Because of Easter: Nothing Need Ever Be The Same Again

Many of our church  members and readers of this blog have seen a recently released movie, “Risen.” [1] Risen is the story of a Roman soldier named, “Clavius.” imgresThe movie begins with Clavius putting down a rebellion begun by Barabbas just after he was released. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he is sent by Pontius Pilate to oversee the crucifixion of Jesus. On the way, he experiences the earthquake and the darkened sky. Clavius arrives at Golgotha just after Jesus dies. The next day, he is summoned again by Pontius Pilate, this time to seal the tomb into which Jesus has been placed. The next morning, he is summoned by Pontius Pilate and given the task of finding the now missing body of Jesus. The story line involves Clavius’ search for the body of Jesus.

Clavius is a kind of typical cynical, world-weary American  who happens to be a soldier looking forward to retirement. What he wants is a place away from the battle and peace. The movie is the story of Clavius’ journey from being an ambitious, competent, intelligent, and surprisingly intelligent and sensitive Roman soldier, who is convinced he will eventually find the body of Jesus, to a believer in the resurrection. Critics have liked the movie because of its acting and because it is not too preachy. It simply follows the spiritual journey of a Roman Tribune caught up in the events of the resurrection.

Many people first hear the Easter story in the same way Clavius begins his spiritual journey: suspicious and certain that it can’t possibly be true. I began my own spiritual journey in just that frame of mind. This blog is not intended to prove the resurrection. Many other pastors and not a few evangelists have written very fine defenses of the truth of the resurrection. When I was a young Christian one of those defenses meant a lot to me. It was the first time I sat down and examined the facts. Today, however, we are going to be talking about the results of the resurrection, the difference it makes in our lives.

The Day the World Changed Forever.

Jesus was most probably crucified at about 9:00 in the morning on Friday, April 3, 33 A.D. [2] He died about 3:00 that same afternoon. It probably took some time for the soldiers to recognize this fact and verify that he was dead. After the soldiers confirmed that Jesus was dead, he was taken down from the cross (John 19:31-37). At about the same time, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and prominent member of the Sanhedrin, went to Pontius Pilate and asked for permission to bury Jesus (Matthew 27:58). Because it was getting late, and it was the Day of Preparation for Passover, Jesus was hurriedly placed in the tomb. His body was not fully prepared for burial (Mark 16:1). Joseph simply wrapped the body as was the Jewish custom in linen cloths and rolled the large stone that would have sealed the tomb into place (Matt. 27:60).

The next day, on Passover, the chief priests and the Pharisees, who rarely cooperated on anything, went to Pilate and asked for an official seal on the tomb (vv.62-63). Pilate agreed and placed an official Roman seal on the tomb. This meant that anyone tampering with the tomb would be subject to Roman punishment. The remainder of Saturday was quiet, so far as we know. The disciples were in hiding. We pick up the story at Matthew 28:1:

imgres-1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matt. 28:1-10).

Prayer: God of Hope, who have us eternal hope this Easter, please come into our hearts and give us all renewed hope in the power of your Holy Spirit to change our lives so that we may become more like you. Amen.

His Life and Ours.

This Easter season we have focused on Jesus as our Deliverer. We began by noting that the notion of God as Deliverer is deep in both the Old and New Testaments. The Jews were delivered from captivity in Egypt and in Babylon by the power of God who was their savior. The idea of the Messiah as it developed was that the Messiah would come and free Israel, delivering them from bondage and forming a kingdom that would never end. All Christians believe that we are saved (or delivered from our captivity to sin and death  through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). Too often, we restrict that salvation to eternal life that we will receive in heaven. Our salvation means a lot more than that. It is for today.

In this series of blogs, we are focused on the kinds of human suffering we all endure—and the fact that Jesus endured the same kind of suffering. We’ve had a reason for this: it is our hope that our members experience the healing power of God right now, so that the Holy Spirit can work in us to give us a new kind of eternal life right now in this world. We noted that God delivers us from something and to something else. It is not enough to saved from sin. We are delivered from sin to righteousness and a new kind of life that will never end.

Jesus, in the last twenty-four hours of his life endured betrayal by Judas Iscariot. He endured disappointment with the behavior of Peter and the other disciples. He endured injustice at the hands of the leaders of the people of Israel and the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. Pilate, who knew he was an innocent man, subjected Jesus to scourging (a terrible punishment). The soldiers who crucified Jesus mocked him. Once crucified, he endured the ridicule of his fellow prisoners, the chief priests, the rulers of the people, and ordinary passersby. He even experienced feeling abandoned by God, a Dark Night of the Soul.

The meaning of all this is that God, in Christ, understands our suffering and sympathizes with us when we are undergoing times of trial. God unconditionally desires to deliver us from the negative experiences we have to joy and new life. God is always with us in our suffering , even when we believe he is absent, and wants to relieve our suffering if at all possible. We can’t understand God’s sovereignty or why he answers some prayers and does not seem to answer other prayers (Job 40:3-5). What we can know is that God desires to answer all prayers that are in his will and God does not want his people to suffer. He wants us to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness and all the other gifts of the Spirit (I Peter 1:6-9; Galatians 5:22-25).

