Monday, April 6, 2015

An Easter Reflection: The Resurrection as God’s Answer to Human Evil, Failure, and Despair

Yesterday millions of Christians across the globe gathered to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For centuries, Easter has been the most important day on the Christian calendar. But even though Christians have celebrated the resurrection for the past two-millennium, the meaning of the resurrection remains fairly mysterious to us.

What does the resurrection of Jesus mean? The answers to this question are multifaceted, and no answer can fully draw out the meaning of resurrection, but a close look at the gospel stories can offer us the heart of Easter’s message.

While all four canonical gospels tell the story of the resurrection, there is something very interesting about the way the gospel of Mark describes the experience. When the women reach the tomb that Sunday morning, they meet a young man who says to them, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16:6).

While this seems straightforward to most readers, a look at the Greek text brings out the meaning of the Easter message. The key words in the statement are ‘crucified’ and ‘raised’. Both are in the passive voice and they are in juxtaposition to one another. A literal translation might be, “The one having been crucified has been raised.”

Since both words are in the passive voice, the subject of each word is hidden. But are they? The subjects of the participle ‘crucified’ are those who acted evilly against Jesus. But the subject of the verb ‘raised’ is God.

And so we have in these two words the story of Easter: On Friday Jesus was crucified by humans; but on Sunday Jesus was raised by God. But what do these few words mean for the faith of these first witnesses and for the faith of millions today?

First, the story of Jesus’ resurrection shows that God’s goodness overcomes human evil. The arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus demonstrate the essence of human malice, as those who tried Jesus falsely convicted an innocent man of a crime he did not commit.

But those who perpetrated the evil against Jesus would not have the final say, for God was overcoming their evil act through God’s power to raise Jesus from the dead. The resurrection narrative reminds us that though evil is real and powerful, evil will never win in the end. The Easter message is God’s powerful response to human evil.

Second, the young man’s message about the empty tomb also implies that in the resurrection God’s faithfulness was prevailing over human failure. The scene of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution is memorable for many reasons, but what is significantly shocking is the absence of Jesus’ closet followers.

The disciples had abandoned Jesus in his time of need; turning their backs on the one they called master. They had moved from being followers to failures. But in the message of the resurrection, God’s faithfulness prevailed over their failures.

The man in the tomb said to the women, “Go and tell Peter and the others that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” While they had failed in their faithfulness, God was continuing to be faithful to God’s plan to bring good news to the world. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s continuing faithfulness to humans who fail.

Third, the resurrection story illustrates that God’s hope triumphs over human despair. The women who came to the tomb that day came to put spices not on their living Lord, but on a dead criminal. Their journey to the grave must have been filled with grief and despair. They were hopeless not only because their teacher had died, but also because all their hopes and dreams had died with him.

But the resurrection story transformed their despair into hope. They had left the other disciples in mourning, but they returned to them with joy. Easter not only gave these followers of Jesus back their master, it gave them back their hope and their purpose for living. In the resurrection the futility of human existence was defeated by God’s purpose for humanity; to proclaim loudly and boldly that God has raised Jesus from the dead.

Jesus was crucified, but he has been raised! Although a short statement, it is one that has changed the world. For in this simple but profound announcement we hear the crux of the gospel story that God’s goodness defeats human evil; that God’s faithfulness overcomes human failure; that God’s hope triumphs over human despair.

Jesus was crucified, but he has been raised!

Friday, April 3, 2015

A Good Friday Reflection: Jesus’ Cry from the Cross: Abandonment and Hope

I write the words of this current reflection on the morning of what Christians have traditionally called Good Friday, the day on which we reflect on Jesus’ crucifixion. While we refer to it as Good Friday with the intention of focusing on Jesus’ death as sacrificial for us, when we read the narratives of Jesus’ last hours, we can find nothing really that good about that Friday. In fact, it is a very dark and violent story about Jesus at his most vulnerable period.

