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Stations of the Gospel – Reflections for Good Friday

The idea that I am presenting here is a series of ten reflections. In my setting, I will be printing several small books with these ten reflections on it. The booklets will be placed right inside the entry of our church. At each station there will be a number, and each number will have a corresponding page. Some of the stations have objects to place there. All could be easily modified to not include the object in case you are doing some last-minute planning. All of the Scripture passages come from the Common English Bible.


BEGIN – BAPTISM

Object: A small table with a bowl of water.

Instructions:

You are invited to dip your fingers in the water before you, and place a drop on your own forehead. Feel the water, and remember your baptism.

Mark 1:4, 9-11

John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Reflection

This journey begins where Jesus’ journey began—at the water. The water of baptism is a sign of rebirth. To be baptized is to die to your old self, and to rise out of the water as a new creation.

In the United Methodist Church we baptize infants, not because they are sinful and need to be cleansed, but because they are members of the Body of Christ, and are worthy of being marked as such. At baptism, the Holy Spirit makes a special claim on a person. This is claim that cannot be revoked. There is never a need to be re-baptized. The first one counts. No matter what.

From here we will proceed through Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, betrayal, and death. We will reflect on these things, and may encounter trouble along the way. Know that through it all, your seal as a Child of God is complete. You are God’s beloved.


REST ONE – LIFE AND MINISTRY

bread and fishMark 6:35-44

 Late in the day, his disciples came to him and said, “This is an isolated place, and it’s already late in the day. Send them away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy something to eat for themselves.”

He replied, “You give them something to eat.”

But they said to him, “Should we go off and buy bread worth almost eight months’ pay and give it to them to eat?”

He said to them, “How much bread do you have? Take a look.” After checking, they said, “Five loaves of bread and two fish.”

He directed the disciples to seat all the people in groups as though they were having a banquet on the green grass. They sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.  He took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them, broke the loaves into pieces, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.  Everyone ate until they were full. They filled twelve baskets with the leftover pieces of bread and fish.  About five thousand had eaten.

Reflection

You cannot separate the life of Jesus from the bread and the fish. One of the only stories that all four gospels tell, it is clear that feeding the hungry was a vital part of what Jesus did. The people came looking for life, and he gave it to them in the form of loaves and fish.

This was so important that the earliest symbols of Christianity was the fish—a reminder of how Jesus responded to those in need. The need today is no less demanding. There remains thousands of people in our midst who are hungry. They hunger for bread, comfort, forgiveness, and fellowship. Pause for a moment and ask Jesus what we can do, but know that his answer may be, “You give them something to eat.”


REST TWO – PREDICTION

Object: A blackboard, dry-erase board, or large pad of newsprint

Mark 8:27-33

Jesus and his disciples went into the villages near Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.” He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then Jesus began to teach his disciples: “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” He said this plainly. But Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him. Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, then sternly corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Reflection

In the matter of a few moments Peter goes from insightful disciple to vile tempter. In one breath he is able to make the bold claim that Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one of God. In the very next he demonstrates how little he understands about what the messiah must do.

Jesus understood that what he was teaching and doing would get him into trouble with the authorities. He understood that they could not let him live, and he understood that his mission could not be thwarted by their acts of violence. Peter could not accept this. He never did—on this side of the Cross.

Instructions:

Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” On the chalkboard in front of you, answer this question. Who is Jesus?


REST THREE – SUNDAY: ENTRY

Object: Palm leaves, possibly saved from Palm Sunday.

Mark 11:7-11

 They brought the [donkey] colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields.

Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple.

After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

Reflection

This story is usually described as “Palm Sunday.” It is on this day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. He entered as the city was getting ready to celebrate the Passover, a festival that remembered when the people escaped the power of Egypt, and God threw the Pharaoh into the sea.

Now occupied by the forces of the Roman Emperor, this was a dangerous time. Tempers were high. Rebellious fervor was rampant. In this climate, as the Roman governor entered the city astride a war horse, Jesus entered the city on a donkey. As Pilate entered surrounded by Roman soldiers, Jesus entered while people shouted “Hosanna!” Hosanna means “Save us.”

Instructions:

The Gospel of John tells us that the people cut down palm branches and waved them. Take one, and wave it back and forth. Feel the weight of the leaf in the air. Feel the resistance. Imagine more branches like this one. Imagine the scene. Given the climate of the city, can you imagine the tension? Can you feel the weight of the moment as Jesus made his alternative entrance into the city?


REST FOUR –  MONDAY: TEMPLE

datesObject: A bowl of figs or dates

Instructions:

Take one of these fruit, and eat it as you read this story.

