Saturday, April 3, 2010

Resurrection Faith: An Easter Reflection (redacted for 2010)

APRIL 3, 2010

PH  Risen Christ
"Christ Triumphant"

This essay, first posted on April 10, 2009, has been extensively revised for 2010. I am posting this Reflection now so there will be time for folks to read it before, on, or after Easter. Let me make the usual disclaimer that this Reflection is written by a Christian for Christians, for those who are on a spiritual quest and are inquiring about the tenets of Christianity, and for all others who may find value in it if it helps them understand Christian belief a bit better.

I would like to focus on a theme that irritated more than a few of my pastor friends when I was still a pastor. Irritation of the clergy, however, considering the lethargy in the Church these days, can only be a good thing.

The point of this Easter essay is simple: Today the Resurrection is the greatest stumbling bloc for many who otherwise would believe in Christ. Christians, and in particular, Christian pastors, are not supposed to admit such a thing, especially on Easter when pastors have a shot at saying easy, comforting things to a lot of people they may not see in church again for months.

I happen to believe that one of the problems with the faith these days, a main problem, is that pastors spend far too much time trying to tell people what they think the people want to hear, what they'll tolerate; and too little time telling them the Gospel truth that they need to hear. But we still need to let God speak to us through the Bible; and we need to listen to what God has to say, comforting or not, even on Easter.

The Resurrection is central to Christian faith. If you are a Christian and you can't at some time in your life before you die, believe that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, then your faith as a Christian is incomplete.

Read the 15th Chapter of Paul's letter to the church at Corinth. It's all laid out there in black and white. And it's very clear. Even if you haven't picked up a Bible in years, you'll get it.

I need to say right here that there are places in the Bible that imply that God will eventually gather to himself all people who ever lived. That idea is called "universal salvation." A surprising number of Christians believe in it. I am never willing to say that I know the limits of God's mercy and grace. Our God is a God of mercy and love, and of second chances, so perhaps everyone will eventually get to share the good side of eternal life. I simply do not know if that is true or not.

But it is very clear that to be a Christian is to believe that Christ was raised. That being so, Christians need to understand that they achieve salvation through believing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, along with a few other basics. There aren't all that many basics, but belief in the resurrection is fundamental.

So, for the Christian, if Jesus be not raised, then he died a fool on the Cross, for nothing. And we are fools as well, for we have put our faith in a fool. But if, as I believe to be true, God raised him from the grave; if he ascended into heaven, there to reign at the right hand of God, there to intercede for us, then we too, through faith in him, shall be raised to live in glory with him, at the Last Day.

It's really as simple, and as difficult, as that. That is our proclamation as Christians. That is our faith. It is what we believe. It is by that faith that we live. And it is in that faith that we die, knowing that we shall be raised to be with him.

Many in St. Paul's time did not think it impossible for God to raise someone from the grave. Most Jews had begun to believe that it was possible; and the gentiles had already heard numerous stories of Greek and Roman gods raising people from death. It was already part of Persian religious culture as well.

So while many still questioned the idea, including some in the church in Corinth, the idea of resurrection was not entirely foreign to people in Paul's day.

Today it is different. And many modern Christians doubt the resurrection of Jesus. Why is that? I think that, in our rush to judge the Bible and its claims by the standards of modern science, many have found those claims wanting.

And, having been attacked by the skepticism of science, both from within the Church and from outside it, we Christians have too often tried very unsuccessful ways to defend the faith. The two main unsuccessful ways of defending the faith have been by (1) rationalization and (2) believing we were defending it according to scientific methods.

In the mainline churches, like those I have belonged to, pastors have mostly tried to rationalize their way around the more controversial aspects of the faith. Many pastors say that there are perfectly logical explanations for the miracles; they choose which miracles to preach on, preferring the ones that we can attribute to psychological illness, or that we can explain by some quirky natural phenomena.

Many pastors also argue, in this case correctly, that many things in the Bible are actually metaphors rather than "fact." I have no trouble with that. Many things written in the Bible are metaphoric, not to be interpreted literally. But many are not metaphoric, and the resurrection of Jesus is one that is not.

