Friday, April 27, 2007

Christ Portrayed as Crucified

Paul says what seems to be a rather strange thing in Galatians. The Christians to whom he wrote did not become Christians until some 15 years after the crucifixion. Furthermore, they lived several hundred miles away from where Jesus died. How is it then that Paul could speak as though they witnessed it? Here are his words in Galatians 3:1

You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?

They could not have been there in Jerusalem and yet he says, "Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified before your eyes." How could this be?

He uses the word, "portrayed," or in the NRSV, "exhibited," or as Barclay says, "placarded before them upon his cross." The word can be used for putting up a poster, or an announcement where all can see it.

But still we ask, how was Jesus put up like a poster, portrayed or exhibited as crucified before their eyes? Three possible ways occur to me -- all of which Paul may have in mind. First, in his preaching. He writes in 1 Corinthians 2 that his preaching centered in Christ crucified. I can imagine that Paul's description of the crucified Christ was graphic and vivid. Second, their baptism portrayed him as crucified and buried. As Paul said in Romans 6:3-6, "All of us have been baptized into his death ... our old self was crucified with him ... " Baptism is a reenactment and portrayal of his death, the gospel visible.

He could certainly have also had their weekly communion in mind. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 and again in chapter 11 he writes about the connection of this simple act with the crucifixion: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? ... "As often as you do this, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." Or, he might have said, "In this act of communion, you lift him up, crucified, for all to see with their own eyes." Here again is the gospel visible.

Each time we take the Lord's Supper we refresh our baptism into his death, and we proclaim his death. Thereby, he is once again "publicly portrayed as crucified" before the eyes of all who have eyes to see.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Cost of Compassion

How much does it cost to be compassionate? Two passages by John, both with the reference of 3:16, one in the Gospel and the other in his first Epistle, portray the cost of love and compassion. 1 John 3:16 says, "We know love by this, that He laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren."

Henri Nouwen, Roman Catholic pastor, author, and missionary, tells of how he learned a valuable lesson about love and compassion when he was thirteen years old. It was during the last year of the Second World War and his father had given him a little goat to care for. They lived in a part of Holland that was isolated by the great rivers from the D-day armies. Provisions did not reach them and people were dying from hunger.

"I loved my little goat," he writes. "I spent hours collecting acorns for him, taking him on long walks, and playfully fighting with him, pushing him where his two horns were growing. I carried him in my arms, built a pen for him in the garage, and gave him a little wooden wagon to pull. As soon as I woke up in the morning, I fed him, and as soon as I returned from school I fed him again, cleaned his pen, and talked to him about all sorts of things. Indeed, my goat Walter and I were the best of friends.

One day, early in the morning when I entered the garage, I found the pen empty. Walter had been stolen. I don't remember ever having cried so vehemently and so long. I sobbed and screamed from grief. My father and mother hardly knew how to console me. It was the first time that I learned about love and loss.

Years later, when the war was over and we had enough food again, my father told me that our gardener had taken Walter and fed him to his family who had nothing left to eat. My father knew it was the gardener, but he never confronted him -- even though he saw my grief. I now realize that both Walter and my father taught me something about compassion" (Nouwen, Henri. Here and Now. Living in the Spirit, 48).

When people are dying it often costs a great deal to save them. In this case it meant the loss of Nouwen's pet goat. It also cost the father a great deal to see his son suffer so much. while not an exact parallel it says something to us about our heavenly Father's compassion and what it cost him. To see that cost we need only look at the cross. Here we see the love and compassion of a Father who gave his Son.

How much does it cost to be compassionate? In God's case it cost the death of his Son. Each Sunday, as we come to the Lord's Table, it should remind us of John 3:16 (as well as 1 John 3:16), "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son ..." In the cup and in the bread we see also the love and compassion of the Son who paid the ultimate price to rescue us from death.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"It's All About The Day Before"

Not long ago, at the Emmanuel School of Religion Western Scholarship banquet in Eugene, I heard David Beamer speak about his son, Todd Beamer, hero of United Flight 93 on that fateful day of September 11, 2001. He spoke of how his son had "made it with man" as a highly successful software salesman. In fact, he had won a vacation in Rome through his sales and on the day before 9/11 he and his wife ended their time in Rome.

