Let’s Go (Matthew 28:16-20)

Go-The 11 disciples meet Jesus in Galilee, and there he gives them his final words. When they see him, they worship him, but also some doubt. This is important. This resurrection stuff is hard to believe. If it’s hard for the disciples to believe while they’re standing with him in the flesh, how much harder is it for us. Beloved, you can both worship and have your doubts at the same time. And I would say that naming and stepping into those doubts, rather than stuffing and denying them, will lead you to more authentic worship.

Then Jesus begins with these words that are easy to gloss over but continue with one of Matthew’s running themes: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” It’s clear now: Authority is not with government or the religious establishment. It is in Jesus. He is the embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven, therefore heavenly authority is in him. And then he says these famous words, that we know as the Great Commission.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. He says “to all nations”. The word for “nations” here is the Greek word “ethnos” (ἔθνος). It’s where we get our word for “ethnic”, and is often translated as “gentile”. Back in Matthew 10:6 Jesus told his disciples to go to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Having done that, Jesus now hands off the baton to his disciples and says take it worldwide. The Kingdom of God has been broken wide open, and the disciples now take it and go with it. They don’t do it perfectly, but here I sit, 2000 years later, spending nearly four months working through the Gospel of Matthew.

Yes, they took the baton and went, and because they went, Jesus was with them. But as we look back on 2,000 years of Church history, we see the pattern repeat itself: That is, that over time, religion becomes institutionalized, and can lose its way, which is a soft way of saying that it falls back into marginalizing people at best, and moving into full-scale genocide and imperialism at worst. The “going” that Jesus calls us to is not to go and make church members and firm up an institution. It’s not to build buildings, and it’s not to “win” a nation or city or neighborhood for Jesus.

The going is to make disciples of Jesus, not disciples of our own doctrine and leadership. We go and make disciples by first embodying the ways and rhythms of Jesus in our own heart, soul, mind, and body, and then creating atmospheres where people encounter the risen Christ in their own life and experience. As someone once told me (can’t remember where this comes from): “The Church does not make disciples. Disciples make the church.” I believe the American Church has lost its way, from the most ancient and liturgical to the most new and innovative and everything in between. We have been too much baptized in consumerism, with our temple on Wall Street, and our high holy day as Black Friday. Yes, I mean the Church has been grafted into that. Black Friday is done in Jesus’ name. More specifically the baby Jesus’ name.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t anything good in the American Church or in American Christians, but I do believe we’ve lost our way. And I believe, this Easter Monday, Jesus stands before us and says, “Go. Flee that old way, and go reshape, rebuild, reform this faith, and bring it back to life. Don’t worry about bottom lines, and page follower data, and who’s in the news. The authority is not in your metrics and brand. All authority has been given to me, so go, and take the risk on reshaping everything in a way that actually fosters growth in Christlikeness and the resurrected life that comes with it. Go. And know that I’m with you in it. The establishment might not be, But I am with you. If you go.”

So, beloved, let’s go.

He Is Not Here (Matthew 28:1-15)

rolled-away“He is not here. For he has been raised,” the angels tell the women who are in search of their Lord. Just as Jesus would not be held back in life, he would not be held back in death. The kingdom has broken wide open, folks. And this is literally earth-shaking news. Christ has shaken the earth, rattled it loose. What was inside is now outside. What was sealed is now open. What was unclean is now white as snow. What was dead is now alive. No, the body of the Christ is not here in this tomb. He is risen out in the world, turning the world upside down- or maybe perhaps better said, turning the world right side up- by doing the most earth-shattering thing there is: bringing life to dead and dying things. 

This Easter, let us remember that just as the body of the Christ in the Easter story is not here, but is risen out in the world, so too are we, the “Body of Christ” not to be hidden in a tomb, but we are to be out in the world doing the earth-shaking work of turning the world inside-out and upside down… we are to be doing the work of opening what has been closed, and of bringing dead and dying things to life. 

The Easter story is good news, friends… really good news. It says that God’s not done with us yet. It says that hope is alive and well. It says that the power of the Spirit unleashed onto the world can indeed bring God’s kingdom to earth just as it is in heaven. Shalom, salaam, peace, wholeness is possible. But it’s gonna take some earth-shaking work to get it done. So let’s go shake things up.

