Preaching that no longer proclaims hope for deliverance nor calls us to put our trust in the God who delivers the distressed extols instead the psychological and social benefits of faith. It is a preaching of adjustment and accommodation. It is not gospel but just religion. It is Moses going back down into Egypt to teach the Hebrews to accept their slavery and make the best of it. It is Jesus patting the sick on the head and telling them to embrace their diseases as life’s way of strengthening them inwardly. It is the slave catechisms of the American churches promising the people in bondage God’s approval if they obey their masters and make no trouble. It is hope dismissed and faith domesticated.
Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD. Turn, then, and live. (Ezekiel 18:31-32 NRSV)
Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; (Ezekiel 33:11 NRSV)
Donald and Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19, the Corona virus pandemic that has killed more than two hundred thousand people just here in the United States. Though he knew better, Trump has consistently dismissed the virus as a hoax, a conspiracy against him, or a mild problem no worse than the flu. Our current president has been the outstanding purveyor of misinformation about this pandemic and its true dangers.
Facebook this morning is oozing both satisfaction and disgust. “I wouldn’t wish the virus on either candidate,” says self-righteous outrage at the thought that anyone would call Trump’s infection karma or express pleasure of any sort at the news. Columnist Nicholas Kristof, hardly a fan of the president, takes the civilized approach of wishing the Trumps recovery and good health. Others do indeed celebrate this turn of events as the just deserts of a president who has deliberately misled his followers and insisted his servants put themselves at risk, mocking any who dared wear masks in his presence.
What is likely to happen if Trump’s case of the virus proves mild? Will he not use his narrow escape from the ravages of COVID-19 to double down on his dismissal of its dangers and refusal to do what the nation and world need to control the infection and death rates? Will he not gloat and swagger as more people die? Will he not try to shame people who take precautions and even incite violence against them? How could we possibly expect him to do otherwise when such has been his method of operation all along?
For those who care what the Bible says, we are assured that God takes no pleasure in the death of any person. But. The rest of the message is that God wants the wicked person to turn from evil ways and act justly.
Trump’s infection is not something to celebrate, but his presidency is even less so. What are the chances he will turn, face the truth, and act justly? Our own medical science suggests the chances are nil. We have no cure for malignant narcissism, and a lifetime of practiced cruelty, swindling, and bullying present an overwhelming challenge to hope for repentance from a man who refuses to admit he has ever done anything for which to ask forgiveness.
But, we read, “with God all things are possible.” My skepticism whispers in my ear that moving Donald Trump to repentance, a true change of heart and way of life, would make walking on water look like a party trick, but such matters are left to God, not to me.
So, what do I pray for Donald J. Trump? I cannot bring myself to pray for his quick and easy recovery, knowing he would use it to mislead and destroy more people, to strut his arrogance and further inflame his cult followers to violence. Neither will I pray for his death but only for God’s grace for the nation, the world, for the children in cages, for the victims of his racism and cruelty, and, yes, for Trump himself. But God’s grace excuses no evil but, rather, deals with it, offering life to the wicked who will turn from the evil they have been doing.
My watchword, then, for this day, this turn of events, is what Moses is told by God to say to the Israelites caught between the Sea of Reeds and the pursuing Egyptian chariots. Stand, stand firm, and wait.
My wife is an elementary school teacher, now retired. Because she had effective skills in classroom management and discipline, she was able to keep control of some very difficult children many of whom had severe mental and emotional problems and severely difficult lives outside of school. But she was the adult in the classroom. She had authority, even if not so much as teachers had formerly. She also used her authority fairly and did not demean or humiliate even her most difficult and disruptive students, and so they respected her.
Even so, the disruptive child took far more than his or her fair share of time and energy, not only from the teacher, but from the other children in the class. Day after day, too much had to be about that one child (even though there was often more than just one, multiplying the theft of time and energy). Dealing fairly and empathically yet firmly with a disruptive child is exhausting.
At suppertime, the disruptive child consumed more than one share of our conversation about the school day. He or she always hovered around the edges, if not occupying dead center, of conversation about the class as a whole.
What happens when the disruptive child is not a child but an adult with power, far greater power than anyone else in the room? Last night’s so-called debate showed us what happens. Nothing restrains him – not decency certainly but not any authority, agreement on rules, or reprimand from the moderator either. He continues to act out and steal the show no matter what.
