the uprights for this punishment stood. Criminals were forced to carry their own cross bar to their place of execution. Jesus, too, after he was whipped and beaten and mocked (Matthew 27:27-31), had to shoulder the cross and carry it to Golgotha (Calvary). Crucificion is a slow and painful process as death gradually comes from suffocation when the victim is unable to lift himself up to breathe. In order to hasten death, the legs were sometimes broken. Those crucified with Jesus had their legs broken, but his were not. (John 19:31-37)

After he died, Joseph of Arimathea “took courage” went to Pilate and asked for the body. He and Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin, buried Jesus in his tomb in a Garden. (John 19:38-42). It is probable that as a wealthy trader, as well as member of the Jewish council, Joseph was known to Pilate. In class we discussed whether it took more courage for Joseph to go to Pilate or to take a stand against the Sanhedrin. What do you think?

It would seem that the triumph of Jesus of Nazareth was short lived and that he was doomed to be forgotten as were the other would-be Messiahs of the era. Think about these questions from the class.

Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. In what ways are we blind to the prophets among us?
The priests hand Jesus over to the Roman authorities. Pilate tries to pass the blame back to the people who respond ‘Crucify him’. Would you have shouted with the crowd or not?

We know the rest of the story, but his disciples did not. They were devastated. Next Sunday we celebrate the real Triumph of Jesus, the Christ of God. However, before we get to Easter, we have to walk the events of Holy Week. If your church has services during the week commemorating Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, you may want to take advantage of the opportunity to walk with Jesus the last few days of his life. Or maybe you can find time yourself to read through the Passion in each of the four Gospels. Meditate on the mighty acts of God who turned the world upside down.

April 10, 2011

God's Covenant Meal

During the class this week, we discussed the words ‘covenant’ and ‘testament.’ They are similar, yet different. According to a dictionary of Biblical usage, the word ‘testament’ is more often used in relation to dealing between humans, while ‘covenant’ is used for agreements between God and humanity. Both are from the Hebrew "berith." 

A covenant is more than a contract. A covenant established by God is not negated by our failure or defaulting on our part of the agreement. God's blessing will still happen-aren't we glad that is true! This is true because God's covenants are based in Grace. Our response should be similar to Psalm 51, which is often prayed (read or sung) during Lent to remind us of our need to repent.

With the Psalmist, we pray, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love...Against thee, thee only, have I sinned...Hide thy face from my sins...and blot out all my iniquities...Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me...The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."

Ancient peoples often sealed a treaty or covenant with a meal. One example is the meal Jacob and Laban share (Genesis 21:51-54) God also covenanted with God’s people again and again. Examples are the Rainbow covenant in Genesis 9:8-17 and the meal Abraham shared with the 3 visitors (angels) in Genesis 18. Joseph shared a meal with his brothers after he was reconciled with them.

Passover is the most important of the Old Testament covenant meals. Exodus 12 tells the institution of the Feast of Passover. Despite 9 different plagues, Pharaoh refuses to let the Children of Israel leave Egypt. Finally, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to mark their doorframes with the blood of a lamb and to prepare a feast to be eaten with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand.” The Angel of the Lord comes to Egypt and the “Lord smote the all first born in the land of Egypt…there was not a house where one was not dead.” However, the families of the Hebrews are spared because as the Lord promised, “when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you.”

From that time forward, the Jewish people have repeated the Passover meal every year. It is now a week long remembrance, culminating with the Seder meal. It usually falls near Easter. This year, Passover starts on April 19. In the class on Thursday, we did a slightly simplified Seder. There are two parts to a Seder-the symbolic, one could say liturgical, part and the meal itself. It was during this symbolic remembrance that Jesus instituted the Eucharist. (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark14:17-25, Luke 22:19-20) During class we repeated the ancient symbolic remembrance of the Passover event. There are four distinct parts to the Seder:

The First Cup, of Thanksgiving, followed by the hand washing and breaking of the first matzo and hiding the Afikomen.

The Second Cup of Haggadah or Telling (of the events of Passover and the symbolism of the foods) and the Blessing of the Foods

The Third Cup, of Redemption, where the hope for Messiah (for the Jewish people) is expressed with the chair for Elijah. This is when the hidden matzo (Afikomen) is found and shared.