Mark 1:4, 9-11

From far away, he noticed a fig tree in leaf, so he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing except leaves, since it wasn’t the season for figs. So he said to it, “No one will ever again eat your fruit!” His disciples heard this.

They came into Jerusalem. After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.” The chief priests and legal experts heard this and tried to find a way to destroy him. They regarded him as dangerous because the whole crowd was enthralled at his teaching.

When it was evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside the city. Early in the morning, as Jesus and his disciples were walking along, they saw the fig tree withered from the root up.

Reflection

On the surface, the odd exchange with the fig tree seems random and out of place. Placed here, before and after Jesus goes into the Temple, its meaning becomes more clear: Worship without justice is like a fig tree with no figs.

All things are to bear fruit. The fruit of the Temple is not idle worship, it is the realization of justice. The Temple is a place of sanctuary. When the worship leads to justice, then it is the house of God. When the worship perpetuates injustice, it is just a hideout for crooks.

Jesus came on Sunday to mock the power of Rome. He came on Monday to disrupt the religious capitulation with that power. The withered fig tree was a sign of the impending doom of the Temple.


REST FIVE – TUESDAY: TESTED

Mark 12:28-34

One of the legal experts heard their dispute and saw how well Jesus answered them. He came over and asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”

The legal expert said to him, “Well said, Teacher. You have truthfully said that God is one and there is no other besides him. And to love God with all of the heart, a full understanding, and all of one’s strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more important than all kinds of entirely burned offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered with wisdom, he said to him, “You aren’t far from God’s kingdom.” After that, no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Reflection

“You are not far from God’s kingdom.”

When do you feel close to God’s kingdom?

This passage is the last of a series of contentious questions. The legal experts and religious authorities have had enough of him. He is stirring things up too much. He made trouble at the Temple, and they are afraid. They question his authority. They try to trap him with tough questions. Tuesday is full of these kinds of exchanges, but this one is different.

The adversary seems to become an ally, and the rest of the leaders quit while they’re ahead.

“You are not far from God’s kingdom.”

Are you far or near to the Kingdom? Do you understand this commandment? Understanding it draws you near. Live out the commandment, and the Kingdom is at hand.


REST SIX – THURSDAY: BREAD AND CUP

Object: A large loaf of bread and cups of grape juice

Instructions:

Take a piece of bread off of the loaf. Please, don’t be shy. Take a good piece. Take off a piece that you actually have to chew. Eat it slowly. Taste it. Drink the cup of grape juice. Allow the sweet tang to fill your mouth. Breathe deeply as you chew and as your drink. Read this story as you eat your piece of bread. Really—take a big piece, even a second piece if you want. It’s okay. Remember, it only took two loaves to feed 5000.

Linger here with the bread. Linger here with the story. Hear Jesus’ words and know that YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST. Read them again and know that YOU ARE FORGIVEN. This is not just some symbol. This is the very real presence of God in the bread and cup. Allow that fact to fill you as you read.

Mark 14:22-26

That evening, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. During the meal, Jesus said, “I assure you that one of you will betray me—someone eating with me.” Deeply saddened, they asked him, one by one, “It’s not me, is it?” Jesus answered, “It’s one of the Twelve, one who is dipping bread with me into this bowl.

The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.” While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”

He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.” After singing songs of praise, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Post Script

As you were eating, did you notice who else was invited? Jesus knew that he would be betrayed by Judas, and what did he do? He broke bread with him. Sometimes the hardest part of the Gospel is realizing who else is invited to this table.


REST SEVEN – THURSDAY: DENIAL

Instructions:

Simply read this story of Jesus’ trial. Do not read it all silently. Read Peter’s words, the ones in bold, out loud.

Mark 6:35-44

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree.

Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ”

Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and “coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.”

But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.”

But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.”

But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.


REST EIGHT – FRIDAY: TRIAL

Object: Bowl of nails

Mark 15:6-15

During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did.

Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead.

Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?” They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!” Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

Reflection

The crowd had a choice. This crowd, which had kept Jesus protected through much of the week, could now free him. Fear of the crowd’s reaction had kept the chief priests from arresting Jesus earlier in the week. The chief priests understood something about crowds though, they could be swayed.

So the choice was offered. Barabbas was a known insurrectionist. He had been “locked up with rebels.” The people were still looking for the messiah, the one who would deliver them. They could choose between the one willing to kill, or the one willing to die. They could choose between the rebel arrested for insurrection, or the teacher arrested for jealousy.

The choice goes down in history, but it is one we continue to face. What is our path for deliverance? Is it revenge or is it grace? Who do we want to crucify today?

Instruction

If you’ve ever chosen the path of Barabbas, pick up a nail.


