Archive for April, 2014

The “good” in Good Friday isn’t only anything

April 19, 2014

I’ll post last night’s Good Friday sermon later. I still haven’t posted my Palm Sunday sermon, I know! But in the sermon I talked about a Facebook post by a fellow pastor who raved that he had just heard a great Holy Week sermon about the “good” in Good Friday:


The “good” of Good Friday is only that in the deepest, darkest hole, God is present. 

Really? The only good? I responded with the following (click on image to enlarge):


I can’t help but feel like a grumpy old man when I post things like this. I really want to just be cool and get along, but I can’t! There’s too much at stake in these types of questions.

Nevertheless, upon further reflection, I realize my response didn’t go far enough. It’s not that God isn’t with us when we suffer—by all means he is! But I wouldn’t use the Good Friday scriptures as my proof-text! In the case of Jesus’ crucifixion, they make nearly the opposite point! As I said in last night’s sermon:

“In the deepest, darkest hole, God is present.” That’s the “only” good in Good Friday? In the case of what happened on the cross, that’s almost exactly opposite of the truth.

Because notice: Jesus doesn’t cry, in verse 46, “My God, my God, I’m so glad that you’re with me, even right here on the cross.” No, he shouts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” He’s quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, by the way. And herein lies the third surprisingly good thing about Good Friday—in truth, it’s the best thing of all: God the Father abandons his Son Jesus on the cross. This is nothing less than hell for Jesus—literally—to be separated from God. But God the Son, Jesus Christ, willingly endures this. He’s the only one who’s ever endured this separation from God in this world. It doesn’t matter how big a sinner you are; you can’t do anything, in your life in this world, to separate yourself from God. In eternity you can; but not here. God will be with you. But notice: God wasn’t with Jesus.

That’s why, despite what Mel Gibson or anyone else might depict in a Hollywood movie, it’s not the physical pain that Christ endured that made the cross so unimaginably painful, it was this spiritual pain of separation from his heavenly Father.

Why did he endure this infinitely painful separation from his Father? I went on to quote Isaiah 53:4-6, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Galatians 3:13. Through his suffering we are reconciled to God.

Near the end of my sermon, I said the following: “I don’t need the cross to show me that God is with me now when I suffer, but that God will be with me in eternity because God suffered now.”

A video for Holy Thursday

April 17, 2014
This mosaic of Jesus in the dungeon during the night of his arrest is found outside the Church of St. Peter in Galllicantu in Old Jerusalem. The church is located on the traditional site of the house of Caiaphas the high priest. Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard outside.

This mosaic of Jesus in the dungeon during the night of his arrest is found outside the Church of St. Peter in Galllicantu in Old Jerusalem.

I prepared the following movie from video footage and photos I took during my Holy Land trip in 2011. It features what was perhaps the most moving part of the trip: our visit to the House of Caiaphas (now the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu), where Jesus was tried before the high priest and spent his last fateful night before the crucifixion. Peter denied Jesus in the courtyard outside.

The cross is not incidental to Christ’s mission

April 17, 2014

Last December, in these two blog posts, here and here, I wrote a response to Jason Micheli, a popular fellow United Methodist pastor and blogger, who argued in a series of posts that Christmas doesn’t need the cross: the purpose of the Incarnation was not in order to save us, and even if humanity had never fallen into sin, God would still have sent his Son into the world.

Needless to say, I vehemently disagreed, which you can read about above.

But at least my fellow pastor is consistent. Now that we’re nearing Good Friday, he’s recycling the same arguments again, arguing that the cross isn’t necessary for atonement; that the Father would never send his Son to die on the cross; that the cross is merely the world’s equal and opposite reaction against anyone’s faithfulness to God; and that the cross is therefore completely incidental to God’s saving purposes. Presumably, our Lord could have died of old age—had the world allowed him to—and that would have been no more or less salvific.

I don’t think I’m misrepresenting his viewpoint. I tried to engage him on the topic last December, and he wasn’t interested.