The Great Reversal.

We can imagine the feelings of the disciples and followers of Jesus. They had hoped that Jesus would reveal himself to be the Messiah during this Passover. They had hoped that all of their hopes and dreams would come true. Then, suddenly, in a few hours, their hopes and dreams were shattered. They saw Jesus arrested, and they knew it could happen to them. They saw Jesus subjected to an unfair trial, and they knew it could happen to them. They saw Jesus mocked and scourged, and they knew it could happen to them. They saw Jesus crucified and put to death, and they knew it could happen to them. They were scared and hopeless.

The next day, what we call “Sunday” and the Jews the “First Day of the Week,” the women rose early and hurried to the tomb hoping to finalize the embalming of Jesus body before it decayed any further. As they arrived, there was an earthquake that broke the Roman seal, while an angel rolled away the stone covering the Tomb (Matt. 28:1-3). The Roman guards were frozen with fright and apparently ultimately ran away (v. 4). This left the angel to tell the women that Jesus was no longer in the tomb but alive (vv. 5). He told the women to go tell his disciples (v. 7). As the women were returning home, they met the risen Christ and worshiped him. Jesus then also commanded the women to tell the disciples that he would see them in Galilee (v. 7, 10).

I don’t have time today to tell you the rest of the story; however, by the end of that first day the gloom of the disciples and the followers of Jesus had turned to joy. They had seen and experienced the risen Christ. They were certain of the power of the resurrection. They were changed forever. A day that began with their hopes and dreams shattered ended with their hopes and dreams answered in an unimaginable way. [3]

Our Great Reversal.

The great reversal that the disciples and followers of Jesus experienced that first Easter is available to us today. Just as the disciples experienced a reversal of their shattered hopes and dreams that first Easter, we also by the power of the Holy Spirit can experience a reversal of our shattered hopes and dreams today.

Jesus said, “I came that you may have life abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Paul says in Romans, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism in to death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead to the glory of the father so we too may have new life” (Romans 6:4). in other words, Jesus came to deliver us from a kind of spiritual and emotional death so that we can be delivered into a completely new way of living and being in the world.

The promise of the Christian life is not that bad things will never happen to good people. The Bible and human experience clearly teach that Christians are subject to the same problems to which everyone else in the world is subject. We experience betrayal, disappointment, injustice, mocking, ridicule, feelings of abandonment, and all of the other negative experiences that afflict human beings. The difference is that we look forward to a great reversal that we believe can be experienced in this world, and if not in this world, in a world to come by the power of the resurrection we celebrate on Easter Sunday.

He is Risen—and So Are We!!

One of my favorite characters in the movie Risen is Bartholomew. As Clavius seeks to find the body of Jesus and investigates rumors of the resurrection, he ultimately arrests Bartholomew. During the course of his interrogation, Clavius threatens to harm Bartholomew and even to have him executed. imagesDuring this entire scene, Bartholomew has a kind of childlike expression on his face. When Clavius finishes threatening him, Bartholomew invites Clavius to go ahead, indicating that he is certain that death and suffering can have no final victory in his life. Bartholomew has seen the risen Christ, and fear of Rome no longer has a hold on him.

This feature of the movie is not in Scripture; the writers made it up. However, it is not unbiblical. The Bible and the Christian tradition are filled with examples of Christians, from Stephen who was stoned, through the death of other disciples, through the experience of the early church martyrs, and even the experience of martyrs today, who have endured great suffering with joy. We are here today to celebrate the fact that death will not have a final victory over us nor can anything separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. Paul puts it this way:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

It is Easter 2016. This year, God has put on our hearts the hope and prayer that the Holy Spirit will come upon us in a mighty way. We can be certain that God loves us and wants to hear this prayer. We can be sure that God wants us to experience his Divine Life by the power of the Holy Spirit. God wants to heal our families, our colleagues, our friends, our neighbors, and others we know and care about. We can be sure that God wants to heal all of us from old hurts, betrayals, disappointments, injustices, ridicule, abandonment, and even death. The God who is love loves us and wants all of us to experience the power of the resurrection now and in the world to come. We cannot know when or how God will answer our prayers, but we can know that God will answer our prayers!

Easter is the ground of this  hope. We can be certain of our deliverance, now or in the world come come, for today we celebrate the resurrection and victory of our Deliverer. As the old hymn says, “Because he lives we can face tomorrow. Because he lives all fear is gone. For we know who holds the future. Life is worth the living just because he lives.”  1

Amen

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Risen, wr. Kevin Reynolds & Paul Aiello, dir. Kevin Reynolds. Starring Joseph Fienes, Tom Felton, Peter firth, Cliff Curtis (LD Entertainment, 2016).

[2] A careful examination of the facts reveals that it is most likely that Jesus was crucified on April 3, 33 A.D. See, Jimmy Akin, “Seven Clues tell us * Precisely * when Jesus Died” National Catholic Register (March 20, 2016). Mark 15:25 places the crucifixion at the third hour (9:00 am) Matthew 27:45-56 tell of the crucifixion and give us the times of the darkness (noon) and death in the ninth hour (3:00 pm).

