Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Good Shepherd Isn't Who You Think

My message for April 25:

Why don’t we still have stables at the church?

The first church I served was founded in 1844, but the Union army destroyed the building during the Civil War. At war’s end, the people bought another tract of land and built a new church. It being 1865, they built a stable and carriage shed in the rear to protect horses and carriages from the elements when the people were at church.

The stable and shed are no longer there.

The sanctuary originally had narrow, wooden benches with no backs, a common feature of churches back then. In the early 1900s, high-backed pews were installed, decreasing seating capacity by almost 100. Soft pew cushions were added about 25 years ago.

No one knows what happened to the benches.

The church was originally lit by oil lamps. It was not electrified until FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration gave assistance. Since the mid-1930s, the church has used electric lights.

The oil lamps are nowhere to be found.

A man in his 80s told me he used to come early on winter Sundays as a lad to light the coal heaters in the sanctuary. A few years after getting electric lights, the church converted to electric heat.

The coal heaters are long gone.

The transoms over the stained-glass windows could be opened for ventilation when they were installed in 1916. Decades later the church added air conditioning.

The transoms were then soldered shut.

Some years before I arrived, the church converted a Sunday School room to a nursery. Before then, mothers were expected to look after their small children at church or stay home with them.

Though the stables had long disappeared when I arrived, the church had no parking lot. It did have a small, graveled-over area that was itself overgrown with grass. People parked on it and on the lawn.

One especially soggy November a woman visitor pointed out to me that she had apparently ruined her shoes walking through the mud from her car. I related this conversation to our lay leader, who was a woman also, but she replied that muddy shoes were a small price to pay to worship God when the early Christians worshiped at risk of death.

The problem is, of course, that there were dozens of churches in the community where one could worship just as well without ruining one’s shoes. Not long afterward, the church built a 100-space, paved, curbed and lined parking lot with a sheltered drive-up.

Each one of these changes - electric lighting, central heating and cooling, adaptation to autos - was, in its time, very controversial among the members, some of whom resisted them vigorously.

Would you like our church to take out the cushioned pews, uninstall the air conditioning, disable the microphones and return to kerosene lighting? Of course not – but it’s important to realize that what we think of as normal and common-sense practice was once widely seen as radical, new-fangled, faddish and unnecessary.

They are universal features now because churches learned that if they did not adapt, people would go elsewhere. When a significant percentage of churches began to accommodate cars instead of horse and carriage, people who drove cars went to them. Churches that held onto stables either closed or made the shift. Same with efficient cooling: people migrated away from open-window churches to air-conditioned ones until the holdout churches understood they’d have to get cool or close.

Today, the “textual generation” is being replaced by the “audiovisual, web-connected generation.” The former learns mainly by reading. But people not much younger than me learn mainly by looking and hearing. The younger someone is, the truer this is. People in their teens and 20s also expect to absorb information by more than one means at a time and interact with one another while they are doing it.

Today, churches are turning to use of multimedia during worship at a rapid pace. Overall, this is less controversial than tearing down the stables was. But like stabled churches had to do, we have to realize that this is the way that society is moving. Churches must adopt this technology or the next generation will simply go elsewhere.

I find this an exciting opportunity, not a daunting challenge. For the first time in literally all the centuries of the Christian era, we actually have a new means to connect the Good News of Jesus Christ with people in ways that have never been possible before. This should fill us with enthusiasm, not timidity!

Update, Dec. 2011: The Baptist Press says its surveys and studies show that American churchgoers are just as "digitally engaged" as the general population.

As long ago as 2007, three-fourths of churches reported that they "regularly use some kind of visual enhancement" of their worship services.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter- So What?

What's wrong with this picture? Well, a number of things, but let us admit that it is not intended to be a photo-accurate depiction of Jesus exiting his tomb on the first Easter morning almost 2,000 years ago. It's obviously simply intended to illustrate the central claim of Christianity: that Jesus of Nazareth, having been crucified to death (here's why) on Friday and entombed late that afternoon, was raised from death by the power of God on Sunday morning.