Donald Trump has been stealing the show for years. During the 2016 campaign, I began calling MSNBC a Trump channel. Not Fox, but MSNBC. Why did I call it a Trump channel? No matter the topic of conversation, no matter that the news item triggering the topic was about Hillary Clinton, the focus shifted back to Trump. I could only imagine what it was like on pro-Trump channels or shows.
How can there be a debate when one candidate is committed to lying, lives by lying, and doubles down on his lies, then steamrolls over all attempts to counter his lies? Last night we saw that there cannot be.
The disruptive child needs help. The insatiable craving for attention, the bullying of other children, and the determination to dominate the classroom cry out for help, but the needed help is difficult to give day after day, and the effort takes its toll on all the children as well as on the teacher. If Donald Trump were not in power, he would be deeply pitiable. But he is in power, and he says (and for once I believe him) that he is determined to abuse his power in every possible way to stay in power and out of criminal court. Pray for him? Yes, but first pray that he is removed (and vote to remove him) from power so the American people and the victims of his cruelty can be free of him.
(Fourth in a series contrasting religion with faith and discipleship)
Religion, as I am using the term in this series, arises from our human desire for stability fortified with assurances of survival, comfort, approval, and peace. In contrast, faith and discipleship are called forth by gospel, which means good news from outside the parameters of the established systems of life. Religion rests in sameness: “Give me that old-time religion” that was “good” for my ancestors and now is “good enough for me.” The religious settle down into a quiet place that is predictable in its continuity and, therefore, manageable. Gospel promises change. Disciples follow in faith a new way that leads they know not where, but they go forward into the unknown because they trust the one whose way it is, the one who has walked that way ahead of them, the one who has promised to be with them and to guide them.
From the Prophet of the Exile come words bearing promise for the people whose hope has dried up, who have been defeated and crushed by an empire too powerful to oppose.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19a NRSV)
This prophet announced the unthinkable. The unbeatable empire would fall. The God-forsaken exiles would be forgiven and healed, aroused to hope and courage, and led home to rebuild their ruined land. The powerless would be strengthened because the One coming to reclaim them was the Lord of the universe whom no mere empire could impede.
Religion is easily co-opted by the current empire, by the reigning royalty of whatever type. Once co-opted, the established religion sanctifies the status quo, declaring God’s approval over and over again of the way things are and the way things work. “Law and order” becomes the pseudo-pious cry of the powerful for continued repression of the powerless because, after all, the catchphrase “law and order” means only the enforcement of the current orders of the society, and the powerful are the ones who get the laws passed in their favor.
Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain? (Isaiah 10:1-4 NRSV)
Tyrants love religion but fear and hate gospel that calls the people to reject sameness and long for something new that promises, not “peace, peace, where there is no peace,” but the triumph of justice for those denied it and hope for those who have been pushed down so far they cannot even imagine feeling hope.
Yet, even “the gospel” itself has been co-opted by the established powers and so turned into good feelings now and heaven after death. Today, the most dynamic form of American Christianity (if not the most thoughtful), evangelicalism, has been domesticated into the lap dog of Donald Trump, barking only at those who dare speak against his corruption and cruelty or question his multitudinous lies.
When Jesus introduces his good news from God, he announces the coming of the reign of God. His announcement is good news for the poor, the outcast, the shamed, the repressed (including women and others regarded as lesser humans), and the powerless. The old orders of power and of religious self-righteousness now face the judgment of God, and those who will be blessed are the grief-stricken, the impoverished, those who hunger for justice denied, and the day laborers who cling to meager life each day without hope of rest or advancement.
Gospel – good news from Jesus the Christ – announces God’s judgment upon all forms of self-satisfied and self-preserving power. But judgment comes to open the doors of hope. We must be freed from the grip of systems of power that perpetuate injustices and turn even faith into an insipid, self-serving packet of assurances designed to pacify us rather than revitalize us. The newness of the reign of God is for those who want it, who hunger and thirst for it, who long to welcome it despite having no clear idea how it can come when the powers in control of life seem so overwhelmingly powerful.