I understand the motivation to want to argue that the Father doesn’t send his Son to die on the cross. By this way of thinking, if suffering is always only a consequence of human sin or the accidental outworking of cause-and-effect—rather than something that God might also will—then God is off the hook for it, and all those moral objections to God are neutralized.

In some temple of pure thought, I can see the appeal of such a god. For one thing, such a hands-off god wouldn’t get so worked up over my sins and make so many demands on my life.

As always, however, we have the Bible to contend with. There are too many scriptures I could cite in my defense from both Testaments, and you probably know most of them yourself. But even if we restrict ourselves to Jesus: When he prays, “Not my will but thine be done,” we are right to infer that God willed Jesus to suffer death on the cross.

Does the cross also reflect the free will of civil, religious, and military authorities such as Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Roman soldiers, not to mention the bystanders in the crowd who cheered them on? Of course. They didn’t need God to “give them a push” to send Jesus to the cross. It was both the consequence of human free will and the chosen means by which God atones for our sins.

Also, as I’ve said a dozen times before on this blog, the Son isn’t an unwitting victim either of his Father’s or the world’s schemes: out of love for us, Jesus chooses to go to the cross. The Son wants what the Father wants.

All that to say, where the god of the philosophers conflicts with the God of the Bible, we side with the Bible. Fortunately, the God of the Bible is not only more interesting, he’s also much worthier of worship.

For one thing, the God of the Bible loves us so much that he lets us suffer, when that suffering will be for our good. And the suffering of his Son Jesus was for the greatest good of all: our salvation.

For another, with the God of the Bible, we get to believe, alongside C.S. Lewis, “What God sends us must be sent in love and will all be for the best if we have the grace to use it so.”[†]

“The Ultimate Law” in The C.S. Lewis Bible NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1106.

Lewis: “The diagram of Love Himself”

April 16, 2014

C.S. Lewis on the love revealed in Christ’s death on the cross:

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing… the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates His own parasites, causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the invented of all loves.[†]

C.S. Lewis, “Herein Is Love” in The C.S. Lewis Bible, NRSV (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 1105.

A reflection about prayer

April 15, 2014

In the following homily, which I shared at our church’s Palm Sunday evening prayer service, I made reference to some profound worship experiences I had while I was in Kenya in 2012 and 2013. The video below demonstrates the style of prayer to which I referred in my homily. Around the 40-second mark, my fellow pastors begin praying out loud, all at once. This was a completely new way of praying for me!

Twice over the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of going to Kenya to teach indigenous United Methodist pastors classes on Wesleyan theology, church doctrine, and church history. While I was there I had some profound experiences of prayer and worship, and I’d like to share one of them with you.

You know how in our worship services I ask people to lift up the name of someone in prayer—someone says a name, I say, “Lord in your mercy,”and the people respond, “Hear our prayer”? The Kenyans I worked with do something kind of similar when they worship—it’s much more chaotic than what we do, but very beautiful. During worship, they sing hymns and praise and worship songs, and then—spontaneously, without being prompted by a pastor or anyone—they begin praying. And when they pray, each person in the group of dozens or hundreds of worshipers shouts out their praise and gratitude and supplications to God—individually, all at once. Out loud! It is this beautiful cacophony of voices.

I had never heard anything like it before. Some of the pastors were literally weeping as they prayed. They seemed to pray with such holy desperation. They were pleading that God would give them whatever they were asking for! Read the rest of this entry »

Jesus is like the paschal lamb, and it’s O.K. to say so

April 15, 2014

I probably agree with Rebecca Cynamon-Murphy, a lifelong practicing Christian in an interfaith marriage to a Jew, that Christians shouldn’t host their own Passover Seders. What do we know about Seders? And, anyway, does our present-day understanding of the Seder meal correspond to the meal that Jesus and his disciples would have celebrated?

In my experience with Christians taking part in Passover Seders, however, they are usually hosted by messianic Jews who know how to conduct a Seder. If these Jewish Christians don’t have a problem their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters taking part, why should I? (I’m sure she would reply that Messianic Jews aren’t authentically Jewish, so they don’t count, but I disagree with her.)

