Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Cross (Page 2 of 6)

Repost: A new day

This post was first published in April 2014. It follows on from previous posts here and here.

New day

It is another morning, this time far from the hustle and bustle of the city. Uncertain of what the future held, we had gravitated back to the comfortable familiarity of Galilee. Once here, not knowing what else to do, it had not been long before we were back in our boats.

We spent the whole of last night trawling the lake, and came up with nothing to show for it. And then, just as we were drawing in the nets and preparing to come in, he called out from the shore and told us to try the other side of the boat. Now, the bulging net lies on the ground beside the boat, and we have just finished a hearty breakfast of fish and bread. A breakfast cooked and served to us by him.

Having got up to begin cleaning away the remains of breakfast, I find myself alone with him, a few yards away from the others. This is the third time I’ve seen him since he rose, but the first time we’ve been face to face. Although I am close enough that I could reach out my hand and touch him, something holds me back – there is a distance between us that cannot be bridged by mere touch. There is no doubt in my mind that this Jesus who stands before me now is the very same man I saw die a criminal’s death; God has raised him to new life, just as he said would happen. Which means I cannot escape the conclusion that everything he said about himself is true, that he really is the Messiah, the chosen one, the Son of Man who is Son of God. This – though it defies all logic and human experience – this I can accept, for there are no alternatives that remotely explain the facts.

But there is something I cannot accept, something I cannot bring myself to consider. Whatever this risen king has in store, whatever the next chapter in this strange story might be, I cannot see how I could possibly deserve a place in it. I am glad he is alive, I am glad to know he is the chosen one of God, but I know I have surely disqualified myself from any further role in his plans. He may have triumphed over the grave, but I am left undone by my pride, my cowardice and my sin, forever condemned to look on from the sidelines. What further use could he have for me, now that I’ve shown him and everyone else that all my gallant words were nothing but empty rhetoric?

He looks over at the others, then back at me. “Simon”, he says, and his use of the name my father gave me somehow cuts through my pretence, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” I shuffle my feet, wanting to look away, but his eyes will not release me. I try to sound as earnest as I can: “Yes, Master, you know I love you”. “Feed my lambs”, comes the reply.

I stand there awkwardly, trying to make some sense of this last comment, when he again looks me in the eye and asks, “Simon, do you love me?” A sudden stab of anger and pain rises up inside me: the anger of his not believing me and the pain of knowing that I am a liar, that I denied him when he needed me most; how can I expect him to believe me now? Yet, still wanting to play the part and save face, I repeat my answer: “Yes, Master, you know I love you”. This time, he tells me to feed his sheep.

By now I am teetering on the edge of a precipice, my emotions threatening to wrest control from me. I am desperately trying to mask my inner turmoil, concentrating on hiding the trembling in my hands. But he has seen it, and he reaches out and gently takes my hand in his. As he once more looks me in the eyes, everything else fades and the whole world is reduced to this moment, this place, the two of us. “Simon”, he asks again, his voice tender, and it is as though his eyes reach deep into my soul, “Simon, do you love me?”

Before I can answer, the wall I have built around my emotions begins to crack, and I feel the hot sting of tears on my cheek. “Master”, I reply, and this time my eyes are pleading with his, I am begging him to believe me, “Master, you know everything there is to know. You have to know that I love you”.

Without warning, it all comes flooding back, everything I did that fateful night, and with it my anger, my fear and my wretchedness. I remember my hurt and my offence when he told me I would deny him, and I feel the burning shame of my failure. Then suddenly, with bell-like clarity, I hear again the words he spoke to me at the table earlier that same evening: “I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail. So when you’ve repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”

“Feed my sheep”, he says again, gently squeezing my hand. And in that moment, something passes between us and I know that he foresaw even this, that he knew all along that I, his strongest supporter and staunchest ally, would fail him utterly. It dawns on me that, just as I denied him three times, I have now told him three times that I love him; it is as though he was determined to prove to me that the final word about me was not spoken on that dreadful night.

We remain there a few moments longer, and as we talk, I realise that the chasm between us has gone and I have nothing to hide. He does not have to tell me I am forgiven; I simply know that my guilt has been washed away, buried with him in that cold tomb and left there when he rose again. And I understand for the first time this freedom of which he has so often spoken: the freedom of knowing that none of this depends on me, that it has all been done and taken care of in spite of me, and that I no longer have to run from him, from God, from others, or from myself.