Portrayed on stage, in film, and in church dramas, the passion story of Christ is fraught with human agony and pain that is unequal to any story we read from the Scriptures. And yet, despite the grotesque nature of the story, it is the focus of the Gospels and indeed the entirety of the New Testament. But what are we to make of this story?

This is certainly a difficult question to answer for many reasons. For one thing, the narratives of the Gospels tell the story in such vivid detail that we would be hard pressed to sum up the story in a few simple words. For another, details differ from Gospel to Gospel even though they agree at many points and all four tell essentially the same narrative.

But one thing is certain about the story. The early Christians felt the need to tell this story, with all the details, no matter what it might have said about Jesus, their King and Messiah.

While we often look back on the crucifixion with a bit of sentimentality, probably because we are influenced by the introspective idea that “Jesus died for me”, the earliest Christians must have been out of their minds to portray their Messiah as a vulnerable human who hung on a vile Roman cross. Yet, this is exactly the story they told, without sanitizing it.

This straightforward telling of the story by these earliest Christians is epitomized very poignantly in Matthew (27:46) and Mark (15:34) through the only statement Jesus speaks from the cross in these two Gospels. It is a prayer of protest in which Jesus recites Psalm 22:1 and calls out in honest anger, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

This is a cry of naked vulnerability through which the crucified one expresses a deep resentment at the one who once called him the Beloved Son and the one in which he had placed his complete faith. The intimacy that once characterized this relationship was replaced by estrangement and abandonment, and the vulnerability that Jesus experienced in his life was at its most extreme in his death.

We cannot deny the fact that on the cross Jesus felt abandoned by God. This was real human emotion responding not only to the pain of death, but more tragically to the feeling of abandonment by the one in whom Jesus had placed his full trust and obedience. Yet, Jesus’ cry is much more than a personal cry to God for his own feelings of desertion. It is a cry he voices for vulnerable humans who also feel abandoned by God.

We often wrongly assume that the Gospels were written primarily to record the history of Jesus, so that future generations would have a biography of sorts about this famous Jewish Rabbi. They certainly provide us the best historical evidence of Jesus’ life and death. But a more important reason that these narratives about Jesus were written was so that Jesus’ story could become the story through which the vulnerable would find hope.

Thus, Jesus’ cry from the cross is the cry he expresses on behalf of those who suffer under the weight of a world system that produces injustice, oppression, and violence that marginalizes the most vulnerable. It is a cry for those who, like him, have been forsaken.

Yet, even as his cry expresses abandonment, it also holds forth continued hope. For one thing, Jesus continues to call out to God for he knows that it is only God who can help him.

Moreover, in quoting the first part of Psalm 22, Jesus may also be using a rabbinical technique through which the one who quotes the beginning of a psalm also invokes the entirety of that psalm. Though Psalm 22 begins with a cry of abandonment, it ends in hope and victory.

But perhaps more important for our understanding of why the writers of Matthew and Mark included this inauspicious statement voiced by the one who was crucified is the fact that they are telling a story that does not end at crucifixion. The Jesus on the cross, though experiencing vulnerability, death, and abandonment by God, will be raised by God, just as he said. The narrative of death and despair will transform into a story of life and hope.

And that is what makes Good Friday good.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Maundy Thursday Reflection: Jesus Modeled Love Even Toward His Betrayer

Years ago, as I was teaching on Jesus’ command to love our enemies, a very perceptive young man asked me, “How far should we go to love our enemies?” Not only was this a thought provoking question, it was one I had never seriously considered until that moment. Certainly I understood that Jesus had called his followers to love their enemies, but I had never pondered to what extent I was to live this command.

One thing that makes the command so challenging is that Jesus does not qualify which enemies we are to love. Nor is he explicit in how far we are to go in loving them.

Can we pick and choose which ones we are to love? Can we decide on how much love we are to show them? These are relevant questions for us to consider, but Jesus’ command to love our enemies does not help us one bit in deciding how far we are to go in doing this.

