Offer Them Christ

Primary text: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

(A Sermon preached on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B – World Communion Sunday, 2015 – Jackson First UMC; Jackson, TN)

Have you ever just failed something miserably? Perhaps you went into some project with the highest of expectations of how successful and fruit-bearing it would be. Then perhaps at the very start, or perhaps a few months into the process chaos ensued and you were losing your grip and the desired outcome became far out of reach. You ever felt like a failure? Well, you’re not alone.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was in his early 30s, he set out from England to the colony of Georgia with a grand vision of converting the Native Americans and establishing a grand movement that would spread from Savannah throughout the land. On the trip, however, he realized his own need for depending on God’s grace through a series of unfortunate events. He fell in love with a lady named Sophia Hopkey in Georgia, but he didn’t make a move quickly enough and she got tired of waiting on him so she married someone another man, William Williamson. (Seriously, William’s parents? You couldn’t get any more creative than “William Williamson”?) Well, Wesley got jealous and for reasons to minute to go into detail in this setting, Wesley used his pastoral authority and refused to offer them Holy Communion on the next occasion of their attendance at worship. The husband sued him, some reports say that he challenged Wesley to a duel, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. The trial ended in mistrial but by then the trust in Wesley’s leadership had declined and it became clear he needed to leave. To put it in our terms: it was time for the S/PPRC to inform the bishop they desired a move. If Wesley had a twitter account, he would’ve tweeted out: “Gotta get Georgia off my mind. #MissionFailed” (See what I did there? h/t Ray Charles.) So he went back home to England and never came back. That was in the mid 1730’s.

Fast forward about fifty years. Wesley had matured a lot over those years. The Methodist movement had really taken off, both in England and in the colonies that were now becoming the United States. The Revolutionary War was coming to an end and many ordained clergy were returning to England and this was going to leave many, many Methodists in America with no access to the sacraments. Wesley knew that he couldn’t go back to America. He was over 80 years old and loyal to the crown. But he was a pastor and saw the American Methodists as sheep without a shepherd. So he ordained Thomas Coke with the purpose to go to America and ordain and commission Francis Asbury, a Methodist preacher in America, to be the superintendent, or presiding elder, and begin a new denomination. Wesley was in his 80’s and as he was saying goodbye to Thomas Coke on the boat heading to America, Wesley said the famous words, which were his last to Thomas Coke: “Offer them Christ!”

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, "Offer them Christ!" (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, “Offer them Christ!” (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

Offer them Christ! Fast forward about 230 years: the movement had become an institution and established roots across the globe and throughout America, including where we are in the Memphis Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Under the leadership of our current bishop, Bill McAlilly and the Nashville Area Strategic Mapping Team, a mission statement for our conference was revealed last year after a year-long process of discernment, prayer and conversation on many levels. The mission statement that was the fruit of those efforts was adopted at Annual Conference in 2014 reads thusly: “The mission of the Memphis Annual Conference is to discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that OFFER JESUS CHRIST TO A HURTING WORLD, one neighborhood at a time.” That is, our mission is to be the church, then, that follows Wesley’s call: “Offer them Christ!” How are we living up to that?

What does all this have to do with Hebrews? Well, let’s rewind and go back to the first century and ask what is going on in the opening parts of Hebrews. This is one of the beautiful poetic passages in the New Testament that speaks to the supremacy of Christ. Here the author of Hebrews speaks of how Christ is superior to all that has gone before and is superior even to the angels. Then there is this clear allusion to the psalms as the author quotes Psalm 8, which reflects on the magnificence of creation and ponders on how amazing it is that God esteems humanity so highly even given the vast expanse of the universe and how small we are in comparison to it all. But then the writer of Hebrews turns the psalm on its head when applying it to Christ. While the psalm wonders soaring heights, Hebrews voices amazement over surprising depths. Ponder the depths of the exalted Son, who is supreme over all, nonetheless stooped to a status ‘lower than the angels,’ to be joined to the lowliness of the human condition. As Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory, notes, “Hebrews does not wish to argue that Jesus…came just to the edge of human life and dipped his little toe into the pool of suffering. Rather, he wants to claim that, for a brief moment in time, the eternal and exalted Son purposefully and redemptively plummeted to the depths of human suffering and weakness.”