Back to the picture. My friends know I am a stickler for accuracy. First, there is no passage in the Gospels that describe Jesus exiting the tomb. He was laid in the tomb on Friday. The stone was rolled across the entrance to seal the tomb. On Sunday the women, friends of his and his mother, went to the tomb and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. The stone was not rolled away for Jesus's exit, but for the women's convenience so they could enter easily.

What the women saw inside were Jesus's grave wrappings, lying exactly as if the corpse within had simply vanished inside them. John's Gospel records, "the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head [was] not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself."

Romans aimed for maximum deterrent effect in crucifixion. Inflicting humiliation was part of the package. They stripped the condemned entirely naked before they nailed them to the cross. Jesus was naked when his friends took him down from the cross. They tried to clean his terribly-savaged corpse (whipped nearly to death by the Romans before crucifixion) and apply funereal spices before the onset of the Sabbath at sundown. They didn't finish. So they covered Jesus's face with a cloth, about the size of a modern hand towel, wrapped his body with a large cloth and then looped a long strip of cloth around the outside (probably torn from the side of the large cloth), loosely so that removing it would be easy on Sunday morning, when the women would return to finish applying the spices.

So however Jesus exited the tomb, he came out naked, certainly not clothed in a Clorox-clean robe. We know this because John says the Christ, arisen,

... said to her [Mary Magdalene], "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?"

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."

So somewhere, perhaps, a gardener was going to get to work later and wonder had happened to his work clothes.

The story of the first Easter is as familiar to church people as any story we know. Perhaps it has lost its power because of that fact. Each Gospel telling of that first Easter day adds certain embellishments, too. Mark's account is rather sparse, but the other Gospels add more and more detail until by the time we're through we have a virtual parade of folks and supernatural beings practically huddled near the tomb - Roman soldiers, Temple representatives, the women, panting disciples, angels. I almost expect the Marine band to be along any minute. And somewhere in there, almost lost in the crowd, we catch a fleeting glimpse of Jesus, risen from the dead, and everyone uncomprehending of what it means, including the women who saw him and the two men who can't make much sense how Jesus's grave clothes can just be empty.

And it happened way over yonder, in Israel, way back when. What is Easter for in 2010?

United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon served many years at the dean of Duke University’s chapel. He once told of an interview he gave to a student reporter for the Duke University campus newspaper. Easter was approaching. So was Spring Break, which ended on Easter weekend that year.

“I'm doing a story on fun things to do during Spring Break,” said the student-reporter, “and thought it would be cool to mention the Chapel.”

“Okay,” said Reverend Willimon.

“Dr. Willimon,” the student said, “what is the goal of Easter?”

Willimon later wrote that he had no ready answer. A horrible thought went through his mind – an image of a headline, “Preacher says Easter is pointless.”

At right is an iconic photo of Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon long before he danced with the stars. A few years after this day in July 1969, some wag made a poster of this photo (I Google in vain for an image) topped with the words, "So What?"

And this is, in fact, an excellent question to ask about the illustration of Jesus exiting the tomb, above, leaving aside its inaccuracy to the recorded event.

What is the point of Jesus's resurrection? What purpose does it serve?

There's an old story of a preacher who had invited the children up to the altar area one Easter morning for the children's sermon. He asked the question, "When Jesus came out of the tomb that day, what do you suppose was the first thing he said?"

A little girl jumped up, waving her hand and exclaiming, "I know! I know!" She thrust one foot forward and raised her hands triumphantly above her hand, then yelled, "TA DA!"

Is that it? God gets to wow us? Well, I am appropriately wowed. But if that's all there is, then my life is no different and I am no better off.