REST NINE – FRIDAY: DEATH

Object: Baptismal font in the sanctuary

Instruction

Hold the nail in your hand as you read. Press it into your hand; into your wrist. Not hard enough to hurt you, but hard enough to feel it as you read.

Mark 15:25-41

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The notice of the formal charge against him was written, “The king of the Jews.” They crucified two outlaws with him, one on his right and one on his left. People walking by insulted him, shaking their heads and saying, “Ha! So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself and come down from that cross!” In the same way, the chief priests were making fun of him among themselves, together with the legal experts.

“He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself. Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross. Then we’ll see and believe.” Even those who had been crucified with Jesus insulted him. From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark.

At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?” After hearing him, some standing there said, “Look! He’s calling Elijah!” Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down.” But Jesus let out a loud cry and died.

The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.” Some women were watching from a distance, including Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James (the younger one) and Joses, and Salome. When Jesus was in Galilee, these women had followed and supported him, along with many other women who had come to Jerusalem with him.

Instruction

As you leave, stop by the baptismal font. Touch the waters again. Baptism is death and rebirth. There is no resurrection without death. Go forth knowing that through it all, your seal as a Child of God is complete. You are God’s beloved.


A Maundy Thursday Liturgy

Good Friday Stations of the Gospel through Luke

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Sermon: Jesus saved a seat

This was my Maundy Thursday sermon this year.  It was largely inspired by an insight I received while watching Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World DVD study.  In it, he asserts that Jesus and Judas must have been sitting next to each other at the last supper.  As the story is told, it was Judas that was seated at a position of honor, even as he was the one that was to betray Jesus.  Knowing Judas’s heart, what did Jesus do? He broke bread with him.  This was an incredible act of grace, and forms the heart of this sermon.

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Thursday-Friday devotional, part 8

The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer.  I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to the Easter.
SCRIPTURE

People walking by insulted him, shaking their heads and saying, “ Ha! So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself and come down from that cross!”

In the same way, the chief priests were making fun of him among themselves, together with the legal experts. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself. Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross. Then we’ll see and believe.” Even those who had been crucified with Jesus insulted him. From noon until three in the afternoon the whole earth was dark. At three, Jesus cried out with a loud shout, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you left me?”

After hearing him, some standing there said, “Look! He’s calling Elijah!” Someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, and put it on a pole. He offered it to Jesus to drink, saying, “Let’s see if Elijah will come to take him down.” But Jesus let out a loud cry and died.

The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion, who stood facing Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “This man was certainly God’s Son.”

REFLECTION

“My God, My God, why have you left me?” I’ve wondered the same thing.  “Why?” is a common question that is posed to God.  All too often the answer is left unanswered.  Some may find it disconcerting to think of Jesus asking this question while on the cross.  How can God abandon Jesus?  If they are one in the same, how is this possible?

Tomes have been written on the subject by people more learned and articulate than me.    So we discover another “Why” question in the midst of the ultimate “Why?”  There are a lot of explanations to Jesus’ cry.  Whole sects and heresies have risen and fallen based on different answers to this question.  In seminary, this is the part of the class that started throwing out words like “Neo-Platanism, Gnostics, and Arianism.”  This was the part of the class that my eyes got glossy, and I longed for the next coffee break.

I value my seminary education, and cherish every moment I spent immersed in the transformative learning that I experienced in seminary, yet I admit I am no Biblical scholar.  I would fail miserably as a seminary professor.

I speak only as a man of faith when I say that Jesus’ cry on the cross haunts me and comforts me.  It is both a great source of humility and a source of strength.  For one, I know the Psalm which Jesus is quoting.  When he cries out “Why have you left me?” he is quoting Psalm 22.  It is as if he is shouting out the title of a song, which starts with loss, isolation, and abandonment, but ends with assurance, comfort, and victory.

It is entirely possible that in Jesus’ last cry the whole of the Psalm is captured.  And thus, the whole of Jesus’ mission.  It is a call forward, not just of despair, but of promise that out of despair God will raise us up.  Psalm 22 is a promise to all generations, to the future people of God that God will be present.  Given the fact that crucifixion is meant to wipe out one’s future legacy, this is a bold statement.  To claim Psalm 22 is to claim the promise of God even in the midst of apparent loss.

I also feel though, that I have to be careful to not read too much into Jesus’ cry.  It is, on surface, a cry of lamentation.  I have to ask myself, is it okay to leave it that way?  Is it okay to leave Jesus on the cross alone and forsaken?  Is it okay to leave Jesus a man that is facing his own mortality as any other man would?  Is it okay to have a Savior that was that vulnerable?  Is it okay to let Jesus be abandoned?

