We began our journey through Lent with a simple Ash Wednesday service five weeks ago. Our journey is almost complete, as we draw nearer to Easter every day. But before we can truly encounter the empty tomb, we must remember the actions of Good Friday, for how we feel about that day shapes our views of our world, our God and even ourselves.
Good Friday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion and death, is often overlooked in Protestant liturgy. We are apt to skip from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, with a nervous backward glance at the days in between. Yet a whole theology has grown out of the crucifixion that we struggle with today. This tradition, known as the Theory of Substitutionary Atonement, seeks to make sense of Jesus’ death by interpreting it through the lens of an eleventh century theologian named Anselm of Canterbury. He taught that God required – demanded – a blood ransom from Jesus before human beings could be forgiven and reconciled with God. It was a payment, as it were, for sins committed by us, and Jesus had to pay it. He “substituted” himself for us so that God would take us back.
Although this is one way of viewing the death of Jesus, it is certainly not the only way, and I believe it has been an unfortunate and damaging teaching in the life of the Christian church. It rests on the premise that God’s love must be purchased. It images God as a legalistic, vengeful figure who must be appeased. Many people have grown up with that picture of God, and have spent their lives fearing God or feeling guilty.
The problem is, that is not the image of God that Jesus gives us. It was a prevalent image in his day, and one that even Paul falls into here and there, but Jesus himself consistently speaks of God as the one who seeks us out and accepts us back, no matter what. The picture Jesus paints is not of a vengeful Judge who needs to be convinced to forgive, one who counts our sins and then requires retribution. His picture of God is a loving Parent who wants desperately to remind us that we are loved and forgiven, and that we can always return home.
According to Fr. Richard Rohr, there is another way to look at the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection:
Jesus did not come
to change the mind of God about humanity
(it did not need changing)!
to change the mind of humanity about God.
God in Jesus moved people beyond the counting, weighing, and punishing model … to the utterly new world that Jesus offered, where God’s abundance has made any economy of merit, sacrifice, reparation, or atonement both unhelpful and unnecessary. Jesus undid “once and for all” (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10) all notions of human and animal sacrifice and replaced them with his new economy of grace, which is the very heart of the gospel revolution.
(Eager to Love: An Alternative Way to St. Francis)
By taking on the fullness of human life, Jesus was also faced with the reality of human death. And he showed us through his death that though he, and we, cannot escape pain and suffering, God is with us– not because we have earned it or because Jesus has purchased it for us but because God’s love is constant and free. That is Grace. That is ours.
Thanks be to God.
Sometimes it feels like there are so many needs and so many opportunities that I can hardly stand it. How about you? I have the passion in my heart but not the strength in my body – or even the wisdom in my soul, I suppose, to respond the way I’d like. And then I read words like this, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in which he claims to be able shape shift, as needed, to get the job done: “… I have become all things to all people . . . “ And I feel discouraged. Is that really what God wants of me – to do and be it all?
Elissa Johnk wrote the following reflection for our UCC Daily Devotional recently. She apparently had some of the same concerns! I’d like to share her thoughts with you. Enjoy!
All things to all people? Really?
Here’s the thing, Paul: you had a wonderful, tradition-inspiring gift for words.
You were, let’s be honest, the creator of the sound-bite. But sometimes those 30-second snippets are misleading.
I am positive you were not a full-time tent-maker and traveling evangelist, while also being a loyal and devoted family-man, who took care of his relatives, made dinners, cleaned the house, and still had the energy to take his partner out on a romantic date now and then.
You know why I’m certain? Because it’s not possible.
I know plenty of people who try to do all those things (except, maybe, the tent-making) because they think it is their good, Christian duty. “I must,” they repeat, “be all things to all people.” They end up in my office – frazzled, anxious, depressed, and suffering from one broken relationship after another.
I know this isn’t what you meant. You know that being everything to everyone usually means nothing to anyone. I’m pretty sure you meant you were able to do one thing, with one person (or group) at a time. And that one thing? It was love.
Jewish, Gentile, weak, powerful – whoever, whatever, however – you loved them. You joined people where and as they were, so they might know the love of God who joins them where they are.
So can we publish a clarification – an editor’s note, of sorts?
You, Paul, called to be an apostle of God by Christ Jesus, were not all things to all people. You were one thing – love – to one person at a time.
Yet, through the miracle of the gospel, that’s more than enough to reach us all.
Elissa (on behalf of the tired everywhere)
All-knowing, all-capable God, remind me I am not You – and you don’t want me to be. When I’m tempted to do it all, remind me it is (hard) enough to do the one thing you do ask of all people – to love the person in front of me right now. And then help me.
“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky—up—up—up—into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”
~ L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables
Have you ever felt a prayer? You’ve probably said a prayer or heard a prayer or read a prayer – but have you ever felt one?
Here is what I know about feeling prayers, from my own experience and from the experiences people have shared with me:
Words are not important. That is, one may start with a statement or a word, but a felt prayer is like a bird set free – it soars. The first time I remember being aware of this was many years ago when I was extremely worried about someone I love. I was almost sick with worry. I tried to pray and every word or phrase seemed inadequate. As I sat, struggling to communicate my deepest concern, I felt the words recede and a feeling of light and love envelope me. Somehow I felt both the Presence of God and the presence of my loved one in that light, and I caught a glimpse of the healing already taking place. There were no answers or solutions, just the knowledge that in some profound way, God was already involved and my prayer was my way of joining in the healing.