But, as you might imagine, the apostle Paul got it clearly. In a letter to the church in Corinth, Greece, he wrote (1 Corinthians 15:12-20):
12It is proclaimed that Christ has been raised from the dead, so how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ was not raised, either. 14And if Christ was not raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15Moreover, we are liars about God, for we have staked our reputations that God raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if all the dead are not raised. 16For if all the dead are not raised, then neither has Christ been raised. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith does you no good because you’re still in your sins. 18That means that those who died believing in Christ are gone forever. 19If Christ matters only for this life, we are more pitiful than anyone else. 20But Christ really has been raised from the dead; he was the first to be raised of all the dead.
The primary point of Jesus's resurrection is not really Jesus. The point is you and me. The resurrection of Jesus is the surety of a promise. The fundamental promise of God is that he will bring human beings into reconciliation with himself and preserve the righteous to live with him forever. How do we know that we will be raised from the dead? We know because God has already raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus’s resurrection is how God has proved he will keep his promise to raise everyone the dead at the end of the age. In fact, Paul sees Jesus’ resurrection as the actual inaugural event of the general resurrection.

That's why Paul elsewhere says that Jesus is a pioneer for the faith of Christian people. By his resurrection, Jesus blazed a trail. Jesus promised, explained this ahead of time.
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going."
Now I am not much one for the way that, "Much of modern Christianity preaches a comforting Home Depot theology: You can do it. We can help." One thing's for sure: if we are to be raised from death ourselves, somewhen, not one of us can do it on our own. And yes, I do think that we American Christians are much too narcissistic in our religious life but Easter really is maybe the one Sunday we can ask, faithfully, "What's in it for me?"

Your own empty tomb, someday, that's what. Pretty good deal, I'd say.

Here is a Youtube of His Majesty's Clerkes singing, "The Lord is Ris'n Indeed," by early American composer William Billings.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Why crucify Jesus?

As Good Friday and Easter approach, Christians across the globe come to re-examine the events of Jesus's last week in Jerusalem, referred to nowadays as Holy Week or Passion Week. The week began in triumph for Jesus as he entered the city being greeted as a nationalistic hero by some of the people who turned out to welcome him by laying their cloaks upon the road in his path, waving palm fronds and calling out praises.

Yet before the week was out, Jesus had been brutally beaten almost to death by the Romans, then driven to a place just outside the city called The Skull, or in Greek, Golgotha. There Roman soldiers nailed Jesus to a cross, upon which he died a short time later.

"Three Crosses" by Rembrandt
But what exactly was Jesus's capital offense? Crucifixion was used by the Romans only for that worst of all possible crimes: sedition or active resistance against the Roman imperium -- mutiny, in other words. Mutiny is always a cooperative effort. One person cannot commit mutiny, the crime definitionally involves conspiracy. Under Roman law, the only Roman citizens who could be crucified were mutinous or treasonous soldiers.

Absent conviction of a crime against the rule of Caesar, Jesus might have been executed, but not by crucifixion. The Romans made sure to carry out crucifixions in very public, well-traveled places where the intense suffering of the the victim would serve as a warning to others not to get any bright ideas. Those convicted of capital offenses considered less serious than sedition died a quicker and more private death by ordinary hanging or by beheading.

That Jesus was crucified rather than simply killed proves that the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, found him guilty of an offense against Rome itself. But what?

There are no notes from the trial of Jesus before Pilate. The accounts of the Gospels were written down many years later, decades, in fact. I read them not as verbatim accounts of the procedures but as dramatic accounts to tell the story of Jesus's death and how it came to occur.

But these the accounts of Jesus's arrest, hearings, trial and execution are not mainly theological explorations, either. The Gospel's writers seem to have possessed historical nuggets of the most important events and then tried to fill in some gaps by integrating what several threads of traditions said. Thus, we can understand that the Gospels' detailed conversations between Jesus and Pilate are not so much transcripts of what was said as dialog that is intended to show how and why one event moved to another.