So we walk by faith (trust) and not by sight. We do not try to take charge because, even if we were to succeed on our own in overthrowing the old and establishing something new of our making, it would not be the reign of God, the new creation, the consummation of all God’s promises. We protest what hurts and destroys the vulnerable, what exploits many for the over-advantage of a few, what discriminates against unpopular minorities. We join with others in common cause even when their motivation for seeking justice differs from our own faith. And we wait, never forgetting that what we are waiting for is better than anything we have ever known. Waiting is not passive. We’re not to be sitting on our hands (or just wringing them in despair). There are choices we must make – none perfect, but some clearly wrong, which makes not choosing a poor choice for faith to make.
Discipleship looks forward in faith and hope, daring to leave behind the security of established orders of life which are now revealed to be unjust and phony. Disciples answer the call: “Come, follow me.” We may not know where the new way will lead us, but we trust the one who calls us.
Much of religion, Christian and otherwise, has always been the attempt to persuade God (or the gods) to give us what we want, whether it be security, victory in warfare, peace in our homes, or eternal life. The primary task of faith, however, is moving us to want what God wants for this world and all its people and, yes, its non-human creatures as well. I grow in faith and discipleship if I am learning to want for myself what God wants for me and to want for others what God wants for them (with enough humility to realize I am not in charge of dictating to them what they should believe or do). Jesus does not tell me to love others rather than myself but to love my neighbor as myself. No self-hatred is required. Some sacrifice of self-interest may indeed be required, but we are to care for the life and well-being of our neighbor because we are learning to know ourselves as people God loves and cares for. We matter to God, but we need to grow into the family business, so to speak, which means learning to care about what God cares about, to be hurt by what hurts God, to work for the changes God wants in human life and societies, and to long for the day when God’s longings will be satisfied.
“Thy will be done on earth!”
Last time, I listed some questions that belong to religion in contrast with a life of faith and discipleship. They were not evil questions, but they were shallow and restricted to the management of life (and the prospect of death) in self-interest. Religion really is the human attempt to manage God. Faith is humble trust in the God who cannot and will not be managed. The more I fool myself into thinking I have all the answers about God and life and can rest comfortably in those answers, the more clearly I need better, deeper, and more honest questions. If I refuse to allow myself to hear better questions from other people’s expressed doubts and anxieties or from my own suppressed doubts and anxieties, life will slowly (or sometimes quite suddenly) hammer me with them.
Here again are the first three of the questions I listed that have generated religion for as long as people have thought about life and realized how tenuous it is:
- How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
- What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
- What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?
At a crisis point in Israel’s history as God’s covenant people, a prophet (Micah) speaks out for the people in their frustration with being judged for their injustices, self-deceit, and religious practices intended to pacify God. They sound like petulant teenagers demanding to know what it takes to get their parents off their backs. How many sacrifices do I have to make to please you, God? Do I have to slaughter every animal in my herd or flock? But then the frustrated and resentful religious people step over the line: Do I have to sacrifice my own firstborn child to shut you up? Child sacrifice was forbidden in Israel, and the question is as offensive as it can be made. I have paraphrased it (see Micah 6:1-8) to show that offensiveness. But if Israel will not be Israel, the covenant people, they are still creatures, and so now the prophet addresses them, not in their chosen people status, but in their raw humanity.
“What is good has been showed to you, human! What does the LORD require of you, but only this: to act justly and make justice happen, to love kindness and faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Here religion gets slammed up against some truths about God upon which the Bible, the prophets, and Jesus of Nazareth insist:
- God cannot be controlled or managed.
- God does love this created world with its creatures, and God will not abandon it despite its corruption and delight in evil done to the vulnerable.
- The individual person matters very, very much to God but not as an individual apart from others because human life is relational, and the human becomes a person in relationships with others and responsible relatedness to human society and to what we call the natural world.
- God calls us into our rightful humanity.
- We cannot secure our own lives, but we can live them in humble trust, and God will honor that trust.
- God has special concern for the vulnerable, the poor, the outcast, the shamed, and the oppressed or enslaved.
- Judgment is not itself the truth of God, even though judgment is sometimes necessary to open people to God’s truth, which is love that forgives, heals, and restores.
- As we are the creatures who can know God’s love and learn God’s will for healing the corrupted creation, we are made responsible to represent God’s love to each other and to the creation.
