Sunday, April 23, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (24)

More Ways the Beast Seduces us

Dr. Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, lays out four ways in which the Babylonian empire sought to bring the Jewish exiles in line with their pagan ways. These strategies show us how the world, in every era, can pressure Christians to conform.[1]
#1. Isolation
Akin writes:
“The first step in making Babylonians out of the four Hebrew teenagers was isolation from their homeland, family, and friends. The Babylonian strategy was to seize upon their vulnerability once they were separated from all that was familiar. Over time, they would be more likely to abandon their faith and become like the Babylonians.”
Being in exile doesn’t harm the Christian. Not being with God’s people does.
Isolation from other believers and immersion into a world of false assumptions make it difficult to maintain your Christian convictions.
#2. Indoctrination
Akin writes:
“The second step was to take these sharp and impressive young men and enroll them in an educational school for three years . . . They needed to be indoctrinated in the ways of the Babylonians—to become experts in the Babylonian language, philosophy, literature, science, history, and astrology. Religion would have been part of the curriculum too.”
This Re-education takes place all the time, through education, entertainment, societal expectations, etc.
Many Christians are unprepared to face the doctrines of a society that believes:
  1. faith in God is a personal, private thing with little to no bearing on the public sphere
  2. all religions are valid paths to discovering one’s own fulfillment
  3. the purpose of life is to enjoy yourself by finding what makes you happy, over against what family, church, or society tells you
  4. the human person can be reinvented and recreated in line with whatever identity a person chooses.
If we are to see how indoctrination plays a role in conforming us to the world, we must learn to see these and other doctrines on display in our society.
#3. Assimilation
“The third step was to totally immerse these followers of God into the world of Babylon . . . They would need to change their minds and their lifestyle, to eat and drink like the Babylonians. The strategy was to entice them with the delicacies and privileges of their new life.”
The only way to resist the lure of assimilating to the world is to rest in the love and approval of God. The voice we listen to the most—the Lord cheering on our faithfulness or the world cheering for our compromise—will have outsized influence in the path we choose.
#4. Confusion
“In the ancient world, changing one’s name was a big deal. It went to the core of a person’s identity. Giving the Hebrews new names in Babylon was a way of confusing them, reorienting their lives away from their past and toward the pagan gods of Babylonian culture. . . . Daniel and his three friends would have to fight to remember their identity and remain faithful.” 
In WWII, when the Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos and then concentration camps, they were given numbers instead of their names. The Jewish young men in Daniel’s time were given new names, in order to confuse and alter their sense of being and identity.
Amazingly, Daniel and his friends discovered that in being true to their God-given identity, they were able to bless the Babylonian nation. Daniel climbed the ranks of the king’s administration. Hs friends’ courage wowed the king.
Had God’s people abandoned their identity, they would have failed to bless their captors. By maintaining their distinctive vision, no matter the pressure, they brought blessing to the worl


Friday, April 21, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (23)

Stringfellow on the Powers

We have reached a point in our exposition where Jesus in his sermon has identified for us the fundamental source of our distress and opposition: supra-human spiritual forces (Satan, fallen angels, the two beasts). In Paul’s language he speaks of some of these forces as “principalities and powers” (Eph.6:12). William Stringfellow offers a perceptive account of the various strategies they use to repress humanity and sustain their own existence. It is especially remarkable that he wrote this over 40 years yet it reads as contemporary as today’s newspaper! His insights put some flesh on the struggle we face to resist the Trump phenomenon in our time and place.


The Powers main goal is to sustain themselves (survival). And yet, that brute fact is rarely discussed candidly and in the open. Still, the state functions as the preeminent principality and power.

1.  The Denial of Truth/lying

2.  Doublespeak and Overtalk/euphemism or jargon

3.  Secrecy and Boast of Expertise/hiding the truth

4.  Surveillance and Harassment/intimidating those who seek truth

5.  Exaggeration and Deception/absorbing the truth

6.  Cursing and Conjuring/banishing, smearing, locking up dissidents

7.  Usurpation and Absorption/co-opting the truth

8.  Diversion and Demoralization/diverting, distracting

These (assaults on truth) Stringfellow calls Babel. It overwhelms and dumbfounds the faculties of comprehension: conscience and sanity:

Babel means the inversion of language, verbal inflation, libel, rumor, euphemism and coded phrases, rhetorical wantonness, redundancy, hyperbole, such profusion in speech and sound that comprehension is impaired, nonsense, sophistry, jargon, noise, incoherence, a chaos of voices and tongues, falsehood, blasphemy.

The noise of technology he also includes under Babel.

Babel lays the foundation for violence. Stringfellow quotes Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

“Let us not forget that violence does not exist by itself and cannot do so; it is necessarily interwoven with lies. Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence. Any man who has once acclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose falsehood as his principle.” 