Some historical facts are not disputed. The Sunday before Passover, probably between 30-33 c.e., Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jerusalem. The crowd that greeted them joyfully soon dissipated. Jerusalem would have been packed with Jewish pilgrims from Judea and across the Mediterranean world, come to the city to celebrate passover and make sacrifices at the Temple. Having been under Roman (hence pagan) occupation for many decades, and the pagan Greeks before that, the Jews' nationalistic fervor ran high during the holy season, so high, in fact, that Pilate abandoned his government's center in Caesarea, about 75 miles northwestward, and came to Jerusalem along with a couple of thousand soldiers. Whether Jerusalem was actually a tinderbox looking for a fuze, who knows today, but Pilate certainly thought so then.

Pilate was a very violent ruler. He had little compunction about sentencing people to death. Many hundreds of Jews, if not more, had already died by his command, some put to the sword, others nailed to a cross. The first-century Jewish historian Philo wrote that Pilate was not much worried about niceties of the law such as a proper trial for the accused. Pilate was known to be very suspicious of crowds, having already loosed his soldiers against at least two large crowds of Jews, one instance killing a large number. The Gospels record without commentary a time when Pilate sent his cavalry, swords swinging, into a group (of unspecified size) of men gathered to make religious sacrifices, killing the lot.

That Pilate was eventually fired by his direct boss, the governor of Syria, for being too violent speaks volumes, since Roman rule anywhere was lethally unforgiving of resistance. Pilate was sent back to Rome where he disappears from credible historical accounts.

The level of collusion between the Jewish high council (the Sanhedrin) and Pilate is unclear. It was mediated by the high priest, Caiaphas, in any event. All four Gospels present Jesus as being hauled before the Caiaphas - at his house, not at the Temple - and three say that there were other Jewish leaders present; Luke calls them "the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law." Whomever they were, whether they were the Sanhedrin properly convened or not (and I think not), they are only presented as an echo board for Caiaphas.

What did Caiaphas have against Jesus? The synoptic Gospels indicate that Caiaphas's principal charge against Jesus was blasphemy, of which Jesus was undeniably guilty based on the facts as they were at the time, since the only proof of his divinity that Jesus could offer was his later resurrection from the dead. Mark records that early in his ministry, Jesus was accused of being in league with the devil, for which his miracle working was proof. This was a charge tantamount to sorcery, mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures only to denounce it (2 Chron. 33:6 and Nahum 3:4).

Matthew 26 records that after he was arrested and was brought before Caiaphas,
Then the high priest said to him, "I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God." 64 Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. 66 What is your verdict?" They answered, "He deserves death."
I think the Gospel of John's explanation, which differs from the others', gives important insights to the dynamics of Caiaphas's relationship with Pilate, showing that the high priest was primarily concerned with preserving the lives of the people. John presents a more nuanced case of Caiaphas against Jesus that makes Caiaphas more concerned with politics with Pilate than internal affairs of religion. Chapter 11 records that Caiaphas was deeply fearful of Pilate's propensity to violence (for excellent reasons, as we have seen). The chapter also says that Caiaphas was willing to plot Jesus's death in order to prevent Pilate from slaughtering the crowds who followed Jesus and then turning his soldiers loose to ravage the country itself. There was Roman precedent for this. A few years after after Jesus was born, a would-be revolutionary named Judas the Galilean led a rebellion against Rome centered in the city of Tzippori (Sepphoris) in Galilee. This was before Pilate became prefect, but the Roman response was crushing. According to Tacitus, the Roman Syrian governor sent two legions who laid waste to the entire city, crucified up to 2,000 men and sold the rebels' families into slavery. The shock of this savagery would have been vivid in Caiaphas's mind. It was the sort of thing, or worse, that he reasonably feared Pilate would render to Judea if Jesus continued unchecked.

(Modern historians dispute Tacitus's account. They agree that the Romans killed or executed all the rebels but not that Sepphoris was burned, since modern archaeology finds no evidence of it. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, mounted a major rebuilding project to recover from the damage the Romans did inflict. As the result, the city became larger and wealthier than ever.)