The author of Hebrews is well-acquainted with the brokenness of the world. He or she would have read the headlines that doom our newspapers, that run across the ticker on the bottom on the screen, that fill the trending topics of bad news on twitter, and said – Here is a world that is hurting and broken: a hole in the ozone and a fragile created order – offer it the Christ who according to Scripture is the One through Whom the creation came into being; the torn fabric of a society that is stripped of grace and bent on death as innocent people get senselessly slaughtered from a college campus in Oregon to the streets of Jackson – offer them Christ who offers a peace to a world at war; a people spreading destruction in the non-redemptive act of putting someone to death as though “an eye for an eye” demonstrates the justice of a forgiving God – offer them the Christ who is rich in mercy and came to give life; bodies are plagued by cancer that advances and is so aggressive as to bring bones to break – offer them Christ who heals; the broken places of the human heart and fractured relationships – offer them Christ who reconciled us to God and one another! This world and our lives are broken. Chaos reigns, it seems. But, Hebrews reminds us that if we would see Jesus…that he entered the chaos and lived among the brokenness and took it all on, all the way to death, then maybe we too would see that resurrection is on the other side of this, that we might cling to the hope that Christ brings us, his brothers and sisters, to glory.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face – [a face that was scarred and crowned with a wreath of thorns piercing his head];

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. – [but the path to glory goes through Calvary. What depths of love!]

The world is broken. This town, this neighborhood is broken. Our lives are broken. Christ entered our brokenness. Offer the Christ who heals to the world who hurts, for Christ brings us, the children of God, to glory.

Offer them Christ! But do not miss this: before you can offer them Christ, you must receive Christ. Receive Christ in your life. Receive Christ in the bread & wine; in his body & blood. Receive Christ in the holy meal, the holy mystery. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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“…Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us…” – from the prayer Jesus taught his disciples according to St. Luke’s account (11:4).  This statement, or something near it, is uttered by the lips of most Christians on a weekly, and for some, daily basis. We entreat the God who gives daily bread to forgive our wrongs. In Matthew’s rendering of Jesus’ teaching, that is the only part of the prayer that Jesus returns to immediately in order to exegete: “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (6:14).

One of my New Testament professors, Joel Green, wrote of this part of the most commonly uttered prayer (emphasis mine):

The ‘for’ [of Luke 11:4b] does not introduce a relationship of quid pro quo between divine and human forgiveness, as though God’s forgiveness were dependent upon human activity (6:35; 23:34!). Instead, Jesus grounds the disciples’ request for divine forgiveness in their own practices of extending forgiveness. As in previous texts (esp. 6:36), Jesus spins human behavior from the cloth of divine behavior; the embodiment of forgiveness in the practices of Jesus’ followers is a manifestation and imitation of God’s own character.

The image conveyed here is that of an open or closed hand. If you clinch your fists in holding a defiant grudge, they are not open to receive divine forgiveness either, for forgiveness can only flow through extended arms and open hands (viz. Christ on the cross).

Forgiveness is a significant word in the vocabulary of those of us who claim to have been recipients of Divine forgiveness. We who embrace the forgiveness offered by the crucified One who cried out to his God, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…” find that as we have been forgiven, we are expected to be forgivers when others offend us. Yet what I witness and even feel in many encounters and my own experience where a wrong or injustice has been done is that forgiveness is a term that though often used, is rarely understood or expressed in the delicate yet precarious way I perceive it to be offered by our Lord.

An Historical Case Study

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, in his book entitled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness recounted a time when he was randomly called to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. When Wiesenthal entered the room the patient begged for his forgiveness for atrocities he had committed in his life, particularly of an incident where he took part in the mass murder in a building housing about 300 Jews. This soldier and his comrades had set fire to the building and as Jews tried to escape the flames, they gunned the victims down. Being haunted by the tremendous guilt for participating in such a despicable act and knocking on death’s door himself, the fear of eternal punishment crept in upon this man who begged for “any Jew” to come and absolve him. Wiesenthal listened to his confession, but left the room (never to return) without saying a word.