When I have fallen on my knees in shame, when I have pounded the ground in despair, when I have let myself be vulnerable, only to be taken advantage of and wounded, when I have screamed at the top of my lungs in agony, is it okay?  There is a part of me that finds it reassuring to know that Jesus is not high up on a cross, dying with quiet dignity, above the fray.  I am comforted in knowing that when I am at my lowest, Jesus is there too.  When I feel beaten, battered, and bruised, I pray to a God who knows what I feel.  I pray to a God that has died with me.  When I scream at God in despair, I know that I do so in good company.  I am not going to be offered easy answers.  I am simply going to have a Savior that wraps his arms around me and whispers, “I am with you.”  And I will know that he speaks from experience.

PRAYER

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? It is a question I have asked before, and if I am honest, it is one I will surely ask again.  Even in my asking I know that it will never really be true.  Even in my struggle I know that you are always present, and for that I am forever grateful.  Amen.

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Thursday-Friday Devotional, part 6

The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer.  I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to the Easter.
SCRIPTURE

Mark 15:1-15  At daybreak, the chief priests—with the elders, legal experts, and the whole Sanhedrin—formed a plan. They bound Jesus, led him away, and turned him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “ Are you the king of the Jews?”

Jesus replied, “That’s what you say.” The chief priests were accusing him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Aren’t you going to answer? What about all these accusations? ” But Jesus gave no more answers, so that Pilate marveled.

During the festival, Pilate released one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. A man named Barabbas was locked up with the rebels who had committed murder during an uprising. The crowd pushed forward and asked Pilate to release someone, as he regularly did. Pilate answered them, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?”  He knew that the chief priests had handed him over because of jealousy. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas to them instead. Pilate replied, “Then what do you want me to do with the one you call king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Why? What wrong has he done?”

They shouted even louder, “Crucify him!”

Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd, so he released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus whipped, then handed him over to be crucified.

REFLECTION

I’ve heard all my life that Jesus was sent to die for our sins.  It is such an important part of the American Christian ethos that it is usually said uncritically.  “Jesus died on the cross for me.”  For some, this just rolls off the tongue without much thought, and when people do think about it, they think only of their own sin.  It becomes a very privatized way of thinking of Jesus.  And while I am not opposed to thinking that Jesus died on the cross for me, I can’t think it uncritically.  Something about this passage doesn’t sit right.

If I am to believe that Jesus came to die on the cross for me, than why I am so upset when I read about this exchange?  If Jesus’ mission was to die on the cross, then isn’t it a good thing that the people chose to save Barabbas?   Then why does reading this fill me with regret?  Why do I get frustrated with the suddenly neutered Pilate who just wants to appease the crowd?  There are a lot of ways to understand what happened when Jesus died on the cross.  One of them is to believe that Jesus came to die on the cross for me.  But this just doesn’t sit well as the only explanation.  If it was, then this scene wouldn’t be heart-wrenching.

Here’s another way to understand what happened here.  Jesus came to announce “God’s good news; saying; ‘Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!'” (Mark 1:15) He announced it to fishermen, interrupting their lives even in the midst of a catch.  He was so compelling that the set aside full nets to follow.  He proclaimed it to the demon-possessed, to the lepers, the sinners and the tax-collectors.  He gathered followers along the Judean countryside by forgiving sins, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.  He reached out to women and children.  He healed on the Sabbath. He calmed the storms, fed the multitudes, and redefined what it meant to be holy.  He looked beyond the letter of the law and revealed to the people the heart of God.  For all of this, and for upsetting the powers that be, he was condemned.

He was given a mockery of a trial, and taken to the Roman authority to be dealt with.  He was condemned to death, not because God needed him to die, but because we could not allow him to live.  In our brokenness, humanity clung to old ways of knowing about power.  They clung to a system that subjugated a people.  They clung to an institution that robbed the widows’ of their houses.  They clung to the power of the sword and the Pax Romana, as enforced by the Legionnaire’s spear.  How tightly do we still cling?

When given a choice between Jesus or Barabbas they chose.  They chose the man that had committed murder during an insurrection.  They chose the sword.  They chose the power of the world.  They chose the one that would try to overthrow Caesar by the only method that they understood.  And in that choice lays the ultimate tragedy of our existence. When humanity had the choice between the Kingdom of God and the power of the world, they chose the world.  When given the chance to save the man that taught them to “love their enemy,” they chose the man that murdered his enemy.

They made the choice then, and it is the choice we continue to make.  Every time we choose to hold onto bitterness and anger. Every time we refuse to reconcile. Every time we turn a blind eye to injustice and suffering.  Every time we condemn another to make ourselves feel safe. Every time we choose the way of the world, we choose Barabbas.  And we may as well be shouting “Crucify him!”