Whenever I find myself struggling to come to grips with one of Jesus’ more difficult commands, I often discover clarification by looking at what Jesus does; how he responded to the challenge of doing God’s will. After all, if I claim to be a follower of Christ, it only makes sense that I emulate the way he lived.

Jesus is not only the one who makes our way possible to God; he also acts as the example of true faithfulness before God. Jesus is the paradigmatic disciple of God’s will.
I need to find incidents in the life of Jesus that give me guidance in understanding the command he has clearly set forth.

While we could point to various stories of Jesus’ love for others, and indeed, the whole story of the incarnation itself is a story of Christ’s love for humanity, there is a very interesting and underlying twist in the account of Jesus washing of the disciples’ feet which may very well prove to be an answer to this perplexing question.

We often hear sermons preached from this scene that focus on the portrayal of Jesus as the true servant, who sets an example of service for his followers. Undeniably, this is the crux of the story. What we may not see, however, is a subtle, but powerful, detail of the story; the interaction between Jesus and the one who sets himself up as the enemy of Jesus, Judas.

We are very familiar with Judas’ story. He seems to have followed Jesus with hopes that Jesus was the political Messiah who would stir zealous passion in the people to rise up against Rome. We also know that Judas’ dreams did not become reality, as Jesus talked of another kingdom, one characterized by peace, love, and justice, and not by arrogance, violence and war.

It was this realization that may have caused Judas to plot with the religious leaders and hand him over to their authority. John 13:2 makes it clear that Judas’ plan was in the works even as they gathered for the Passover.

What is interesting about this scene, however, is that when Jesus takes up the symbol of a house slave, the towel, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet, nothing is said about him passing over Judas. In fact, if we read it carefully, we find that Judas does not leave the table until after Jesus had completed his act of service.

Are we to assume that Judas was a recipient of Jesus’ service? Does the story lead us to accept the distasteful fact that Jesus washed the feet of every disciple, including Judas? If so, then the follow-up question is why would Jesus wash the feet of any of his disciples, and especially the one who would become his enemy?

The answer may be close at hand in John 13:1. The verse can be understood in two ways. First, it might be translated, “He loved them to the end.” Or it could read, “He showed them the full extent of his love.” Regardless of which reading is more correct, both capture the essence of Jesus’ act of love towards his disciples, including the one who became his enemy. Indeed, the mention of Judas’ eventual betrayal of Jesus right after the statement concerning Jesus’ love for his own seems to add to this reading that Judas was included in that group whom Jesus loved.

Notwithstanding the evil plot and action soon to be taken by Judas, Jesus continued to express his complete love for Judas to the last possible moment. In the face of betrayal by one of his own, Jesus showed persistent love. While evil was being plotted all around him, Jesus returned love.

Paul declares in Romans, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” He continues, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Like Jesus, Paul is not unaware of the evil people will do to others.

But, as Jesus both taught and modeled for us, retribution toward those who do evil is not the way God calls us to respond. Rather, Jesus taught and modeled for us that loving our enemies means always seeking to love them through repeated acts of goodness that express the limitless love Christ demands of us.

As we reflect on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and gave them the commandment to love one another, and as we approach the dark day of his crucifixion, let us follow Christ’s model of love for all, both our enemies and our friends.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Palm Sunday Reflection: Jesus' Action in the Temple in Mark

Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and his disciples heading toward Jerusalem is both an important literary device and a theologically rich motif for the plot of the narrative.  But the question we should ask is: Why were Jesus and his disciples headed to Jerusalem?  The answer highlights once again the theme that Jesus and his disciples were working at cross-purposes.

Of course, the exchange between Jesus and the two brothers, James and John, that we saw in Mark 10, may indicate that at least these two disciples believed  Jesus was going to Jerusalem to become the King of Israel, and that they would participate as members of his royal court.  However, it does seem likely that the group that followed Jesus for the most part probably thought they were going to Jerusalem as faithful Jews making their annual pilgrimage to David’s city and to the temple to celebrate the Passover.

