Dragnet, CSI, and Easter

Remember that guy named Joe Friday from team Dragnet? He became famous for the question “Just the facts ma’am.” How about that television show CSI? Anyone a fan? If so, then you know everything is dependent on the evidence. Here’s the facts. We live in a dragnet, CSI kind of world. We comfort ourselves with facts and evidence.

Here’s the facts based on Luke’s account of Easter. It was Sunday. It was early in the morning. It was the women finding the empty tomb. It was two men wearing clothes like lightning who spoke “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here – he has risen!” These men went on to tell the women “remember he said he would be crucified and rise again on the third day?” It’s not in the text but we know what they said next – “Guess what day it is?”

The text seems to go out of its way to make sure we know it was the women who found the empty tomb. We even get names; Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, mother of James, and others. This is who tells the Easter news to the other disciples. The text tells us the other disciples thought this sounded like nonsense. We know what they must’ve been thinking “Where is the evidence?”

Things were more primitive then. We know what they needed was a good CSI team. Some good detective work may have taken care of this situation. If it were us, we would have dusted for fingerprints, photographed footprints, taken a linen sample from the graveclothes, interviewed the angels, estimated the weight of the stone and how many people it would take to move it. If the women would have brought back this type of evidence no one would have accused them of nonsense.

We are fascinated by evidence. If we can figure Easter out, then we can fit it in with the rest of our story. Easter could have a place next to other notable occasions. But as it is, Easter is a little dangerous. A resurrection from the dead that cannot be explained makes us a little nervous. But Easter doesn’t fit in the world’s evidence-based way of thinking. Easter introduces a new worldview. Easter invites us to start thinking differently.

Here’s a fact, more facts won’t make salvation more accessible. If that book in the religious section convinces us resurrection is possible, if some new discovery is dug out of the sands of the Holy Land, if some lawyer type makes an undisputable claim, if some preacher gives three good reasons to believe in the resurrection, if the shroud of Turin is authentic, if those really are the crown of thorns rescued from burning Notre Dame – does the gospel suddenly become more real?

The gospel is not trying to sway us with physical evidence. The gospel isn’t even interested in giving a doctrine of resurrection. We might be fascinated by new finds but this stuff does not impress the gospel. The gospel does not allow us to stay in that place for long. Instead, it wants to move on to the real news. God is alive and on the loose.

We haven’t got this Jesus figured out. We can’t put Jesus on the shelf, can’t lock him up in a safe box, can’t claim to know his next move, as it turns out – can’t even seal him in a tomb. That is part of what is so great about those women who went to the tomb. Luke seems to be saying “will someone just listen to these women?”

The gospel wants us to understand that we cannot simply put God in some place. We can form our best definition of God. We can give our best description of God. We can make our best guess about how God creates, loves, saves – but God will still be more. God will simply not stay where we try to fit him.

One would think if we killed him, wrapped him in graveclothes, and sealed him up in a tomb – he would still be there when we went to find him. Easter reminds us, that’s not the way it works with God. As it turns out, God is a hard one to figure out. We can put God in a tomb, but that doesn’t mean we will find him there in the morning.

It is not easy to admit we haven’t got something figured out. It is much easier to disregard what we do not understand. But if we take this old text seriously, we will believe in a God who behaves unpredictably. We will believe in a God who is impossible to hold down, impossible to seal inside of a tomb. We will believe that God is on the loose.

And this God might just invade our lives in ways we are not ready for. As two men dressed like lightning reminded us, Jesus said it would happen like this. He said he would be crucified and rise again on the third day. It might not say it in the text but we know what they were thinking – “Guess what day it is!”

The Spirits of Christmas

We can’t get to Christmas without traveling through Luke chapter one. And we can’t read Luke chapter one without noticing how active the Holy Spirit is. While preparing for Christmas we find that John the Baptizer, Mary, Elizabeth, and Zechariah are all interacting with the Spirit. In fact, Luke wants us to know they are filled with the Spirit. Of all the gospel writers, Luke is perhaps most interested in the Spirit. By the time we get to the book of Acts, it almost seems that the Spirit becomes his primary character in the narrative.

In contrast to Luke, Mark’s Gospel places some emphasis on darker spirits. Reading Mark, one is often in the company of evil spirits. It is interesting that the gospels suggest supernatural forces, both holy and evil, desire to inhabit humans. Perhaps a reading of the gospel should prompt the question, “Who will inhabit humans?” “Will it be evil forces or will it be the spirit of God?”

