Day 247: Matthew 28:9 – Part 2

Do not be afraid.

Jesus has been crucified, and as Sunday morning dawns Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb.  An angel appears, rolls the stone away, and instructs them to tell the disciples that Jesus has been raised from death and is on his way to Galilee.  Then, Jesus suddenly appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.”

What is their response to this?  The two Marys came up to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.  Jesus told them “Do not be afraid” and then told them to tell the disciples that he wanted to meet up with them in Galilee.

Once again, something catches my eye.  The two Marys first reaction is to kneel and worship Jesus.  This seems reasonable, right?   But what does Jesus say in response?  He says, “Do not be afraid.”  And this response got me thinking about worship, particularly the relationship between worship and fear.

I think both pagan worship and early Hebrew worship were pretty much based solely on fear.  In those days before science and the enlightenment people felt afraid and helpless, and worshiping God or idols or whatever gave them a sense of control.  They believed that if they threw virgins into a volcano or sacrificed goats on an altar or whatever that God would be appeased and keep them be safe.  It’s kind of like killing a deer and leaving it out there for the wolves so they will have full stomachs and leave you alone.  That’s what they do on the Okefenokee Swamp alligator tours.  They go out in the morning and throw out a bunch of chickens so the alligators just lie around all day and calmly watch the boats go by.  It’s like a bribe.

They were motivated to worship by all kinds of fears – fear of disease, fear of death, fear of natural disasters, fear of their enemies, fear of the unknown.  The early Hebrews certainly believed that God was the direct cause of all bad things.  They worshiped God because they were afraid of what would happen if they didn’t.  God was both judge and bodyguard, so they needed to stay on his good side:

“Worship no god but me.  “Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth.   Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation.   But I show my love to thousands of generations of those who love me and obey my laws. (Exodus 20:3-6).

If you worship me, the Lord your God, I will bless you with food and water and take away all your sicknesses.  In your land no woman will have a miscarriage or be without children. I will give you long lives. “I will make the people who oppose you afraid of me; I will bring confusion among the people against whom you fight, and I will make all your enemies turn and run from you.  I will make the borders of your land extend from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean Sea and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give you power over the inhabitants of the land, and you will drive them out as you advance.  Do not make any agreement with them or with their gods.” (Exodus 23:25-27,31-32).

Worship really takes a bit of a different turn in the Psalms.  Praise as an element of worship becomes more pronounced, but there is still that strong connection between worship and protection and that worship is at least somewhat motivated by fear.  They still are concerned about staying on God’s good side as a means of protection.  It’s like they are buttering him up.

O Lord, don’t stay away from me!  Come quickly to my rescue!  Save me from the sword; save my life from these dogs. Rescue me from these lions; I am helpless before these wild bulls.  I will tell my people what you have done; I will praise you in their assembly:

Praise him, you servants of the Lord! Honor him, you descendants of Jacob! Worship him, you people of Israel!  He does not neglect the poor or ignore their suffering; he does not turn away from them, but answers when they call for help.  In the full assembly I will praise you for what you have done; in the presence of those who worship you I will offer the sacrifices I promised. The poor will eat as much as they want; those who come to the Lord will praise him. May they prosper forever!

All nations will remember the Lord. From every part of the world they will turn to him; all races will worship him.  The Lord is king, and he rules the nations.  All proud people will bow down to him; all mortals will bow down before him. Future generations will serve him; they will speak of the Lord to the coming generation. People not yet born will be told: “The Lord saved his people.”  (Psalm 22:19-31).

Below is a picture of King David, who is credited with having written many of the Psalms.  He is dancing before the Ark of the Covenant where the Jews believed that God resided.  He really seemed to enjoy worshipping. He got so wild that he embarrassed his wife.

It’s interesting that there is no mention of Jesus actually worshiping God.  He prays a lot.  He frequently gives God thanks.  He is never described as kneeling down or bowing down to worship God.  There is only one time that there is ever any mention of him singing a song, and that is on the night of the last supper when it says they closed their time together with a hymn.  In other words, there is no evidence in the Bible that Jesus ever practiced anything even remotely similar to what we do now in our contemporary worship gatherings.  He undoubtedly engaged in all of the normal traditional worship practices of the day, which were more like today’s mainline liturgical church services.  He would have recited scripted prayers and affirmations and scripture readings.  He also taught, and that’s the basis of today’s practice of delivering sermons.  But he never taught people that they should worship more.  He told them to pray, not worship.  And of course there was the corporate worship going on in the temple with the candles, offerings and blood sacrifices.  That was the main worship activity, and Jesus wasn’t wild about any of it.  On two different occasions Matthew says that Jesus quoted from Hosea 6:6 “It is kindness that I want, not animal sacrifices.”

I currently go to a liturgical church and I really enjoy it.  I think it is one of the most appealing rituals of Christian tradition.  In addition, I have been a “contemporary worship leader” for about 20 years, which is essentially leading people into the “presence of God” through music, spoken word, scripture, movement, and art.  I lead a couple of ongoing gatherings each week where there is no liturgy and no sermon – just the various forms of artistic expression.  I need both kinds of worship to stay in balance.  I also like to go to worship conferences where thousands are gathered together to worship at the same time.

When I worship I give God thanks and praise for my own life, for the goodness of creation, and God’s eternal presence.  Worship helps me focus on the spiritual aspect of life and serves as a gateway to transcendent experience.  It can also initiate emotional and physical healing. It releases stress.  When worship is good, there is nothing like it.  It’s like a little taste of heaven here on earth.  In worship we open up our hearts and express our love for God and our love for life.  In turn, God speaks to us, heals us, and gives us rest.   Here are some various working definitions of “worship” by various contemporary pastors, worship leaders, song writers, and theologians:

Worship is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient myster, that majesty which philosophers call the “First Cause”, but which we call our Father which art in heaven. (A.W. Tozer).