But, as Mark tells his version of the story, it seems that as Jerusalem comes closer into view, Jesus does not intend to enter the city as the kind of king the disciples hoped for.  Nor does he come to Jerusalem simply as a Jewish pilgrim; one among many pilgrims making their way to the holy place.

Indeed, as Jesus and his band step closer to Jerusalem, it begins to become clear that he intends to enter Jerusalem as one sent to challenge the authorities for their religious tyranny, their abusive power, and perhaps mostly for their lack of justice toward the poor and marginalized.  In fact, he is so set on taking this action against them that he has accepted that what he will say and do in Jerusalem will lead to his suffering death at their hands.

There is no event more significant in demonstrating Jesus’ intentions than that which takes place in Mark 11, when Jesus arrives at the temple.  Of course, anyone familiar with the biblical story knows full well the importance of the temple for Jewish religious life.  The temple stood as a beacon for faithful Jews of the first century and as a constant reminder of God’s promise and presence with them.

Yet, the temple was also the seat of political power for the Jewish religious leaders.  In being the center of power for the ruling elite of Israel, the temple was a place in which segments of Israel’s population could not enter, and thus, those shutout could not participate in the full religious life of Judaism.  Gentiles, women, the infirmed, and other marginalized peoples were forbidden from full inclusion and participation.

Many modern readers of the story of Jesus’ actions in the temple interpret the meaning behind what he does in the temple and what he says about the temple as merely a spiritual message.  In other words, we like to think that Jesus is confronting the religious establishment on spiritual grounds alone.  Moreover, some understand what Jesus does as a refutation of Judaism.  But both of these interpretations miss the point of Jesus’ action.

While it is true that there is indeed a spiritual thrust to Jesus’ acts against the temple, that thrust coincides with, and perhaps even follows from what Jesus feels about the political and economic abuses that were taking place there.  There was clearly a political and economic structure to the temple that cut out and even abused the poor, while at the same time functioning as a “den of thieves.”  But Jesus will have nothing of it.  He speaks harshly against what is happening in the temple, and he reminds the hearers of the original intent of the temple to be a place of prayer for all peoples of the world.  

Yet, what is particularly interesting about his actions in the temple is the way Mark tells us how these events developed.  Jesus goes into the temple late on one day, looks around, and then leaves until he returns the next day, when he begins to overturn the tables.  Why does Jesus do this, and why is it important for Mark to tell us these details?

The straightforward answer seems to be that Jesus was determined that his actions against the temple be witnessed by a large crowd; larger than the one that may have been there late on the first day.  His actions can thus be defined as symbolic action that was intended not only to challenge the religious-political elite and their abuses, but also to publicly call for an end to the temple practices themselves.  It was an action that called for a halt to what was taking place in the temple, and a negation of the belief that God approved of what was taking place in the temple.

If we interpret Jesus’ actions in the framework of his ideas about the rule of God, then we must see his actions against this center of religious and political power in Judaism as a call for the temple practices to be more inclusive.  Indeed, by quoting from both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus is stating what the temple is suppose to be, an inclusive and welcoming community, as well as condemning what it has become, a place that not only excludes the poor and marginalized, but that also steals from them.

 If segments of the population were being excluded because they were Gentile, female, poor, sick, and ritually unclean, then the temple served not as a place of prayer for all people, but as a place of exclusion, a practice that is clearly at odds with the message of Jesus.

The message of inclusion, which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and ministry of justice and liberation, is fundamental to the rule of God.  But inclusion can only happen when the walls that divide humanity are torn down so that all God’s people may enter.

Religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and social and economic barriers are only a few that preclude God’s just rule from becoming a reality.  Jesus condemned the religious leaders for using their religious power to exclude others from community with God.    Modern followers of Jesus should heed Jesus’ words and should work to create more welcoming communities of faith so that all God’s peoples may find a place of prayer.  If we do not, then we are also working at cross-purposes with Jesus.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

“Whoever does the will of God”: Mark’s Understanding of Jesus’ True Family

Compared to Matthew and Luke, Mark has little to say about Jesus’ natural family. Indeed, perhaps one of the most glaring omissions from Mark, or, depending on how you see it, additions by the other two, is any reference to Jesus’ birth or childhood. Mark seems unconcerned about Jesus’ natural family, and instead, defines Jesus family quite differently.
There is one reference to Jesus’ natural family in Mark 3:31-35, which can be viewed as negative remarks against his family. Certainly, one cannot perceive a very positive view from Jesus’ words about his family, but we might take Jesus’ statement as implicating more about who he sees as his true family than about his mother and brothers, although there is definitely criticism of the latter. In other words, while Jesus’ words offer a negative portrayal of his family, Mark uses this as a transition to define the true family of Jesus.

By defining his true family as “whoever does the will of God” Jesus designates his disciples, who he just called in 3:13-19, as those who are a part of the family of God. The Markan audience by this point in the narrative understands that Jesus’ relationship to God is one of son (u(io/j) and father (path/r). By declaring that those who do the will of God are his brothers, sisters, and mother, Jesus implies that those who are faithful to God are part of the family of God. 
It is indeed peculiar that father (path/r) is absent from the list of family members that Jesus gives in 3:35. Might this be a way to imply reference to God as the one who is the father of Jesus? If so, then those who do the will of God find a father in Jesus’ own relationship to God as father. But this relationship is only possible through the relationship that followers have with Jesus as the Son. Thus, the relationship between those who do the will of God with the God who is father of Jesus is a derivative relationship; one which comes through both parties being in relation to Jesus (Cf. Jesus’ statement in 9:37).
Moreover, when we understand this saying within the narrative span of Mark, we understand that “doing the will of God” in Mark may cause one to be rejected by family (6:1-6; 13:12-13), thus producing an absence of familial relationships and community. The God of Jesus who extends relations to those who do the will of God, however, fills this void, by stepping in as the father. Thus Jesus’ saying is not primarily a polemical statement against his own family, but more an extension of who comprises his family.
Of significance at this point are the words of the Markan Jesus, “whoever does the will of God” (3:35). By moving from a reference to those seated around him as the ones who constitute his family, to including “whoever” does the will of God, the Markan Jesus addresses the audience of Mark through the text and includes them in the family of God. This “whoever” reference, while setting limits around those who are in relationship to God, reaches beyond other limits of exclusion and opens the path of relationship to anyone who chooses to do the will of God.
This idea is further expressed in Mark by way of Jesus’ words to the disciples regarding leaving family or being abandoned by family. In 10:28-31, Jesus responds to the concern Peter expresses regarding the disciples having left all to follow him. Jesus’ response, again, deals with the issue of family, as he assures Peter that those who have left family and possessions for his sake and the sake of the gospel will be rewarded for their faithfulness. Again, Jesus extends this to more than the disciples via his use of “no one” (o)udei/j). There is “no one,” then, who leaves all for his sake and the sake of the gospel he preaches who will not receive just reward. 
The giver of this eschatological reward of eternal life is God. That which disciples will receive in this age, “households and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields,” suggests a replacement of the natural kinship with a fictive kinship over which God takes the role as father. Again, the absence of father (path/r) in v30, when it is present in v29, intimates to the audience that the God of Jesus stands as the true father of Jesus’ family. 
In 13:9-13, Mark’s audience once again hears Jesus speak of family relations. There is no subject linked to the passive verb translated as “handed over” in v9, and thus Mark may intend a general “they will hand you over.” However, within the context, when brother, father, and children are mentioned as betraying their family members, Mark may be more directly connecting those who will hand over the followers of Jesus with their family members.
The participatory nature of discipleship communicated in Mark is here brought to the fore of the minds of those who would seek to live as Jesus lives, for it implies that their fates are similar. As Jesus will be handed over (9:31; 10:33; and John in 1:14), so also those who identify with him will be handed over. What is tragic is the fact that this handing over will be carried out by the families of those disciples. But Jesus’ words of prophecy do not end in doom, as he also gives hope to those who live faithfully by remaining true to the good news. 
Those who do will be “saved” (swqh/setai), a passive verb indicating God’s actions in saving those who remain faithful. Again, the proximity of Jesus’ words about the natural family of the disciples, to the words of eschatological salvation given by God to those who remain faithful, indicate to the hearers, including the Markan audience, that as the father of Jesus will be faithful to vindicate him, so also the father of the disciples will be faithful to save them.
For Mark, then, blood kinship is replaced by a new family consisting of those who do the will of God, and over which God is paterfamilias.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