This timidity which results in running for cover through rationalization and metaphor is caused by one thing: The challenge of the modern scientific mind. If our beliefs can't stand the rigors of scientific testing, then many Christians, including Christian leaders, think they have to be rationalized, or seen as not literal but metaphoric.

But in each case we have succumbed to the temptation to justify our faith because we are afraid of a challenge from those who insist on viewing the faith through the eyes of science. And in so doing we have forgotten what faith means in the first place. (We'll come back to what faith means in a moment. But, for now, let's relate our problem to the Resurrection of Jesus.)

But the Resurrection is one miracle that Christians can't effectively rationalize away. And the metaphors for resurrection, while often beautiful: butterflies emerging, the sunrise, new growth in spring, a rebirth after a long and cold winter, are hardly a satisfactory explanation of what is written clearly in all four Gospels.

Opponents can and do deny it, debunk it, ridicule it and ignore it. But even the best Christian can't rationalize it, short of agreeing that it never happened. And when that happens we have just given the faith away.

So, oddly, sadly, Christians who should know better also try to justify the Resurrection scientifically. That well traveled road is particularly popular with evangelicals, which has always struck me as odd since they are the ones most likely to have a literal interpretation of the Bible. Having that, they are far more vulnerable to scientific type scrutiny than are mainline or liberal Christians.

On Easter Sunday there are foolish claims being made from pulpits all over the world that the empty tomb "proves" the Resurrection; and other "proofs" will be alleged as well. Thousands of books have been written on the "proofs" of the Resurrection.

And arguments will be made that these proofs are just as exacting a proof of a literal fact as any scientific experiment might yield. Actually, some of them are very excellent arguments that the Resurrection makes sense. But to argue that their case is the same as scientific proof is only to show an abysmal lack of understanding of the scientific method.

So, ultimately, this is a exercise in futility. It may make us feel good. I've read many of those books, heard those sermons. But those arguments will not, can not, sway the rational mind bent on seeing "proof of the Resurrection" in a scientific sense.

The truth is that no one can "prove" the Resurrection in a scientific, empirical sense. No one. After all, nobody saw the Resurrection. And, to the scientific mind that will always be the final stumbling block to "proving" the Resurrection. The very foundation of science is built on repeatable empirical events. Not only has the Resurrection never yet been repeated by anyone, but the first event was witnessed by no human.

The early church, in many ways much smarter than today's church, made no attempt to "prove" it by worldly tests. Instead they proclaimed it to be true. They knew it was true! Why? Because they believed it. They believed the eye witness testimony of those who saw the Risen Christ.

Their key to faith was to accept the kerygma, the proclamation, of the Gospels when it was proclaimed by believers like Peter, Paul, Timothy, James, John and the others. It is still the key to Christian faith today.

Knowing this, we can come back now to the issue of "faith." The test the early Christians applied to the Resurrection was not a test of science, but the test of faith. But many Christians today cannot actually tell you what faith is. The Bible tells us; but we tend not to look there for a definition even though that is where the best definitions are found.

Traditionally, Christians have believed the Resurrection is true because the Bible says it is true. They didn't look for definitions in the Bible because if the Bible said it, then they believed it.

We still believe that the Bible is the inspired witness to the Word, Jesus Christ. Some Christians even call the Bible the Word of God. That is a title I reserve for Jesus, but either way the Bible is seen as a Holy Book, not just another best seller.

Today Christians believe the Resurrection is true because witnesses they trust said that they saw the Risen Lord. And, most of all, they believe it is true because, believing it, they see the living Lord operating in their own lives and in the lives of their fellow Christians. In other words, they have faith.

What is faith? In Hebrews 11 we are told that faith "is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." That sentence is worth reading over and over until we understand it.

Paul tells us in Romans 1 that "the righteousness of God is revealed through faith"; and in Romans 3 he says that we are justified, made holy, by grace, through faith. In Romans 10 he tells us that faith comes from what is "heard," and that what is heard comes to us through "the word of Christ." In 1st Timothy Paul speaks of "the faith," our faith, as a "mystery," and John, in Revelation, calls for us to endure and to hold fast to faith in Jesus.

Faith is one of the most common words in the New Testament, and nowhere is it described as something that comes from empirical knowledge. Faith comes from the grace of God. It is a gift. It is not, and cannot be, earned, or found through study, or demanded because we have gone through all the right motions.