[3] Although Matthew does not record them, Mark, Luke and John all indicate that his disciples saw Jesus during that first day. First, he was seen by the women as Matthew records, then by two disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and finally by the Twelve in the Upper Room (see, Mark 16:12-14; Luke24:13-43; John 20:19-29).

Notes:

  1. I have slightly paraphrased the old Gospel Hymn, “Because He Lives,” written by Gloria and Bill Gaither, music by Bill Gaither (1971).  

Deliverance from a Dark Time

There are times when God does not make sense. There are times when we feel abandoned by God. There is a kind of Christianity that pretends that if we only believe, we will be saved, God will love us, and bad things will not happen to us. No Christian lives very long without coming to understand that this is too simplistic. Bad things do happen to good people. Devout Christians do go through periods of time when God seems distant.

images-1Take the case of a young woman who grows up in a Christian home, goes to a Christian college, marries her Christian boyfriend, has a Christian family, and yet is deserted by her husband in mid-life. She prays for the restoration of her marriage; but it does not happen. She prays that her children will not be injured by this abandonment; but they are. In due time, she prays for a companion; but no one appears. This dark time doesn’t last a day, or week, or year, but for a decade.

Or, take the case of a mid-level executive who devotes his life to the company. imagesHe gets good performance reviews. His loyalty is noticed and affirmed. Then, at fifty-five, when the children are in college and expenses are high, suddenly he is laid off. The company to which he was so loyal has abandoned him. Then, despite the fact he has an unblemished record, it takes a long time to find a new job. It doesn’t take a week, or month, or quarter, or even a year. It takes a year and a half, and in that time, almost all the family savings are gone. His new job pays less than the old job.

We all go through times when we pray for good things, and pray with good intentions, but God seems silent. Today, we are talking about what is sometimes called the “Dark Night of the Soul”—times when we feel abandoned by God.

The Last Week of Jesus.

For the past several weeks, we have been reading and thinking about the last twenty-four hours of Jesus’ life. During that time, Jesus experienced some of the worst things that can happen to a human being. He was betrayed. He was disappointed. He was treated unfairly. He was mocked, ridiculed, and physically tortured. Finally, he was crucified. He was on that cross in deep pain for six long hours. Today, we pick up at Matthew chapter 27, verse 45:

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, lemasabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.” And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 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 and went 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!” Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs.  Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (Matthew 27:45-56).

God of Life: As we contemplate the death of Jesus, we know that there are other deaths we endure, sometimes with the feeling that we are abandoned by you. Come this morning so that we can begin to understand your presence even in your absence. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be acceptable in you sight. Amen.

The Forsaken Messiah.

On the Thursday night before Passover, Jesus was arrested. He was first taken to the home of Annas, the former High Priest and “Kingmaker” of the Jewish priestly class (John 18:22). After an interview, he was taken to the home of Caiaphas (v. 14). There, he was subjected to a trial (Matt. 26:57-67). imgres-4The Sanhedrin, or a kind of “Executive Committee” of the Sanhedrin, agreed he should be executed. At dawn, they met again briefly and formally convicted him of blasphemy (27:1). He was then sent to Pilate, who conducted yet another trial (v. 11).

Although Pilate was aware that Jesus was not guilty of a crime warranting death, the frenzy of the crowd and danger of a riot persuaded him that he would have to release Barabbas, a dangerous criminal, and execute Jesus (vv. 12-26). Pilate washed his hands of the entire affair and turned Jesus over to be flogged and crucified. After the flogging, he was taken to Golgotha, “the Place of the Skull,” to be crucified with two common criminals. A sign was put over him, “Jesus, the King of the Jews.” The criminals, the onlookers, and the leaders of the people mocked him.

The crucifixion began about 9:00 in the morning (Mark 15:25). About noon, darkness filled the earth. At about the ninth hour, or about 3:00 in the afternoon, Jesus cried out Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabbachthani, or “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). This is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1. Psalm 22, which I cannot read to you this morning, contains many verses that reflect what Jesus suffered. It reflects that scorn he endured from the crowd (Psalm 22; 6). It reflects the taunting he endured (v. 8). It reflects the opposition he endured from those in power (v. 13). It reflects the pain of the crucifixion (v. 14-15; 16). It reflects even the soldiers gambling for his clothing (v. 18).

imgresPsalm 22 is a Psalm of dereliction, which begins with a sense of God’s absence and ends with a prayer of faith and assurance. What is going on here? Some people focus on the sense of absence Jesus felt. Part of Jesus’ enduring the depth of human suffering, and especially the suffering that comes from sin and alienation from God, creation, and others, is suffering the absence of God.

The Dark Night of the Soul.

This week, I had to reacquaint myself with one of my least favorite subjects in theology. images-2Many years ago, the Carmelite brother, St. John of the Cross, coined the phrase, “the Dark Night of the Soul”. The Dark Night of the Soul is a time of spiritual dryness when God seems absent. It can come upon us for a variety of reasons. Generally however it occurs at times when we no longer experience God in ways we once did.