“For the Purpose of Being with Him”: The Relationship between Jesus and the Disciples in Mark

In a previous post I wrote about Mark’s presentation of the disciples as portraits of human failure and possibility before God. The disciples, particularly in Mark’s story, do come off as failures, but their failure does not negate their relationship to Jesus. Indeed, a vitally important aspect of understanding discipleship in Mark is to grasp as best as one can this relationship between Jesus and those who follow him in the narrative. While a Christological dimension of discipleship is present in that these followers are called to imitate Jesus, there is also a strong sense in Jesus’ call for them to participate with him in fulfilling God’s call. 
This is evident in a number of references to the disciples being with Jesus. The calling and appointing of the disciples in 3:13-19 is for the purpose of being with Jesus and to be sent out to proclaim the message. The forward position of  i/(na w)=sin met au)tou= (“for the purpose of being with him”) indicates that the primary purpose for the calling and appointing of these disciples is to be in fellowship with Jesus on his mission. 
The proclamation (khru/ssein) to which they are also appointed is derived from Jesus’ proclamation (see 1:38 for Jesus’ understanding his purpose for coming to proclaim), and extends from their having been with him. From this point Jesus is mostly with his disciples, except at times when he withdraws from them for prayer (6:46) or when he sends them out (aposte/llein) on mission (6:7-13).
There is, however, a concentration of references to Jesus being with his disciples or his disciples being with him in chapter 14 (vv. 14, 17, 18, 20, 33). These are a mixture of references to this relationship that highlight Jesus’ intimacy with his co-workers. What may be particularly fascinating is the fact that the references cited above occur in the context of the Passover Meal celebration. 
In this scene there is a paradoxical portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. On the one hand, the intimacy of the meal is clear. On the other hand, this intimacy is strained as Jesus predicts that the one “eating with me (met e)mou=; 14:18), the one dipping bread into the bowl “with me” (met e)mou; 14:20) will betray him or hand him over (The same word used by Jesus in his passion/resurrection predictions in Mark.). Yet, this one is not alone in his guilt, as Jesus predicts that the other disciples will desert him in his time of need. 
Even in the Garden, where Jesus takes James, John and Peter with him (met au)tou=; 14:33), the beginning of the split in the relationship is made as the disciples fail to stay awake and pray with Jesus during his greatest time of need for intimacy. The intimacy between Jesus and his disciples, those chosen to be with him, will now be severely challenged, even damaged, by the suffering to come.
What may also be interesting is the fact that the mention of someone being with Jesus does not occur again after the scene in the Garden. Ironically the idea is present in the scene where the servant-girl in 14:67 questions Peter, “You also were with (meta\) Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” Peter emphatically denies this accusation. The intimacy of being a co-worker with Jesus, of sharing in the ministry to which God had called him, and sharing in the Passover Meal, now gives way for the complete desertion of these disciples and their estrangement from Jesus. 
The movement of Peter from court to forecourt now replaces the intimacy of the boat, the road, and particularly the table. Peter’s emphatic denial of ever knowing Jesus reverses his earlier declaration of Jesus as the Messiah and distances him not only from the one he was called to be with, but also from the God of Mark’s narrative. Jesus is left as the sole executor of God’s will.
Despite this failure of those called to be with Jesus, the empty tomb scene serves as the climax of the narrative and the relationship between Jesus and his followers. The women arrive at the tomb to view the corpse of their former teacher, but they are instead met by a young man dressed in a white robe, who proclaims that Jesus has been raised. He orders the women to go and tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus will meet them in Galilee (16:7). 
The divine power to raise Jesus from the dead reflects the divine reversal of the tragedy of not only the death of the Beloved Son, but also the broken relationship between Jesus and those who were called to be with him. The human failure is replaced by divine faithfulness to the Son and those called to be with him, as God’s triumph in raising Jesus to life makes possible the reuniting of Jesus and those called to participate with him. 
Moreover, the ending of the narrative with a promise from the heavenly messenger that Jesus will meet his followers in Galilee leaves the audience with the continued presence of Jesus with the discipleship community. Instead of narrating an ascension story, as Matthew and Luke do, Mark ends with the implication that Jesus is continuing in his ministry on earth with those called to participate with him.
Therefore, Mark’s narrative presentation of discipleship is two-fold. On the one hand, disciples are called to follow Jesus as the one who models doing the will of God. At the same time, however, disciples are called to participate with Jesus in doing God’s will. Mark’s Jesus is the paradigm of true faithfulness before God, and those called to participate with him are called primarily to faithfulness before God. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Broken Body of Jesus, Not the Powerful People of God