The crowds Jesus drew were particularly worrisome because they signified that Jesus was gaining a growing following. What if, with the masses supporting him, Jesus attempted to claim the throne of David, to which he was by descent from David entitled? The last king of the Jews had been Herod the Great, who had died in 4 BC. He was never accepted by the Judeans as a proper king by lineage because there was question of whether he actually was Jewish at all. When he died, the Romans did not name a successor, instead dividing Judea and territories east of the Jordan river among his three sons. Herod Archelaus was the main ruler, of Judea proper, and Herod Antipas was awarded Galilee and Peraea. Jesus, though, could have claimed proper inheritance of a unified throne since he was of the line of David (even if only adopted into the line). And Jesus had a large following. A power play for the throne could have only bloody results.

That Jesus had said and done nothing to demonstrate such intention would have been of no comfort to Caiaphas; as we say nowadays, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." What insurrectionist or revolutionary announces his goals before the optimum time? Jesus knew that such suspicions were harbored against him. In Mark 14, when Jesus is arrested, he demands directly, "Am I leading a rebellion that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?"

Caiaphas certainly knew that Pilate was deeply suspicious of crowds and had already dealt bloodily with more than one. To both the Jewish leaders and the Romans, a Jew with messianic intentions was foremost a political figure and in the minds of many Jews (and certainly Pilate), a potential military leader as well.

On Thursday evening of what would become known as Holy Week, Jesus was arrested by Temple police in Gethsemane, just outside Jerusalem. His disciples, who were with him, fled, leaving Jesus isolated. Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, traitorously brought the authorities to Jesus to apprehend him.

The simplest narrative of events from then is John's. After being arrested, Jesus was taken to Annas, Caiaphas's father in law. Whereas in the synoptic gospels Jesus appears before a council of some kind and is found guilty of blasphemy at a drumhead court, in John no such council is present nor is there any sort of trial. Jesus, remaining bound, speaks only to Caiaphas, who instead of pronouncing him guilty of some crime, "questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching." Jesus doesn't play along. An official present struck him on the face for responding insolently to the high priest.

Caiaphas quickly sent Jesus to Pilate. John relates a long dialog between Jesus and Pilate after Jesus's Jewish captors charge Jesus with nothing more specific than that he was a criminal. Talking to Pilate, Jesus admits that he is a king, although he says, "my kingdom is not of this world." Pilate seems to seize on this confession (of sorts) as a challenge to Rome, but nothing comes of it. Insisting that he finds nothing about Jesus justifying execution, he orders Jesus flogged. Finally, Pilate caves and orders the crucifixion.

For someone whom Caiaphas feared would decimate the whole country because of Jesus, Pilate seems awfully peaceable when he had the chance to get rid of Jesus. He had to be cajoled, even threatened, into it. In John, the Jews present tell Pilate that to release Jesus would be the same as opposing Caesar. Now Pilate is the one being accused of incipient treason!

But Pilate might have been trying all along to shift the blame for Jesus's execution from himself onto the Jewish leadership. It was Passover week, remember, when passions ran high. Jesus still had thousands of devotees who were unaware that he had been arrested overnight. Might they riot in protest? It was a real danger,as Matthew explicitly records the chief priests realized; it was the reason they decided not to snatch Jesus during the daytime. If a riot there might be, Pilate might have thought, best to preemptively divert its rage away from the Romans and onto Caiaphas and company. Pilate would not be able to sit it out, but reporting to Rome that the people were rebelling against their own religious authorities, not Caesar, was infinitely better than the other way round.

But while Pilate was trying to play Caiaphas, the high priest, knowing well Jesus's popularity among the masses (as well as his allies among some members of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus, for example) may well have been trying to set up Pilate to take the heat for him, also. Both men may have wanted to put the monkey on the other's back. This would help explain why Caiaphas gave Jesus such a cursory hearing before trundling him over to Pilate and the resistance to executing Jesus that Pilate gave right back to Caiaphas.