PRAYER

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.  Hear our cries for redemption.  As you go closer to the cross, we see our own complicity.  I want to be blind no longer.  Open my eyes that I may see not only the cross, but the path that led you to that cross.  Open my eyes not only to the cross, but to the hope that lies beyond it.  Keep that hope alive in me on this journey.  Amen.

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Thursday-Friday Devotional, part 5

The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer.  I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to the Easter.
SCRIPTURE

Mark 14:53-72

 They led Jesus away to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders, and legal experts gathered. Peter followed him from a distance, right into the high priest’s courtyard. He was sitting with the guards, warming himself by the fire. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death, but they couldn’t find any. Many brought false testimony against him, but they contradicted each other. Some stood to offer false witness against him, saying, “We heard him saying, ‘I will destroy this temple, constructed by humans, and within three days I will build another, one not made by humans.’” But their testimonies didn’t agree even on this point.

Then the high priest stood up in the middle of the gathering and examined Jesus. “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?” But Jesus was silent and didn’t answer. Again, the high priest asked, “ Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?”

Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we need any more witnesses? You’ve heard his insult against God. What do you think?”

They all condemned him. “He deserves to die!” Some began to spit on him. Some covered his face and hit him, saying, “ Prophesy! ” Then the guards took him and beat him.

Meanwhile, Peter was below in the courtyard. A woman, one of the high priest’s servants, approached and saw Peter warming himself by the fire. She stared at him and said, “You were also with the Nazarene, Jesus.”

But he denied it, saying, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t understand what you’re saying.” And he went outside into the outer courtyard. A rooster crowed. The female servant saw him and began a second time to say to those standing around, “This man is one of them.” But he denied it again.

A short time later, those standing around again said to Peter, “You must be one of them, because you are also a Galilean.” But he cursed and swore, “I don’t know this man you’re talking about.” At that very moment, a rooster crowed a second time. Peter remembered what Jesus told him, “Before a rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down, sobbing. (Common English Bible)

REFLECTION
A widow's mite is now on sale for $29.95.  Seriously, I'm not making that up.

A widow’s mite is now on sale for $29.95. Seriously, I’m not making that up.

Why did the chief priests and scribes want Jesus dead?  The Gospel of Mark makes it clear.  Follow the money.  The chief priests and scribes operated as a part of the institution of the Temple that kept them in power.  It was an institution that kept them comfortable, but it was a precarious situation.  The chief priests had to keep the people coming, buying doves, changing money, and making sacrifices.  At the same time, they had to keep Rome appeased, lest they get removed.  The major charge against Jesus in his trial is that he threatened the Temple.  He threatened their power, status, and comfort.  For this, he had to be removed.

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes to the Temple shortly after arriving in Jerusalem, and leaves without incident (11:11).  The next day, Jesus sees a fig tree and curses it for not having any fruit.  The next scene is Jesus again going into the Temple.  This time he drives out those who were “selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.”  Intentionally waiting until there would be a crowd, Jesus disrupts business at the temple.  Mark explains that it is after this scene that the chief priests and scribes decide they have to kill him.  He is costing them money.  The next day, the fig tree that Jesus had cursed is withered.  The fig tree and the Temple are the same.  Jesus sets himself against the Temple authority.  He disrupts the institution that has been built up around the temple.  Later, he denounces the Scribes for “having the best seats in the synagogues,” as they “devour widows’ houses.”

It is immediately after this denunciation that he sees the widow making an offering in the Temple.  This was an illustration of how the scribes “devoured widows’ houses.”  When he foretells the destruction of the Temple, it is in reaction to a system that kept some in poverty so that others may be comfortable.  When they left the Temple, the disciples marveled at its grandeur.  All he saw was a pile of stones, ready to be reduced to rubble. He knew that it only stood on the whim of the Romans.  It was God’s power that he was concerned with, not adroitly straddling a fine line between comfort and destruction.  The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed was not one of huge buildings and massive armies.  This was the only kind of kingdom that the people understood, but he was seeking a different kind of Kingdom.

For this. the chief priests and scribes feared Jesus.  They feared him because he was stirring things up.  They feared him because he was a threat to their wealth and comfort.  They feared him because they saw through their pomp and grandeur.  He saw through their hypocrisy. He saw through their empty ritual, their heartless sacrifice, and their religious trappings.  He saw through them, and that was frightening.

It can be an uneasy feeling when someone looks through the shell and sees the soul.  That kind of vulnerability can unleash emotions.  It can unleash something unpredictable, and downright frightening.  In the chief priests, it unleashed an inhuman rage directed at an innocent man.