It is intuitive. It is felt. It is a product of the Holy Spirit acting on our hearts. It rises above mere words. It is, repeating Hebrews once more, "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." And it is not, and can not be, subject to scientific "proof."

The bottom line for me is simple. I believe that the Resurrection is true. It is a truth I know by faith. A wise saint, Anselm, said that theology (the study of God) is "fides quaerens intellectum," "faith seeking understanding."

As one who spent much of my life as a Christian, yet one trying to find the truth the other way around (If I can just understand, I'll have faith!) I can tell you that it won't work that way. First, have faith. Then study and learn, seeking understanding. And understanding will flood in once the faith is yours.

Because of my faith, the Resurrection of Jesus is not a stumbling block in my life today. For many years it was; for I was a Christian lay person lead by well-meaning pastors and teachers down the path of rationalization. But I couldn't get there from here.

And I also felt indicted by other well meaning pastors and teachers when I could not see what they said was so obvious: that they had proven some event in the Bible scientifically. Yet it was so clear to me that they failed, in spite of their fervor.

And the effect of being whiplashed between those two positions was that I felt terribly inadequate. I felt that since these were learned leaders in the church something must be fundamentally wrong with me, and I feared that I could never be a proper Christian.

Today, I know the Resurrection is true by faith. And the Bible tells me that God's grace, through my faith, is sufficient for me to feel firm in my knowledge of Christianity and of my salvation.

Perhaps some of you Christians have gone down a path similar to mine. And perhaps you are still struggling with others who try to "prove" the Resurrection to you by "scientific" explanations, or to rationalize it away. If so, I know the sense of feeling that you are somehow considered less of a Christian than those who seem so cocksure about their faith.

But, if you feel that way, I need to tell you that there is nothing wrong with you. And there is a better way for you to go than either of those well-traveled roads which only lead us away from faith.

The better way is simply to ask Christ for faith. I know it sounds too simple. But I did it and kept doing it for years and then one day it dawned on me that I believed the things I had doubts about before.

There was no lightening bolt, no obvious time when I felt I was different. It was more like I just woke up one morning and everything fell into place. I didn't dance or run down the street screaming about the change in me. Rather I felt a peace and a certainty that I cannot describe. A peace that told me that my faith was real.

My prayer for Christians or seekers who struggle with the truths of the faith is that they will invite Jesus into their hearts and ask him to give them faith. If the Resurrection is a stumbling block for you, tell him that. He will listen and he can give you faith. You can't create it in yourself. You can't study or read your way to it. But Jesus can create it in your heart if you ask for it.

Do you remember the story in Mark of the man who brought his child to Jesus for healing, a child with an evil spirit in him? And he asked Jesus that, if Jesus were able to do anything, would he have pity on his boy and help him? And Jesus said "All things can be done for the one who believes."

And the man, overcome with love for his son and at his wits end, said what so many of us need to say to Jesus, yet we are afraid to mouth the words: "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" We have all been at that place at some point in our lives. If the Resurrection is a stumbling block, the prayer of that man is the prayer we need to say.

I hope that this Easter Reflection has resonated with you and has opened up new avenues to how you might approach the Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. The key to feeling the wonder and grace of the Resurrection is to have Resurrection Faith.

To my Christian friends I say: May this Easter be for each of you a day of wonder, of mystery, of love and of joy, a day of faith in the one who rose from the dead, who ascended to heaven and even now sits at the right hand of God and mediates and advocates for us, who promises to each who believe in him everlasting life: our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

To those are searching for faith of any kind, I say do not be discouraged, but allow yourself the peace of knowing that faith cannot be gained through study but by opening ourselves, our hearts, our minds, our spirit, allowing them to become vessels of truth. Most often I have found that it is in the calm center of the storm that rages around us that the truth comes to us.

To those who have chosen no spiritual path I say that I hope that this reflection gives you a better understanding of how Christians think about the Resurrection, and of how I believe that the only way that Christians can see the Resurrection and believe its truth is through the eyes of faith. I hope that each of you have found a peace and understanding that you find nourishes your own well being and allows you to reach out to others in love.

To all I pray that your lives will be full of love for yourselves and for others so that we may reach out in love to all who need a touch, a word, an act of kindness, or simply the ministry of our presence in their lives.

