Friday, March 29, 2013

What is Truth?

"What is truth?"    This is the question that Pilate asked Jesus 2000 years ago.  A number of years ago, a gentleman named  George Parks visited Grace, Alvin.  He put on a 'one-man' play called, "And what is truth?"  The only character was Pilate, a number of years after the crucifixion, talking to an unseen visitor about the events that occurred in Palestine on that fateful day.  And in this play, Pilate is still asking the question, "What is truth?"

It is a question well worth asking.  What is the truth about what happened in that small province, in the eastern portion of the great Roman Empire?  What did that truth mean then and what does it mean to us now?  In our human view of the world, very few people see the same 'truth' in any situation.  Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the light."  In the gospel of John,  Jesus said, "I tell you the truth..." 26 times.  It is very important, our very life depends on it, that we seek out the truth that Jesus brings to us and seek out the truth concerning his death and resurrection, and seek out the truth of his place in our life.
Pilate had a very difficult job.  He couldn't help feeling slighted to have been assigned to such a backwater province, trying to keep the peace among such a odd people with their strange god and ridiculous customs.  And in this case, he found himself caught between the proverbial "rock and hard place."  This rag of a man who stood before him didn't seem worth the time and effort that he was having to expend.  A king?   Now that was a laugh.  Why did these people want him dead?  He was obviously no threat.  But still they pressed.  Pilate tried to free Jesus, but they wouldn't let him.  They kept yelling and shouting - and then they threatened Pilate - threatened to go to the emperor - so Pilate gave in to their desires.  For Pilate, the truth was that this man did not deserve to die, but to keep peace among this people (and to keep from being reported to emperor as unfaithful), he gave in to their desires.

What is truth?  For Caiaphas, the high priest, truth was much more serious.  As high priest, it was his job, not only to perform the sacraments and rituals of the temple, but also to defend the faith as he knew and understood it.  Here was this Jesus who was challenging every belief that Caiaphas held to be truth.  Here was a man who was gaining popular support, not only in Jerusalem, but throughout the land.  Here was a man who was perverting the faith, the laws, and even the prophets as Caiaphas understood them.  Caiaphas, in his role as high priest, was also the acknowledged prophet of the faith.  And as with all who are anointed to a position of authority under God, he fulfilled that role as prophet, even unto this prophecy about Jesus.  When the Sanhedrin met, they said:  "What are we accomplishing?  Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."  Caiaphas spoke up to the Sanhedrin and said, "You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."  Caiaphas prophesied truly in the power of God, but he misunderstood the meaning of his prophecy.  Truth for Caiaphas meant that, if this Jesus continued to gain the support of the common people and caused rebellion, the Romans would come in and destroy them and their temple.  It was imperative that he be stopped.

And there was Peter.  What was truth for Peter?  Peter the fisherman, the first called, the staunch defender of the faith.  Peter, alternately praised and reprimanded by the teacher and master he had grown to love and trust.  When faced by armed men in the garden, Peter drew his sword and was ready to lay down his very life to defend Jesus.  After being made to lay down his sword and leave, far from running away, Peter followed at a distance, right into the courtyard of Annas, father-in-law and advisor to Caiaphas.  For Peter, Jesus was truth.  Jesus was every good that had ever happened, and yet, three times during that long night watch, Peter denied the truth.  

And Judas?  We will never know what Judas saw as truth.  The one thing that is almost certain,  Judas never intended for Jesus to be crucified.  Maybe Judas thought that if he could just get Jesus and the Sanhedrin together, that they would be persuaded to believe Jesus.  Maybe Judas had grown disillusioned by Jesus pacifism and wanted to force him into action.  Whatever the reason, Judas' visions had not been realized.  And the truth of what actually happened drove Judas to despair and self-destruction.

In today's society, we are quick to find someone to take the blame for the ills that befall us.  We are told, "Never admit culpability."  Even in looking back 2000 years, we want to find a villan to blame.  But this idea of fixing blame is nothing new.  It began in the garden with Adam and Eve.  Adam defended himself before God saying, "It was the woman." and Eve defended herself saying, "It was the serpent."  In that same spirit we look for someone to blame.  It was Judas, it was the Jews, it was Caiaphas, it was the Romans, it was Pilate.  Yes, all these played their part, but the sin was not theirs alone.