Evil spirits desire to inhabit humans. But it appears they have some problems with what they really want. In Mark five a man living among the tombs had an evil spirit and was constantly gashing himself with stones. In Mark nine it is an evil spirit that sometimes slams the host, a young boy, to the ground.  At other times it throws him into fire and the water to destroy him. It seems that evil spirits living in the host also have some desire to destroy the host. This may be the dilemma of evil spirits. They lack wisdom. They cannot become a unity and work with their host. They are fractured and foolish. They are far different from the spirit of God.

In contrast, the Holy Spirit also desires to dwell in humans. But here we find a different story. The spirit of God desires life. The spirit of God strengthens and nurtures. This becomes more obvious to us in Acts chapter two and afterward. Yet, here, chapters earlier, we find the Spirit entering humans. Luke chapter one tells of life entering a barren situation. Life enters where it is thought to be impossible. Before we get to Christmas. Before Mary gives birth and wraps Jesus in swaddling clothes. Before we learned that shepherds were watching flocks by night. Before we hear the angels sing Gloria in excelsis. Before we get to Luke chapter two and the birth of the newborn king, we find four people who are filled with the Holy Spirit.

This is no small thing. The story of Christmas is the story that history is changing. This is a story about God on the move. An announcement that a new kingdom is taking shape. There is a light in the darkness. God is bringing life into an arena where there was death. Christmas is coming. Hang onto your hat.

 

A Counter Politic

Our politics have little to do with whether retail stores allow employees to wish consumers a Merry Christmas or allow the Salvation Army to ring out front or whether the court house will permit a nativity scene on the premises. For the church to expect Target or the court house or the president to communicate Christmas for us is simply ridiculous. I suspect the principalities and powers are pleased when we become so dependent on them. And if our witness hinges on retailers or elected officials, we have bigger problems than we care to admit.

The politics of Christmas are much bigger than such things. The fifth verse of the Gospel of Luke starts it off. “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” So it begins. On the stage of local politics, John the Baptizer is conceived and born.

Meanwhile, there is something even bigger going on. Jesus is conceived and his mother Mary begins talking about politics. She tells us that when God’s kingdom promises are complete, people will have enough food. She tells us about a kingdom where the rich and powerful will no longer exploit the weak and poor. Mary makes claims of a new kingdom before the king is even born.

And then, on the stage of world politics where Caesar Augustus ruled, Jesus is born. Luke may be implying that while John was to have a significant local impact among Jews in Judea, Jesus will have a worldwide impact for all people.

And before we think the politics are out of the way, Luke chapter three begins with a list of politicians. It was “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” (Just an observation, Augustus didn’t last long). “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… Herod was tetrarch of Galilee… Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus… Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene” and the high priesthood included “Annas and Caiaphas.” Whew!

We can be certain that both local and worldwide politics provide settings for what follows. It also becomes obvious that wherever one turns they are faced with the politics of the world. Everyone in the story is surrounded by the world’s power. That is when “the word of God came to John.” And among the verbal clutter of all those political voices, came “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

Its on. Luke wants to make sure we know early in the gospel story that our politics are counter to the politics of the world. So, we are told that one of those listed politicians, Herod, had enough of John’s counter political preaching and locked him in prison. If nothing else, this reminds us there is much more at stake than we may first suspect.

History Matters

Christmas is coming. Advent begins in just eighteen days. We are entering the season and Luke 1 is a good text to help us prepare. Perhaps any reading of Luke at all should pay attention to 1.1-4. It certainly helps us to understand the reason for details we find later. Luke tells us that many have told the story before. Servants of the word, ministers of the gospel, and other eyewitnesses have told the story of Jesus. Yet, Luke wants to tell it again. Luke wants to investigate details carefully. Luke wants us to understand what we’ve been told.

Immediately, Luke starts in with the details. In 1.5-7 things feel so historical, just the way Luke wants it. We discover right away the name of the king of Judea. We learn the name of one of the priests and the priestly division he belonged to. We learn the name of his wife and something about her family tree. We are told that they were of good character “righteous and obedient and blameless.” We are told they are old. And we are told the woman, Elizabeth, was barren.

That is a lot of historical information in only three verses. Perhaps we should state the obvious. No one comes to church to find out the name of a first century king, the name of a first century priest, or the birthing status of a first century woman. Yet, Luke tells these details because they belong to a story so important, they must be told.