Caiaphas finally played his trump card. The Roman Caesar was Tiberius, who had checked out of affairs of state in 26 c.e., moving to isle of Capri and living a life of debauchery. He had left state affairs to  Praetorian Prefects Lucius Aelius Sejanus and Quintus Naevius Sutorius Macro, neither of whom stayed loyal to Tiberius.

By the time of Jesus' trial, Tiberius had returned to Rome after learning that Sejanus was actively plotting actual sedition and usurpation against him. Tiberius had Sejanus executed and began executing Sejanus' partners and political appointees by the dozens. Pilate owed his office to Sejanus but escaped the purge probably because his appointment was made in the very earliest days of Sejanus' rule, well before Sejanus began plotting against Tiberius.

Even so, Pilate must have known that his own political, and perhaps physical survival depended on demonstrated devotion to Tiberius. This was Pilate's political Achilles' Heel and it was there that Caiaphas aimed a nearly-explicit threat: if you free Jesus we will report to Rome that you failed to defend Caesar against an insurrectionist, a pretender to the still-vacant throne of Herod the Great, who was a Roman vassal we did not recognize as legitimate in the first place, but matters not, for, "We have no king but Caesar," Pilate. How about you?

It is a grievous error to blame "the Jews" categorically for Jesus's death, but there is no way to get around Caiaphas's deep involvement. As for Pilate, his intelligence sources would have kept him informed of Jesus for quite awhile. Pilate would not have been caught flat-footed when Jesus appeared before him early Friday morning. The Gospels describe no prior collusion between Caiaphas and Pilate concerning Jesus, but I have to think that they may have already outlined the kabuki dance that began when Jesus appeared before Pilate, who was undoubtedly frustrated that his interrogation of Jesus elicited no actionable confession. Not being given the open-and-shut case that he probably presumed he would have, Pilate, over Caiaphas's protest, ordered a sign affixed to Jesus's cross identifying him as "King of the Jews," a sign probably intended to implicate Caiaphas directly in Jesus's death, for whom else could have made such a charge?

Despite their differences, both Caiaphas and Pilate came to see that executing Jesus was win-win for them. By giving up Jesus to Pilate, Caiaphas would prevent the Jesus movement from getting out of hand before it was too late to prevent the unspeakable horror of Pilate's superior in Syria from sending a legion or two to teach Judea to stop raising up such troublesome sons. When Caiaphas conversed with Jesus at his house, he may well have been trying to cut a deal with Jesus that would preserve Jesus's life at the price of Jesus agreeing to stop working all those miracles and raising such a following - in other words, to live the ordinary life of an ordinary man, get married, settle down and play nice. It is almost impossible to believe that turning Jesus over the Pilate to be killed would be an easy decision for any high priest, this one included. Whatever Caiaphas  talked to Jesus about (if he actually talked with him at all), Jesus certainly swatted the approach away with finality. Faced with such intransigence, Caiaphas saw no recourse but to hand Jesus over to Pilate and make sure that Pilate never gave him back.

As for Pilate, his win would be to stop the Jesus movement cold by the very simple, effective expedient of killing Jesus. After all, he could not continue to send taxes and goods to Rome by destroying the country that produced them. And his loyalty to the vengeful Tiberius would not be challenged.

Jesus, it seems, had become too threatening to be allowed to live. Both Caiaphas and Pilate had the motive and the opportunity that week to stop him but only Pilate had the means to stop him permanently. There was a meeting of mind between Caiaphas and Pilate, and Jesus got caught in the middle. But here's the kicker: Jesus cooperated with what they had planned for him because he understood that his own fate was inextricably linked to the collusion between them. That Jesus could have effectively defended himself seems of little doubt; there are many clues in the Gospels of what he might have said. But instead, he let himself be found guilty by default. And so he carried a cross to Golgotha and the world has never been the same.