Wiesenthal pondered and invited the reader to respond to the question of whether his silence was justified or if he should have offered words of judgment or forgiveness to the soldier. His plea for feedback regarding the predicament he faced garnered hundreds of deeply intriguing responses from people of various backgrounds all across the world. I highly recommend my readers to pick up a copy of the work and wrestle with the dilemma, because as the subtitle suggests, the situation raises not solely the question of whether he should have forgiven the soldier, but even challenges the presupposition that he could have done so. The (real or hypothetical) possibility or impossibility of absolving such a person varies according to the worldview of those who have responded and their replies will surprise you, I think.

Our World Today

Wiesenthal’s dilemma brings to the surface the significant differences of people’s approaches to forgiveness. If you think that Wiesenthal not only could have but should have said, “Yes, I forgive you” with ease and then gone on back to his imprisoned livelihood under evil’s grip, then I think you’re greatly underestimating the true costliness of forgiveness. Yet what I hear in the court of public opinion when someone has committed some terrible act or spewed some poisonous and hateful words and it appears in media outlets is that very idea. And forgiveness appears to be packaged that way not only by those advocating for the absolution of the offender but also by those who call for his or her head on a platter. Forgiving someone, in this seeming popular sense, means giving them a clean slate, a free pass, maybe even desiring to let them pick up where they left off before the offense was brought to light.

But forgiveness, as I see it, is not a mere free pass; else we could call it cheap grace. It’s not a blank slate, although to some degree we might call it a second chance. Forgiveness is rarely an instantaneous thing like a simple transaction and is not a merely static reality. Forgiveness, like giving birth or being born, takes time and requires the giving up of something valuable (by both the forgiver and the forgiven) in order to be fully experienced.

I remember being taught that the best way to define justification (a word commonly interchanged with forgiveness in theological circles) as “It is ‘just (as) if I’d‘ never sinned.” Now that’s a clever play on words and gets some of the concept, but ultimately this cliched slogan is insufficient, for it fails to truly wrestle with the reality and depth of the consequences of humanity’s proliferation of injustice, immoral behavior and evil. It also often fails in that it tends to see forgiveness as an end in itself rather than as a means to a more perfect goal: the real change that comes from the Divine life implanted within.

The Mechanics Of Forgiveness: East and West

Although this isn’t always true, it is generally the case that Eastern and Western cultures approach the agents and actions of forgiveness quite differently. A big difference lies in the expected answer to the question: Who takes the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation: the offended party or the victim(ized) party? In most Western paradigms, forgiveness is potential when the offending party approaches the victim(s), expresses sorrow and asks to be forgiven. Forgiveness is achieved if the request is granted. In many Eastern paradigms, I’ve been told that forgiveness is an offer given by the victim(s) in approaching the party who offended [them].

Now consider the paradigm at work in Christ’s ministry of forgiveness, reconciliation, and wholeness.

Forgiveness As Means To A Greater End

I love what C.S. Lewis said about forgiveness that my friend Matt O’Reilly recently pointed out in this post. Lewis said:

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the [person] who had done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.

And this is part of why I’m of a Wesleyan/Methodist brand of Christian. Because the grace that bears with it the forgiveness of sins is free, on the one hand, and costly, on the other, but never cheap nor quick. If forgiveness is all you want, I think you’re not asking for enough. Forgiveness itself isn’t the remedy, but the means to something greater. In forgiveness, Christ sees the mess we’ve made of our world and our lives, yet loves us enough to reconcile us to God’s self, help us see the evil we’ve perpetuated, repent from it, and cooperate with this God whose kingdom comes to end all death, evil and hostility. This opens that path to wholeness and reconciliation, which will bring the work of grace that began in forgiveness to its completion. So as we live and forgive, may we hear and continually speak to one another the good news that both allows us to feel the costliness of our own sin as well as the freedom that comes with declaration of absolution: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

And that, sisters and brothers, opens a window into the unique nature of this divine forgiveness in which we are called to participate. For in the holy mystery that these words accompany, we will discover that forgiveness is much more than an emotional feeling or expression but is a sacramental act that came and comes at such a terrible and great cost. Thanks be to God!