Worship is the total response in which spiritual, emotional and physical factors tune together to draw attention to the heavenly Father. (Kenneth Gangel).

Worship is time spent in active awareness of the presence of God. (Paul Richardson).

Worship is God’s enjoyment of us and our enjoyment of him.  Worship is a response to the father/child relationship. (Graham Kendrick).

Worship is giving to God the glory, praise, honor and thanks due him, both for who he is and for what he has done. (Leslie B. Flynn).

Worship is an attitude of heart, a reaching towards God, a pouring out of our total self in thanksgiving, praise, adoration and love to the God who created us and to whom we owe everything we have and are.  Worship is the interaction of man’s spirit with God in a loving response. (Judson Cornwall).

Note that none of these definitions include the word “fear”.  The reason people worship seems to be continually evolving.  When I was growing up I thought of it as a ritual that included organ music, singing, scriptures, and prayers leading up to the high point, which was the sermon.  In the more ancient tradition of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches the high point of the worship experience is Holy Communion.  In evangelical churches it’s the altar call.  In contemporary charismatic churches it all leads up to a time of healing.  In the kind of “Harp and Bowl” sessions that I lead we wait for that hushed moment when we all feel like God is in the room.  Then we sit and soak it in.

Just as the meaning of worship has changed over the years, so has the practice of kneeling.  Today in this country it’s a voluntary demonstration of reverence and respect, and people generally only kneel or bow to God.  However, throughout history people were forced to kneel before religious idols.  They were also forced to kneel before kings and others in positions of authority.  It makes sense, because when you are kneeling or bowing before someone you are looking up to them.  You are putting yourself in an inferior position relative to the other person who can then “lord over” you.  And, when you are bowing or kneeling you are pretty much rendered incapable of making any quick moves. You are at a decided disadvantage.  Today when people worship they are usually standing, often with their hands up in the air.  The opposite of kneeling.

So here in this scripture it says that when the two Marys saw Jesus they were afraid, so they started kneeling and groveling at his feet in what they considered to be a worshipful state. This is not what I had always envisioned.  I saw it through the lens of contemporary worship practices.  I saw it as a lavish expression of love, but it was apparently just an expression of fear.  And Jesus tells them to stop.  He tells them not to be afraid.  He doesn’t want them to be afraid of him.

All of this only affirms that Jesus doesn’t want to be worshiped.  If he did, he wouldn’t have told the Marys to stop.  He would have affirmed them for doing it.  No, he didn’t do that.  He wanted everyone to listen to him and follow him.  He wanted them to trust him and his teachings, radical though they might be.  In this particular instance he wanted the Marys to pull themselves together and listen to his instructions.  He wanted them to deliver a message to the disciples that they should meet him in Galilee.  He wanted them to get up out of the dirt and do something useful.  Good advice for all of us.

On the other hand if Jesus returned today and people worshipped him it would certainly be more of an expression of love and respect rather than fear, because the fear seems to have gone out of worship.  People know more about the world and they don’t blame God for every little thing that goes wrong.  At least most people do not. So maybe if Jesus came back today it would be OK to worship him because I think he would appreciate a little love and respect.  Everyone can use a little love.

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 246: Matthew 28:9 – Part 1

Peace be with you.

Well it’s almost the end of the story.  Jesus has been crucified and entombed.  Now, Jesus has been resurrected from the dead and gone to Galilee, just as he said he would.

All of the Gospels have a different spin on the resurrection.  The only common descriptions are that one or more women find an empty tomb and Jesus later appears to the disciples.

The Book of Mark, presumably the oldest, has the strangest description.  It’s clearly defined as an addendum to the original manuscript:

After Jesus rose from death early on Sunday, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had driven out seven demons. She went and told his companions. They were mourning and crying; and when they heard her say that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe her. After this, Jesus appeared in a different manner to two of them while they were on their way to the country. They returned and told the others, but these would not believe it. Last of all, Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples as they were eating. He scolded them, because they did not have faith and because they were too stubborn to believe those who had seen him alive. (Mark 16:9-14).

Then there is another “alternative” ending for Mark (weird…) that’s considerably terser:

The women went to Peter and his friends and gave them a brief account of all they had been told. After this, Jesus himself sent out through his disciples from the east to the west the sacred and everliving message of eternal salvation. (Mark 16:9-10).

You get to choose.  In the Book of Mark Jesus doesn’t really say anything after he is resurrected, although it does say that he scolded his disciples.  It makes it sound like he was kind of grouchy.  Or maybe he was teasing them.  Either way it seems a little terse.  Not really a very inspirational description.

The Book of Matthew, which was written shortly after Mark and uses that narrative extensively, adds some very dramatic elements like an earthquake and an angel:

 After the Sabbath, as Sunday morning was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. Suddenly there was a violent earthquake; an angel of the Lord came down from heaven, rolled the stone away, and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid that they trembled and became like dead men.

The angel spoke to the women. “You must not be afraid,” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has been raised, just as he said. Come here and see the place where he was lying. Go quickly now, and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from death, and now he is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him!’ Remember what I have told you.” So they left the tomb in a hurry, afraid and yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Peace be with you.” (Matthew 28:1-9).

The Matthew version is a lot more satisfying.  The accounts written later in Luke and John are even more elaborate.  I think I was most familiar with the John one growing up, and Luke has the famous Walk to Emmaus.  Both are lovely, but I still find myself attracted to Matthew’s earlier account.  I love the symmetry of it all.

Most of all, I love those words “Peace be with you”  (which are also used in the Book of Luke).  Right at the start of his ministry, on Day 13, as part of the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Happy are those who work for peace; God will call them his children.” His deep belief in the importance of peace is also expressed in his exhortations to love our enemies and to “turn the other cheek.”