Happy Easter, everyone!


Original post: 2412 page views 2010 04 03

Monday, March 29, 2010

"I Crucified You," A Good Friday Reflection, Edited for 2010

Originally published, Open Salon, MARCH 29, 2010

"I Crucified You," A Good Friday Reflection, Edited for 2010


Note to Readers: This essay was first posted on April 8, 2009. I am posting this edited version now so there will be plenty of time for folks to read it before Good Friday, the 2nd of April. Let me make the usual disclaimer that this is written by a Christian for Christians, for those who are on a spiritual quest and are inquiring about the tenets of Christianity, and for all others who may find value in it if it helps them understand Christian belief a bit better.

Faith is a given in this Reflection. Therefore, there is no intention here to carry on dialogues about the validity of faith, the "reality" of events depicted, or a general discussion of the merits of faith, or the lack thereof. Such discussions abound on other blogs.

It is my belief that Christians belong at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday. But it isn't the place where most people want to spend much time, and so Good Friday is also a time when most modern Protestant Churches do not even have services.

This phenomena of mass avoidance of Good Friday and spending time at the Cross is not all that new. In fact, the Bible tells us that most of the disciples were nowhere near the Cross when Jesus died.

Only His mother and the beloved disciple appear to have been close enough to actually hear him from the Cross, and that is told to us in only one of the four Gospels. There were some women who were his followers watching from a distance, and in one of the Gospels some of the disciples were said to be with them.

As for the inner core of believers, the ones who would become known as the apostles, most had gone into hiding, fearing that they would be subject to the same fate if they ventured out.

Peter had already denied three times that he even knew Jesus, let alone that he was Jesus' disciple. Peter did that even before he knew that Jesus would be sentenced to death.

The foot of the Cross may not be a comfortable place for a believer. But a believer should be there, comfortable or not. And that is the rub. We do not like discomfort.

But, if we view it, as many Christians today do, as simply "history," as something that happened long ago, an evil deed perpetrated by others, then while we would not want to waste our time at the Cross, it would not bother us much if we did.

Most Christians are not so callous, and believe that this was a legal murder, this crucifixion, an evil deed perpetrated long, long ago by others. But along with that belief is the unstated idea the his crucifixion has little to nothing to do with us who were born 2000 years later.

They see us as benefiting from his sacrifice on the Cross. But they do not see us as having any role in his death.

After all, didn't Jesus say, quite clearly, from the Cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?" Yes, he did. Even the most Biblically illiterate Christian knows that much. "Father, forgive them" is exactly what he said.

Hearing that, what should we think? Well, one of the things many Christians have been thinking about for 2000 years is trying to identify just who "them" is. The irony in that, of course, is that Christianity has spent 2000 years concentrating so hard on trying to decide who "them" is, that the true point of his forgiveness is lost on many of us.

Many of us cannot understand the implications of the prayer of forgiveness made by Jesus from the Cross because it never occurs to us that it might be directed at us. After all, Jesus says it is directed at "them," the ones who were killing Him. And that was 2000 years ago!

In our subconscious obsession with distancing ourselves from the Cross even faithful Christians have sought to define "them" as almost anyone other than "us." It takes a courageous Christian to hold a mirror to his face and admit, "Them is me!"

Through the centuries many Christians have never actually come to grips with the truth that it is our sin for which he died. Not just for the sin of those who lived back then, but for the sins of the entire world, past, present and future.

The Bible is crystal clear that Jesus came to save not just some people at some particular time and place but to save all people at all times and in all places. And Jesus' prayer from the Cross confirms that when we understand that we are included in those for whom Jesus asked forgiveness.

But, as a result of our failure to see our own sin, we have, over the centuries, looked for and found scapegoats: the Romans, Pilate, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, the Saducees, the Chief Priests. But, mostly, Christianity has thrown a blanket indictment over one entire people, "The Jews!"

This tragic failure at introspection lead, in the middle of the last century, to the greatest holocaust that the world has ever known. And even today it leads to ungodly prejudice and anti-Semitism, spewing bile-filled hatred at the people God called "chosen."