And given that the state sits at the top of the hierarchy of demonic powers, the state is generally named as "the Antichrist" in the biblical witness. Consequently, in her battle against the Antichrist the church exists in a state of resistance in relation to the state:

Those human beings and communities of humans who persevere in fidelity to God and to the gift of their humanity, those who resist death and thus live in Jesus Christ--whether that be a public formality or not--do so under the condemnation of the State in one way or another, be it in ridicule and ostracism, in poverty or imprisonment, as sojourners or fugitives, in clandestine existence, as a confessing movement, or, otherwise, in resistance.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (22)

the second beast (13:11-18)
The Beast from the Earth (13:11-18)
A second beast, one from the earth, joins the beast from the sea. It has two horns “like a lamb.” (3:11). Remembering that a lamb is the central figure in God's plan to bring his purposes to fruition, the Dragon counters with a lamb-like beast. As the slaughtered lamb bears witness to the One on the throne, this lamb-like beast bears “witness” to the sea beast. The one who, like some Roman emperors, claimed to be “Lord and God.”[1] That this beastly “witness” has two lamblike horns reminds us of the two witnesses for God in ch.11. If the first beast is political power, this new beast is power of religion which so often serves to buttress the power and policies of the state. That's why it speaks “like a dragon.” By supporting the first beast, this second beast , like the first, ultimately serves the defeated but not yet destroyed Dragon in its futile efforts to undo God's plans.
Working with the first beast's power and authority, the second beast works to promote the “worship” of the former.  Worship – loyalty, love, livelihood, all placed in service of the beast. That's the Dragon's endgame. And God's. This is the “worship war” that matters!
Both beasts serve as grotesque parodies of the lamb. The two heads of earth beast we noted above. The reference to the sea beast “whose mortal wound had been healed” (13:12) suggests a faux “resurrection” to mimic that of Jesus. It's not a resurrection (which is going through death to new life) but a return to this old life.
But with the help of the earth beast, particularly an Elijah-like miracle that proved the sea beast's godlikeness (13:13; see 1 Ki. 18), this religious propagandist creates a religious vibe (v.15) for the worship of the sea beast. This worship is genuine even though its object false. And like all genuine worship, it “marks” the character and will of the worshiper with that of the sea beast so thoroughly that  “that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark “ on his right or forehead (13:17). That is, the beast has the people's head and hands, the whole of them, conformed to his ghastly image.
In such a situation, it calls for wisdom (always considered a divine gift) to make the discernments Jesus calls for here (13:18). Such a gift is always available to those who “keep the commandments of God  and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). With this wisdom we can identify the “number of the beast”: 666.
Far too much time, ink, and ingenuity has been spent on trying to identify this 666. And I'm not interested in rehearsing that story here. I believe the answer is simpler and far less exotic than many/most of the others proposed. Grimsrud says it well:

“The actual number “666” seems essentially irrelevant, despite all the energy put                                 into deciphering it in Christian history (and, especially, today). In a broad sense, it                                    surely mainly                 signifies the Beast and his deceptions. Perhaps one way to calculate                              the number is to say that it is six cubed, not seven—seven being the number of whole-                 ness and power. The Beast claims to be the peacemaker and to have mighty power,                      but actually falls short of God’s peace and God’s power, just as six falls short of seven.”[2]

This closeness of the number of the beast (even though it utterly foreign to 777, God's peace and power) is perhaps one way to account for the power of this beastly way to delude the nations and entice them to collude with its will for it. It is impressive, apparently even miraculous, able to penetrate human hearts and enjoin a steadfast loyalty on them.

A Beastly Church

                The church John warns his churches (and ours) against becoming by acceding or assimilating to the “beastly” character of the Empire is well-known to North Americans. We’ve seen a lot of it and much of it remains today. Orlando Costas gives a fine sketch of this kind of church as we have known it here. It has:

-"a conscience-soothing Jesus” (makes it easy to go along to get along),

-an unscandalous cross (Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures what the cross of Jesus actually entails: “Over against the successful, God sanctifies pain, lowliness, failure, poverty, loneliness, and despair in the cross of Christ. Not that all this has value in itself; it is made holy by the love of God, who takes it all and bears it as judgment”.[3] DBW Vol 6 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works) (p. 90).

-an otherworldly kingdom (focused on “heaven” and life after death there),

-a private, inwardly limited spirit (me and Jesus in my heart; no need for church [see below])

-a pocket God (one whose interested in saving us from this world for heaven rather transforming this world into an eternal home for him and his human creatures)

-a spiritualized Bible (one that focuses on our inner lives rather than faithfulness in public life), and

-an escapist church (one looking for Jesus to take it out of the world rather than engaging it).

The goal of such a beastly church is a happy, comfortable, and successful life, through “the forgiveness of an abstract sinfulness by faith in an unhistorical Christ." (Costas)

Such a church will never give the Empire trouble and will support it for both convenience and conscience sake. Loyalty to the Empire goes hand in hand with loyalty to “Christ.”