Second, those are the words that he told his disciples to use when they greeted people on their mission trip on Day 86: When you go into a house, say, “Peace be with you.” (Matthew 10:12). This is how he said that we ought to greet each other.

Finally, those are the words that were spoken by Judas when he betrayed Jesus on Day 240: Judas went straight to Jesus and said, “Peace be with you, Teacher,” and kissed him. (Matthew 26:49). You might have thought that these words would be tainted because Judas was probably the last person to greet him in this way.  Judas might have spoiled this greeting for Jesus.

So here in Matthew, the Gospel I’ve chosen to study, Jesus’ first words after the resurrection are a blessing.  When you think about it, peace is about as good as it gets.  Love has its ups and downs, but peace is always sweet. Inner peace, world peace, it’s what we all really want.  A little peace.

The resurrected Jesus here in Matthew says, “Peace be with you.” Not I told you so.  Or now I bet you’re sorry.  Or you should be ashamed of yourselves.  Or it all worked out no thanks to you guys. No, he doesn’t criticize, or boast, or shame them, or gloat.  He’s not grouchy like he is in Mark.  His words kind.  No hard feelings, even about Judas.  All is forgiven. It’s all good.  Peace, my friends, peace.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 245: Matthew 27:50

(He gave a loud cry).

Matthew says that Jesus again gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  Yesterday I talked about his somewhat unintelligible last words, the only words that he speaks from the cross in the Book of Matthew.  Maybe a loud cry doesn’t actually qualify as “words” but I think it conveys meaning. What kind of cry was it?  Agony?  Ecstasy?  Defeat?  Victory?  Frustration?  Release?

We will never know.   The Greek word is krazó which means “to scream, cry out, to shriek.”  It was loud, and it was high pitched.  It would probably have been pretty scary.  His last utterance was most probably spine chilling.

When I think of “last words” what comes to mind for me are the last words of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computing, the company that developed the i-phone and the i-pad.  Jobs was a demanding perfectionist.  He was not the easiest man to work with.  He a very, very smart man, but he was not a particularly religious.  Here’s what he had to say about God in an interview on the TV show 60 Minutes:

“Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I think it’s 50-50 maybe. But ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about it more. And I find myself believing a bit more. I kind of – maybe it’s ’cause I want to believe in an afterlife. That when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated. Somehow it lives on.’ Then he paused for a second and he said, ‘Yeah, but sometimes I think it’s just like an on-off switch. Click and you’re gone.’ He said and paused again, and he said, ‘And that’s why I don’t like putting on-off switches on Apple devices’.”

But in the final hours of his life he may have a change of heart.  At his funeral, his sister shared Steve Jobs’ last words:

Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.  Steve’s final words were these:  “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.”

What did he see that elicited this excitement?  We will never know.  But I bet it was really good.  Steve Jobs was pretty hard to impress.

Sometimes long discourses aren’t enough.  Sometimes only a primal scream like the birthing cry of an infant can express what we think and feel.  At these times artistic expression is the best form of commentary, so I have expressed my thoughts on Jesus’ last, loud cry in a bit of poetry:

 

What does this scripture say to you?


 

 

Day 244: Matthew 27:46

Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?

Here we have the only words that Jesus spoke from the cross in the Books of Matthew and Mark: At noon the whole country was covered with darkness, which lasted for three hours. At about three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?”

I know, he says other things in the books of Luke and John. Really nice things about forgiveness and paradise, but in the Books of Matthew and Mark these are the only words he speaks from the cross – and Biblical scholars are not certain about the exact meaning of the phrase.  In fact, they aren’t even sure what language he was using (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_of_Jesus).  It’s a mystery.

Say What?

So the first thing I notice is how blithely Matthew comes up with a definitive explanation of these unknowable Jesus’ words, even though the story also tells us that the spectators are confused about what he was saying:

Some of the people standing there heard him and said, “He is calling for Elijah!”  One of them ran up at once, took a sponge, soaked it in cheap wine, put it on the end of a stick, and tried to make him drink it. But the others said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah is coming to save him!” (Matthew 27:47-49).

It says that the people who were there couldn’t understand him and thought he was either calling of Elijah or asking for a drink.  But Matthew knows what Jesus was saying, even though Matthew wasn’t even there! He takes the liberty of definitively translating this phrase to mean, My God, my God, why did you abandon me?”

I’d like to know how he came up with this… well, actually I DO know.  When something is a mystery people always seem to feel the need to come up with an explanation.  Matthew felt the need, so he just came up with something up that made sense to him and wrote it down as though it were fact.  Problem solved.  But not as far as I’m concerned.  As far as I’m concerned it’s still a mystery.  Matthew may have been comfortable with this interpretation but I am not.

Of Myths and Men

Greeks and Romans liked myths and fables and parables.  Webster’s defines a “myth” as “a story that was told in an ancient culture to explain a practice, belief, or natural occurrence.”  After the crucifixion and resurrection, Paul and the other Apostles felt compelled to explain the circumstances surrounding his death.  The people wanted an explanation about what had happened and there wasn’t anything like scientific method during those times, so they did what was natural to the people of that time.  They created various myths and fables, kind of like modern scientists create hypotheses.

For example, take the myth of the Greek hero/god Hercules. They said he was the son of a union between Zeus, the most powerful Greek god, and a mortal woman.  Hercules was hated by Zeus’ wife Hera, who sabotaged him and the result was that he was forced to live on earth in a human body.  He was redeemed only after he completed 12 heroic tasks and burned himself up in a sacrificial fire so his that spirit could be released from his body. Zeus then forgave him and awarded with a place within the pantheon of gods on Mt. Olympus.  The Greeks regarded Hercules as a great defender, protector and heroic example. They regarded him as one of their gods.