Doubt is not the enemy of faith. True enough, stubborn cynicism can shield a person from faith, hope, and even love, but honest doubt arising from the real anxieties, fears, and disappointments of living does the opposite: it opens a person to trust, hope, and love. The religious enemy of faith is authoritarian certitude: “Here are the questions you are permitted to ask, and here are the correct answers! Just learn them and accept them on faith!”
Enough for now. We have entered a time when, even here in North America, Christians will need to learn what it means to walk humbly (much more humbly than we have walked previously) with our God. If we do, then I believe we will hear our call to discipleship renewed.
The questions we ask, consciously or unconsciously, determine what we will expect from our religion, and thereby also set limits on how much we will allow religion into our lives, how far we will go in committing ourselves to religious beliefs and practices. This much but no more.
Religion, as I said in my previous post of the way I am using the word in this series, is intended for control. We want to feel stronger, more centered, better able to keep on top of life. We want to be enabled to stay optimistic. Indeed, optimism is the modern North American creed, and so the religious are likely to exclude questions that delve too deeply into any negatives that challenge an optimistic outlook and a tacit belief in progress. Religion wants faith to dispel doubt even when doing so requires silencing our own fears, griefs, anxieties, and disappointments as well as the cries of the oppressed or cheated.
Here are some of the questions that belong to religion as I am using that term in contrast with faith and discipleship.
- How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
- What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
- What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?
- How do I get blessings or good fortune?
- How do I overcome my fears and self-doubts well enough to maintain the positive, optimistic outlook demanded by our society?
- How do I become associated with the right kind of people?
- How can I come to deserve a long, successful, and happy life?
- How do I get into heaven (and stay out of hell or oblivion)?
- Can I get help with overcoming my fear of death or the living death of deep dementia?
- How much do I have to give?
These questions are not terrible or evil, but they are shallow and restricted to self-interest and the management of life for the security and prosperity of the self. Biblically understood faith does not obliterate self-interest. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, not instead of caring for ourselves. But the questions above allow me to be religious while centering my concerns in me. Even charitable deeds can be focused on how good they make me feel about myself for doing them and how grateful the people I help are expected to feel. An effusive thank-you note can go a long way toward securing another contribution or mission project from a church.
There are times in life when our minds need to be calmed with assurances, when trust needs to rest in its belief and not raise challenges. The Bible offers a great deal of comfort to the troubled, but neither the prophets nor Jesus came merely or even primarily to comfort and reassure the people. Moreover, the comfort truly offered comes within the context of the call to discipleship.
Let me close for now with an analogy. If I were to enter into love with only questions of, “What’s in it for me?” I would not be allowing myself to love for real. My expectations for a relationship would so restrain my commitment to giving of myself and letting myself become vulnerable that love would be choked off, strangled. Whatever relationship I might be able to maintain would be kept superficial and not allowed to mature. So it is with religion kept too self-restricted to grow into faith and discipleship.
The alternative, however, is not just zeal or being “on fire” for the Lord. Enthusiasm can be just as self-centered as rituals of comfort and reassurance. What we need is a deepening. My next post will seek to explain what that deepening means.
If someone were to ask me casually, “Dick, are you a religious man?” I would likely say, “Yes,” because people would not understand how I could be anything but religious when I am a Christian minister and retired pastor. My deeper answer, however, would be, “No, or at least I try not to be.” You can see, I’m sure, why that more honest answer would be injudicious in casual conversation.
Some theologians use the term religion in positive ways to indicate a shared life lived in faith, a life of piety (another positive term we use mainly with negative connotations, as in, “He’s so pious no one can stand him”). The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, a favorite of mine especially for his work, The Prophets, is one of those. Most theologians I read use the term religion in contrast with faith and discipleship, seeing religion as the human attempt to gain either some measure of control over God (or gods) and life or at least an amicable truce with God. The more virulent among us use religion for political ends, but in this piece I’m sticking with the personal uses, rather than malignant political abuses, of religion.
We humans have always longed for ways to control life and fortune rather than suffer as their victims. For Modernism, the adoration of science (not to be confused with the actual practice of scientific investigation) and a persistently optimistic confidence in progress replaced or co-opted much of American Christian religion by including notions of inevitable progress in human goodness as well as in happy, successful living. Liberal Protestantism (where “liberal” actually meant something specific) became too easily and almost blissfully compatible with Modernism’s optimism about human progress in virtue and control over life (and maybe even eventually over death) to survive the devastating crises of the second half of the 20th Century, which was supposed to have been “the Christian century.”