A Dark Night of the Soul  can be accompanied by time of disappointment, or unanswered prayers, or physical illness, or old age, or any time we feel spiritual activities or practices that gave our life meaning and purpose have failed us. When God seems absent, our lives begin to lose meaning and purpose, which can be frightful and leave us filled with doubt.

The Dark Night of the Soul is a kind of death. It is a death of an old way of relating to God, while God prepares us for something new. The great spiritual masters speak of this Dark Night as God’s presence in God’s absence. That is exactly what Jesus was experiencing on the cross.

Jesus had experienced and uninterrupted fellowship with God the Father Almighty. Now, so that human beings might be restored to fellowship with God, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, had to endure the absence of God. This was a real and true withdrawal of God from the person of the Son. It involved a real and true suffering of Jesus, which is why Jesus cried out, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

While it is true that Jesus had to endure this for our salvation, it did not make it any easier. In the same way, when we experience times of dryness, of waiting, of unanswered prayers, of pain, of the absence of God, we are being prepared for a deeper fellowship with God. Sometimes, God has to take away things that gave our lives meaning and purpose in order for us to find our meaning and purpose in God. This is the spiritual reality behind a Dark Night of the Soul.

The Victory Cry of Jesus.

As I mentioned earlier, Psalm 22 begins with a cry of dereliction, but ends with a cry of faith. The psalmist cries out for God to deliver him and then breaks out into a song of praise as he promises to praise God’s name among God’s people (Psalm 22:19-28). It ends with these words:

All the ends of the earth  will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nation will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. 
All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him– those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn:  He has done it! (Psalm 22:27-31).

In other words, what began as a cry of agony and abandonment, ends with a cry of faith and victory.

We are told that, in the ninth hour, just after Jesus uttered words of dereliction, he gave a great shout and died (v. 50; see also, Mark 15:37, Luke 23: 46). John identifies the shout as, “It is finished” (John 19:20). imgres-2To us, this may seem to be a shout of desperation, as if he were saying, “My life is finished.” The word in Greek and in Aramaic has a somewhat different connotation. “It is finished,” means, “It is accomplished” or “It is completed.” In other words, Jesus had finished the task for which he came. It is as if he had just passed the finish line in a race, lifted his arms, and cried out, “I’m done!!” [1]

Jesus, like us, endured a dark night of the soul. And, like Jesus, our dark nights will not last forever, either. There will be a cry of victory in our lives as there was in Jesus’ life. The cry of victory, in this world or the next, is the result of having endured the Dark Night, learned its lessons, died to self, and experienced a new relationship with the Living God..

Our Victory Cry.

When I was in Brownsville, there was a man in the congregation who used to fix the sound system. He was in his 70’s when I arrived. He had retired from a position at the local bank. During his retirement, he was never in really good physical condition. In particular, his lungs were weak. One day, Walter had a major stroke. I was called to the hospital. When I walked in the room, a doctor and nurses were surrounding Walter. He was writhing on the bed. The stroke had destroyed his mental capacity, and he was struggling against approaching death. It was a pretty horrible scene.

After a time, the doctors brought me closer to the bed so that I could pray for him. I prayed a short prayer similar to one I’ve prayed with some of you. Because of his condition, I prayed both for his healing and, if he could not be healed, for Jesus to be with him. I don’t think the doctors believed that Walter could understand a word I was saying. However, all of a sudden, he lifted his hands and he began to close his fist and open first with two fingers and then with three. After a couple of times I recognized that Walter was giving me the number, 23. He was signaling me that his mind was not going and he was repeating over and over again, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

There are times when we face great difficulties. There are times when God seems to be absent. There are times when our prayers are not answered. It is the testimony of Jesus, and of all the great saints of history, that God can be hidden from us, but he is present to us even when he seems absent from us. Jesus can sympathize with us during these times because he too faced a time when God seemed distant. While the primary meaning of Jesus death on the cross involves our salvation, it also means that God can and does suffer all that we suffer and is with us in all that we suffer until that day when we can also cry out in victory, “It is finished.”

This series has been an attempt to show that the Christian life involves living through the same experiences that God lived through for and with us in the Life and Death of Jesus. It has not been an easy or pleasant series. Next week, we will celebrate Easter with joy–the joy we have because we know that betrayal, disappointment, injustice, suffering, and abandonment do not and will not have the lats word. The last word is our assurance of life because of Easter and what Easter means.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, William Barclay, “The Gospel According to Matthew” in Volume 2, The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 369-370.

Living Wisely

salt and light_everyday discipleshipKathy and I are working on a new Salt & Light Chapter. Therefore, since I have been working on it, this week I thought that I would share it with you. As always, any comments are welcome and appreciated, especially proofing comments.

LEARNING TO BE WISE

Once we come to believe in God, we begin a journey that will last the rest of our lives. From the day we become a disciple of Christ, we begin a journey of becoming like Christ, of learning to conduct ourselves as Jesus did. And, in becoming more like Jesus, we become more like God because Jesus Christ reveals what God is like.