Atonement Theories:  Take Your Pick

A couple of years ago I participated in a small group study called Making Sense of the Cross by David Lose, a leading Lutheran theologian and an expert on Biblical preaching.  In this study Lose explains that there are three major “atonement theories”  (stories/myths) that have been accepted by Christendom to “explain” the crucifixion of Jesus.

The earliest myth was called Ransom and Victory.  This was the paradigm for the first thousand years of Christian history.  It emphasizes the titanic struggle between God and Satan for the fate of humanity, a struggle that culminates in God’s triumph through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  The premise is that Satan demands a sacrifice because of the depravity of man (because of original sin in the Garden of Eden), so God tricks the devil by offering Jesus as the sin offering.  Satan accepts the offering for the sin of mankind, but then he finds out that Jesus is without sin so he in under a legal obligation has to let him go, along with all the rest of humanity.  This is essentially the story that’s told in the death and resurrection of Aslan in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, with Aslan representing Christ and the White Witch representing Satan.  The cross becomes a symbol of triumph.

The second explanation, or myth, is called Substitution, Satisfaction, and Sacrifice.  This theory was developed by a theologian named Anselm who was born in 1033.  Anselm felt that the Ransom and Victory myth gave the devil way too much power relative to God, so he came up with another explanation.  He said that God is like a powerful King who demands absolute loyalty and, as is the case with kings, disloyalty is punishable by repayment (satisfaction) or death (sacrifice).  Humanity can’t repay the debt of sin and God can’t forgive (as a matter of honor) so he sends himself to earth in the form of Jesus.  Because Jesus is God, Jesus can pay God back.  And because Jesus is human, his payment counts for all humanity as well (substitution).  So there you have it – Substitution (by Jesus), Satisfaction (happy God), and Sacrifice (death on the cross).  The cross becomes a symbol of justice.

The third explanation is called Example and Encouragement.  This one is a little more rational and a little less mythic.  Abelard was born about 50 years after Anselm and he introduced a different theory.  Abelard didn’t buy the idea that killing Jesus could be a good thing. He said it was kind of like two wrongs making a right – we sin, but we kill to make it right.  He also believed that the other two theories made all of Jesus’ teachings irrelevant because the salvation of humanity was taking place on a mythological cosmic level.  Abelard rejected any notion of God needing a blood sacrifice in order to forgive sin, as well as the idea that he is generally angry with humanity. Abelard said that Jesus died on the cross to show us what sacrificial, unconditional love looks like so that we might follow his example, obey his teachings, and love each other deeply.  The cross is then a symbol of martyrdom.

When it Comes to Theories, the More the Merrier

So, back to the scripture.  Matthew interpreted Jesus’ mysterious words to mean, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?”  The interpretation couldn’t be based on factual knowledge, so it is generally accepted that it must have been based on the leading of the Holy Spirit.  As a person who is also in touch with the Holy Spirit I guess I have a right to interpret them in my own way if the Holy Spirit tells me something else.  And I disagree with Matthew.  I don’t think God abandoned Jesus on that cross for even a second, and so I don’t think Jesus would have said this.

In my own opinion, based on the leading of the Holy Spirit, I think Jesus repeating what he said on Day 205:   “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!”

I think he’s asking humanity when they will give up their violent ways and begin to walk down the path of peace and harmony.  I think he’s saying, “My God, my God when will they understand?” (or something to that effect).

And my opinion about the “meaning” of the crucifixion?  What atonement theory is my favorite?  I would argue that a better approach might be to take it all in at face value and forget about the myths and stories and accept the crucifixion as an indefensible act of violence.  I don’t think the cross is a sign of victory because we don’t have victory.  I don’t think the cross is a sign of justice because we don’t have justice.  And I think martyrdom is highly overrated unless it’s absolutely necessary.  Look at the Muslims.  They think that if you are martyred for the cause of Islam you get a special place in heaven. It’s the excellence and worthiness of the cause that defines a true martyr, not the punishment.   Unfortunately there are a lot of whacko causes out there that don’t qualify, and a lot of people who have persecution complexes.  No, martyrdom in and of itself shouldn’t be elevated as a virtue.

So if for some reason I was forced to come up with my own myth, my own story, my own theory (which both you and I are fully entitled to do) to explain this whole fiasco it would be that in the crucifixion Jesus holds a giant mirror up to humanity and asks us if we like what we see.  When we see those nail pierced hands and bloody crown and naked disfigured body we see the civilization that we created and continue to perpetuate.  We are faced to examine our culture of violence and intolerance where people struggle to dominate and abuse one another in the name of family or ethnicity or country or religion or prosperity or any number of other foolish excuses.  That’s my myth.  Jesus with the mirror.  I call it the Reflection and Repentance theory.  In my myth the cross becomes a symbol of human failure.  It becomes a symbol of the need for social change.

I remember seeing the 1961 movie King of Kings when I was seven years old.  That was when I learned that people killed Jesus. I guess that before I saw the movie I thought he was up there on the cross for a little while, went to sleep for a few minutes or something, and popped up out of a cave with Easter eggs and Peeps for everyone.  When I saw that cinematic interpretation of the crucifixion (mild in comparison to The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s wildly popular ode to gratuitous violence), I was shocked and appalled by it. I’m still shocked and appalled by it.  And disgusted.

I think humanity needs to ditch the myths, get over its fascination with blood and torture, and just admit that they screwed up, big time.  There’s no justification.  It shows bad judgment to try to justify such a thing, like when your child dies of cancer and someone tries to comfort you with some mythic explanation like “God took your little one from you because he needs another angel in heaven” instead of saying, “When are we going to start getting serious about investing in cancer research instead of funding foreign wars?” And then rolling up their sleeves and pulling out their checkbooks.  Myths explain things away, but they don’t fix them.  Like Dr. Phil always says, you can’t fix what you won’t acknowledge.