Two world wars, the Holocaust, Stalin’s slaughter of millions, the “killing fields” of Cambodia, the threat of thermonuclear destruction, the ecological disasters our progress has wrought upon the earth, and the emergence of super germs played trump card after trump card against that optimism. In the analogy from Greek mythology used by the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, North American society tried to see itself as like Prometheus (the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind) but proved instead to be more like Sisyphus (who was condemned forever to roll his great rock up a hill each day but never reach the summit before the rock slipped from his hands and rolled back down again, ready for the next day’s futile labor). Seeing oneself as a Sisyphus rather than a potential Prometheus or at least as a person of significance in a Promethean society (the greatest country in the world!) can lead to despair. Hence the opioid epidemic, the escape into the frenetic world of video games, and the bitter delusions of conspiracy theories.
So it came to be that our North American societies are now regarded as post-Christian and postmodern. Again, following Hall and others, I suggest that we have opportunity to become deliberately post-Christendom rather than post-Christian. Our cultural establishment as the society’s religion, broken in Europe, is rapidly eroding in North America, despite the great efforts of evangelical and end-time churches or movements in the United States to strengthen Christian establishment into a sort of theocracy on their terms of power and glory. We can, however, still hear the call to discipleship and respond with a humility befitting a minority, no longer dominant faith. In this way, we can represent an alternative to our society’s apparent choices: between Prometheus and Sisyphus, between unrealistic optimism and narcotized despair, between power and glory on one hand and meaningless existence in quiet desperation on the other, and we can do so in ways that do not seek to flee this world God loves. We are not called to become world-hating escapists whose hope is for earth’s destruction. Neither are we called to flee earthly life in favor of heaven.
So, in succeeding posts, I’ll attempt to draw the contrast between religion and discipleship. I’ll go forward by seeking to identify the distinctly different questions of religion and of discipleship. I am convinced that right now it is more important for us to ask good questions than to parrot formulated answers.
Signs in flower and garden stores tell shoppers that wearing a mask is a personal choice. Really? That foolishness is much the same as a sign reading, “Peeing in our swimming pool is a personal choice.” However you choose as an individual, you still swim in the choice made by others.
My mask does more to protect you than to keep me safe. Your mask protects me and everyone else with whom you come into contact. Your personal decision not to wear a mask puts other people at greater risk of contracting Covid-19, as those wearing masks make the personal choice to keep you safer. My mask says, “I don’t want to infect you or thereby kill someone you love.”
Lately I hear more and more comments, sometime angry outbursts, that sound like ten-year-olds on the playground trying to excuse themselves for bad behavior. “It’s a free country!” which means, “I’ll do as I please no matter what the rules for safety, and you’re not the boss of me!”
Freedom within the realm of adulthood cannot be separated from responsibility. When that connection is broken, freedom becomes another word for irresponsible self-indulgence.
What confounds logic is the heavy Christian influence here in Lancaster County, but I’m wondering more and more just what kind of Christian influence. How can I claim to be a disciple of Jesus, whom I profess to be the Christ, if I blatantly and defiantly declare that I don’t care about you or your family members, your loved ones? Who am I, “my brother’s keeper” (see Cain in Genesis 4)? If I don’t care about my neighbors whom I can see, can I really care about the Christ I have not seen (see the First Letter of John)?
So, now we no longer go to buy plants or produce from those shops. The other night, I ordered take-out from a local restaurant we had never patronized before. When I picked up the food, I saw that every employee but one was wearing a mask, and that one had his mouth open in a seemingly perpetual smile even as he worked over the food. I took the order and paid for it, but after our supper was postponed by an urgent matter, I shared my concern with my wife, and upon returning home, we dumped the food into the trash. When one person was openly peeing in the pool, we didn’t want to swim in it.
This Holy Week is strange. Our churches are not gathering for worship although many, including ours, are gathering digitally for worship as best we can.
Last night, as we reckon time, was Maundy Thursday or, as some churches prefer to call it, Holy Thursday – the night of the last supper and of Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane where our gospels show us his struggle in prayer with the horror he sees coming upon him. For him, as for all Jews who followed a lunar calendar, the day of his suffering and death began at sundown of what we call Thursday and continued until sunset on what we call Friday. It was all one day.