When the apostles thought about Christ they came to a surprising conclusion: The Jewish Rabbi, Jesus bar Joseph, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and died a terrible death was in fact the Word (Logos), or divine reason of God made flesh—God in human form (John 1:1). This wisdom of God was not what the Jews expected. It was not merely a vindication of traditional wisdom. Instead it was a mysterious wisdom (Colossians 2:2-3). In the end, the wisdom of God was revealed in the life, teachings, sacrificial death, and resurrection of Jesus.

imagesThe Jews were familiar with the idea that, if one lived in conformity with the laws of God, one would become wise and righteous and be blessed by God. The Psalmists sang songs of this wisdom. In fact, the very first Psalm was an ode to the blessings of wisdom in following the law:

Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
Not so the wicked! They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Books like Proverbs set out this expectation in detail. Once a person had faith in God, they had grasped the first principle of wisdom. A deep respect for God (“the fear of the Lord”) opened up a way of life that issued in wisdom.

My son, do not forget my teaching,
    but keep my commands in your heart,
for they will prolong your life many years
    and bring you peace and prosperity.
Let love and faithfulness never leave you;
    bind them around your neck,
    write them on the tablet of your heart.
Then you will win favor and a good name
    in the sight of God and man.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.[a]
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
    fear the Lord and shun evil (Proverbs 3:1-7).

Prophets, like Isaiah, confirmed that to live according to God’s law, or torah, brought blessings, but to disregard the law was foolish and brought with it pain, failure, and defeat.

imgresJesus, when he was on earth, told his disciples that he was greater than Solomon, meaning this wisdom was greater, and more important than the wisdom taught by the wise men of Israel (Matthew 12:42; Luke 11:31). Paul saw that this promise of jesus was true. There was in Christ a deep wisdom, beyond human wisdom. In First Corinthians he put it this way:

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (I Cor. 1:21-24).

In Christ, wisdom and love came together in a perfection of both. There was no love greater than the love Christ showed on the Cross and no wisdom greater than the wisdom of God in Christ. For Paul, Christians should live wisely—and that wisdom was fully seen in Christ.

imgres-1Almost every letter Paul writes begins by talking about Jesus and ends by talking about how we ought to live because of who God is and what God has done for us in Christ. In Ephesians 5, for example, Paul says, Be very careful, then, how you live–not as unwise but as wise,… (Ephesians 5:15). Just before this admonition, Paul speaks of the very same things that the wisdom writers spoke of: the need for personal morality, love, etc. Here is the entire passage:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:8-20).

Questions for Reflection

  1. Paul begins by suggesting that we should try to live as children of light (often used as a symbol for wisdom). What does it mean to you to live in the light? What qualities do “Light filled people” have?

2.  Paul then tells us to avoid the “fruitless deeds of darkness.” in your opinion, was kind of deeds are “deeds of darkness”?
What are some specific behaviors that Paul seems to think are deeds of darkness, not fitting for Christians to practice?

 

Questions for Practical Application

  1. In what areas of your life do you detect a kind of darkness that needs to be healed?

2. How do you think you are doing in some specific areas:

Your willingness to respect (fear) and obey God”

 

Your willingness to work hard”
Your ability to hold your tongue and speak wisely?

 

Your ability to show respect for yourself, others, and especially to behave well with members of the opposite sex?

 

Your ability to avoid excessive alcohol and drugs?

 

Your desire to become wiser and more loving day-by-day:

 

3. What is the one area in which you would like to change the most?

 

 

Salt and Light is a twenty-four week discipling program with three parts: Becoming a Christian, Being a Christian, and Leading others to Christ. It is broken into three eight week segments. A new version will be ready by the fall of 2016.

Copyright 2016, Chris and Kathy Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Deliverer: Deliverance from Injustice

This week, the blog is from Matthew 27:11-26. This blog differs considerably from the sermon containing much information that it was not possible to include in a sermon. It is a bit headier than normal, but it deals with what I believe to be a critical problem in our society–the loss of faith in justice. I have tried to keep the most abstract portions of the argument to footnotes.imgres-2

Years ago, I represented a company in connection with the sale of some assets. The transaction was not a success. Eventually, there was a lawsuit. My deposition was taken, a large number of documents were produced, and eventually I was called to testify. While I was on the witness stand, I was shown a piece of paper. It was in my handwriting and it contained a series of calculations showing that we owed the plaintiffs a substantial amount of money. I had no memory of this document, but it was in my handwriting. I’m afraid I looked like a fool on the witness stand.

During lunch break, while the lawyers prepared for the afternoon, I wandered around the conference room looking at boxes and boxes of legal documents. I saw one file in which there was a document that was not in order. I reached down to straighten the file, picked up the document, and to my surprise it was the very document I had been questioned about that morning. There was, however, a slight difference. The document I’d been shown had one column showing what we owed the plaintiffs. The actual document had two columns reflecting the fact that they owed us substantially more money than we owed them. I don’t know when I have ever been more furious. The simple fact is that the lawyers that copied, cut, and pasted the original document into a new form treated me unjustly.

There are all kinds of injustices in life. Older siblings are blamed for younger siblings misdeeds. Younger siblings mistreated by elder brothers and sisters. Parents sometimes misjudge the actions of a child and punish them unjustly. Children have false memories and misjudge the actions of their parents. Men can be unjust to women, and women to men. The rich can take advantage of the poo, and the poor can take advantage of the rich. The powerful can take advantage of the weak. The world is filled with injustice of many kinds.