Mysticism, Message, and Mythology

Ultimately I think there are three main components of Christian theology: mysticism, the message, and mythology.

Mysticism and spirituality are essential characteristics of any religion because they are the defining elements that differentiate a religion from a code of ethics.  All religions involve rituals or activities that encourage transcendent experiences that result in inner peace, divine knowledge, physical well-being, and even supernatural abilities. Just because science doesn’t understand these things completely yet doesn’t mean they are not real, which is why we still refer to them as “mystical”.

As for the message of Jesus, I believe it is as brilliant and true and compelling as ever.  It is the heart and mind and soul and strength of Christianity. I believe he died in defense of his message.  It still captivates the world and the truth of it continues to resonate.

But the mythology part?  Not so helpful as far as I can tell. I believe that Jesus defies and transcends explanation.  Even the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t officially endorse any of these atonement paradigms I talked about today as the “right” one.   Why?  Because unlike a lot of evangelical Christians, they don’t confuse myth with fact.  They know that there is no definitive “explanation” for the dilemma of the crucifixion. The mythology is the source of a lot of confusion and argument because most of it doesn’t ring true, especially to the uninitiated.  You have to be raised with it, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.  Unlike the teachings of Jesus himself, which continue to inspire.

Look at it this way. When you feed the poor you change someone’s life for the better.  When you love your enemies you change the world.  But no one really cares what you believe or who you believe in.  It doesn’t make any difference to anyone but you.  What really matters is how you live your life and how you spend your time here on earth, and this is the heart and substance of Jesus’ message.

And on the other end of the spectrum there are ultra-liberal Christians who believe that Jesus himself is a myth, that he never actually existed.  They follow Jesus solely because they believe in the truth of the message that is attributed to him.  As for that paradigm, I agree with Albert Einstein because I think he was a pretty smart guy:

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 243: Matthew 27:11

So you say.

Jesus has been “arrested” by the Jewish authorities, and he has been subjected to a trial by the High Priest and the Sanhedrin.  Yesterday he said, “from this time on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right side of the Almighty and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  Apparently they decided this statement could be interpreted to mean that he intended to take over the government, so they decided that the best course of action would be to hand him over to the Roman authorities.  If the Romans executed Jesus then the Jewish authorities wouldn’t have to take the heat for killing him.  They could have killed him themselves for “blasphemy”, but they hoped to get rid of him without suffering from any backlash from his supporters.  Remember what they said when they were originally plotting to kill him on Day 229: “We must not do it during the festival,” they said, “or the people will riot.” (Matthew 26: 5). They also probably hoped to score points with the Romans for turning over a troublemaker.  Pretty crafty.

So, early on the morning of Good Friday, they put him in chains and take him to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  Presumably they have told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the “King of the Jews” because he talked about sitting at the right hand of God.  In Jesus’ time the title “King of the Jews” belonged exclusively to Herod Antipas, the guy who killed John the Baptist.  He was the one and only official King of the Jews, appointed by the Romans to keep the Jews in check and protect Roman interests. Today, it would be the equivalent of saying that you are the President of the United States.  Or that you are Jesus.

Pilate wants to hear what Jesus has to say, so he asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  Jesus gives Pilate the same thing that he said when Judas he was not the one who would betray him.  It’s the same thing that he said to the High Priest when he asked Jesus if he was the Messiah.  Jesus answers with that phrase, “So you say.” In the King James Version of the Bible it’s translated as, “Thou hast said.” I think in today’s vernacular it would be “Whatever.” It’s kind of like saying, “You are going to believe whatever you choose to believe, regardless of what I say so it doesn’t matter.  Whatever.  So you say. So you believe.

There’s not a lot of detail, but apparently the chief priests and the elders rattled off a lot of other accusations against Jesus, but he didn’t say anything in his own defense.  Pilate asks him, “Don’t you hear all these things they accuse you of?”

Pilate can’t understand why Jesus didn’t respond, why he didn’t defend himself, why he didn’t fight for his life.  And Pilate was “greatly surprised” because Jesus demonstrated what we now refer to as “nonviolent resistance.”  A while ago I saw a program on the Freedom Riders who rode integrated buses into the south during the 1960s to protest the policy of racial segregation.  The Freedom Riders, and the Civil Rights movement in general, succeeded because it employed the practice and philosophy of “Satyagraha” or nonviolent resistance.  Coined by India’s Mahatma Gandhi during India’s independence movement, it was the key to success for African Americans in their struggle to overcome racism.  Here is a description from Wikipedia:

The essence of Satyagraha is that it seeks to eliminate antagonisms without harming the antagonists themselves, as opposed to violent resistance, which is meant to cause harm to the antagonist. A Satyagrahi therefore does not seek to end or destroy the relationship with the antagonist, but instead seeks to transform or “purify” it to a higher level. A euphemism sometimes used for Satyagraha is that it is a “silent force” or a “soul force” (a term also used by Martin Luther King Jr. during his famous “I Have a Dream” speech). It arms the individual with moral power rather than physical power. Satyagraha is also termed a “universal force,” as it essentially “makes no distinction between kinsmen and strangers, young and old, man and woman, friend and foe.”

Civil disobedience and non-cooperation as practised under Satyagraha are based on the “law of suffering”, a doctrine that the endurance of suffering is a means to an end. This end usually implies a moral upliftment or progress of an individual or society. Therefore, non-cooperation in Satyagraha is in fact a means to secure the cooperation of the opponent consistently with truth and justice.