I wonder sometimes, what kind of response would it unleash in me?

PRAYER

Fear is a powerful emotion, O God.  Help me to understand my fear, and name it.  Help me to be honest with myself and with you.  Comfort me in my struggle, and forgive me in my own hypocrisy.  Lead me to a better place, and a higher calling.  Take me to the kingdom that cares not for comfort or trappings.  Help me rest in thee.  Amen.

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Thursday-Friday Devotional, part 4

The next few posts are going to be a running devotional, reading through the Gospel of Mark, with short commentary and prayer.  I will post several of these over the next few days, leading up to the Easter.
SCRIPTURE

Mark 14:32-51

Jesus and his disciples came to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus said to them, “Sit here while I pray.” He took Peter, James, and John along with him. He began to feel despair and was anxious. He said to them, “I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert.” Then he went a short distance farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, he might be spared the time of suffering. He said, “ Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.”

He came and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, “ Simon, are you asleep? Couldn’t you stay alert for one hour? stay alert and pray so that you won’t give in to temptation. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.”

Again, he left them and prayed, repeating the same words.  And, again, when he came back, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open, and they didn’t know how to respond to him. He came a third time and said to them, “ Will you sleep and rest all night? That’s enough! The time has come for the Human One to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s go! Look, here comes my betrayer.”

Suddenly, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, came with a mob carrying swords and clubs. They had been sent by the chief priests, legal experts, and elders. His betrayer had given them a sign: “Arrest the man I kiss, and take him away under guard.”

As soon as he got there, Judas said to Jesus, “Rabbi!” Then he kissed him. Then they came and grabbed Jesus and arrested him. One of the bystanders drew a sword and struck the high priest’s slave and cut off his ear.  Jesus responded, “Have you come with swords and clubs to arrest me, like an outlaw? Day after day, I was with you, teaching in the temple, but you didn’t arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” And all his disciples left him and ran away.  One young man, a disciple, was wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They grabbed him, but he left the linen cloth behind and ran away naked. (Common English Bible)

REFLECTION

I’ve written before on this blog that Gethsemane is the most important part of the gospel story to me.  It is the linchpin of the gospels.  It is the moment that starts the passion.  If you enter the story for the first time, then the ending is still up in the air until Gethsemane.  While in the garden, Jesus still has options.  He could run.  He could go into hiding.  He could gather arms. He could resist the mob coming to get him.  The men that he was with might not have been able to stay awake, but they probably would have been willing to fight.  The options for Jesus are open while he prays in the garden, but he also knows clearly which path is the way of God.

He wishes there to be another way.  He wants to avoid the pain, humiliation, and torture that comes with the cross.  He was a man.  He was a man that could suffer.   He knows that his mission lies not in running away.  His mission lies not in fighting.  His mission is that of standing up and facing what the crowd would throw at him.  It is in the garden that he stands up for what he had lived for.  He stands up, and chooses the will of God.  The rest of the story is decided when Jesus stands in the garden and faces his betrayer.

It is not an easy story to hear, but it is one we must face if we are to truly understand the extent of humanity’s ability to do evil.  It is one we must face if we are to see the extent God is willing to go for love.  It is one we must face if we are to catch a glimpse of just how amazing grace really is.

PRAYER

Holy and Gracious God, it is easy to become weary.  We seem to live in a constant state of tiredness.  The world presses in on us.  Fears and doubts wear us out.  It would be so welcome to lie down and sleep.  You remind us though, to stay awake.  Strengthen us to stand up when it is needed.  Help us to stand up for justice.  Help us to stand up for grace.  And when we fall asleep, wake us up, and help us rise again.  Amen.

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Thursday-Friday Devotional, part 3

SCRIPTURE

Mark 14:23-31 “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.’ After singing songs of praise, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Jesus said to them, ‘You will all falter in your faithfulness to me. It is written, I will hit the shepherd  and the sheep will go off in all directions. But after I’m raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’

Peter said to him, ‘Even if everyone else stumbles, I won’t.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘I assure you that on this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.’  But Peter insisted, ‘If I must die alongside you, I won’t deny you.’ And they all said the same thing.”

REFLECTION

Communion is our family meal.  It is the time for Christians to come to Christ’s table and share in the saving work of God.  There are a lot of ways to do it.  Some try to make sure certain words are said, or certain bread is used.  Sometimes there are arguments over how often it should be done.  There are most serious disagreements about who should be allowed to come.  Should children?  Should the unbaptized?  Should the non-members?  Should those that vote for pro-choice candidates?