Jesus in the Dock.

Jesus was no stranger to injustice. During the last day of his life, Jesus was treated unjustly. When arrested, Jesus was first brought before a former High Priest, Annas (John 18:12-13). Then, he was taken to the house of Caiaphas, the current High Priest, who together with at least a part of the Sanhedrin tried him in the middle of the night (Matthew 26:57). This was contrary to Jewish practice. [1]

It is evident from Matthew that Caiaphas had no real interest in understanding Jesus or his mission. His interrogation was focused  on finding a way to have Jesus killed. Because the Jews could not execute Jesus without the approval of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, early in the morning the Sanhedrin met again to formally vote and transfer Jesus to Pilate (Matthew 27:1). It was at this point the Judas realized what he had done, attempted to give back the blood money, and committed suicide (27:2-10).

imgres-2Our text for this blog picks up at Matthew 27:11:

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”  For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified (Matthew 27: 11-26).

Justice and Injustice.

The first thing I would like to do is clarify the idea of justice. Justice, in its simplest form, involves treating people fairly. Justice is getting what you deserve. On a deeper level, however, justice has two aspects:

  1. First, there is what we might call procedural justice. The notion of procedural justice is that people are all treated the same and in a fair manner when they are being tried for some offense. Our court system was designed to provide procedures that ensure that those who are subject to trial get a fair one.
  2. There is a second implication of justice, which is that people actually receive what they deserve. This notion of justice is sometimes called “equity” or substantive justice. The notion is that there is more to justice than fair procedure. People need to receive the punishment or absence of punishment to which they are entitled.

I’m afraid that the notion of justice is in deep trouble in our society. imgres-3Many years ago, Justice Holmes wrote, “The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.”  [2] Since his day, our law has become increasingly a war for majority control based upon the assumption that whatever the majority wants defines justice for the moment. Justice has become whatever the Congress passes, the President approves, and a majority of the Supreme Court upholds. Nothing could be more wrongheaded. This notion of justice, useful as it may seem, can too easily become manipulation by elites or mob rule. In our time, this has produced a legal system in which justice is defined as whoever wins a legal dispute or policy debate, however they win.

In a democracy, this idea of justice leads to the of manipulation of public opinion to find support for polices elites and others desire to enact. We see this from both sides of the political spectrum, from legislators and judges of conservative and liberal leanings. There is little concern to find a just and fair resolution of public debates. The emphasis is on finding the support to win. This leads, and has led, to the kind of negative, attack politics that characterizes the current election. This inevitably leads to an unjust society.

Jesus and Injustice.

During the last day of his life, Jesus was faced with people who believed that justice was whatever was in their best interests at the moment. Both the High Priests and Pontius Pilate were driven by expediency. By the time Jesus was arrested, his preaching, teaching, miracles, and mighty deeds had caused many people to believe that he might be the Messiah. This was dangerous as far as many important people were concerned. In particular, the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, teachers of the law, and elders of the people, those in power, were threatened by his teaching. They didn’t understand what Jesus was about, but they feared him and what he might mean for them.

imgres-4The Jewish leaders were particularly concerned that, if Jesus were to lead an uprising, the Romans would send in an army and destroy their lives and their positions of influence. In John, Caiaphas, the high priest, says “…it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:57). By this, Caiaphas meant that, if Jesus were to lead an uprising, successful or not, it would mean the end of the way of life to which they were all accustomed. It would be the end of their power and affluence. It was better for Jesus to die.

When Jesus was arrested, he was eventually brought before Caiaphas. Initially, Caiaphas tried to find witnesses who would testify to some misdeed that would justify putting him to death (Matt. 26:57-63). They brought a false and ridiculous charge based upon Jesus’ prophecy that, if he were killed, he would rebuild the temple of his own body in three days (John 2:29). When this failed, Caiaphas took another tact. He asked Jesus under oath if he was the Messiah, the Son of God (Matt. 26:63). Jesus answered in the affirmative, but also in such a way as to indicate that his kingdom was a heavenly kingdom from which he would come in the future (v. 64). [3] This claim contained nothing that would cause Jesus to be put to death.

Jesus, on the face of it, does not threaten a rebellion. He describes a Messiah and a Kingdom of God much different than Jewish expectations. As I was reading this week, I noticed that Caiaphas did not even try to find out what Jesus meant. Instead, Caiaphas immediately said there was no need for any other witnesses. He simply concludes that Jesus is worthy of death (v. 65-66). In this trial, there was not even an attempt at justice.

Early in the morning, the Sanhedrin met again and confirmed that Jesus must die, sending him to Pilate for his verdict (Matt. 27:1). [4] Jesus was then brought before Pilate (v. 11). Pilate, as a Roman governor, had no interest in Jewish religious disputes, such as who was or was not the Messiah of Israel or what it meant to be the Messiah. The question for Pilate was whether or not Jesus believed that he was a king who would lead an uprising against Rome and establish his own kingdom (v. 11). Pilate almost immediately realized that Jesus is innocent of any crime deserving death. In a private audience Jesus revealed that his kingdom is not of this world; it is a kingdom of truth (John 18:30). Once again, having an otherworldly kingdom of truth was not a crime under Roman law.