Moreover, I strongly disagree with her main reasons for arguing against Christians taking part in Seders:

Christians mounting their own reading of the Haggadah almost always want to discuss how Jesus is like the paschal lamb, using the occasion to show how all the Hebrew scriptures point to Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies. This theological exercise, known as supersessionism, is problematic enough in a purely Christian context, but as part of a Jewish ritual it is deeply out of place.

Spinning the “Old Testament” this way reduces the prophecies, the ambiguities that Jewish scholars have debated for centuries in the Talmud and in yeshivas, the morals derived from stories of flawed protagonists and, in fact, the entire narrative arc of the Jewish people as simply a preamble to the main act. Because Jewish people do not believe this interpretation of their holy texts and given the atrocities committed by members of our own faith because of this difference in belief, it’s like adding salt to the wounds of history for a Christian family to take one of the most sacred Jewish celebrations and twist it to reflect our own beliefs.

I’m sorry: it’s not “twisting” this sacred Jewish celebration to discuss “how Jesus is like the paschal lamb,” or use the occasion of Passover “to show how all the Hebrew scriptures point to Jesus as fulfilling prophecies.” I’m certain that at some point during her church’s own observance of Holy Week and Good Friday, either her pastor or the church’s liturgy will find an analogy between Christ’s sacrifice and its antecedent in Passover—and in plenty of other Old Testament texts.

And there’s nothing wrong with that!

From my perspective as a Christian, all the Hebrew scriptures do point to Jesus as fulfilling prophecies. The Old Testament, whatever else it is, is also the story of Jesus. The stories of all its “flawed protagonists” are also the stories of us present-day Christian believers. And we Christians are justified in calling these scriptures the Old Testament (without scare quotes) and not merely the “Hebrew Bible” (the politically correct nomenclature of mainline Protestant seminary).

Do I need to also point out that present-day non-Christian Jews are free to disagree with us? In fact, I should expect them to! It’s more than slightly condescending for us Christians to tell our Jewish friends that our religions’ competing truth claims don’t really matter. No, we respect our Jewish friends by appreciating the genuine differences that separate us.

She may knock what she regards as “supersessionism” all she wants, but what’s her alternative? Let me guess: two covenants? God has his covenant with Jews, which is their path to God, and we Christians have our covenant with God, which is our path. These paths are “separate but equal” paths to God and salvation.

I see no way to reconcile this “two covenants” theology with the New Testament: All the promises that God made with Abraham and God’s covenant people, Israel, are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Gentiles are “grafted into” God’s covenant people through faith in Christ. God’s covenant people—call them “Israel” or not—now consist of both Jewish and Gentile believers in the Messiah Jesus. And, along with the apostle Paul, we look forward to the day when ethnic Israel will also come to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, Savior, and Lord.

N.T. Wright, as he so often does, has many helpful things to say here. I’ll leave you with his words:

Behind this muddled thinking lies, of course, a deep divide over how Christians should read the Old Testament.  In what way, by what means, does this extraordinary book become our book?  How can we claim that we, Jew and Gentile alike in the body of Christ, are the children of Abraham, the one people of promise?  Is not this a denial of the specialness of Israel?  Does it not constitute in itself the beginning of anti-Semitism?  Such charges are regularly laid against Christians who claim such things, basing their claim on Paul, 1 Peter and other New Testament writings.  But this is a case of being condemned if you do and condemned if you don’t.  Exactly the same charge is leveled against Christians who forget their Jewish roots, who construct a neo-Marcionite system in which Abraham and the covenant are left behind (Marcion was a second-century heretic who denied that the God revealed in Jesus was the same as the God of the Old Testament), who speak of Paul’s doctrine of justification as Paul’s attack on ‘Judaism’, who see ‘the Jews’ in themselves as the problem, and Christianity as the answer.  The New Testament itself, of course, from start to finish sees the gospel of Jesus as the fulfilment of all that God had promised to his people in the Old.  On the road to Emmaus, Jesus expounded to the two puzzled disciples all the things in the scriptures which concerned himself.  That remains the foundation of Christian existence.