And let this news rattle you today: He is not here, he is risen.

Sealed (Matthew 27:57-66)

The Spirit of God is unleashed, but the body of Christ is sealed up. Pilate grants Joseph of photo-1508345228704-935cc84bf5e2Arimathea access to Jesus’ body to give him a proper burial, a nice gesture. Then Joseph lays Jesus is in his tomb. What is Joseph thinking here? Will he then go and purchase another tomb for himself? Or, does Joseph of Arimathea fully believe that Jesus will only be needing this tomb temporarily? Regardless, Jesus is properly laid to rest, and the stone is rolled over the tomb, sealing him up.

Not only does the stone provide a seal, for fear of his body being stolen to make it look like he resurrected, but Pilate and the Pharisees also order guards to stand watch at the tomb. Just as the Pharisees guarded the Holy of Holies, they guard Jesus, making sure no one has access to him. And just in case anyone, with all that had gone on that week, doubted who has “power” and “authority” in the land, soldiers stand before the Christ’s tomb.

But, as they say… you can’t keep a good man down. Stay tuned…

Unleashed (Matthew 27:38-56)

2789-bigthumbnailHe is nailed to the cross and then mocked, saying things like “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” His power and authority are questioned, as he suffers. He cannot liberate himself as he liberates the world. As darkness covers the land, so too does Jesus grow dark, quoting Psalm 22, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Then he breathed his last. Jesus is dead. What now?

It is here that the curtain on the temple is torn in two. The curtain was a thick veil around the Holy of Holies, the place where the Spirit of God was said to dwell. Just minutes ago Jesus was mocked, but now he has essentially torn the temple down. The earth is shaking, the rocks are splitting, the Spirit of God is unleashed. She is no longer veiled, she is no longer protected, she is no longer confined, but she is made available to all. The Spirit of God, the same spirit who breathed life into Adam now breathes new life to all of humanity.

Beloved, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Simon of Cyrene: Sinner and Saint (Matthew 27:32-37)

stsimonI find the story of Simon of Cyrene being called upon to help Jesus carry his cross among the most poignant in the Gospels. What must it have been like to be Simon? Sure, he didn’t know he was carrying the cross of Jesus the Christ and all its implications, but yet he was still called to play a role in God’s redemptive work in this world. Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16:25). Two things about that:

One, the call to “take up our cross” is daunting. We read that, we maybe shudder a little, and then we try to minimize by it equating “taking up my cross” with serving someone or being kind. But to “take up one’s cross” is far more than being kind and serving others. To take up my cross is to step into my call in God’s redemptive work in this world. For Jesus that was the whole of breaking the Kingdom wide open. It was what we’ve been talking about all along: Tearing down the dividing and oppressive walls of power. It was his cross to bear. In Simon of Cyrene, we see that we too participate in Jesus’ redemptive work. Jesus called us to “take up your cross. Simon of Cyrene took up Jesus’ cross. To follow him is not merely to observe and cheer him on. It is to participate. We work with Jesus in carrying this heavy load.

Two, even Jesus couldn’t do it alone. The more I’ve stepped into advocating for marginalized peoples and fighting for justice, the more I’ve learned how hard, scary, exhausting, uncertain, and heavy the work is. And I’m just scratching the surface in this work. I mostly do it behind the safety of a computer screen through writing. And as a person of privilege, I have the choice to step out of it, if I want to. People of marginalized intersections (like Simon!) simply cannot. It comes to them. Stepping into God’s redemptive work of breaking down systems of oppression in this world is work we were not intended to do alone. Not even Jesus could do it alone. So neither can you. We need each other.

But there’s a whole other and opposite way to look at this: Simon is also aiding Rome in its oppressive work. He was just someone, presumably a common everyday ordinary Jew from North Africa, obeying the laws of the land, observing the Torah, trying to live a quiet faithful life and stay out of trouble in his travels to Jerusalem for the Passover. And in so doing he became a participant in Rome’s oppression. How am I, without even seeing it or even wanting it, a participant in oppression? This is a crucial question for all of us to ask.