Following is a list of rules of engagement that Gandhi introduced in the execution of  Satyagraha (from Wikipedia):

  • Harbour no anger
  • Suffer the anger of the opponent
  • Never retaliate to assaults or punishment; but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger
  • Voluntarily submit to arrest or confiscation of your own property
  • If you are a trustee of property, defend that property (non-violently) from confiscation with your life
  • Do not curse or swear
  • Do not insult the opponent
  • Neither salute nor insult the flag of your opponent or your opponent’s leaders
  • If anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life
  • As a prisoner, behave courteously and obey prison regulations (except any that are contrary to self-respect)
  • As a prisoner, do not ask for special favourable treatment
  • As a prisoner, do not fast in an attempt to gain conveniences whose deprivation does not involve any injury to your self-respect
  • Joyfully obey the orders of the leaders of the civil disobedience action
  • Do not pick and choose amongst the orders you obey; if you find the action as a whole improper or immoral, sever your connection with the action entirely
  • Do not make your participation conditional on your comrades taking care of your dependents while you are engaging in the campaign or are in prison; do not expect them to provide such support
  • Do not become a cause of communal quarrels
  • Do not take sides in such quarrels, but assist only that party which is demonstrably in the right; in the case of inter-religious conflict, give your life to protect (non-violently) those in danger on either side
  • Avoid occasions that may give rise to communal quarrels
  • Do not take part in processions that would wound the religious sensibilities of any community

All of these actions were devised to elevate the moral authority of the oppressed and evoke a sympathetic response from the greater human community.   Gandhi agreed with Jesus that violence only leads to more violence (Day 241):

Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolent resistance was embraced by Dr. Martin Luther King as the main tactic in America’s Civil Rights Movement:

Like most people, I had heard of Gandhi, but I had never studied him seriously. As I read I became deeply fascinated by his campaigns of nonviolent resistance. I was particularly moved by his Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. The whole concept of Satyagraha (Satya is truth which equals love, and agraha is force; Satyagraha, therefore, means truth force or love force) was profoundly significant to me. As I delved deeper into the philosophy of Gandhi, my skepticism concerning the power of love gradually diminished, and I came to see for the first time its potency in the area of social reform. … It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking.

The Freedom Riders risked their lives by riding those buses into the southern states where violent, armed, racist mobs greeted them at every bus station.  They were fully prepared to die for the cause of justice.  Even though many were badly beaten and arrested they never fought back.  They faced their enemies with perfect discipline and quiet dignity.  The Freedom Riders peaceful courage was in stark contrast to the primitive savagery of their opponents.  Ultimately their nonviolent tactics inspired the world propelled the Civil Rights movement forward.  Six months after the Freedom Rides began the Federal government mandated an end to segregation on interstate buses and trains.  It also forced the removal of separate waiting rooms, drinking fountains, and toilets at the terminals.  In other words, they won the war.

Gandhi and Dr. King may have been credited with its twentieth-century application, but Jesus was truly the father of nonviolent resistance.  He came up with it first.  He planted the seed in their brains. And as we continue to evolve as a human race, we are beginning to recognize that the true heroes in this world are not those who kill the most people or beat people into submission or bully their way to success.  They are not the ones who hide behind the loudest voices or the lumpiest muscles or the most money or the biggest guns or the dirtiest tricks or the meanest tempers. The true heroes are those who stand firm in the face of injustice, regardless of the consequences.  The true heroes are the ones who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of others without resorting to violence, just like Jesus did.

So, after Jesus tells Pilate, “So you say,” he is done talking to the authorities.  He takes the path of nonviolent resistance as he is condemned to death, mocked, insulted, and crucified.  Pilate would have never understood what Jesus was doing.  The Romans were so steeped in their culture of violence that this would have been considered madness.  But Jesus wasn’t mentally ill.  He was spiritually healthy, and Pilate was the one who was deluded because he believed that violence was normal and healthy.  From here on in Jesus will now let his actions speak for themselves.  He doesn’t say anything else until he speaks from the cross.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 242: Matthew 26:64

So you say. But I tell all of you: from this time on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right side of the Almighty and coming on the clouds of heaven!

The chief priests and the elders sent out an angry mob armed with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus and take him to the house of the High Priest. So who was this High Priest anyway?  As with many things related to ancient Jewish religion, High Priests (like Temples) were a pagan custom.  Even though the role of the High Priest was outlined in the Law of Moses, it wasn’t a Jewish invention.

The High Priest was not considered to be divine or infallible or inerrant:  The Law of Moses says, “If it is the High Priest who sins and so brings guilt on the people, he shall present a young bull without any defects and sacrifice it to the Lord for his sin.” (Leviticus 4:3). The role of the High Priest was to oversee the Temple and perform the required sacrifices.  He was personally responsible for all of the ritual purifications on the Day of Atonement.  It wasn’t originally defined as a political role.  The High Priest had very special clothes, including tassels, bells, and a breastplate that had a dozen precious stones on it. A very fancy outfit.

Not much is known about Joseph Caiaphas, the High Priest during the time of Jesus.  The high priests were supposed to be descendants of Aaron. Caiaphas was appointed by the Romans, not the Jews.  Because little was written about him, we can probably assume there wasn’t anything exceptional about him.  Just a run-of-the-mill high priest.

One thing we do know is that by the time of Jesus, the role of the high priest had evolved from Temple caretaker to one of considerable political and legal clout.  Instead of serving as an intermediary between man and God, which is the true role of a priest, Caiaphas was more like the CEO of the religious institution.  He ruled over the people at the discretion of the reigning king, consequently his task was to keep the Jewish people passive and under control and keep the king happy.

On the night that Jesus was arrested Caiaphas called together the Sanhedrin, the Jewish judicial body of that time.  The Sanhedrin (or Council) was not a group of specific people like today’s Supreme Court.  It was kind of an ad hoc group of elite people who assembled at will to create policy and enforce Jewish law.  Interestingly enough, the administration of justice was not supposed to be the job of the High Priest and an informal assembly of his friends, so the whole assembly that condemned Jesus didn’t have the authority to do so according to the Law of Moses:

“Appoint judges and other officials in every town that the Lord your God gives you. These men are to judge the people impartially.  They are not to be unjust or show partiality in their judgments; and they are not to accept bribes, for gifts blind the eyes even of wise and honest men, and cause them to give wrong decisions.  Always be fair and just, so that you will occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you and so that you will continue to live there.  (Deuteronomy 16:18-20).