One of the specific things on which the New Testament insists, again and again, is that in the life, death and supremely the resurrection of Jesus the promised new age has dawned. The return from exile has happened.  ‘All the promises of God’, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 1.20, ‘find their “yes” in him.’  This is in fact the great Return, even though it doesn’t look like people had thought it would.  Instead of Israel as a political entity emerging from political exile, we are invited in the gospel to see Israel-in-person, the true king, emerging from the exile of death itself into God’s new day.  That is the underlying rationale for the mission to the Gentiles: God has finally done for Israel what he was going to do for Israel, so now it’s time for the Gentiles to come in.  That, too, is the underlying rationale for the abolition of the food laws and the holy status of the land of Israel: a new day has dawned in God’s purposes, and the symbols of the previous day are put aside, not because they were a bad thing, now happily rejected, but because they were the appropriate preparatory stages in God’s plan, and have now done their work.  When I became a man, I put away childish things.  Lift up your eyes, says Paul in Romans 8, and see how the promises to Abraham are to be fulfilled: not simply by a single race coming eventually to possess a single holy strip of turf, but by the liberation of the whole cosmos, with the beneficiaries, the inheritors of the promise, being a great number from every race and tribe and tongue, baptized and believing in Jesus Christ and indwelt by his Spirit.

“Christ’s Passion”: from yesterday’s Palm Sunday service

April 14, 2014

I showed this video in yesterday’s Palm Sunday service. I prepared it two years ago from video and photos from my Holy Land trip. The latest version of iMovie enabled me to enhance the audio slightly from the original movie.

The background music is the song “Horizons,” performed by the great Steve Hackett as a prelude to Genesis’s amazing song about the end of the world, “Supper’s Ready.” Enjoy!

Sermon 04-06-14: “Warning Against Worldliness”

April 12, 2014


The metaphor that James uses in v. 4 to describe God’s relationship with us is powerfully intimate: God is our husband and we are his bride. Our worldliness, therefore, is like spiritual adultery: we are cheating on our true Spouse with other lovers. The good news is that God has given us the power to be faithful and overcome the power of sin and the devil.

Sermon Text: James 4:1-12

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

My wife, Lisa, and I first met while we were in college, because Lisa’s mom was working as the children’s minister at the church I attended during college. When we first started dating, Lisa asked if I wanted to go to Six Flags on a particular Saturday afternoon. In addition to riding the rides, she said, there was a singer that was performing in the park that afternoon, so we could see him first and then enjoy the park. HoweverI actually didn’t like this singer—at all. But I really liked Lisa. So of course I said, “Yes, I’d love to do that!”So, I showed up at Lisa’s house on that particular Saturday to pick her up. But Lisa wasn’t there. Her parents explained that she was running an errand, which was taking longer than she expected. But she’d be home soon. So I waited twenty minutes or so. And then when she got home, I had to wait a little while longer for her to get ready.


Lisa’s lateness was not a problem for me, of course, because the later we were to the concert, the better, as far as I was concerned. So as we were on our way to Six Flags, I was looking at the time, and I said, “Oh, I think we’re going to be late for the concert!”And Lisa said, “You know what? We don’t want to go in late. Why don’t we just skip the concert and ride the rides?” Read the rest of this entry »

Another worthy David Brooks column, this time about suffering

April 10, 2014

Last fall, as I was shoulder-deep in Tim Keller’s profoundly good book about suffering and providence, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I might have mistaken this column from New York Times‘s David Brooks for an excerpt from it. Brooks begins:

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

“People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.” Exactly right! This experience of feeling formed is better and deeper than mere happiness, as most of us know, even if we wouldn’t ordinarily choose it. We would choose formation by some easier path than suffering, but God knows suffering is what we usually get. Jesus speaks to this paradoxical truth when he talks about “finding our life by losing it,” denying ourselves, and choosing the narrow, difficult path that leads to life. Jesus promises and delivers us an abundant life, it just doesn’t come the way we want or expect.