In Simon, we see how we are both participants in oppression and participants in the work of justice. We are not one thing. Even as I fight to change the system, every day I also prop it up. In this way, we are all indeed both sinner and saint. So, this Holy Week and beyond may we grow in Christ-likeness. May we set ourselves on the journey of continuing to take our next steps in working for justice and liberation in this world. May we name and confess our own intersections of sinner and saint. And may we rest in the love, grace, and hope of Jesus, who, no matter what, still says, “Beloved, follow me.”

Handed Over (Matthew 27:15-31)

sinners-station-1-e1518751060245In this scene, Pilate decides to go with the custom granted to him to release a prisoner to the crowd. He brings up Barabbas and Jesus and asks the crowd to choose who will go free. Pilate has been warned by his wife, who was warned through a dream, to release Jesus. Dreams have shown up in Matthew before. At Jesus’ birth, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt because the Christ-child was in danger. Matthew frames Jesus’ life in threats against him and warnings about those threats coming through dreams. But this time the warning is not heeded, and Christ is handed over to be crucified.

Matthew says, “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing…” Pilate feels powerless here, giving in to the emotions of the crowd. Anything to keep the peace, including killing the Prince of Peace. He washes his hands and says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” No. No, you’re not Pilate. You represent the political power structures that will often try to wash their hands in the name of the “will of the people.” The people proclaim that they will claim responsibility and Jesus is then handed over to be crucified. Jesus is a victim of religio-political power and instability.

How might things have ended had Pilate heeded the warning from his wife’s dream? Many would say that we would all be in bad shape had Christ been spared the cross. He had to go to the cross. I say hogwash. Jesus came to liberate the world from personal, political, and systemic sin and oppression. As he exposed the dysfunctions in the system and became a threat to power, power responded as it always does. God didn’t need Jesus to die. There are atonement theologies that say he did need to- I get that- but how small is our God, if our God cannot get the necessary redemptive work done no matter what actions we choose? The redemptive work had been getting done, was getting done, and will continue to get done with or without the cross.

As we journey toward the cross this week, let’s indeed remember Christ’s sacrifice for us. Let’s remember that he loves the world enough to submit himself into its corrupt hands in order to stay true to the message that we are all God’s beloved children. It’s a message worth dying for. And let’s remember that within our atonement theologies, Jesus is also a victim disordered power quaking in its boots. The greatest sin that Jesus died for is the sin which killed him, the sin of oppressive political and religious power.


‘Till We Have Faces: Reimagining Judas (Matthew 27:1-14)

20120708-_dsc1485I find today’s story is one of the saddest in the Christian story. My heart aches for Judas. The Scriptures and tradition paint far too one-dimensionally for me. He is simply “betrayer”, and his humanity gets lost. In Matthew and Mark, he is “the betrayer”. In Luke, Satan enters into him. In John, he is darkness and has the devil in his heart. We too much remember him as the nearly inhuman figure who is important in moving the plot to Jesus’ death. His name has become synonymous with words like “traitor” and even “evil”. We need to recapture the humanity of Judas.

First of all, let’s remember his story. Within a whole host of people who chose not to follow Jesus, remember that at one point Judas did choose to leave everything behind and follow him. And he followed him faithfully. Up until this point, that is. When the woman anoints Jesus with oil from an alabaster jar (26:6) Matthew tells us that some of the disciples were upset because of the waste of expensive oil that could have been used to help the poor. In John’s Gospel, it’s Judas specifically who is upset by this, and history judges him negatively for it, but if I’m honest, I might have reacted the same way. Look at Judas’ heart there: It’s to be intentional and missional with resources. We could also argue that Judas is just being cheap and using “the poor” argument merely to defend his cheapness, but we don’t know. It’s possible that he was authentically upset about the waste. Judas was a disciple of Jesus, like you and me, trying to find his way through the hard call of following Jesus.

Second of all, it seems that when we read this story, we notice “betrayed” and “hanged himself” and “pieces of silver”, but do we notice the word “repent”? Judas repented. The form of the Greek word translated as “repent” there is defined, “to have regrets about something in the sense that one wishes it could be undone.” Have you ever done something which you regretted to the degree that you wished it could be undone? I know I have. Judas was a disciple of Jesus Christ and he repented. Unfortunately, his despair was too great and he could not imagine life going forward, so he took his own life.