The name Maundy comes from a popular corruption of the Latin word mandatum, commandment. In the Gospel of John, chapter 13, Jesus says to his disciples on that night as the day of his death begins, “A new commandment (mandatum) I give you, that you love one another.”
This morning, as I started reading through some Maundy Thursday meditations I preached years ago before my retirement, I came upon the one from April 9, 2009, which I am sharing below, with any who choose to read it.
Were We There? Was I?
Was I there when Jesus was crucified? The most obvious, unreflective answer is, of course, “No.” Jesus of Nazareth was crucified almost two thousand years ago. But the literal is not always the truest.
Sacramentally, I have been there many times and will be there again with you this evening. In my hands I will hold the symbolic elements of his humiliation, suffering, and death, and by taking those symbols of his broken body into my own living body, I will confess both that Jesus did it for me and, also, that he “had to” do it because of me. He did not “have to” do it, of course, except that he was compelled by his faithfulness to the unyielding love of God for this world and its people. By eating the bread and drinking from the cup, I will admit that I am the reason for his crucifixion in both senses: he did it for me, because God loves me, and he did it because of me, because of my alienation from God and from other people. I am both the beneficiary and the cause of his pain.
This evening, I am there, there in the flesh, as one loved by God and, at the same time, one alienated from God, still divided from other people, and still a long way from being the person God created me to become. So, here I am again, hoping and trusting that this simple ritual somehow brings me into closer contact with Jesus in his passion, somehow takes hold of me and brings home to me that terrible event on which my life, my hope, and my salvation depend.
But the sacramental is not enough. To be there with him, I need to find him crucified in my real world and not just in the peace and calm of the sanctuary, in the familiar words and actions of the sacrament. A crucifixion was very much an event of the flesh. It was torture and humiliation, very bodily. If God’s love and presence were incarnated (made flesh) for us in the birth of the baby Jesus, how much more so in the breaking of the man’s body? His crucifixion is the supreme incarnation of God’s love and presence. Humanity did not just get to see, hear, and touch him; we got to mock, torture, and kill him. We made the incarnation of God’s love suffer and die.
How can we go beyond the sacramental in being there when and where Jesus is crucified? I think we can start by realizing that Jesus suffered not only for this world but also with it. On the cross he represented God fully to us, in is own dying human body, and he also represented us to God, as the human put to shame and suffering in an unjust, often seemingly Godless world. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus of Nazareth dies with – in unity with – all the countless God-forsaken people in our world.
The sacramental is good, helpful, and sustaining, but it is not enough. We need to find him crucified in the real, everyday world around us. Once we understand, once our eyes have been opened and our ears unplugged, he is not hard to find. He’s there, every day, all around us in what theologians call the cruciform. What is the cruciform? Literally, it is anything in the shape or form of a cross, but in theology it refers to the many experiences of life people find themselves forced to share with the crucified Jesus, whether or not they realize they are sharing in his experience and he in theirs. Life is harsh and often most unfair by any reasonable standard of judgment, and people can be cruel. Sometimes people are quite actively and brutally cruel; at other times, they are more casual, even offhand, about their cruelties – dismissive of those made to suffer, of those cheated, of those left out.
The cruelties, brutal or polite, have this in common: they proceed by dehumanizing their victims. Did you notice as I read from the Gospel of Mark how much emphasis the passion narrative puts on the shaming of Jesus? Despite Mel Gibson’s bloody depiction, the gospels have far more to say about Jesus’ humiliation than about his physical pain. Crucifixion was designed as public shaming, to make an example of the rebel and so attach shame to anyone who would consider rebellion against the empire that people would turn away from following him. The would-be leader of the rebellion was to die screaming, cursing, and begging while being mocked and taunted the whole while, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Notice that Pilate is surprised Jesus has died so soon. For the person crucified, death is the savior that never comes soon enough.
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” That song comes from a human experience that is, indeed, cruciform because it was so dehumanizing and humiliating. To be a slave is to be, twenty-four hours every day, less than a person. We even debated the fraction of a person by which a slave should be counted so the slave states could get more voting power without having to admit the unthinkable, that slaves were people.