As C.S. Lewis put it in probably the best book about Christianity I’ve read:

I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. I have seen men, for the most part, grow better not worse with advancing years, and I have seen the last illness produce treasures of fortitude and meekness from most unpromising subjects. I see in loved and revered historical figures, such as Johnson and Cowper, traits which might scarcely have been tolerable if the men had been happier. If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing its work.[†]

But as Lewis and Brooks both know, the same potentially soul-making action of suffering can, for some people, be soul-crushing. As Brooks writes,

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

What determines whether it’s one or the other? I agree with Viktor Frankl, whom Brooks also refers to. Frankl said that all suffering—and by all, this Auschwitz survivor means all—can potentially be an opportunity for spiritual growth: it only depends on our response.

How does suffering do its soul-making work? Brooks offers this insight:

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

Who can’t relate to this?

In my recent experience as a Christian, a renewed awareness of my own sinfulness and God’s judgment—which might seem either depressing or terrifying to some—had the effect of thrusting me “down into these deeper zones” within myself—at which point I found a gracious God waiting for me.

Isn’t it interesting that Brooks describes sufferers as coming to grips with their own lack of control? That’s what I found, too: through sinful pride, I tried to wrest control of my life from God, and the results were disastrous. A part of repenting and turning back to God means surrendering control. Like the Prodigal Son, we surrender our rights as a son or daughter—”I am no longer worthy to be called your son”—only to receive them back again: “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” Repentance is a kind of death and rebirth.

Brooks refers to a “divine process beyond individual control,” a “larger providence,” and a “call” that comes from suffering. That’s right: the reason suffering is, or can be, good for us is because God is working in the midst of it, providentially.

Brooks concludes by saying, “The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined.”

Imagine: David Brooks just told a secular audience in our present age that suffering is a gift fully equal to happiness. Could he have said anything deeper or more countercultural than that?

Regardless, it has the ring of gospel truth.

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 108-9.

Sermon 03-30-14: “Taming the Tongue, Part 2”

April 9, 2014


We look again this week at James’s words about taming the tongue and the connection between what we say and who we are. The tongue, James says, has the power to both reflect and direct our lives. James also challenges us to pay close attention to the motives underneath the words we say. How often are our words motivated by selfish-ambition and jealousy. The solution is to “speak the truth in love.” Easier said than done! But this sermon offers practical tips on how to do it!

Sermon Text: James 3:1-18

A video went viral on YouTube a few weeks ago. It starred actor Kevin Bacon. In the video, Bacon, in full “grumpy old man”mode, complains about the startling lack of what he called “’80s awareness”among millennials. He said, “All you guys born after 1985 have no idea how hard life was. If I was too shy to ask a girl out, there was no OK Twinder,”he says—mangling the name of a social networking app. No, he says, “I went to the White Pages—Google it—and called her house, and then you had to make small talk with her mom for, like, 20 minutes before Alicia even came to the phone. And let me tell you, when she turns down your invitation to Sbarro’s, you can’t just swipe away the hurt.


“You want to know my favorite app? Rubik’s Cube.

“I saw you tweet an article about Russia. You think Russia’s a threat now? Let me tell you about a little thing called the Cold War. They had nukes pointed at us for 20 years. You couldn’t even skateboard to a Blockbuster without getting nuked! My friend Tommy went out to rent a copy of Gremlins and never came back. You know why? Nuked. At least that’s what my parents told me.”

I’ve thought of these words in light of what’s happened in Crimea between Russia and Ukraine. Some people are worried about it, but I’m like, “Crimea? That’s nothing. Remember when Russia used to own that whole corner of the map?”

See, kids, when you get older, you develop a sense of perspective about these things! You may not be hip to all the latest trends in social media, you may not know all the names of the latest bands and singers, you may not know about all the latest video games—because the last time you played a video game, your controller had a stick and one red button… but you have something better than mere knowledge…You have wisdom. Or at least you ought to. Read the rest of this entry »