Resting. Eating. Drinking. Enjoyment. These are blessings of the created life. They existed before the curse. Hence they are not inherently ‘sinful’ even though we preachers are sometimes keen on pointing out the vanity that often coincides with excessive idleness or consumption. The sin of the ‘rich fool’ who stored up treasures was not that he should “relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” but that his action(s) in this came at the neglect of and detriment to his neighbors and hence to his own soul as he did not regard the God who brought the harvest.

Have you ever understood the first sin as one of unhealthy consumerism? Adam and Eve were given a whole garden of fruit from which to enjoy, except for just one. Yet a commercial aired that created within their hearts a perceived need of something they must have in order to truly be fulfilled. The tempting words of the serpent went something like this (my paraphrase):

“You will not surely die if you eat that fruit. But God doesn’t want you to eat of that one tree because he knows if you do, you will be like him…mature, powerful, able to know what is good and what is evil. So go ahead; take, eat that fruit, for that is how you become like God!”

Contrast this with the words that Jesus shared at the meal on the night before his death. For the meal before him, Jesus regarded and gave thanks (Eucharist) to God. He gave the bread and the cup to his disciples and said something like this (my paraphrase):

Take, eat this bread which is my body; drink from this cup which is my blood; this is how God has become like you! Given to the point of death.”

Photo Credit: Rev. Sara Tate took this photo at Carrie's and my vow renewal in July 2013.

Photo Credit: Rev. Sara Tate took this photo at Carrie’s and my vow renewal in July 2013.

Rest. Eat. Drink. Enjoy. For the re-created life still involve these blessings, but they will always compel us to give thanks to God and break bread with our neighbors.

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.
Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Easter is not just a day, but a season of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Gospel passage for the 2nd week of Easter (this past Sunday) was John 20:19-31, where Jesus mysteriously showed up twice through/behind a closed door to be with his disciples who were gathered together. The first time, they were all there except for Thomas. The second time, however, Thomas was there along with the rest.

A week (or so) separated the incidents, and I can’t help but imagine that that week must have felt like an eternity for Thomas, who wanted no less of an encounter with the risen Jesus than what the others were afforded, but was merely told it was true that Jesus was no longer dead. Underneath the surface, there is something quite wonderful, however, about that week and the relationship between Thomas and the other disciples. That is that despite Thomas’ struggles, his doubts, his defiance at demanding further proof, the others did not cast him out, condemn him, shame him, or beat it in his brains to “just believe!” No, they sat with him in his doubts, broke bread with him (surely more than once in the course of the week), allowed him to struggle and waited with him until the Lord graciously and peacefully returned in their midst. And sure enough, Jesus showed up again.

Though there’s no record of a meal with his disciples in these two gatherings when Jesus appeared, there is, nonetheless, something beautifully sacramental about what takes place and our senses and minds can be drawn to the holy mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection and the meal we celebrate as we await Christ’s return in final victory where we will feast at the heavenly banquet.

In those two encounters, Jesus’ presence was real in the midst of his followers, who were gathered together. He gave words of peace and reconciliation, and offered his body and the marks where he had bled to not just be seen, but even to be touched by those seeking the truth. And he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, sending them into the world as the Father had sent him. If you listen carefully to these parts of the story, you will notice that each of these aspects is integral to our understanding of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller's blog on patheos.com)

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller’s blog on patheos.com)

Christ is really present in the shared meal when we are gathered together for Communion. In confessing where we had abandoned and/or failed in our design to faithfully follow Christ, we are forgiven our sins and hear the pardoning words in the name of Christ and then share words and signs of peace and reconciliation. Christ invites us and offers his body and blood to us, not just to see, but to touch (and in the sacrament, to partake). The Holy Spirit is poured out upon those gathered and the elements to make it so. We invoke the Holy Spirit to enable us to bear the scars and be the body of a crucified and risen Lord for the world around us. Even the final prayer reiterates this plea for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for mission: “Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that in the strength of your Spirit, we may give ourselves for others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“…As the Father has sent me, so I send you…”

I am picking up here where I left off in the “Infant Baptism and the Bible” series. For the first part, see this. Or for more, just click on the “baptism” tag on the right hand side of the page.