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at An e-version is also available at

Perhaps the most prominent metaphor to describe the church comes from the Apostle Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ, particularly his exegesis of the metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12.  Paul’s selection of this metaphor was not haphazard, for the image is so closely related to the center of Christian faith that the sign and that which it signifies cannot be easily distinguished.  Indeed, the image of the church as the body of Christ signifies that the church is indeed the incarnation of Jesus in the world.  The church is the mouth, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus to a world in need of prophetic voices, serving hands and feet, and hearts of compassion.  Yet, we have forgotten that Jesus’ body was broken for us, and as such, the body of Christ in the world today should also be broken.

Henri Nouwen wrote, "It is often difficult to believe that there is much to think, speak or write about other than brokenness".[1]  Brokenness, like many other terms that fit within its semantic domain, conjures up images of weakness and failure; images that for some reason we have taken to be far from what it means to be followers of Jesus.  Yet, for some odd reason, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us. We pray to avoid struggle and pain, and in some sections of the church, we are told that if we have enough faith we can avoid these things and we can even become rich.

But, as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? This is certainly not to say that we should be looking for suffering, as I think some often do. But we must be reminded that Jesus, the one we follow, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death.  His human existence is not a story of victory, but one of brokenness that has meaning for our own humanity. Brokenness means that we become and remain vulnerable in our human existence, both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ.  Despite the false teachings that Christians are blessed, or as we often like to say in an attempt to separate ourselves from others, “we are forgiven”, Christians have no pride of place in God’s creation, and thus, followers of Jesus must embrace brokenness as a faithful way of existing in the world both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ.

While Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who is all powerful, when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ life and tragic death. Moreover, by coupling the belief that God is all-powerful with the idea that we, as opposed to others, are the blessed and chosen people of God, we mock the cross of Jesus.  At no point in his life did Jesus ever suggest that we will be prosperous and secure if we only have faith in God.

Indeed, the church exists in the world as the suffering body of Christ that engages with the pains and struggles of those seeking hope, healing, redemption, and restoration.  Jesus took on human brokenness in order to be intimate with those who struggled and suffered in this life.  He did not separate himself from pain and brokenness, but he embraced it as a way of being intimate with those who suffer.  His compassion was not a feeling of sympathy for the plight of the hurting, while he remained distant from their hurting.  His compassion was the force that led him to be intimately bound to those who hurt. 

If the church is ever to return to Jesus’ vision for his followers, then those who claim to be Christian must choose to take up the cross of Jesus by choosing to be broken.  Being a Christian does not remove our connectedness to the rest of humanity.  Rather following Jesus leads us to be more intimately connected to humanity, especially to humans who are broken.  The body of Christ does not exist separate from the world, but lives in solidarity with the world as the broken body of Christ incarnate and suffering with the rest of humanity.

          Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York, Crossroad, 1992), 73.