We may not go to church to learn history, but Luke is on to something. If our faith is not rooted in history, our faith is broken and we should find something more credible to hang our hat on. That God acted in history gives us faith that God is acting in the present and will act in the future.

So, we listen to historical details in the text. We listen because Luke wants us to listen but also that we might feel it in our bones. God works in real places and among real people. There is good news to be found here and we do go to church in order to hear good news. This story and its details prepare us for a birth that will be announced in the next chapter as “good tidings of great joy” or “good news that will bring great joy.” That is to say, Luke is preparing us for gospel.

Come Let Us Talk Gospel

Did you hear the one about the Jewish feminist, the Methodist evangelical, and the first century gospel writer? It resulted in a great gift for the church. The Gospel of Luke by Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witherington III is the first commentary of its kind. Amy-Jill provides a Jewish voice and Ben a Christian voice as they engage in a stimulating discussion with the Gospel. I like the way they say it “Ours is not a debating commentary; ours is a ‘come let us reason together and talk’ commentary.”

I have not yet read it in its entirety. But what I have read I find fascinating. The approach is novel. It is helpful for a critical reading of the text but not only that, this approach is helpful as a way of living. While it is important to express conflicting views rather than pretend they do not exist, they are able to maintain some sense of sensibility. The authors prefer to dialogue with respect for the text, for those who listen to the text, and for one another. Although they differ often, they exhibit a working friendship with peacemaking as a goal. I love the way they say this “Biblical studies should not be a contact sport, with its own sections of cheerleaders.” For me, it comes across as (apologies to Amy-Jill) a very Christian effort.

Amy-Jill and Ben refer to the author as “Luke” without making a serious attempt to identify this “Luke.” They agree that “Luke” writes sometime during the second or third generation of Jesus followers. They agree that the Gospel is written to an ideal audience known as “Theophilus.” This recipient has insider information and already knows something about Jesus. Theophilus is a gentile who is familiar with Jewish scripture and has sympathy for the Roman presence.

Just as they make no strong effort to identify who “Luke” or “Theophilus” are, they do not discuss at length potential sources or synoptic relationships. Instead, they emphasize the text, which they would both encourage to be read out loud. Finally, both Amy-Jill and Ben agree that Luke writes with an agenda. And that is “to show how Jesus of Nazareth is the world’s preeminent teacher, healer, and savior who should be heeded, imitated, and finally worshipped.”

Perhaps what both authors want most is for readers to feel as if they are invited into the conversation.

Lent: a Context for Temptation

“It is not likely you will be tempted to turn a stone into bread or to throw yourself from a temple. But you might be tempted to lash out at someone who thinks differently than you or takes your parking space. You might be tempted to think lack of caffeine intake or sugar or television will keep you safe from the Devil. Luke wants us to see the Devil as real. He wants us to know danger lurks. Lent is not exempt from Satan’s activity. In fact, Lent may place us right in a context of temptation.”

 
Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p. 44

The Rugged Terrain of a Hostile World

“Father, Into Your Hand…” (Luke 23.46)

As in the first ‘word’ in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus addresses the Father again. We might remember that his very first words in the Gospel are about being in his Father’s house. So it may not surprise us that his final words prior to his death are about being taken into his Father’s hands. Jesus on the cross is consistent with the rest of Jesus’ life. Luke wants us to know that nothing, not even the cross, can stop Jesus from demonstrating the ways of God. He has already forgiven his executioners and made reservations for a criminal to enter paradise, now he commits his spirit to the Father.

We may find ourselves thinking of Psalm 31, especially the part where the psalmist says “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was saturated in the Psalms. The Psalms reveal some rugged emotional terrain. So does the cross. Jesus knows about rugged terrain. It should not surprise us that in challenging moments he reaches into the language of the psalms and adds “Father” before he goes on to quote “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Again, we should not be surprised. It was Jesus who taught us when we pray to say “Our Father…”

When we read this “word” we should not forget the connection between spirit and breath. We are reminded of a true gift from God. We do not possess our breath. We cannot hold it in or keep it. It is gift. Given again and again and again. We inhale, we exhale – gift.

Jesus gives his spirit willingly. Like the rabbi at his own funeral, he commits his life to God the Father. His spirit is not taken from him by those who put him on the cross. He gives it back to the One who gave it to him. He gave away what they thought they were taking from him. Admittedly, this is contrary to the visible evidence. From all appearances, Jesus had his breath taken from him. Meanwhile, Jesus is trusting that the Father is greater than the power of death.