The final player in this story is the victim,  Jesus.  What did truth look like for Jesus?  Truth was knowing God's plan, and knowing that regardless of the cost, that plan must be fulfilled.  Truth was redemption for all the sins of all the people in the world.  Truth was following God's will, through the pain, through the suffering, and even into death.  Truth is embedded in every fiber of this story.  But to understand the truth, we must first understand the difference between a free-will offering and a miscarriage of justice.  Did Jesus have to die?  By human standards the answer is "no".  Did Jesus deserve to die?  Again by human standards the answer is "no".  Jesus could have stopped Judas, but instead Jesus told him, "What you must do, do quickly."  Jesus didn't have to be arrested in the garden, but he told his disciples, "Put away your swords."  Jesus went freely and willing to trial and death.

Was this a miscarriage of justice?  Again the answer is "no".  Justice was carried out that day, but it was not the justice earned or deserved by Jesus.  It was the justice that rightfully belongs to every person who ever lived or ever will live.  In our sinful nature, we are not worthy to enter God's presence.   The sacrifices offered by the people to atone for sin were not enough.  Therefore, Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb.   Jesus took upon himself, every sin ever committed by humankind:  every murder, every theft, every hatred, every greed, every pride, every lie, every envy, every covetness, every unkind word, every uncharitable act, every neglect.  He took all this and more, and he carried it to Golgotha.  When he fell on the path, it wasn't from the weight of the cross, but from the weight of our sins.  He allowed himself to be spit upon and ridiculed for our sake.  He freely accepted the punishment for our sins, yours and mine, and for all the sins of the whole world.  He allowed those sins to be nailed to the hard wood of the cross with him.  The scourging and death that we deserve, Jesus received unto himself.

What is truth?  That unless a man, a man without sin or blemish, freely and lovingly went to his own death, the world would remain in the same state of sin as it had been since the fall in the garden.  To heal the wounds of the world, perfect man must take the sins of the whole world on himself and present it as a free offering before God.  But there was no perfect man.  So, God sent down his Word, as a Son, to become that perfect man.  Jesus is God incarnate, the Word made flesh.  His perfect birth, perfect life, and perfect sacrifice gives us the right to be called sons and daughters of God.  Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  He paid the ransom for our sins, and he laid down his life for us.  It is only by his action, that we now are made worthy to stand before God and enter into his eternal joy.  

This is truth.

By The Rev. Nan L. Doerr

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Do you wash my feet?

When I was in seminary, I got an email from my daughter who asked me, "What's the etymology/history of implementation of Maundy into Holy Week?". (She was studying theology at St. Thomas University where she was a student.)  Well, I didn't have a clue, so I had to look it up.  This is what I found out:
Maundy comes from the Latin phrase "mandatum novum" which means new commandment.  It comes from the gospel of John we just read, chapter 13, verse 34, when Jesus says, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another."  And in the 14th and 15th verses Jesus "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."

Travel back with me to a time two thousand years ago.  The upper room in a villa on the edge of Jerusalem.  The walls are a type of white plaster with some fresco paintings and embellishments.  There is a large table in the center of the room - and around it are the lounging chairs that allow Jesus and his disciples to eat their meal reclining as was the practice of the day.  

When the first Passover meal was eaten, according to the institution of Moses in Egypt, it was eaten standing up, fully clothed with staff in hand ready for traveling.  But that was more than a thousand years in the past and now the people eat this meal like they ate other meals, reclining in the more contemporary Roman fashion.  I know this is true because in verse 23 (which we didn't read) it says "One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him."  

As the meal progresses Jesus does something that is very ordinary.  He motions to the servants to bring the jars of water for the ritual washing of feet.  This was not required of the host to provide for the washing, but was a common courtesy offered to guests - especially when you are reclining at table and your feet are likely to be in someone's face - it's nice for them to be clean.

But when the water was brought - he did something quite extraordinary.  He got up and took off his outer garments.  He tied a towel around his waist and he poured water in the basin.  Then he went to the feet of the nearest disciple and began to wash his feet.  After washing his feet, Jesus wiped them dry with the towel at his waist.  Silence hung in the room as the disciples tried to grapple with the meaning behind Jesus' action. 

He continued in this manner until he got to Peter - and Peter couldn't stand it.  He sits up and breaks the silence.  "Lord, you don't have to wash my feet."

"You are right, Peter, I don't have to do this.  I want to do this.  It is my gift to you."

"No, Lord, I can't let you do this."  (You see, there were any number of things going through Peter's mind at that time.  Peter never had wanted to accept what Jesus was all about.  He was first to claim, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  But his concept of what that meant was skewed.  He was always bucking Jesus - no, you don't have to die, you don't have to wash my feet, let's stay on the mountain…  Even later this night, it would be Peter's sword that cuts the ear off the high priest's servant.
This act of service that Jesus is performing is below Peter's concept of what Messiah is all about.)