I breathe in the cool, fresh morning air as we walk back to the others. A new day has begun.

[ Image: Sean MacEntee ]

Everything has changed: an Easter Sunday meditation

This post was first published on Easter Sunday 2013. It follows on from my Holy Saturday meditation here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo much has happened in the past week. It seems like only yesterday that we walked triumphantly into Jerusalem on a carpet of palm leaves, our emotions high as the crowd chanted “Hosanna!” None of us could have predicted what would unfold only a few hours later. And yet, looking back, it all seems so clear, and I wonder how I could have failed to see everything he so carefully explained and warned us about. I suppose there are some things you have to experience before you can really understand them. I tried so hard to understand – I wanted to be the one who understood better than anyone – but, as so often, it was in my head that I tried to work it all out and put it all together; it took the furnace of experience to shatter my delusions and finally allow my stubborn, wavering heart to see what had been in front of me all along.

*  *  *  *  *

Never has a sabbath night been so long and so bleak. After he finally let go of life – from the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes, it was almost as though he and he alone decided exactly when it should end – I could not bring myself to stay and watch the morbid proceedings that would inevitably follow. I left that hill in a daze, not knowing who or where I was any more, and not even thinking about where I was going. I stumbled in the darkness of my thoughts even as the sky blackened and the heavens opened; it was as if heaven itself was appalled at the events of that day, and the great drops that fell to the baked earth were the very tears of God.

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The morning after – A Holy Saturday meditation

(This post was first published on Holy Saturday 2014.)

Dead JesusDeath.

Death hangs heavy in the air. I can smell it, I can feel its oppressive weight, I can taste its cloying, bitter taste in my throat. At this moment, I can see and feel little else; death is everything and everywhere.

The night has seemed to last forever, the agony of regret my only companion. Now, from the shadowy corner where I sit, my knees drawn up to my chest and my head down, I hear stirrings of life as people begin to wake and prepare to go about a new day. The city cares nothing for yesterday or for my sorrow; it presses ahead, resolute and impassive. Life goes on, but not for me. Death is the place I now inhabit.

Yesterday…

No. I try to keep my mind wrapped in the relative safety of today, where all is dark and numb. Yet at the same time some awful compulsion drives me to relive those terrible hours, the way that a high, exposed cliff dares you to peer over the edge, knowing you could plunge to your doom but unable to resist the magnetic draw of the yawning chasm beneath.

How could so much come to pass in one day? And how could so much – so many hopes, dreams and expectations – be undone in a few short hours? My mind screams that it can’t be true, there must be some mistake, you need to wake up and maybe then this nightmare will end. And yet, in some dark corner of my consciousness, another voice taunts, You should have known this was coming. It was clear enough for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear. But I only saw and heard what I wanted to; even when the inevitable truth was staring me in the face, I would not, could not let myself see it. And now… now everything lies in ruins, every flicker of hope and light snuffed out by the cold hand of Death. I can almost hear him cackling faintly, somewhere off in the gloom beyond the edge of sight, amused that anyone could think this might end any other way, that anyone could forget that he always has the final say.

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Sacrificing God

Darkness cross

“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ […] Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” (Matt 27:45-50)

At the cross, humanity demonstrated its supreme reliance on violent power as the ultimate solution to every problem. The world’s most sophisticated religion combined with its most highly developed civilisation, and together they conspired to do the unthinkable: murder God incarnate.

The event of the cross proved two things beyond the slightest doubt. First, it proved that even the most enlightened and pious human societies are quite willing to soak themselves in innocent blood in order to preserve social cohesion. And second, it proved that God is not like us, and is not as we thought he was. Jesus’ submission to the cross demonstrated once and for all that God will go to any lengths – including his own death – to avoid exercising violent power. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “God allowed himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross.”

Make no mistake: before it was anything else, the cross event was a catastrophe, a calamity, a cataclysm. And yet, beneath its appalling ugliness, it was also a thing of great and resplendent beauty. This is the paradox of the cross: as humanity displayed the depths of its depravity by sacrificing God himself, God submitted to humanity’s bloody demands and, in so doing, revealed with utmost clarity the blazing white heart of love that beats at the centre of all that is.