The Fourth Cup of Melchizedek and Blessing ends the remembrance part of the Seder. In the context of a family gathering, a real meal would be shared then. On Saturday, I was privileged to be at Epiphany Episcopal in Socorro where we also recreated the Seder and then had lunch.

All of us at the class on Thursday and in Socorro found it very moving to participate in recreating the meal. Everyone agreed that the Eucharist or Communion itself will be more meaningful this Sunday after experiencing the Seder. If you get the chance, participating in a Seder will help you understand more clearly what our Lord meant when he said “this is my Body” and “this is my Blood.”

I close today with the ancient blessing that ends the Seder: "The Lord bless thee and keep thee: The Lord make His face to shine upon thee and have mercy on thee! May the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace!” To which all respond “Amen, Amen, Amen.”

Next week we will look at the Triumph of Christ in Jerusalem as we enter Holy Week.

April 3, 2011

Kingship of Christ

What words, thoughts, feelings come to mind when you think of “king,” “ruler,” “soveriegn”? What about the term “monarchy”?

The southern part of Israel, called Judea, was the homeland of the historic kings of Israel, starting with David. Although the kingdom divided into Judah in the south and Israel in the north around 922BC, the people still remembered the glorious days of David. Messiah, prophecied and longed for, would restore the Kingdom and usher in a new and glorious reign.

Even though the area of Judea was given by Herod the Great to his son Archelaus, Rome exiled the inept king to Gaul because too many riots and incidents of civil unrest plagued his ten-year rule. Rome installed a procurator to keep the fragile peace. Pontius Pilate was installed in the year 26CE. The Roman presence was hated and the Roman fortress of Antonia was a constant reminder of the Roman occupation, overlooking the Temple itself.

As Jesus moved into Judea, toward the capital, he knew he would be challenged. He confronted the priests and rulers of the people with his parables and was perceived as a threat to the status quo. Some of these conversations are found in Luke 20:1-41.

Bethlehem is where it all started, in a stable 30 some years earlier. It is not recorded in the Gospels that Jesus ever returned to Bethlehem, but the town was important to all Jews as the ancestral home of King David. It was also the prophesied birthplace of Messiah. Jesus’ birth there was a link to the lineage of David-the once and future king. (Matthew 1:1-18) This postcard image from 1886 is an artist's rendering of the town at that time.

Bethlehem is a little town nestled in the hills five miles south of Jerusalem. It was closely linked to the capital. The name Bet Leven means House of Bread and the wheat grown here was used for the shewbread in the temple. The nearby hills were home to the temple shepherds and their flocks. The little fat-tailed sheep were raised to provide the lambs for the temple sacrifices. The animals for the sacrifice had to be entirely white, without any spot of another color. During lambing season, the numerous hill caves were used to shelter the ewes and newborn lambs from the chill spring winds.

North of Bethlehem lies Bethany. This small village is almost a suburb of Jerusalem. The name means House of Dates and indeed there are many date palm trees in the area. Scribes and some temple priests made their home in Bethany because it was close to Jerusalem and the duties of the temple, without the dust and crowds of the larger city. Many wealthy families lived in the estates in and around the town.

Bethany was home to friends of Jesus-Lazarus and his sisters. It is not surprising that he stayed here while visiting Jerusalem. His raising of Lazarus offered proof of his supreme power and was a threat to the rulers of the day. (John 11:1-44 )45-53. This miracle was the catalyst that convinced the Jewish leaders that Jesus had to die.

During class this week we had a very lively discussion, especially about “protecting the vineyard” (i.e. church, tradition, faith). It is a struggle to know how to be ‘good stewards’ of the vineyard. The priests of Jesus’ time were trying to protect the faith and life of Israel. Caiphas prophecied, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish.” In his efforts to maintain the peace with Rome and preserve the nation of Israel, he was willing to hand over this troublemaking rabbi to death. We talked about the difficulty of determining where, when, and how to stand up for God vs. trusting God to bring everything to the proper conclusion. What are your answers to these questions?

The parable of the vineyard was a warning to the religious leaders of Israel. Are there ways you try to protect you corner of the vineyard?

Being of the house of David was an honor to the ancient Jews. How much greater honor is it to be of the ‘house and lineage’ of Christ?

Where is Christ’s reign found in your ministry?

Next week we will look at the Passover and Last Supper.