A Good Friday Meditation (John 18:1-19:42)

In the long history of the church, few issues are as controversial as the atonement theories underlying our understanding of Good Friday. Why did Jesus die? How did Jesus’ death accomplish our salvation?  How is it that one man’s death atoned for the sinfulness of humanity, even those yet to be born?

As much as I’d like to tackle these big questions, I can’t.  I’m afraid I have nothing new or meaningful to add.  However, I would like to pose a different series of queries.  Good Friday is a day about death.  We can all agree on Jesus’ demise.  As in the countless of funerals I’ve presided over; Jesus dies and is buried.  The dominant emotion of the day is grief.  His relatives mourn his passing.  My questions arise from Mary’s grief, Peter’s remorse, John’s sorrow, everyone’s misery; the universal affection to which we all relate.

I am unable to fully explain, beyond the theoretical, how Jesus’ death accomplishes the work of salvation.  Yet, I am certain of the bereavement and anguish felt by his family and friends.  I have witnessed this response on untold occasions as families gather to bid mothers, fathers, sons, sisters, and brothers goodbye.  This pain has taken up space in my soul.  The melancholy caused by death is not static.  Despair works in a continual spin cycle, reluctant to release the mind of the grieving.  Within our despondency, basic questions begin to form; “why”, “what next”, and “how”.  These, I believe, are the most important questions we can ask on Good Friday.  As we witness the death of Jesus the human being, we should not shield our humanity from the pain of the cross.

If we’ve been there since the beginning, you need to be there at the end.  Allow me to put it bluntly: you came to the manger, now go to the funeral.  Good Friday is not the time to walk away and shield your eyes.  In fact, we make too much of the Stations of the Cross, the journey from the site of Jesus’ trial to the place where he was executed.  Nobody talks about the journey from the cross to the tomb.  There are no crowds, stations, or programs to remember the walk to the grave.  Where do you think the family needed people most?  Where was their grief greatest?  As we know from our own lives, it’s after everyone’s gone home and the funeral is over.  We know from our own experience.  We’ve been there.  This is why Good Friday matters.

Good Friday is a strange day.  It’s a day where God feels absent and nonexistent.  By the end of it, even Jesus feels forsaken and abandoned.  We’re left with one of the most difficult tasks possible, keeping promises to the dead.  When you believe God broke his promise by dying, nothing seems more difficult.  We are reminded on Good Friday, as CS Lewis tells us; the consolation of religion and the truth of religion are two different things.  To the latter we will listen and to the former, no one understands.  Today, there is nothing anyone can say to make anything any better.  Jesus is dead.  The bad guys won.  There are no consolations on Good Friday.

Richard Lowell Bryant

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A Maundy Thursday Meditation (1 Corinthians 11:23-36)

I am a high church guy. This means, when it comes to worship, I enjoy the structure, language, and order of the liturgy.  Drums sets, preachers on stools, and untucked shirts aren’t my thing. When I have my choice of attending services (when I’m not leading worship), I’ll naturally gravitate toward the Anglican, Roman, or Russian Orthodox end of the spectrum.  It’s the ritual, connecting the present with the past which draws me closer to God.

Songs, words, scripture, colors; they all go together to enhance my worship experience.  Worship also plays a role in shaping my theology.  What I believe is formed by what I encounter in a worshiping Christian community.  Hymn lyrics and preaching may inspire me.  Nonetheless, it is Holy Communion which takes disparate individuals and reconciles them to each other and God.  At the altar, where we receive the elements of bread and wine, the Kingdom of God becomes a living reality.  Jesus’ words do something we are unable to do for ourselves.

For mainline Christians, our worship services are built around one action:  the reenactment of the last supper.  No matter the music, the language, or what the minister wears; the core of the service is built on the idea of recalling, retelling, remembering, and replaying Jesus’ last meal with his disciples.  This is what we do each time we come to the table.  However, to paraphrase the Passover Haggadah text, tonight is different from all other nights.

On Maundy Thursday, we gather as if we’ve never heard the story before.  We return to the table for the first time.  I want to ask a simple question:  why are we here?

I know what we’re doing.  Paul answers the “what” question with an unmistakable level of clarity.  For Paul, there are no rubrics, gestures, or responses.     He received these words and now he’s passing them on to us.  We received these words.  “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread and when he had given thanks; he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’  In the same way he took the cup, also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”

The words are all we’ve got.  The cups, the chalice, the table cloths, the type of bread, the layout of the table; everything with the exception of the words are variables left to our discretion.

The “why” of tonight can only be answered by confronting those things we cannot alter; Jesus’ words.