At this point, Pilate knew Jesus was an innocent man. He wanted to release him. Nevertheless, after a brief interlude where Jesus was sent to King Herod for questioning (Luke 24:6), Herod found himself backed into a corner. He attempted to release Jesus by giving the Jews a choice between the release of Jesus and the release of a notorious criminal called Barabbas (Matt. 27:16-17). The crowd, being incited by the leaders of the people, repeatedly choose Barabbas. Pilate, warned by his wife to have nothing to do with this innocent man, desperately looked for a way out of the situation (vv. 15-19). Nevertheless, the crowd continueed to ask for Barabbas.

imgres-2In the end, Pilate delivered Jesus over to be crucified, washing his hands of the entire situation (vv. 20-26). Pilate at least tried to give Jesus justice, but he did not have the moral fiber to deliver him from his accusers.  His interest in justice collapsed in the face of injustice.

So there you have it: the Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, teachers of the law, and other leaders of the people condemned Jesus out of fear, envy and a desire for their own advantage. Pilate condemned him for personal advantage. Both knew they had condemned an innocent man.

A Christian Response to Injustice.

The story of Jesus’ unjust trial has been played out many times in history. In the last century, various regimes have conducted so-called “Show Trials” to convict innocent people they felt were dangers to the ruling elites. Hitler did it. Mussolini did it. Stalin did it. Mao Tse Tung did it.  All the evil dictators of history have done it. In Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer2Martin Neimoller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others were persecuted by the Nazi regime for their Christian faith and opposition to Nazi policies. One of my favorite Bonhoeffer quotes is, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.” [5] Martin Neimoller, a German pastor, put it this way:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me. [6]

I am afraid that the kind of injustice that has occurred elsewhere can occur here in our land. Many people have noted that Germany was the most advanced nation in Europe when it fell victim to Hitler. In our own time, certain aspects of a nihilistic postmodernism and an excessive pragmatism have left many people without any faith in the existence of justice. Commentators have noted that the press, the media, and the politicians of our nation seem to have learned more from Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine than from Jesus. Increasingly, the media, Congress, the Courts and other institutions of society are used manipulatively to gain and maintain power. [7]

Leszek_Michael-Polanyi_maleThe great philosopher of science and defender of freedom, Michael Polanyi, says this about our society:

“A new destructive skepticism is linked here to a new passionate social conscience; and utter disbelief in the spirit of man is coupled with extravagant moral demands. We see at work here the form of action which is already dealt so many shattering blows to the modern world: the chisel of skepticism driven by the hammer of social passion. [8]

Polanyi goes on to say, “Savagery is always there lurking among us, but it can break loose on a grand scale only when rebellious moral passions first break up the controls of civilization.” [9]

The greatest threat to our society, and to the freedom we enjoy, including religious freedom, is the way in which our culture disbelieves in the reality of justice and truth. Paradoxically, the human soul cannot live without a desire for justice and truth. Cut off from faith in the reality of truth and justice, human beings become vulnerable to a demonic desire for justice that destroys justice in the search for a perfect society. In Soviet Russia and Communist China, the world saw the brutality that is possible when people seek a moral ideal without the constraints of the deep and abiding morality and faith. It is only when the life of every individual is as valuable as my notion of the perfect society that freedom and respect for people can flourish in the midst of the search for a better world.

A Ministry of Love and Forgiveness.

There is nothing more needed in our culture than for Christians to embrace the need for truth and justice, and our belief in its reality. [10] We need to believe we are called to seek justice, wherever that search leads us. In the Old Testament, lone of the great complaints of the prophets was against the injustice of Jewish society before the Babylonian captivity. The prophet Isaiah put it this way:

Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you,  so that he will not hear. For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken falsely, and your tongue mutters wicked things.  No one calls for justice; no one pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of vipers and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, an adder is hatched. Their cobwebs are useless for clothing;   they cannot cover themselves with what they make. Their deeds are evil deeds, and acts of violence are in their hands. Their feet rush into sin; are swift to shed innocent blood. They pursue evil schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks along them will know peace. So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall,  feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight;  among the strong, we are like the dead. We all growl like bears; we moan mournfully like doves. We look for justice, but find none;   for deliverance, but it is far away (Isaiah 59:1-11).

The society Isaiah pictures is frighteningly like our society. Having lost our commitment to the reality of justice and truth and to the transcendent moral and ethical principles upon which our nation is based, we have lost the capacity to seek justice in any but a formal way. More than that, we have become subject to view our own prejudices and desires as a substitute for the search for justice for all.

imgres-3Our deliverance will not come unless we recommit ourselves to the principles and moral commitments that allowed us to become free in the first place. As the embodiment of truth, as the one who came to establish a kingdom of truth, Jesus is for Christians the best way to explore the way to that truth and justice we believe to be written into the very fabric of the universe God created. As the wisdom of God incarnate, the very Word of God, he is able to deliver us from our addiction to power and our fears of what we might give up were justice to come among us.