When I read the story of Jesus’ last supper, I see no boundaries.  I see no filters.  I see no rules.  I see simply a man gathered with his friends.  I see sinners.  I see a betrayer.  I see a denier.  I see a tax collector.  I see fishermen.  I see rich men.  I see men that know only that they want to follow Jesus, though even they might not be sure why.  I see love, fellowship, wonder, fear, and community.  It is an imperfect community, made perfect through love.

I love Communion. I love having that piece of bread placed in my hands.  I love sweet taste of the bread mixing with grape juice.  I love to let it sit in my mouth so I can savor it.  I breath deeply, eyes shut, so I can tune every sense into this one thing that I am doing.  I do not know what exactly I’m doing when I eat from Jesus’ bread and drink from Jesus’ cup.  It is a mysterious ritual that still astounds me.

Is it symbolic? No – that word seems too flimsy.  This is more than symbol that I hold in my mouth.  It is more than symbol that fills me with hope and power, humility and awe.

Is it changed atomically? No – My scientific mind knows that it remains bread and grape juice.  I am not participating in some magical cannibalistic ritual.

Is it really Christ’s body and really Christ’s blood?  I’m not sure how to answer that, but I’m okay with living in the mystery that something about Communion is real.  Something about it connects me to Jesus himself.  That table stretches across time and space, and there is room for the saints of the ages.  There is room for the sinners that come together.  There is room for the betrayers and the deniers.  There is room for the tax collector and the Pharisee.  There is room for the young and the old. There is room for the rich and the poor.  There is room.

It is our family meal.  It is a time to share in God’s saving work in the world, and that work is real.

PRAYER

Jesus, you have called us together to your table.  In the act of breaking bread, you invite us to be your companion.  In the sharing of the cup you offer forgiveness.  I am humbled by your invitation, and strengthened by your grace.  Fill me with your love, and empower me with the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Thursday-Friday Devotional, part 2

SCRIPTURE

Mark 14:12-22 “On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed, the disciples said to Jesus, ‘Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?’  He sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the city.  A man carrying a water jar will meet you.  Follow him.  Wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The teacher asks, ‘Where is my guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?'” He will show you a large room upstairs already furnished.  Prepare for us there.’  The disciples left, came into the city, found everything just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

That evening, Jesus arrived with the Twelve.  During the meal, Jesus said, ‘I assure you that one of you will betray me – someone eating with me.’

Deeply saddened, they asked him, one by one, ‘It’s not me, is it?’

Jesus answered.  It is one of the Twelve, one who is dipping bread with me into this bowl.  The Human One goes to his death just as it is written about him.  But how terrible it is for that person who betrays the Human One! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.'”

REFLECTION

There is much debate over whether or not Jesus’ last meal was a Passover meal as we envision it.  While the historical likelihood that what Jesus and his disciples did had any resemblance to a modern Passover Seder is low, it is clear that Mark’s gospel wanted to show the last supper was connected to the Passover.   My understanding of the Passover meal is that it is a re-presentation of God’s saving work as found in Exodus.

A modern Passover Seder is full of symbolism, reading, prayer, and meaning.  All of it has the purpose of pointing to the fact that God saved the Hebrews from slavery.  God stood by the promises made to Abraham.  God stood with a people that were oppressed.  God stood against the greatest power the world had ever known – and triumphed.  This is the message of Passover, and this is the message of Jesus’ last meal as well.   This is the parallel that Mark is trying to convey.

During the meal Jesus announces that one will betray him.  He announces that the betrayer is there, and that he is one with whom he will dip bread.  This tells us two things.  Jesus knew Judas would betray him.  Jesus ate with him anyway.  And not only did he eat with him anyway, but he sat next to him.  Otherwise, how could they have dipped the bread together?

Mark does not tell us when Judas leaves, but we know that they started the meal together.  Jesus knew what Judas was thinking, and still he broke bread with him.  Still he offered him friendship.  Still, they dipped the bread together.  I can only imagine the heartache that Jesus must have been feeling.  Some read Jesus’ words toward Judas as words of reproach, vengeance and anger.  That’s not how I read them.

Instead, I hear Jesus words as sorrowful.  I hear them wishing that his betrayer would change his mind, but knowing that he won’t.  I hear Jesus giving Judas one last warning – “you’re going to regret it,” not as a threat, but as a heartfelt plea.  I see Jesus heartbroken that the time they spent together hadn’t been enough.  The words, the healing, the signs and wonders – none of it had been enough.  Still Judas didn’t understand.  Truthfully, none of them did.

Sometimes I wonder if I do.  Sometimes I wonder if I realize just how much Jesus loves me.  How many times has Jesus seen me and wished he could change my heart.  How many times has he seen me on the precipice of betrayal and screamed, “Don’t do it!” Only to be ignored.