Jesus’ words place us in the unenviable position of admitting our participation in his betrayal.  We cannot receive the bread or the cup unless we admit our culpability in what comes next.  Our guilt and silence are no different from that of Judas or Peter.  This is one reason we are here.  God isn’t killing his son.  Humanity, you and I, people like us were threatened by his message.  We handed him over.  This is on us.

It’s also important for us not to forget the “next” step.  We cannot circumvent Good Friday and arrive well adjusted and happy on Easter Sunday morning.  I would love to preach all Easter all the time but that’s not who we are.  That’s not Christianity, that’s a cult.  To believe in Jesus Christ is to accept the pain of the cross, the injustice it represents, and the pain embodied on Good Friday.  As we recall Jesus’ broken humanity, we are affirming the immutable centrality of cross and these words as signs of the resurrection.

Jesus’ words remind us we’re here because we have a mandate to keep telling the Thursday night story, setting the stage for Good Friday, and laying the groundwork for Sunday.  Each time we find the words, especially when our emotional wells run dry, we can express a truth beyond language and liturgy.

Jesus has done something greater than we can imagine, understand, or possibly accept.  That’s OK.  If you don’t get it, understand it, or can’t picture it, it’s still your gift.  Our challenge is not to explain what Christ has done. Instead, in our sharing, we find a small way to say thank you, even in our ignorance.   Despite the betrayals and our desire for an easy way out this is, I believe, where our salvation will be found.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Uncomfortable (Yet Perennial) Questions We Ought To Ask In Holy Week

1. So much hinges on Judas’ participation and betrayal.   What if Judas had said no?

2. Isn’t that odd, the salvation of the human race is partly dependent on one man’s treachery.  That’s always made me uneasy.  How about you?

3. If Jesus was going to die and the resurrection is a reality, one way or another, do Peter’s denials matter?

4. Is Pilate a good guy or a bad guy?

5. Are there any good guys or bad guys in this story, other than Jesus, isn’t everyone morally compromised?

6. Do any of us share a common definition of the word “resurrection”?

7. Does it matter who is first to the tomb? Is resurrection a race?

8. Does your belief in the resurrection depending ultimately on seeing a body or being told the Good News?

9. How did Jesus die? He was a victim of capital punishment. Why are we afraid to say that?

10. Why did Jesus have to die? Isn’t the idea of child sacrifice disturbing?

If you work through these question, you’ll have a more interesting Holy Week and Easter.  You may even grow spiritually.  Think on them.  Pray about them.  Ask them to your friends.  Take your Easter off autopilot and see what happens.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Palm Sunday Prayer

Gracious God,

I’m not really a “parade person”. Crowds make me nervous and I’m always afraid I’ll mess up the group chant. I never get the “wave” right in stadiums. So Palm Sunday, as you might imagine, makes me a little nervous. Who am I kidding, I’m terrified! I’m not sure when to come in with my, “Hosanna in the Highest, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”. As I stand in the crowd on Sunday morning, I ask you to hear my prayers, spoken from the silence of my heart:

Help me, in the days to come, to focus on what matters most,
Help me to see beyond the crowds and look to you,
Help me to find ways to block out the sounds of crowd,
Help me to listen to you when others put words into your mouth,
Help me to offer my heart when others offer their cloaks,
Help me find a place to be where you need me most.

Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

It’s Not About the Parade, It’s About Getting to the Temple (Mark 11:1-11)

We’ve all watched a movie where we know something terrible is about to happen.  Whether you’ve seen the film or not, you know if the character opens that door or goes around a corner, they’re going to be in serious trouble.  In fact, when we witness such a scene, it’s not uncommon for us to yell at the television, “Don’t go in there!” or “Don’t open that door!”  Hoping to warn the person of their impending doom, they never hear us.  They’ll turn the corner and open the door only to find what we knew awaited them: a gruesome demise.  Well, we tried to warn them.  Why didn’t they listen?  We yelled at the TV, didn’t we?

This is how I feel when I talk about Palm Sunday.  I am watching the parade.  People are lining the route as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on his donkey.  Palm leaves are waving and you can hear the crowds shouting, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  It’s the perfect Palm Sunday scene.  Yet, I know what’s coming around the corner.  I want to shout at the television.  “Jesus, turn around and go back.  Don’t trust these people.  Don’t go into the city.  In a few days these same people are going to kill you.”  As much as I shout at my imaginary Palm Sunday television, Jesus keeps going.  He doesn’t go back the way he came.  The parade keeps moving.  However, was Palm Sunday ever really about the procession?

Today, I’m less interested in the parade, palms, or the cloaks over the road.  The Palm Sunday procession which brought Jesus into Jerusalem was little more than a distraction.  Palm Sunday is a theological sleight of hand, designed to distract the Roman and Jewish authorities from Jesus’ actual goal.  While the right hand marches down the street on a donkey, don’t pay attention to the left hand headed toward the Temple.  The parade was never about the parade.  Everything was about getting Jesus to the Temple.