The scripture says that Peter followed along from a safe distance and waited around to see how it was going to turn out.  Peter wasn’t the most courageous guy in the world, but at least he was concerned.  All of Jesus’ other buddies ran off.

The Sanhedrin then conducted a sort of kangaroo court kind of trial, with lots of people coming forward to make false accusations against Jesus.  It all sounds pretty corrupt. And of course there wasn’t anyone there to defend him, because his followers were all outcasts.  He didn’t get the luxury of a “jury of his peers.”  It was a jury of the rich and powerful.

The chief priests and the whole Council tried to find some false evidence against Jesus to put him to death; but they could not find any, even though many people came forward and told lies about him. Finally two men stepped up and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to tear down God’s Temple and three days later build it back up.’”

Here’s another surprise for me.  I thought Jesus actually said he was going to tear down the Temple, but in reality it’s just a corruption of two of his actual statements:

  • Jesus left and was going away from the Temple when his disciples came to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Yes,” he said, “you may well look at all these. I tell you this: not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down.” (Matthew 24:1-2)
  • From that time on Jesus began to say plainly to his disciples, “I must go to Jerusalem and suffer much from the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the Law. I will be put to death, but three days later I will be raised to life.” (Matthew 16:21)

It’s like the people testifying against Jesus took these two concepts – the destruction of the Temple and his resurrection after three days – and mixed them together in a single adulterated statement.  A misquote. I didn’t know this until today.  I thought he said it.

Anyway, the High Priest asked Jesus if this is true, and he remained silent. So then, the High Priest cut to the chase.  He asked Jesus the one thing they all wanted to know: “In the name of the living God I now put you under oath: tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 

Jesus answers with the words of today’s scripture: “So you say. But I tell all of you: from this time on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right side of the Almighty and coming on the clouds of heaven!”

Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.  Instead, Jesus makes a verbal jab at them by saying that he has a position of honor at the right hand of God.  He says that he will have the last laugh over his persecutors.  And Jesus has every reason to believe that God has a position of honor waiting for him.  At his baptism, and again at the Transfiguration, a voice from heaven has said, “This is my own dear son with whom I am pleased.”   He says that the “Son of Man” (either himself of all of ordinary mankind) will sit in a position of honor next to God, which is another way of saying he is doing exactly what God wants him to do and God will reward him for it.

And it should be noted that once again Jesus is evasive about the issue about whether or not he is “the Messiah.” He doesn’t answer their question. And of course this makes sense, because Jesus is certainly not the Messiah the Jewish people had envisioned (see Day 145).  He is not a “new David” who will liberate them by killing “tens of thousands.”  Jesus never signed on for this task.  And of course “the Messiah” they expected was not a Biblical concept.   The actual “Anointed One” described by the prophets was a man of peace who would usher in a new and better world.  Jesus came to fulfill the true, written prophecies recorded in the scriptures – not the ones the people had made up in their own minds.

So how do the religious authorities respond to Jesus’ enigmatic statement about whether or not he is the Messiah?

At this the High Priest tore his clothes and said, “Blasphemy! We don’t need any more witnesses! You have just heard his blasphemy!  What do you think?” They answered, “He is guilty and must die.” Then they spat in his face and beat him; and those who slapped him said, “Prophesy for us, Messiah! Guess who hit you!”

This apparently infuriated the High Priest, who is so angry he starts tearing up his clothes.  Who does that?  Biblical people were so darned weird sometimes.  Actually this was something people did as a sign of mourning.  Was he mourning because he was disappointed that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah?  Or was he mourning on behalf of all humanity for this evil, blasphemous prophet who came out of the Galilean countryside to cause trouble.  Or was he just pissed off because Jesus was causing trouble?

What if Jesus had said he was the Messiah?  What would they have done?  They probably would have said something like, “Great.  We have a whole stockpile of guns in the basement and lots of angry hordes who are willing to use them.  Let’s slaughter all the Greeks and Romans and all of the rest of them so we can take over the world in the name of God.”  That’s what they wanted.  That’s what they were hoping for.

And if Jesus had tried to explain that God had a different idea about the true nature of the Messiah, I doubt that they would have listened. They would have still torn their clothes and condemned him and spit in his face and beat him and slapped him and bullied him and ridiculed him because it isn’t what they wanted to hear.  They wanted a license to bully their own people and kill their enemies, so Jesus the Messiah was of no use to them because he didn’t support their agenda. And the High Priest certainly didn’t care about the truth or what God had to say.  That wasn’t even on his radar.

It sounds like the deck was already stacked against Jesus from the get-go.  The Sanhedrin didn’t like him because he was causing trouble.  They wanted him out of the way because he was disruptive and annoying and troublesome.  They had already decided he was guilty and were looking for any reason to nail him, like the way the Feds got Al Capone for tax evasion.  Any reason to get him out of circulation was reason enough.

Just like Jewish Law and the Temple, the priesthood and the Council had been corrupted.  Jesus repeatedly asserted that the trappings of Jewish religion were no longer serving God’s purposes and revealing his will for humanity.  Here is a case in point. Clearly, if Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had been listening to God he would have done things differently.  That’s the bad thing about earthly power.  It seems to make people deaf and blind and, well, stupid and regressive.  And when other people follow blind leaders everyone ends up in the ditch (See Day 138).  Like the angry mob who came after Jesus with spears and clubs.  Like the Sanhedrin, and all of the others along the way who followed their precious high priest into a ditch by persecuting Jesus.  History does not remember them kindly, and within a hundred years or so their whole way of doing business was obsolete.  No more priests, no more Sanhedrin.  God handed out pink slips to all of them.