It’s a truly tragic part of the story, one which we should not blow through, but about which we should enter into deep wondering. Judas has (as I said at Jesus’ arrest) “done the deed”, and the only vision for his future that he can imagine is one of “betrayal” and subsequently being a total an utter outcast. He can’t see the redemptive love of Christ that you and I can now see. Why do we continue to paint Judas in the image that he himself so tragically could not shake, but which we know to be not the whole truth of who he was?

God’s love and grace are always bigger than our actions. Redemption, restoration, and resurrection are always on the horizon. Judas couldn’t see it. Why can’t we see it for him? When we enter into those periods of utter despair, we need each other to see in us what we cannot see for ourselves. Let’s see it for Judas.

If the devil had entered his heart, I wonder if it was manifested not in as much what he did, but more so in what he thought of himself for having done it. When he looked in the mirror what Judas saw was what the scriptures label him as: “betrayer”. It was true. He did betray. But there was something about him which he couldn’t see, and which was even more true.

1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known”. The mirror into which we often look is dim. And in it, we see things like “betrayer”, “sinner”, “unworthy”, “not good enough”, “dirty”, “weak”, “unholy”. But on the cross, the deceiving steam on the mirror is wiped away and we see ourselves as God sees us. God who fully knows us. It is there in the sacrificial love of the Christ on the cross that what is most true about us is revealed. And what is most true about us is not things like “betrayer”, “sinner”, “unworthy”, “not good enough”, “dirty”, “weak”, “unholy”. What is most true about us is that we are “forgiven”, “beloved”, “righteous”, “holy”, “free”, “alive”, “strong”, “enough”, “beautiful”, “risen with Christ”, and a whole host of other glorious words which God ascribes to us. If only Judas could’ve seen himself in this way. If only we could see him, and in so doing, all of humanity this way.

Peter & Denial (Matthew 26:69-75)

peters_denial_lyonsa1_905Jesus gets people into trouble. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword”. Jesus has come to bring a sword but it is not a broadsword meant for battle. It is a small sword meant to divide. It is a precise sword that separates. It separates the old life from the new. It separates what is holy from what is profane. It separates what was from what will be. It is a sword that reveals to us what is real and what is counterfeit.

When we are cut by this sword, we cannot help but live differently. Live a new kind of life, a life in the ways, rhythms, and voice of Christ. This Christ. This Christ who is in chains, accused of blasphemy, and soon to be condemned to die. When we choose to live in his ways, rhythms, and voice, we begin to look and sound like him. We speak in his accent. And just as being Christ got him into trouble, so too when we look and sound like Christ do we get into trouble. “You were with him… yes, you were with him… your accent betrays you”.

How many times have we, like Peter, tried to cover up our accent? How many times have we hidden Jesus, the light of the world, behind the curtains of our hearts? How many times have we denied our master for fear of the trouble we might get into? Fear of being outcast socially; of being marginalized professionally; of being limited economically; fear of what might be.

Under the shadow of the cross, we deny Christ, yet on the cross, his blood still pours out for us. Endless denial, an abyss of hiding, infinite covering up cannot drown out the forgiving, freeing, love-laden blood of Christ’s sacrifice. His accent reveals who we are, his light exposes how we live, his embrace carries us through the troubles. So let us speak authentically, let us shine brightly, let us be carried confidently through the troubles that can come with following this piercing Jesus.

Strength (Matthew 26:57-68)

a9dbc905f4b455ee577f863e161b7f99I remember early on in my acting studies in college learning a lesson about the strength of stillness. I was doing some scene work where my character gets angry, and my dramatic instinct was to have him essentially explode. My prof revealed to me the strength of playing the anger not violently but under total control. It’s what makes Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter so terrifying. It pierces you.