They returned to Boston and he boarded Flight 93 to San Francisco, early on September 11. He planned to fly back to Boston after business in SF that night, but as we know, he and all other passengers on the hijacked plane died that day. We know his last words because he made contact by telephone with an operator. He gave her a message for his wife, said the Lord's prayer, and then was heard to say to others around him, "Are you ready? Lets roll." These were the last words that we heard him speak.

On September 11, his father said, Todd died a Christian. As he put it, "Todd had it made with God as well as with man." Then his father added this puzzling sentence: "Its all about the day before." I thought, what does he mean, its all about the day before? He explained, "You see, Todd had it made with God the day before and the day before that, and the day before that ..."

Yes, its all about the day before. We cannot wait until the crisis comes to establish our relationship with God and be ready for whatever comes. Long before Todd Beamer and others like him, Jesus provided a model of readiness through a relationship with God. He too had some last words for his disciples, recorded in John 16:32-33:

The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered ... and you will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.

He was not alone as he went to the cross; the Father was with him. He could say, therefore, "I have conquered the world." All who face a crisis with God, as Paul said, are "more than conquerors," no matter what the outcome is. Jesus was ready when the crisis came because he was ready on the day before, and the day before that ..."

There is no better place for us to renew our relationship with God the Father and with Christ our Savior and be ready for whatever crisis may come than at the Table of the Lord. Here we renew our covenant with him, receive the forgiveness of our sins, and refresh our faith.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Tradition: A Maundy Thursday Meditation

In Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye was asked, 'why do you always wear a hat?' his answer was: "Tradition!" Like a Fiddler on the Roof their life as Jews was precarious and tradition helped to maintain their balance. If we were asked, 'why do you always meet on a certain Thursday night in the spring each year and engage in age-old rituals?' we too might say, "Tradition!"

We find a precedent for this in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 where Paul begins his statement on the Lord's Supper with these words: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you..." The words "received" and "handed on" correspond to technical terms in Jewish rabbinical literature that indicate the receiving and passing on of tradition.

Its true that tradition is very important in our lives. We have all kinds of traditions -- in our nation, in our families, and certainly in our churches. One of the nice traditions that our daughter has is a family Christmas dinner with the same menu every year. I always look forward to the family sitting down together and enjoying delicious prime rib, twice-baked potatoes, and of course, the traditional chocolate Christmas log.

Sometimes, in the church, traditions become a problem. They can inhibit valuable change when people say, "we have never done it that way before." Or, traditions can become so encrusted with detail and additions, or so elaborate, that the essence of their meaning is covered up and lost.

But tradition can also play a positive and powerful role in our faith. Realizing this, Paul is saying in this text that we must not break the chain of historical tradition that links us to Jesus himself. The tradition of the Lord's Supper connects us with the original, precedent setting even that occurred at the Passover meal in Jerusalem on a Thursday night just before Jesus died.

Tradition actually does a lot for us. Besides connecting us with Jesus at the last supper it also helps to identify us. It was the hat that identified Tevye. For us it is the bread and the chalice. We are a people of the Table. Also, tradition encourages a sense of unity and solidarity with others who also are people of the Table -- with the Anglican kneeling at the altar, the Baptist in his plain and simple service -- the Maasai meeting under a thorn tree in Kenya, and all others who break the bread and drink the cup.

Following this tradition does a couple of more things for us. It is a wonderful teaching tool. As children, or new believers, or even seekers hear and see our traditional observance they hear and see the Gospel; they learn about Jesus and his gift of salvation. Also, if it doesn't become too elaborate, tradition is a model of efficiency. It helps us to summarize the most important and meaningful items of our faith in a precise way.

If we are to keep the tradition alive and powerful then we would do well to follow Paul's advice to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 1:5-6 he spoke of "the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and you mother Eunice ..." and had been handed on to Timothy. Then he adds in verse 14, "Guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you."

We are now the recipients of that treasure -- the faith so eloquently proclaimed in these symbols. We can guard it faithfully by keeping it alive in all of its meaning as we recall the words of Jesus in the last supper, when he took the bread and broke it, and said, "This is my body, given for you." And then the cup also, saying, "This is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins." Let us now keep the tradition alive as we share in this communion.