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 241: Matthew 26:52-55

Put your sword back in its place. All who take the sword will die by the sword. Don’t you know that I could call on my Father for help, and at once he would send me more than twelve armies of angels? But in that case, how could the Scriptures come true which say that this is what must happen?”

Did you have to come with swords and clubs to capture me, as though I were an outlaw? Every day I sat down and taught in the Temple, and you did not arrest me. But all this has happened in order to make come true what the prophets wrote in the Scriptures.”

Jesus has just been betrayed by Judas.  He has been identified by Judas as the enemy, and now comes the arrest.

 Jesus was still speaking when Judas, one of the twelve disciples, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs and sent by the chief priests and the elders. (Matthew 26:47).

For some reason I always envisioned that Jesus was arrested by the Romans.  I don’t know why I had that impression.  He wasn’t arrested by Romans.  It wasn’t the religious authorities themselves. Jesus was “arrested” by an angry armed with swords and clubs.  The cowardly priests and the elders got a bunch of thugs all whipped up into a frenzy and sent them off to do their dirty work.  I’m reminded of those old horror movies where the whole town starts chasing after Frankenstein or some other misfit with torches and weapons.  Can you imagine how different life would be today if the church could arrest people?  By sending and angry mob?  Yikes!!!

Yesterday I reflected on Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.  Now we have a second betrayal by one of Jesus’ disciples.

Then they came up, arrested Jesus, and held him tight.  One of those who were with Jesus drew his sword and struck at the High Priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. (Matthew 26:50b-51).

Throughout his entire career Jesus has always advocated peace, non-violence, and passive resistance.  And yet now, one of his disciples (identified as Peter in the Book of John, but then again almost all the factual details in John are questionable), cuts off a lowly slave’s ear!!  By resorting to violence this disciple truly betrayed Jesus and his ministry.  The last thing Jesus wanted was to start a rumble.  He wanted people to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, and rise above it when persecution comes.  He healed people, he never hurt them.  The disciple’s action was a betrayal of everything that Jesus stood for.

So what does Jesus do?  First, he admonishes the disciple and reiterates his position on nonviolence.  He offers some profound words of wisdom which are also a stern warning to all humanity:

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him. “All who take the sword will die by the sword.

Ain’t it the truth?  Kids join gangs to be safe but it makes them more likely to get shot.  People who shoot other people get shot.  When war breaks out no one is safe. What goes around comes around.  Violence results in more violence.  Hatred results in more hatred.  Hurting people hurt people.  On and on.

Next, Jesus makes it clear that he is not a victim who needs to be defended.  He has chosen to submit himself to this arrest and persecution.  He says that he could shut down this hot mess any time he wants, but he chooses not to do so.  He wants to hold a mirror up to the face of humanity so that they might see how savage and uncivilized they are.  He is committed to doing everything in his power to help people repent and embrace the Kingdom of God:

 “Don’t you know that I could call on my Father for help, and at once he would send me more than twelve armies of angels?   But in that case, how could the Scriptures come true which say that this is what must happen?”

Having chastised his renegade disciple for his barbaric act of violence, Jesus now turns to the crowd.  Again, he lets them know that they are making a big mistake.  He says that he is not an outlaw.  He reminds them that he is a teacher.  He wants them to question why they are suddenly chasing him around with swords and clubs.  He also reiterates that by submitting to his persecutors he is fulfilling a prophecy.

Then Jesus spoke to the crowd, “Did you have to come with swords and clubs to capture me, as though I were an outlaw? Every day I sat down and taught in the Temple, and you did not arrest me. But all this has happened in order to make come true what the prophets wrote in the Scriptures.”

So what is the prophecy in the Scriptures that Jesus keeps referring to?  There is no direct relationship to a particular scripture.  There is nothing about anyone being chased around by Neanderthals with swords and clubs.  I think he is probably referring to a passage from Isaiah called “The Lord’s Servant”:

“Here is my servant, whom I strengthen—the one I have chosen, with whom I am pleased. I have filled him with my Spirit, and he will bring justice to every nation. He will not shout or raise his voice or make loud speeches in the streets. He will not break off a bent reed nor put out a flickering lamp. He will bring lasting justice to all. He will not lose hope or courage; he will establish justice on the earth. Distant lands eagerly wait for his teaching.”

God created the heavens and stretched them out; he fashioned the earth and all that lives there; he gave life and breath to all its people. And now the Lord God says to his servant, “I, the Lord, have called you and given you power to see that justice is done on earth. Through you I will make a covenant with all peoples; through you I will bring light to the nations. You will open the eyes of the blind and set free those who sit in dark prisons. (Isaiah 42:1-7).

It pretty well sums things up.  He wants to be God’s faithful servant.  He has been filled with God’s Spirit.  He has a passion for justice.  He will go quietly and calmly into the persecution that is waiting for him.  He is courageous and he will not lose hope.  He will show the power of peace.  He will make things right by lifting up the lowly and putting down the proud.  He will open the eyes of the blind and set the prisoners free.  This is the mission and prophecy that Jesus is determined to fulfill.  He is this man.  And this is the person God calls us all to be.

So what happens next?  It says: Then all the disciples left him and ran away.

Now he is alone.  Everyone has abandoned him.  But Jesus is absolutely determined to be God’s faithful representative. He will not defend himself.  He will not fight back.  He will discipline himself, he will keep his emotions under control.  He will march right into the fire.  He will let the people in power and the fickle disciples and the angry mobs do their worst, because he believes that if he stands firm to his convictions God’s love will be revealed and the Messianic Age will begin to unfold.  And ultimately he will have the victory.  His quiet courage and dignity in the face of the worst that mankind has to offer continue to illuminate our darkness and give us all a compelling glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

What does this scripture say to you?