From all we know about Jesus, does he sound like a “parade” kind of guy?  It’s one thing to enjoy watching a parade.  It’s another thing to become Santa Claus in the Christmas Parade and have the whole event built around you and your image.  Does Jesus sound like the kind of person who would be comfortable with a whole parade or event centered on him or his image? No, he doesn’t.  Remember, this is the same man who repeatedly told the people he healed “Don’t tell anyone I healed you.”  Jesus was not much for publicity.  He’s always been cautious about how his disciples and the world perceive him.  Remember him asking, “Who do you say I am?”

A parade doesn’t fit with Jesus’ character.  Jesus has never been a showy, look at me kind of guy.  Why would his personality undergo such a dramatic shift in the last week of his life?  I don’t think it would.  Jesus never wanted to be or become a spectacle.  I want you to hold on to that thought.

What about the parade, though?  Isn’t that some prophecy in scripture?  Isn’t Jesus fulfilling something Zechariah said by entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey?  Jesus is aware of scripture.  He knows his Bible.  Jesus is also under a tremendous amount of pressure, expectation, and this parade (however Biblical) is everything that Jesus is not: a spectacle.  It’s still procession for an Israelite king in a traditional sense, which Jesus is not and has never claimed to be, but that’s what the scripture says.  And as we know from our own time, if we want the Bible to make a point, why let the truth get in the way of something Jesus actually said.  Jesus MUST be the Israelite king because Israelite kings ride donkeys.  Jesus is on a donkey.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If Zechariah says it, we must do, then the prophecy comes true.  See what I mean?

A decision was made.    With so many battles ahead of him, he knew what struggles were in the comings; did he decide to let Peter and his disciples have their parade?  That sounds more like the Jesus I know.  Someone who puts the wishes of others ahead of his own; that’s the Jesus I’ve come to know up to this point in the Gospels.

For Jesus, the parade is a distraction, a concession, and a means to an end.  The destination is more important that the journey.  Palm Sunday is ultimately about where the parade/procession ends.  The goal is more important than the route.  The donkey is just the mode of transportation.  Where is the parade headed?  Where is Jesus going?  It’s going to the Temple.  The parade simply takes us where we need to be going.  Everything comes to a head at the Temple.

The parade people left as quickly as they arrived.  The crowds were gone, the disciples had vanished, and this was where the rubber met the road.  Peter and others had same to him, “Jesus, King Herod, the Temple and the Romans, it is what it is.”  Jesus hated that expression, “it is what is”.   What if it wasn’t what it was?  Palm Sunday was the day the “is”, the status quo, changed forever.

This is the purpose of Palm Sunday.  It’s about Jesus’ relationship to the Temple.  Jesus, alone, no crowds, walks into the Temple.  That’s a scene for the ages. In one sense, it’s all come down to this moment.  One man, a solitary figure ascending the vast staircase of a monumental building (the embodiment of religious power and authority) to say God doesn’t dwell within these stone walls.  Our relationship to God is no longer based on paying men to kill lambs, goats, and pigeons.  God is free and you are free. Is God in a building or does God work through people?

What is that they say, “You can’t fight City Hall”?  Well, Jesus was about to fight City Hall, the White House,  Congress, Buckingham Palace, the Vatican, and the Kremlin all wrapped up into one entity.  That’s right, one person against that much entrenched religious and political power.  The parade was for show.  This was always intended to a job for one man.

Mark’s usually not the evocative storyteller.  He’s no Luke or John.  However, when it comes to Palm Sunday, his is my favorite version of the story.  I can see and hear Mark describe the events as if I’m standing right there.  You can almost feel the crowd dropping away as each verse passes.  By the time we reach verse 11, Jesus enters Jerusalem and finally makes his way to the Temple.

It must have been a long day.  We know this because Mark gives us one indication of time, “Because it was already late in the evening.”  Imagine how he felt.  He was exhausted, tired, and achy from sitting on that stupid donkey for hours on end.   He may have been holy donkey but I’m betting he was a dumb as any other run of the mill jackass.

Still, Jesus decided to go inside the temple.  This is what moves me in this passage.  You know the temple had to be quiet and relatively empty.  It was probably peaceful when compared to the chaos of a normal workday.  What did Jesus see?  What did Jesus think?  Mark says, “He looked around at everything.”  Notice that he had no problem being admitted to the temple.  He was in the grounds.  Did he remember the time he was “lost” as a 13 year old and his parents came to find him?  Was he sitting right over there?  Did he think, “That feels like yesterday”?  Maybe he remembered all of the other Passover feasts he’d attended in the intervening years, or his teaching and arguing with the Rabbis and priests.  Who knows?