The Jews were chosen by God not for themselves alone, but because they believed in the one God who blessed them so that they could be a blessing to all people. They were clearly chosen not for themselves alone but to bless the nations of the world in God's name. Most anti-Semites conveniently overlook that fact.

Our Jewish Messiah, the one we call the Christ, this Jesus of Nazareth, a simple Jewish rabbi, this Savior we Christians worship, did not blame the Jews. Nor did he condemn Pilate, or the Romans, or the Chief Priests, or any single individual or group.

He could have condemned them all. In his place I imagine that we would condemn lots of people. But he said, plainly and clearly, "Father, forgive them."

Yet, to the shame of the Church, we have too often indulged ourselves in our fear of facing the Cross. We have feared looking into the mirror and having to say, "Oh My Lord Jesus, I crucified you!"

Thankfully, a few Christians have thought it through, have figured out that Jesus died for the sins of all of us, have understood that we, in every generation, crucify Jesus by our sin.

Listen to the words of the great 17th century hymnist, Johann Heermann, in his anthem of confession, "Ah, Holy Jesus" written at a time of great tribulation, during the Thirty Years War.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty- Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
'Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.

For me, kind Jesus, was Thine incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life's oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For our atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

We don't sing that song very much in most Churches any more. And in the churches that do, the words are often translated quite differently, intentionally softened, taking the sting of our guilt out of the song.

Why do you suppose that is? Does it hit too close to home? I can come up with no other answer than, "Yes. It hits too close to home. And there is no need to make us uncomfortable right before the hope and beauty of Easter Sunday."

But, unless we Christians can gather at the foot of the Cross of Jesus, and say with the hymnist, "I Crucified You," then we will never be able to feel the power of the Cross. We will not be able to feel the pain Jesus felt on that cross, nor, more importantly, the love he offered to us.

Guilt is not something modern folk like to talk about. Nor is pain. Nor is forgiveness that comes to us through pain. And so, increasingly, much of the Protestant Church today flies through Palm Sunday and skips to Easter Sunday with only a small bow in the direction of the Cross.

One thing I am pleased with in the Moravian Church that I served for the during the last five years of my ministry is the Moravians still hold with the old idea that Holy Week means something.

And so Holy Week Readings are held each evening, up to and including Good Friday, consisting of readings from the Gospels and singing hymns that pull us into an understanding of our participation in the events leading to and ending in the crucifixion. When we, as was that local congregation's practice, ended the Holy Week Readings on Maundy Thursday, I added a Good Friday evening Prayer Vigil. But that was sparcely attended.

The United Church of Christ, in which I was ordained, took a different tack in order to recognize the avoidance of the Cross by calling Palm Sunday "Palm/Passion Sunday." And I always included a Chancel Drama at the end of the Palm Sunday service that included the congregation having a part in the reenactment of the Passion according to St. Matthew.

I continued this at the Moravian church which I served. It helped, but it was not a true substitute for an actual service of prayer and introspection on Good Friday evening.

On that Cross of pain, Jesus, the one we call the Christ, the Messiah, offered us forgiveness of our sin. If we could begin, this Good Friday, to feel the guilt, to comprehend the pain, to sense the love of Christ for us, then we may be privileged to understand the real meaning of his offer of grace.

"Father, forgive them" is a singular act of grace offered to us, once, for all, by one who hung on a Cross and loved us enough to forgive us.

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" is a prayer. Never forget that. It was Jesus' prayer to the One who could grant forgiveness for the sake of His Son. And God heard Jesus' prayer.

Christians believe that, by the resurrection of Jesus, the one who loves us enough to forgive us, God, does, in fact, forgive us. By raising Jesus, God reconciles us to Himself.

I have always thought the name "Good" Friday is such an bittersweet name to attach to the day of crucifixion. Bitter in the pain and ultimate sacrifice of the Son of God. But sweet in the fruit of that sacrifice.

Through his Cross, Jesus offers a special grace to those who believe in him. That grace is that they shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.

My Good Friday prayer for myself and for all who call themselves Christians is "Father, forgive us, for we know now what we did."

May all of you, my dear friends, find peace and love, hope and joy, not only in this Christian Holy Week and at Easter, but always -- whatever your belief may be, or whether you do not believe at all.


Original posting: 2161 page views as of 2010 03 29
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