When Carrie and I lived in Wilmore, there was one Sunday morning that I turned on the TV and watched the first few minutes of a sermon given by a preacher in Lexington that was broadcast on a local channel. In a sermon on baptism, the preacher opined a great deal about how infants “don’t know what’s going on in a baptism like those who are able to make a conscious decision are” and how wrong infant baptism is. He even suggested that infant baptism had pagan roots and declared that it is a “heathen practice.” And as if his lack of doing serious homework about the history and tradition of infant baptism wasn’t enough, I suppose he hadn’t considered that what he was about to say next went directly against the logic that he was spewing. In the very next sentence he began to make a connection between the practices of circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New. He said, “just as circumcision was the outward sign of an inward change in the old covenant, so was baptism the sign of the same in the new covenant,” drawing on the connection Paul makes between the two practices in Colossians 2:11-12. (Ummmmm…Maybe he didn’t know about the practice of infant circumcision?)

Of course, opponents of infant baptism typically do not appeal to such a strong connection between these two practices, but the analogy between them is worth exploring and is part of the reasons why United Methodists baptize infants (see more in this official document of the UMC). The connecting point between them is that they are the distinguishing signs, or seals, of the covenant(s) God makes with God’s people. In making covenant, God initiates the relationship and agreement, through giving grace and making promises that would be unattainable through mere human effort or merit. Nonetheless, there are expectations of the covenant people to maintain their end of the covenant, which involves obedience to divine commands, living holy and loving lives in response to God’s gracious actions in claiming and redeeming the lost or enslaved people.

When God established covenant with Abram in Genesis 17 (and therein changes his name to Abraham), God says that circumcision will be the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham/his descendants. The commandment given to Abraham was that every male offspring from his line should be circumcised on the eighth day of his life. The covenant seal was to be given to males born in the lineage. Were the infants aware of the expectations they would be expected to meet when they were circumcised? Of course not. But they were taught from the beginning of their lives that they were an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And that there were expectations of being the people of God for those who had been given this grace: expectations including continually turning to God and the ways of God, offering sacrifices for the ways in which they failed to live into their expectations of the covenant, as well as being a “light to the Gentiles.” For Abraham and Ishmael and for the uncircumcised Israelite men about to enter into Canaan (Joshua 5), the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (much to their pain) when they were adults or older youth, as they were about to embark upon the fulfilling of the promise. For every other male born into the lineage, the rite was to be done in infancy.

When God established the new covenant through the death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus with those who identify as followers of the Christ, the sign and seal of the covenant is baptism. Baptism is the liturgical language used to describe Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14, Mark 10:38-39 to name a couple). At the birth of the church (i.e., Pentecost), Peter urged the crowds to repent and be baptized that they might receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. His very next statement is that this promise is for the people who respond and for their children. By this, I see already the seeds of where the practice of infant baptism is congruent with this new covenant established by God in Christ. In baptism, we are washed in water and born of the Spirit and this, I read, is not just for adults but for children too. And much of what could be said above re: circumcision can be applied to this new covenant, sealed in baptism. That they (and we) are taught from the very beginning that we are an already graced and redeemed people in the midst of a dark and broken world. And there are expectations of being the people of God for us who have been given this grace in Christ: to live a life of continually turning to God and God’s ways through repentance and confirming or professing one’s faith to the community; receiving the grace of reconciliation and renewal offered through the body and blood of the Lord by partaking in the meal that celebrates the new covenant; and being the “light of the world” that stands in need of this grace.

There are a couple of differences worth mentioning, too. 1.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between ethnic distinction. When entering into the waters of baptism, there is no need to attempt to change your appearance, skin color, or ethnic identity. The good news is for all peoples. 2.) This sign of the covenant makes no distinction between genders. Whereas circumcision was a rite only done to males, baptism is for male and female, for in Christ there is no distinction (Galatians 3:28).