Felt prayers are not about feeling happy. Sometimes a felt prayer is merely a heightened awareness of the solidity of the ground beneath our feet, a sense of ultimate stability in a chaotic time. Paul Tillich, the great theologian, spoke of God as the Ground of all Being. A felt prayer can be the steadiness that comes from connecting with that Ground: what I thought I could not do, I now know I can.
Feeling a prayer requires letting go of expectations and demands. It requires leaning into the Divine Energy and having faith that, as Julien of Norwich said, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” We drop the lists, look up into the sky or out into the ocean or into the dark of the night, and feel the transcendent power of Love that goes far beyond our lives, and yet somehow cares for us. At least for the moment, we open our hearts to that Love; that is prayer.
Last week I was privileged to spend some time with a group of inmates who are working through the 12 Steps. They were on the 11th Step:
Seeking through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand Him, praying only for the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. They had many questions about prayer: Is there a right or wrong way to do it? Does one always have to kneel? Is there a formula or ritual that must be followed for it to be a real prayer? Does prayer always “work”? What happens when you pray over and over for something and don’t see it happening? Why would people ever pray in a group?
Their questions were deep and intelligent and the experiences they shared were profound. What it came down to, at the end, was our willingness to go beyond our own models and traditions to find a way to be real with God: to be willing to speak and to hear, to think and to feel. Every experience, we decided, that we intentionally offer to God or invite God to be part of, is a prayer. Every act of love or compassion or healing, done with the awareness of God, is a prayer. And yes, we decided, sometimes you don’t say a prayer, you just feel it.
This Sunday is Community Sunday. We will meet for worship at 5, dinner at 6, and share in the felt prayer that is part of being in a loving, giving, serving community. I hope you will be with us. And if you cannot, I invite you link your prayers with ours from wherever you are: and know that we will feel your presence.
Thanks be to God!
One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. (Luke 6:12)
“Our tendency in the midst of suffering is to turn on God. To get angry and bitter and shake our fist at the sky and say, “God, you don’t know what it’s like! You don’t understand! You have no idea what I’m going through. You don’t have a clue how much this hurts.
The cross is God’s way of taking away all of our accusations, excuses, and arguments.
The cross is God taking on flesh and blood and saying, “Me too.”
~ Rob Bell
Last Saturday several of us met to discuss and learn more about the meaning of the cross in Christianity. One of the materials we used is a small journal with related quotes and scripture, one per page, with room to write and reflect.
The above quote was taken from that collection. It speaks to the heart of Jesus’ sacrifice. It is the call to remember that no matter what happens to us, there is no pain too great for our God to bear with us. There is no fear big enough to separate us from the love of God in Christ. We look to Jesus, and see his courage. We watch him struggle, and see his faith. And because he could do what he had to, we know we can, too. The cross is the statement that God is not far away, up there, removed from us: God was – and is– willing to enter into the full experience of our lives.
Perhaps you have had times when you have felt abandoned by God. Or when you felt that God was punishing you unjustly. Perhaps you have wondered what the point of faith is if the bad things still happen. It is only human to feel that way sometimes.
But Bell reminds us that Jesus on the cross wasn’t a promise that nothing bad will ever happen to us – it was the promise that no bad thing will ever be the final answer.
It was the promise that we will have the help we need when our courage fails us, or our own bodies give up, or people turn against us. We have only to remember Jesus on the cross to see God’s willingness to enter into the darkest moments and know that we are not alone. God knows and understands and is working, even in the darkness, to enfold us in Love’s redemptive light.
Thanks be to God.
When I was a little girl, I was very interested in the difference between the crosses that hung in my best friend’s church and my own. Why, I wondered, did her cross have on it a man – Jesus—looking down on us during worship, while my cross was empty? Our parents and our Sunday school teachers explained to us the difference, (one focusing on the crucifixion and one the resurrection) and my friend and I spent many conversations discussing which cross was the “best.” As I grew, however, I began to realize the full beauty of each. The emphasis on Jesus’ death on the cross reminds us that we all suffer and die, and that Jesus can show us how to do so with courage and grace. The emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection helps us to remember that God has promised us much more than the lives we live today. Two different crosses, both telling a truth.
Later on I learned that the shape of the cross is an almost perfect representation of what God asks of us: the horizontal line speaks to the call to love those all around us, while the vertical line calls us into relationship with God. We need them both– loving the world, and loving our God. Immanence and Transcendence.
For many Christians, the cross is an old friend. It is a symbol of our faith and a reminder of our history. Yet the cross evokes a myriad of feelings in people. For some, it is too stark an image, one that focuses too closely on death or punishment. Others feel that it can be used to exclude people of other traditions, and so they choose not to wear or display it. Still, throughout the history of Christianity, the presence of the cross has been undeniable in shaping our theologies and spiritual lives.
What does the cross mean to you? Do you have a special cross or a special memory that you turn to when you need grounding in your faith? I hope you will join us for a morning of reflection this coming Saturday (more info on next page), as we encounter the cross in new ways, through art and prayer. Rev. Susan Kemper, retired United Methodist pastor and Spiritual Director, will be leading us. We will touch on this very rich topic together, as we open our hearts once more to the beauty and the meaning of the cross.
Redwood City, CA
(Shared driveway with Smart & Final ~
We are at the end of the second parking lot)
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