This text reminds us of our dependence on the Father. Our spirit, our very breath is a gift from the Father and our lives are dependent on him. Perhaps we can think of many things we easily take for granted that in wiser moments we recognize as gift. We have been given much. Just look around. Look at your clothes, hands, feet. Breathe deep. Color, smell, taste – all gift. During Lent, we are reminded that following Jesus demands thankful, grateful spirits. May we give even those back to him.

Perhaps it is fitting to conclude with an observation. While many were hostile toward Jesus, Luke highlights that Simon carried the cross, the daughters of Jerusalem mourned for him, a criminal was welcomed into paradise, the centurion praised God, and Joseph was waiting for the kingdom. Some of these may have been aware of the conclusion of Psalm 31 “Be strong and let your heart take courage, All you who hope in the Lord.” We too follow Jesus into the emotional terrain of a hostile world. May we also “Be strong… take courage… and hope in the Lord.”

A prayer from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Thank you for the gift of life, Father God. There will come a day when I will meet you face-to-face. The One who gave me life and has numbered my days. As I take in each breath and exhale may I remember, by your grace, that my life is not my own. Just as Jesus gave His life up to save humanity, it is my desire to give my life in service and worship to you. In a world that invites me to worship and serve anything and everything but you, may I be fixed on the breath that you gave and remember the name of Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for your Lordship and leadership. It is my desire to follow you unto my last breath.”

Saving the Wrong People

“Today You Will Be with Me…” (Luke 23.43)

We can be certain that things were not quiet the day of the crucifixion. Onlookers likely heard sounds of violence. There would have been shouts from soldiers and hammers pounding. There would have been gasps from the crowd and gambling for garments. The voices of Luke’s text are interesting. The rulers speak “Let him save himself.” The soldiers mock “Save yourself!” A criminal speaks “Save yourself and us.” Three times people hostile to Jesus tell him to save himself, he does not reply to any of them. And then we get the following short conversation. In response to the criminal who taunted Jesus, another criminal speaks “Do you not even fear God?” and then asks Jesus “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

This “word” from Jesus teaches us something about grace. This is exactly the kind of thing Jesus is executed for. He is killed because they could not tame him. The sympathetic criminal does not deserve grace. Yet, we learn about grace from the crucified Jesus. Not even a cross can stop him from his move “to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Luke has included us on a journey. Not everyone responds to Jesus the same along the way. Some respond favorably. Others reject him. All the way to the cross we are faced with the question of how we will deal with Jesus. All the way to the cross we discover that not everyone agrees with the kind of people Jesus spent time with. Now we find that the one who “receives sinners and eats with them” also dies with them and for them. It is possible Jesus was not crucified because he claimed to save people, but because he would not stop saving the wrong people. Jesus never stops welcoming unlikely people into the kingdom, even a guilty criminal who has been sentenced for execution. No further questions are necessary, welcome to the kingdom.

Needless to say, this would have been difficult for onlookers to understand. From all appearances the powers of death were eliminating any hope of future and certainly something other than paradise. Yet, Jesus affirms a future for this criminal beyond this day. We do not know what else the three on the cross may have said to one another. If anything at all, Luke does not think it important to record it. Yet, the conversation continues. Every one of us is still asking for or receiving what we do not deserve. We are all either asking Jesus to do things the way we do them in the world or we are believing he knows what he is doing.

Reading this “word” of Jesus during Lent reminds us that an invitation to join the kingdom is an invitation to follow him. The text reminds us that following Jesus cannot be interrupted by the powers of the world. We are not limited by what the world offers. Following Jesus takes us beyond the borders of this world, beyond what we think we might deserve or think is in store for our future. Following Jesus may take us to a place full of the wrong people.

A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano; “Thank you Jesus for inviting me, a sinner, into your kingdom. You made the way for me and gave me the faith to believe. You loved me first. I admit to wondering if everyone is really good enough to make it into your kingdom.Sometimes I wonder if some sin or crime is just too much for grace and salvation. I confess my struggle to love and accept everyone regardless of their crime or sin. I ask you, Jesus, to soften my heart and to give me your eyes for everyone. Turn my heart of stone into a heart of flesh and give me your grace.”