For the crowds gathered at Pentecost and for the world who was about to hear about the gospel of Jesus for the first time, the ritual signifying and sealing this was done (without the pain of circumcision) when they were adults as they were to receive the promised Spirit. For every other person born into a family of this faith, the rite could very well be done in infancy. “The promise is for you, and for your children…”

"All ages, nations, and races..." (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

“…people of all ages, nations, and races…” (photocredit: christiantheology.wordpress.com)

Thanks for tuning in. More to come as we’ll look more at the book of Acts next time…but don’t let that stop you from commenting or or raising questions in the mean time! 🙂

In mid-January I went to a training event in Dickson, Tennessee with other young clergy in the Memphis & Tennessee Annual Conferences in the United Methodist Church. That weekend was special in that our bishop, Bill McAlilly, was present with us and led us as he began to reveal more about the missional theme of his vision for the Nashville Episcopal Area. In short, he led us in conversation that centered on two key passages that are often in view when we think of mission and evangelism: Matthew 25:31-46 and Matthew 28:16-20. It became clear as we shared with one another that it is a rare thing for a congregation to excel in both of these areas. If a local church is vital in the least, it will do well in one (the social justice ministries often associated with what is mentioned in Matthew 25, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and so on) or the other (experiencing growth through evangelism and discipleship with an eye toward the Great Commission in Matthew 28), but typically not both.

The conversation then began to shift toward what would it look like if we didn’t divorce these two areas of mission (social justice & disciple-making) but integrated them and saw missions & evangelism as two sides of the same coin, so to speak. While we were having these conversations, at some point my mind began to wonder about those two passages and the fact that they both come toward the end of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. Beyond the missional connection between the two passages, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what is the literary connection between the two in Matthew? Maybe it was the long time I have spent studying the doctrine of the atonement that drew my attention to the cross and resurrection as that narrative is found between the two passages. So internally I began asking: What is the relationship between Matthew 25 & 28 and the narrative in between them? What does mission and evangelism have to do with Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection?

Let’s let that narrative sink in…what is found in between? The plotting of the chief priests to capture Jesus, the worshiping of Jesus by the woman with perfume, the disciples scandalized by Jesus’ allowance of this, Judas’ agreement to betray Jesus, preparation for and celebration of the Passover, confusion, more worship in the sharing of the bread and the cup and singing, hollow promises of faithfulness, agonizing prayer for another way, betrayal with a kiss, a battle abated, disciples scatter, a sham arraignment, ridicule, adamant denial, deep regret and a failed attempt to undo betrayal, sham trial, speechless lamb, the guilty goes free and the innocent one is condemned to die, washed hands, swayed crowds, more ridicule, beating, more ridicule, more beating, more ridicule, more ridicule, more ridicule, darkness, a cry for rescue, pause, death, a curtain torn in divine grief, earth shook, rocks split, (are those zombies?), identification of God’s Son from an unlikely source (a Roman centurion), women watching and waiting, burial, an attempt to be sure he stays buried…

cross in office

…the attempt fails – Resurrection…

Those 72+ hours between Matthew 25:31-46 & Matthew 28:16-20 are, for the community who follows the crucified and risen Lord, the most intense hours in human history. In those moments are the darkest of hours of despair that bring out the worst in humanity’s capacity to do harm. But in these moments we also find in the Human One’s actions the very best of humanity (Jesus was and is fully human, after all) and the very source of our hope. These hours proclaim that even in the midst of betrayal, sin an darkness there is Eucharist, and that on the other side of suffering and death is their defeat at the hands of Life.

So what sort of relationship or weight do those days of suffering, death and resurrection bear on the missional passages before and after the Passion narrative? Maybe in telling us that when we give food, drink or clothing to those in need or visiting the sick and imprisoned we are doing these acts of mercy to Christ himself, he was dropping a hint that it would not be long before he would be hungry, thirsty, naked, afflicted, and condemned. When disciples of Jesus do these acts of mercy, we’re ministering to the suffering & crucified Messiah who humbled and emptied himself to such a degree as to be counted among criminals. When we clothe the naked, we condemn the criminal actions of Jesus’ torturers who stripped him down and cast lots for his clothing. When we give water to the thirsty, we cease from stopping the one offering a sponge to the dying Jesus with an ounce of water to soothe his lips. When we visit the imprisoned and offer words of encouragement to them seeking to set them free from whatever holds them in bondage, we display our contempt of the fraudulent court system and trial that condemned the Innocent One to death.