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Just another victim

10703329555_5d6256a382_hTomorrow is Good Friday, the day when Christians the world over commemorate the unique, saving death of Jesus. But I think it’s worth taking a moment to pause and ask just what is unique about this death.

If we consider Jesus’ death unusual – and if we believe that its salvific benefits are linked to this unusualness – we would do well to stop and ask what, precisely, was unusual about it.

Death by crucifixion may have been a particularly excruciating and shameful demise, but it was certainly nothing unusual in first century Palestine. Famed Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made several references to the widespread occurrence of this gruesome practice in his Antiquities. Indeed, according to Josephus, the Romans routinely crucified hundreds and even thousands of victims at the first sign of revolt. We cannot say, then, that there was anything particularly unique about the physical nature of Jesus’ death, however grisly it may appear to our modern sensibilities.

You might advance that Jesus’ death was unique by virtue of his absolute innocence. But again, I would say history is against you. If the Roman occupiers crucified two thousand people in one day on charges of insurrection, it’s a racing certainty that a good number of those strung up were either absolutely innocent or, at the very least, completely justified in their revolt against a wholly unjust oppressor.

We can thus conclude that whatever may have been unique about Jesus’ death, it was neither the appalling mechanics of it nor the fact of Jesus’ innocence.

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Magic blood

Thorns bloodIt has often been said that Christians have a vocabulary all their own that is rather baffling to non-Christians. In particular, phrases involving “the blood” must be particularly disturbing to non-initiates. While the idea of being “washed in the blood”, “cleansed by the blood” or even “sprinkled by the blood” might be common currency to those of us who have been in and around churches for decades, it’s not hard to see how they might at the very least raise an eyebrow or two among thoughtful outsiders.

Yet there’s no denying that the blood of Jesus is central to Christian belief. Both the Old and the New Testament are replete with references to blood. And Jesus’ death, however you understand it, was undeniably a bloody event.

The question remains: how should we understand the blood of Jesus and its import for our salvation? Allow me to offer a brief perspective.

Being a Pentecostal of thirty years’ standing, I’ve heard and read more than my fair share of references to Jesus’ blood. I’ve sat under speakers who’ve railed that I need to be washed in the blood lest I perish; I’ve been assured – and have myself assured others – that “Jesus’ blood never fails me”; and I’ve lustily sung good old Pentecostal hymns proclaiming that “There’s power in the blood”.

My experience leads me to conclude that for many Christians, Jesus’ blood (like his cross) is little more than a talisman, a magical potion that bestows forgiveness, healing, power… in fact, any number of supernatural benefits. And all these benefits come irrespective of whether or not we actually allow ourselves to be changed as a result of understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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A revolutionary meal

EucharistToday’s post is a response to theologian Michael Hardin‘s five-part series on the Eucharist. I first read it about a year ago, and found it world-tilting in its implications. You can read the entire series here. Michael asked me if, in this run-up to Easter, I would share some reflections by way of a response to this series. I’m honoured and delighted to do so.

——————

There are vast divergences of corporate practice within the established church in its manifold forms. The Eastern Orthodox have their icons, bells and smells; the Roman Catholics have their confession and absolution; the charismatics and Pentecostals raise their hands and speak in tongues… In short, we have a multitude of different ways of expressing ourselves in corporate worship.

Yet there is one piece of liturgical practice that is common to every single Christian denomination. It goes by different names – the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of Bread – but while its format and presentation may vary slightly from one church to another (hosts/wafers versus bread, wine versus juice, open versus closed communion), it is instantly recognisable as the centrepiece of collective Christian practice across the denominational map.

As a Christian of thirty years, the Eucharist had become very familiar to me. Like every other believer, I knew it was to be revered and treated with great solemnity. And I knew it was representative, in some mysterious way, of profound truths about Jesus’ death and what it accomplished for us.

But can I be brutally honest? While many other believers appeared to swoon with heartfelt devotion over the bread and the wine, I would often feel I was doing little more than going through the religious motions, performing a ritual which, in spite of its familiarity, largely remained strange and inexplicable to me.

Then, about a year or so ago, I read Michael’s posts about the Eucharist. This was in the midst of a time when my theology had already undergone major tectonic shifts, so I guess you could say I was ripe for a new understanding of this most central Christian practice. Suddenly, lights went on, pieces fell into place, and the Eucharist began to make sense in a way it never had before.

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