We are people and for the most part acknowledged as such, though not always. Go and stand with the unpopular, and you may find your status suddenly reduced to the level of theirs. There it is, the link that takes us beyond the sacramental. Empathy that comes from standing with and among as one of them the people regarded as shameful, as less than valid human beings, unites us with Jesus crucified. Empathy speaks of suffering shared not just pitied. We can indulge in pity from a safe distance, but true empathy requires interaction, dialogue, and identification. Jesus branded himself a sinner by hanging around with sinners, treating them with respect, and sharing the scorn they received from the commendable people.
At the Lord’s Table, I know anew that I am not one of the commendable people, those who live exemplary lives. Jesus made a practice of pointing out to the virtuous that they were not so commendable as they pretended to be. They were playing the role of exemplary people, and so they were actors, role-players, for which the gospels’ term is hypocrite. Here in the sacrament, I know again as I receive the symbols of his humiliation, that Jesus endured it willingly both for me and because of me. There is nothing commendable in my receiving the bread and wine, but there is grace, and there is hope. I believe there is also a challenge and a calling. As the followers of Jesus who put our trust in him, we need to be there, where he is being crucified. We can be there with him when we stop playing the role of exemplary and commendable persons and, instead, enter into the shame and grief of people whose experience of life is cruciform. For where they are, there he is also. Amen.
In a time of rampant viral infection with as yet no inoculation against that infection, Christians may be tempted to flout the instructions to self-isolate to retard the communication and spread of the corona virus. After all, are we not people of faith? Do we take our direction from government or from Christ? Should we cower in fear of a measly virus too tiny to see when our ancestors in the faith stood up against ruthless emperors and vicious barbarians alike?
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes and see the punishment of the wicked.
Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
(Psalm 91:1-10 NRSV)
There are preachers challenging their congregations to just that – to come out to services, hug each other, and so disdain the threat of viral infection. What a great show of faith in Jesus Christ, right! No, wrong. Very, very wrong.
Our ancestors in the faith did not seek out the questionable glory of facing lions or gladiators in the Roman arena. Later, it is true, some did long for and seek martyrdom so they could attain that questionable glory; some even appealed to the churches not to intervene on their behalf with the authorities. But we are not called to seek our own glory; neither are we summoned to seek death. The apostle Paul has a word for such glory seeking:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1Corinthians 13:3 RSV)
The gospels of Matthew and Luke give us an extended look into the temptations of Jesus related to his own identity and ministry. Did he not believe in his calling? Did he not trust in God, his Father? Was he afraid or ashamed to stand up and show his faith? Would he play it safe? Did he not believe who he was? Was his success not the most important thing of all?
The voice of temptation, identified as the devil in the gospels, challenges him to assert himself, to step forward in courage and confidence, and to leave no doubt about his special relationship with God that would surely both protect him from harm and prosper him in his messianic destiny to power and glory. From that very same Psalm 91, the tempter quotes to persuade Jesus.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” (Matthew 4:5,6 NRSV quoting from Psalm 91)
Jesus rejects the temptation for what it is. True faith neither seeks out danger for the sake of self-glorification nor displays its trust in God for show. Faith does not try to put God into the position of having to tag along behind religious self-promotion that pretends to glorify God while actually taking the lead and expecting God to follow rather than be shamed by failure to deliver the flaunted protection.
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” (Matthew 4:5-7 NRSV)
No, Jesus would take the hard path of empathy with the people, humble trust in God, compassion for the suffering and sinful, and openness to God’s will for the future of his messiahship (which would be the shameful and torturous nightmare of Roman crucifixion for our sake). Let us not listen to the preachers of power and glory whose way is not Jesus’ way. The corona virus is an enemy from which we can protect those we love as well as the many God loves though we ourselves do not know. Let us not care less about God’s children than those who spurn God and disdain the name of Jesus Christ. We are not called to put on a display of our faith (and so dare God not to keep us safe despite our irresponsibility and ridiculous self-assertion). Let us not put our God to the test.
The science of the viral infection is real. Let us follow the instructions and pray for their success in flattening the curve of the virus’s spread so our hospitals and health care workers will not be overwhelmed. Yes, indeed, we pray for the people we know and love, but let us not pray for them without caring about the many, many people of this nation and world we do not know and cannot name but may very well infect, lest we belie our prayers with selfishness and deny God’s love for all the world’s people. We are not called to show how very, very special we are, how much more important than the rest of the world’s people. We are called to serve God’s love for all people and to do so in the way of the Servant Christ.