We can’t climb inside the mind of Jesus but my guesses are not far off base.  The Temple was the most important and powerful place in all of Judaism.  It had shaped Jesus’ belief and helped defined who Jesus was and what he opposed.  Standing in the empty courtyard, he came to this realization:  the Temple system and all it represented must go.  By cooperating with the Roman authorities, the Temple had lost its integrity and humanity.  Corrupted by greed, a system once made holy by Moses was now more of a barrier to God than a conduit to God’s divine presence.

Jesus would return the following day and make a stand which would provoke a confrontation; a crisis that would lead to his arrest, trial, and execution.

In the darkness, he returned to the Mount of Olives.  The disciples were already there.  This would be their home for the next week.  In this camp outside Jerusalem, he would sing hymns, share food, and wait eventually to be betrayed and arrested.  On Sunday night, after a day of parading through Jerusalem, he was tired and sleep came.  It may have been the last good night of sleep he knew before the week began in earnest.  In the morning, he would return to the temple.  This time there would be no parade.  Some tables needing turning over.  Many People would be unhappy with him.  The crowd which loved him a few hours ago would slowly begin to change their mind about the carpenter from Nazareth called Jesus.

When the crowds get fickle, how easy is it for us to change our minds about Jesus?  Pretty easy.  All someone has to do is tell us “it’s in the Bible” and we’ll hop on the first donkey riding by.  Maybe the donkey isn’t the point.  Perhaps the point is to see where Jesus is going and what he’s doing and not get so caught up in the fanfare.  It’s an idea.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

Home By Another Way

There is a forgotten connection between the stories of Jesus’ birth and death.  It is a link between the journey of the wise men in Matthew’s gospel and the events between Palm Sunday and the Resurrection.

At the conclusion of the Magi’s visit to the Holy Family, Matthew tells us they are warned (in a dream) not to return to Herod.  So, as Matthew 2:12 says, “they left for the own country by another way”.

The wise men went home by another way.  Jesus, for all the pain he’ll suffer and explanation we’ll offer, is also returning home by a different path.  This isn’t our exit strategy.  We design grand plans revolution and regime change.  We will subvert Herod by becoming Herod.  Rome will be overthrown and we will replace Rome.  Our ideas include detailed reports on numbers of wounded combatants, civilian casualties, and pacification projects.  Our way needs a budget of at least thirty pieces of silver.  When the truth is told, we don’t have a way home.  It’s never safe to come home.  So we stay, right where we are.

However, when the time came, Jesus chose to return home by a different way.  Despite our plans, ideas, and strategies; there is another way home.

The road home ran through an empty grave, Galilee, and countless places in between.  The road home runs by you, your house, church, and the world around you.  The Resurrection is still on the way home, via that other way, right now.  We don’t have to opt for the grand design, as alluring as it may be.  Like Jesus, the wise men, and others who’ve gone before us.  We can get up and go home by another way.  It is the “other” in another that will make all the difference in the world.

Richard Lowell Bryant

The Character I Most Associate with In The Holy Week Stories Is Arthur “Boo” Radley

The journey to Jerusalem embodied in our Palm Sunday celebrations is both unsettling and calming.  Because of the perennial nature of the festivities, the return of the Passover, and Jesus’ entry into the city; we feel we know what to expect.  It is possible to take a deep breath and wait for the crowd to pass us by as we wave our palms and sing Hosanna.  Our lines are well rehearsed.  “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”  We could say them in our sleep.

Perhaps that’s the problem.  We know them too well.  As calm and comfortable as we’ve become with the procession and the parade, we’re more unsettled by our expectations of the events to follow.  Thursday, Friday, and Saturday loom large on the horizon.  Easter Sunday seems like it will never arrive.  The reality of the resurrection is confronted first by the betrayal of Peter, Judas, and maybe even us.  It’s now when the days get longer that the questions get harder.  Instead of reading about the life of Jesus from a distance, over the next few days, we step into the story.   Are you Peter, ready to draw a sword?  Perhaps you are Judas, looking for easy cash?  Thomas, not sure if any of this is real? Do you want to go back home to Galilee and fish?  Where are you in Jesus’ story?

I don’t need to find a chapter and verse.  I need to find my place in the story.  I think I’m sitting around the campfire on Sunday morning, cooking breakfast, about to receive the surprise of my life.  That’s jumping the gun.  The biggest challenge any Christian faces is skipping Good Friday and going straight to Easter.  We can’t do that.  So right now, I’m more like Arthur “Boo” Radley, the mysterious neighbor to the Finch children in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mocking Bird”.  Lurking in the dark on the Mount of Olives, watching the disciples off in the distance; I am hoping and praying that when the time comes, I’ll do the right thing.

Richard Lowell Bryant