What to Say at an Execution

“Father Forgive Them…” (Luke 23.34)

We know how difficult forgiveness can be. It is often easier to not forgive than to forgive. I suspect we sometimes wish there a limit on things we are expected to forgive. We may wish that transgressions of a certain severity are optional as to whether we forgive them or not. Surely that would make navigating this difficult territory much easier.

Jesus does not draw a line or give permission to not forgive anything. If anything is beyond forgiveness, killing the Son of God might qualify. Still, from the cross, during his own execution, Luke tells us that Jesus says “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. “ In fact, Luke suggests this is the first thing he said. Perhaps he wants us to know that this is more than an account about a Friday afternoon execution. We are about to witness the way God works. We are witnesses of grace. The drama of Good Friday is changed because of these words. This is a prayer that reaches into a corrupted world and changes everything.

This is just the radical sort of thing we have come to expect from Jesus. Perhaps we could interpret his statement something like this, “Before I am executed I want you to know I will not hold a grudge, I will not seek revenge, instead I forgive the organizers of this execution, I forgive those who will carry out the killing, I forgive all who mock and jeer and those who gamble for my clothes, I forgive you all.” This is the way Jesus is. Jesus does not keep score. Forgiveness may not be our natural move but it is always his next move.

Crowds called for his execution. Rulers and priests mocked him. Soldiers hit him. Still, Jesus prays that they will be forgiven. This is revolutionary. Yet this is what Jesus does. This is his move. If there were doubts before, we can be certain he meant it when he said we should forgive seventy times seven. We can be sure he was serious when he taught us to love our enemies. This forgiveness theme just will not stop. Jesus refuses to participate in the way the world does business. He refuses to play that game. Even from the cross, his next move is forgiveness. We are reminded that God is not saving all the good news for Easter Sunday.

Luke is writing for people removed from the ministry of Jesus, removed by geography and time. He writes for people who live outside the region where these things occurred. People who live years after these things took place. People like us. This is Good News no matter what side of the planet we live on and no matter what century we live in.

When reading this “word” from Jesus we can be sure God is serious about forgiveness and desires to forgive us. Yet, during Lent we also have in mind his desire that we follow him. Our text makes clear that following him means we do not have to carry around old hate or revenge strategies. God has no interest in these things. The cross makes it clear that there is a huge difference between the way the world works and the ways of God. We follow a God whose next move is always forgiveness.

Pastor Susan Vigliano adds the following prayer to this meditation: “Lord, would you show me the hidden places in my heart that are holding on to unforgiveness and bitterness? I know in my head that holding on to unforgiveness leads to death and I desire the life you offer. My heart still feels the pain. Please heal my heart and take my pain. You paid for the sin committed against me and for the sinful way in which I have held on to unforgiveness. I need you in order to forgive. I need your strength, power, love, and mercy to release this hurt into your hands. I am calling on you, Jesus and choosing your way that leads to life.”

Kingdom Come in a Manger

Luke is a careful investigator. He passes along details learned from eyewitnesses and is a student of history. This is important enough that it is the first thing he tells us in his gospel. He wants us to know that what follows is set in history.

That may be why he goes on to tell us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree and that Quirinius was governor and that a census was taking place. But Luke also wants us to be aware that other things were happening also. Luke wants us to know that the plan of God is in full effect. A new kingdom is on the horizon. The existing powers may continue to act as if they possess some ultimate authority. So Caesar decrees, Quirinius governs, Mary and Joseph try to follow the laws of the land.

Meanwhile a new king is near and with him a new kingdom. Perhaps in effort to emphasize this Luke points out that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem the town of David (home of Israel’s greatest king) and that Joseph was related to David (Israel’s greatest king). Perhaps that is why he records the angel’s announcement that the child is born in the town of David. Is Luke hinting that here lies Israel’s next king? Has kingdom come in a manger?

We sometimes read Luke 2 as instructions to set up our nativity scene. Luke wants us to know that something else is going on. God has invaded history. We sometimes try to spiritualize the work of God as if He only works in some spiritual arena. Luke wants us to know that God invades our real time history. God invades time while Caesar is decreeing, while wanna-be-Caesars debate on network television, while planning menus, while Quirinius governs, while balancing the checkbook, while shepherds watch their flocks, while worrying about fuel prices, while a census is taken, while unexpected weather occurs, while looking for room at the inn. Christmas is the message of kingdom come in a manger.