And maybe in telling us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them, Jesus is pointing back to what was just before as the content of what it looks like to live like genuine disciples of his. That is, when we are baptized into Christ, we are united with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection, and lay claim to hope that sin and death’s defeat has been guaranteed in our own lives and for the world. That is, the closer we draw near to Jesus, the more we are genuine disciples who do not betray, slumber, scatter, or deny, but who follow near and are willing to be counted among the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, condemned just as Jesus was. That is, that genuine disciples are not afraid to cry out to God when we feel most deserted by the world, by our friends, and even by the God Jesus called Father, too. And that this movement would be so radical that the world could not stamp it out, but that people of all nations would be drawn to the sacrificial love that is willing to forgive those who betray, scatter, deny, and even those who condemn. And in that, we’re given a most blessed promise…that God’s presence in Christ will be with us as we embark on that mission.

And to me, these are the sorts of things that distinguishes a community who follows a crucified and risen Lord from a mere charity organization who just wants to be kind to others or a country club who just wants to increase in size. The narrative in between centers our missional life in that we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection.

Although it often invites moments of being teased, one of my favorite things to do with family around Christmas is looking through old family photo albums to recall the precious, though sometimes embarrassing, memories from my childhood. When examining afresh the pictures from yesteryear, as a family we get to relive, in a sense, our past and remember and be thankful for God’s faithfulness in bringing us to this moment of our shared lives, even as we anticipate greater days to come. This is what I mean in this post’s title as ‘the art of remembrance.’ That remembrance is more than just recalling stories and ‘memories’ of old, but is an affirmation that when we tell these stories, we are being mysteriously transported into the past and experience it anew. It is our way of living into the story that began before we could grasp it all or before we were even aware there was a story.

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this...

Practicing the art of remembrance is more than this…

On two different occasions, God’s family was given what we now call the Ten Commandments, and they are recorded in Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5. The commandment that should strike a chord as we think about ‘remembrance’ is the 4th one: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” But did you know that in the two renderings of the commandment, there is a difference in the reason given as to why to remember the sabbath? Read them anew…

Exodus 20:8-11 – “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…For in six days the Lord created heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 – “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Did you catch the difference? In Exodus they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of creation. In Deuteronomy they were called to remember the sabbath for its connection to the story of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Think about that: in Egypt they slaved seven days a week; God commanded them to remember they’re not enslaved anymore and to do so by taking a day off. (If there were ever a day when that message is needed, it would be now.) Remembering the sabbath was their (and our) way of living into the stories of God’s creation and redemption. Even as generations would come and go, remembrance was their way of looking back in gratitude because of God’s loving faithfulness in freely creating the heavens and the earth and in freely rescuing them from bondage.

Remembering is at the heart of who we are as Christians too: when we welcome new members into God’s family and renew our own covenant made in the past to God and the church; when we sit at meals and tell stories of the recent or distant past, recalling how God has got us through times of light and darkness; when we gather to grieve the loss of one of our own, yet remaining hopeful in the resurrection as we recall God’s faithfulness in the lives of those who have gone before us; and of course, when we break bread together and share the cup at the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” I believe he meant more than just “retell this story and recall to mind my sacrifice for you.” It’s more than that, for again, remembrance is more than recollection. Remembrance, in the sacramental sense, is a mysterious act in which we commune with the saints, and Christ is mysteriously but really present in our meal.

When we eat the bread and drink from the cup, our act of remembrance is our way of living into the story of Christ’s redeeming the world through his becoming human in being conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, remaining faithful to his Father, being betrayed, suffering, dying, and being resurrected. Each time we partake of the meal and we remember Christ, we relive our redemption and give thanks (Eucharist = give thanks) for God’s loving faithfulness in rescuing us from bondage to sin and death. I’ve seen it put this way before: “The Christian is one who remembers!” And as St. Paul reminds us, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”