Still, he invites me to this table.

Still, he calls me to his side.

Still, he breaks bread and shares it with me.

Me. Still.

Still.

PRAYER

Jesus, friend and teacher, you prepare a place for me still.  You invite me to your table still.  Still, I fail.  Still, I fall.  Still, I cry to you.  Please don’t stop calling.  Amen.

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Gethsemane

The Garden of Gethsemane has always been one of my favorite passages of Scripture.  The most vivid description of it is found in the Gospel of Mark.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.’ All of them deserted him and fled.

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

Mark 14:32-52 (New Revised Standard Version)

It is interesting to me that in later Gospels, this story gets truncated.  In Luke, which most scholars agree was written after Mark, Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane was much briefer, and the sorrow and agony he experienced was not as graphic.  The Gospel of John, which most scholars agree was the last of the four Biblical gospels, does not include the agony in Gethsemane at all.

“Christ in Gethsemane” by Michael O’Brien. Go to http://www.studiobrien.com/ for more from the artist.

I think this reflects an emotional response that is still common to people when they first read about Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane.  Here we have Jesus tormented and upset.  We have him begging his Father to let him pass from the cross.  It makes us uneasy.  It seems strange to think of Jesus having fears and doubts.  It makes us wonder how close he was to turning.  What would have happened if Jesus decided, “Not your will, but mine,” and left.  What if there had been no cross for Jesus?  In this moment of Jesus in Gethsemane, we can imagine it for a moment.  We wonder, with bated breath, what he will do.  This is unsettling.

Yet at the same time, this story of Jesus in Gethsemane may be the most important passage in all of the gospels.  It is here that Jesus is most human.  It is here that Jesus is most vulnerable.  And it is here that Jesus is most courageous.  What makes this passage so powerful is the idea that it could have gone either way.  We have the luxury of reading the gospels knowing the end of the story.  We know his decision.  We know how the story ends, but if we allow ourselves to enter the drama of the moment, we can see Jesus making the decision to go forward.

Jesus spent his ministry teaching about love.  Through word and deed Jesus showed us how to love God and to love one another.  He fed the hungry.  He healed the sick.  He invited the women and the children and the tax collectors and the sinners to come to his table.  He broke bread with the least and the lost and shared the cup of redemption with them all.  He crossed boundaries of race, nationality, ethnicity, gender, and class.  He challenged religious authority, and he scoffed at the pomposity and self-absorbed granduer.  He called out the hypocrites.  He admonished the scribes and the pharisees for their hardened hearts.  He brought a simple message: Love God, and love one another.

And for all of that – for the criticism and the invitiation and the healing and the challenge he represented to the comfortable and powerful – he knew he was going to the cross.  He knew if he stood up for all that he lived for, for all that he believed, for all that he held dear, he would be killed.  He knew that if he followed God’s will it would lead to a cross.  Not because God needed him to die, but because men could not allow him to live.  We would not allow him to live.

So he sat there in Gethsemane and he prayed.  He prayed for another way out.  He prayed in anguish.  He prayed as a man who could feel pain, who would be hurt by betrayal, who would be scarred by the scourge, and would bleed when nails were driven into his arms and legs.  He prayed as a man who knew that if he would follow God’s will, he would be charged, convicted, mocked, humiliated, abandoned, and nailed to a cross.  Knowing all of this full well he prayed, “Not my will, but yours.”  Then he rose and stood up for all that he had lived for.

Stengthened by his prayer and with the power of the Holy Spirit he stood, and he went to the cross.  He did not go as a lamb to the slaughter, for a lamb knows not where it is going.  He went as a man who had decided to follow God.  He went as a man that would endure a punishment he did not deserve.  He went as a man that would heal and forgive and love even to the very end.

Gethsemane reminds us that Jesus chose his fate, but more importantly, it reminds us that we choose our own as well.  When we see Jesus in agony in the garden, we know that we will face our own Gethsemane, but we will never do so alone.  Every day we have the choice.

We can follow the way of the world – we can be selfish, we can look out for number one, we can work hard to get what we deserve, we can acquire more stuff, we can ignore the outcast, we can condemn the poor, we can tread on the orphan and the widow, we can judge the sinner, and we can build our nice comfy walls which no one will breach accept those we deem worthy.

Or we can follow Jesus.  We can pray to God, “Not my will, but yours,” and mean it.  We can fail from time to time, but we can know that we are always struggling, like Jesus in the Garden, to do God’s will.  And we can do it knowing that as we struggle, as we are mocked, as we are belittled, as we fail, as we triumph, as we suffer and as we celebrate, Jesus is with us.

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