Jesus tries again and basically tells Peter this: "Peter, if you don't let me do this, you can't be my friend."

Peter is really insecure, just like many of us.  And when Jesus says this, Peter is terrified of losing favor with Jesus and being sent off.  So once again he goes overboard - "well, then, not just my feet, but also my hands and head, everything."  You see, Peter is trying very hard to be on top, and he figures if a little bit is good, then a whole lot has got to be better.  

And Jesus tells him, "Peter, you just really don't get it.  I am offering each one of you a relationship.  It's the kind of relationship that accepts the gift offered, without question and without asking for more.  For if you can't accept this gift now, how are you going to be able to accept the gift I offer later - the gift of my life?"

He washes Peter's feet and the other disciples - even Judas.  Each disciple is offered the same gift of relationship.  It's the same gift of relationship that Jesus offers to each one of us.  And just like the disciples in that upper room two thousand years ago, we each have to decide if we want the kind of relationship that Jesus offers.  It's the kind of relationship in which we can sit at a table together, and we can serve each other, and we can allow ourselves to be served by the other.  

This was the original "Pay it forward".  Jesus says, "For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."  The correct order is this:  First you receive, then you can give.   One of my favorite songs is the "Servant Song".  The words of the first verse express exactly what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples that last night.  It says, 
"Won't you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you.  
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too."  

That's what Peter had to do - he wanted only to serve, but Christ insisted that he also receive.  For we cannot pass on what we have not received.  Those of you who would like to have a share of the Lord Jesus in this way, Jesus invites you to come,                                                                                                           

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

We wish to see Jesus

From today's reading:  Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.  John 12:20-=22

In this reading, even the Gentiles are seeking out Jesus.  That is the sign for Jesus, that his ministry on earth is coming to an end.  It is poised, ready to spread once his death and resurrection is accomplished.

In almost every example of Andrew that we find in the Bible, he is bringing someone to meet Jesus.  A great example of what we are to be about.  
Can we, like Andrew and Philip, Bring before Jesus those who are searching and in need of grace and mercy?  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A son who strayed

From today's reading:  But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Read Luke 15:11b-32

In today's gospel, Jesus tells the last of three stories about being lost and found again.  The first story is about a lost sheep.  The second is about a lost coin, and the last one is about a lost son.

There are actually three levels of being lost here.  Jesus starts off with a simple lamb who strays away - the kind of straying away that, I’ll have to admit, a lot of us do.  It’s not unusual for young people to stray away from church and from God during their late teen years.  I’m one of those.  It’s not so much that we are being rebellious – in my case it was that I just had other things to do and – sleeping in seemed good on a Sunday morning.

Out of these three parables, the one that really makes sense and is easy to identify with is the second one about the lost coin:  The woman who sweeps the whole house until she finds the lost coin.  Turn that into your billfold or purse or car keys and we can easily relate to searching frantically and rejoicing and being totally relieved when we find it.

But in the third parable, the son is another matter.  In this parable, the son's leaving is a willful act.  In this parable, the younger son doesn’t just stray away, but he asks for his inheritance – an act tantamount to saying, “my father is dead – I have no family.”   This was the ultimate rejection. 

 Notice that the father doesn’t go running after the son.  The son should know better – he has the ability to reason.  The father lets him go.  I don’t care how convinced you are that something is Biblically, fundamentally, or socially wrong – telling someone, hounding a person about it, is not going to convince them that they are wrong.  

One of my students in Huntsville complained that this young man is not remorseful and doesn’t deserve to be taken back.  But the father takes him back anyway, and this is the message to the scribes and Pharisees – the father cares for all people - even the ultimate sinner who has rejected him.   The father doesn’t lecture him, he doesn’t scold him, he doesn’t punish him in any way.  He simply wraps his arms around him and takes him back.  

And then we come to the elder son.  In our second lesson we are told that God is reconciling thge world to himself.  The elder son represents those of us who never stray, who want to see justice and revenge in the world.  The father goes to the elder son and loves him just as he loved the younger.  He lets him know that he is loved also and invites him to come in.

And whether we are the younger son who has strayed away with a frivolous mind, or the older brother who has stayed at home with a hard heart - We are all invited to come into God’s kingdom - to be a new creation in Christ – and eventually the old will pass away and the new will flower and bloom.   And in the meantime, God will cover our sin with the righteousness of Christ until we are brought home to stay.