I don’t know if Jesus is angry here, and he is certainly no Hannibal Lecter, but his calmness in this scene is a display of his strength and power. We have just come from Gethsemane, where Jesus reveals is vulnerable. He says, “I am deeply grieved, even to death”. He prays, “let this cup pass from me”. His humanity comes through in Gethsemane. But it is also there that he submits and walks towards his accusers. Now he stands before them as a confident, strong, fully in control man of God. It is piercing and stands in stark contrast to Caiaphas tearing his garments in rage.

The strength Jesus portrays here is very real, but it is also not of him. It comes through laying himself down before his Creator, through being authentic about his fear and weakness, and through letting the grace of God, that is the activity of the Spirit of God in his life, come upon him. Jesus’ ability to face his accusers and ultimately embrace the cross with such strength and power is perhaps the most full manifestation of God’s grace the world has ever seen. It is the power and activity of God in Jesus’ life that enables him to overcome his weakness and move towards God’s call for him.

And this is true about you and me as well. It is by God’s grace that we can live and move through the hard stuff of life. By ourselves, we cannot do it. But God’s power and strength, found in community, prayer, and submission of our will, is an ever-flowing stream for us. What are you facing these days? Don’t worry. Don’t panic. Find your “Gethsemane”, breathe, and let the grace of God envelop you. And through it, know that you can stand strong in the face of your accusers.

Power, Privilege & Authority (Matthew 26:47-56)

17VFriedman-slide-O5CG-superJumboMacbeth enters with bloody daggers and simply says, “I have done the deed…” Every time I read this story, and Judas greets Jesus and kisses him, I think, “Judas has done the deed.” As the soldiers lay hands on and arrest Jesus, Judas’ betrayal is complete. The crowds of weaponized soldiers to arrest one man with this friends is reminiscent of law enforcement officers in riot gear at a peaceful protest. It feels like overkill (and in fairness, not all demonstrations are peaceful, but many are). Jesus rightly calls them out on it: “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me” (26:55).

One of the themes we continue to identify in Matthew is the interplay between power and authority. We saw it as soon as Jesus showed up in the power play by King Herod with the Magi. We saw it with John the Baptist and the power dynamics between him and the Pharisees. The question of authority continues to come around and it really comes to a head here. Jesus is saying, “you’ve had the power to arrest me all along, but you choose to do so under the cover of night.” You could almost follow it with, “cowards.”

Power and authority are concepts we don’t like to talk much about. We don’t like to admit we have it when we do, we often misuse it when we do, and when we don’t have it, we want it, and as humans, we can too easily do great damage to get it. Among other things, this Gospel is about rightly and wrongly ordered power and authority. The governmental and religious leaders have it, and they are afraid of losing it, so they use it to protect themselves. When power and authority is used to guard itself, it is wrongly ordered. It is disordered power. But Jesus has a whole other kind of power and authority, and he uses not to protect himself but to empower others. He uses it to empower those who don’t have it, and this is the core of the threat that Jesus is.

Throughout history, there are people endowed with a kind of innate power and authority. They have a natural ability to organize, mobilize, and affect real change. When these people step into that work, those with positional power and authority get nervous. We saw it with David and Saul. We see it with Jesus and Pharisees. We saw it with Joan of Arc, and Martin Luther, and Gandhi, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela, and Malala. Rightly ordered power and authority makes disordered power and authority quake in its boots.

But this positional power and authority is real, and it has the power to do real harm. So Saul tries to kill David. Jesus gets arrested. Nelson Mandela does too. Malala gets shot in the face. This is not to say that all who are in positions of power and authority at all times are corrupt and doing harm. But it is to say, that when they are, there are those who are endowed with a whole other kind of power and authority who can’t not stand up and against it.

A core part of the Gospel of Matthew is watching Jesus step into his power and authority to break down the walls that the established power and authority built to protect themselves. As we will see, Jesus final words to his followers being with authority. And it is here in this story today, that this positional disordered power and authority shows its true colors. It does harm.

Like I said, we don’t like much to talk about power and authority, but we must. Do I have it? To what degree? Am I aware that I have it? How am I using it? How are privilege and power connected? Who and what am I trying to protect? To empower? And in all of that, with whatever power, privilege, and authority we have, to what degree are we willing to step into Jesus’ call from Matthew 16:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:24-26)