Of course all deliverance requires a deliverer, one who can deliver us from our self-seeking and propensity for injustice. We need a savior, a deliverer. What happened to Jesus was not fair, not just, not equitable, not deserved. Jesus had the power of God and might have lashed out against those who unfairly judged him. Instead, he said “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He showed loving forgiveness, even in the face of injustice. He did not destroy injustice by an act of violence; he overcame it by Truth showing its reality in Divine Love.

We are called to show this same love in our own culture as we seek to heal its deep spiritual and moral wounds—and there is no wound deeper than the loss of faith in the reality of justice as something outside of our own desires or ideologies.

It is true, as Bonhoeffer noted, that those who act unjustly need to be exposed and called to account. It is also true that there has to be an end to the anger injustice creates. If we cannot release our anger in the service of truth and love, we are doomed to live in a state of brokenness ourselves—a brokenness from which Christ died on a cross to deliver us. Amen.

Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is one of those times where it is impossible to give credit to every source. I have looked at several books, including: James Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1983) and Dale Foreman, Crucify Him: A Lawyer Looks at the Trial of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), among other works and commentaries.

[2] This is a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes in his book, The Common Law. Unfortunately, I could not find another equally troubling quote defining justice is whatever the majority wants bad enough to force its will on society. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/jurisprudence (downloaded March 3, 2016). Holmes was a proponent of what is sometimes called “Legal Realism” and “Legal Positivism.” These scholars and judges were and are entranced with the idea that, in a free society, justice is defined as the majority of those in power define it. There is good in legal realism and positivism. However, in its simplistic form it can mean the end of justice, as it becomes simply a word we apply to the winner in a legal contest.

[3] There is no reason to believe that claiming to be the Messiah was of itself grounds for anyone to fear Jesus or have him put to death. Caiaphas’ questions disclose that he was subject to the common belief that the messiah would be a military leader who would lead an uprising. Claiming to be a Son of God would lead a Roman governor to put a claimant to death. Trying to lead a rebellion would. This is was what Caiaphas was after. Caiaphas never asks what kind of Messiah Jesus claims to be. He assumes he knows. See footnote 1 above for the sources of my study for this part of the blog.

[4] Scholars do not agree as to how to construe the trial. It seems possible that earlier, only a small number of the Sanhedrin had met; now the entire Sanhedrin was meeting to condemn Jesus. Of course, it is possible that they did not want to be accused by Pilate of holding an illegal night trial so they met again to pass final sentence on Jesus.

[5]www.azquotes.com/picture-quotes/quote-silence-in-the-face-of-evil-is-evil-itself-dietrich-bonhoeffer-87-28-79.jpg (Downloaded March 3, 2016).

[6] The quotation stems from Niemöller’s lectures during the early postwar period. See, www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392 (downloaded March 3, 2016).

[7] This week, I received a frightening and intriguing article about a study done concerning the way search engines can be and are used in our society to manipulate public opinion, particularly during election years. One party will be characterized as “concerned” while another will be characterized as “angry.” On a number of levels, this kind of manipulation occurs because people have ceased to believe in truth. They believe only in power. In the past, a candidate who was a great natural athlete was characterized as clumsy. In another race a candidate with an MBA from Harvard was characterized as intellectually weak, while a candidate who left school was characterized as intellectually gifted. The cases of media manipulation are so large that no article could possibly contain them all.

[8] Michael Polanyi, Logic of Liberty (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1951), 5.

[9] Id, at 5.

[10] One helpful insight of modern quantum physics is that there are many different levels and kinds of reality. At the deepest quantum level the universe seems to dissolve into an immaterial potentiality that we can examine, and the character of our examination influences the reality we observe.  In my view, justice is “real,” and the search for justice proves its reality as justice continues to reveal itself as we seek the transcendent ideal of justice in our lives and politics. The reality of a thing is not a quality of materiality or its ability to be perceived by a detached observer, but of its potential power to act upon us for good or for evil. In the case of justice, the search for justice disciplines our human prejudices as we seek a transcendent good which reveals itself to us as we submit to its reality in the search for it. (This note is a refection based upon Michael Polanyi, Science, Faith and Society (Chicago,IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964), wherein Polanyi constructs a realistic defense of the search for truth and universal values, and Ian Barbor, Religion in an Age of Science (San Francisco, CA: Harper SanFrancisco, 1990), 97-101. and Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (University of Chicago Press, 1958).) Polanyi, who was a doctor and chemist, also speaks of “levels of meaning,” each level dependent upon but also free and emergent as respect to lower levels of reality. Justice is proved real in the search for it by those who believe in its existence and its capacity to reveal itself to human beings who properly seek it with faith that it will continue to bear fruit and reveal itself in the future. This is the same spirit in which scientists seek truth in the invisible and immaterial subatomic world. The great physicist David Bohm speaks of the unfolding of layers of implicate order, including implicate orders of meaning present even at the the subatomic level. These levels of meaning disclose themselves as they are unfolded into reality. See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge Publishing, 1980).