[1] Domitian, for instance. See Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance, 131.
[2] Grimsrud, Johnson, Disci0leship on the Edge, 250 and Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance, 67 also incline toward this solution.
[3]DBW Vol 6 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works) (p. 90).

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Resisting Trump with Revelation (21)

The Dragon and Two Beasts: The First Two Portents  2  (chs.12-13)

The Sea Beast (13:1-10)

Jesus continues his exposure of the deep dynamics at work in creation as the Dragon plants himself on the shore to continue his nefarious activities.[1] He summons a minion from the sea, a beast with “ten horns and seven heads” diadems on each horns and blasphemous names on the heads (13:1). He comes from the “sea” a haunt of demons and evil in Jewish thought. When Jesus describes the new heaven and new earth in Rev.21 he explicitly mentions that there was no sea (21:1). Evil has no foothold in the new creation!

But here and now it does. The ten and seven horns and heads bedecked with crowns reflects earlier use of this imagery: ten horns – full and complete power; seven heads filled with blasphemy. It was leopard-like, with bear-like feet, and a lion’s mouth (13:2). These animal elements were a part of Daniel’s vision of successive empires (7:3-7). Jesus’ creates this montage of oppressive powers to show that this figure indeed bore the power and authority of the Dragon (13:3). This first beast, then, is oppressive political rule.

Even more impressive than that, though, is Jesus’ invocation of the Nero Redivivus myth. Keener explains:

“Although Nero died, reportedly by his own hand, on June 9, a.d. 68, rumor circulated that he was still alive and ready to take vengeance on the Roman aristocracy for rejecting him. According to writers of the day, the majority of people in the eastern part of the Empire expected his return. Several impostors arose claiming to be Nero, hoping to gather followings in the eastern Empire, where he was most popular; one of them arose in Asia Minor during the reign of Titus (Domitian’s older brother). During Domitian’s reign, a Nero figure even persuaded the Parthians to follow him to invade the Roman Empire, but Domitian forced them to back down and execute the impostor instead.

“Jewish oracles predicted the return of Nero, and Christians feared it. Although John clearly does not believe in a literal return of Nero, he may use the image of this popular myth, as many scholars think, to say: "You thought Nero was bad; wait till you see this!" (the way we today would use the image of Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot). This image so shaped the views of early Christians-thousands of whose numbers had been eradicated under Nero in Rome-that “Nero” even became a term for “antichrist” in the Armenian language. Many later Christian writers, including Tertullian, Augustine and Jerome, connected Nero with the antichrist. The view that John here uses this Nero redivivus myth has continued through history and is widely held by modern scholars, such as F. F. Bruce, William Barclay and most commentators on Revelation.”[2]

As a Nero-Redivivus figure, this beast excites fearful admiration, loyalty, and most tellingly, worship (13:4,8). And that, worship of the beast, is finally what Revelation is all about.

This beast exercises authority over the earth for 42 months (the time between Christ’s resurrection and return, as we have seen).  It blasphemes against God and wars Successfully against his people (13:6-7) and exercises authority over the whole world.

A saying consonant with Jesus’ own earthly teaching (Mt.26:52) counsels endurance and faith even if that means accepting the beast’s apparent hegemony without violently resisting it (13:9-10). Resist they shall, but not armed with weapons. Their very endurance and faith are the forms of resistance required.

[1] This is perhaps a weaker parody of the mighty angel with the little scroll who sands astride sea and land in 10:2.  
[2] Keener, IVP Background Commentary: New Testament, on Rev.13.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Holy Saturday 2017

Entry into the City  John August Swanson
Holy Saturday is the end. Jesus is dead. His disciples are scattered and disheartened. Where was God? If he couldn’t/wouldn’t be there for this man, what hope I there for the rest of us?
This really is the end. All that’s left now is the Emmaus Road of discouragement and despair. What else is left when God doesn’t even show up for his own Son?
Why did Jesus have to go through this? I mean, he did everything right. This is not a God who can be trusted! One who’d leave his beloved hanging on a cross, dying, aid to rest in a borrowed tomb without a sign of protest or resistance. Yet that’s where we are this Holy Saturday.
I did read something recently which give a different take on this. But it’s far-fetched and implausible. I’m probably just grasping at straws here. But I’ll share it with you anyway. It’s from a series of letters from a senior Tempter in Hell to a junior devil he’s mentoring in the art of spiritual seduction. Screwtape and Wormwood are their names. In the eighth letter to Wormwood Screwtape waxes eloquent about the “troughs” human beings go through and the respective strategies of both the Devil and God. If Screwtape can be trusted, and that’s not a sure thing, right? He’s is a demon, after all. Yet . . . who would know better what God’s up to than a being whose job it is to confound just that divine activity?
Well, here it for what it’s worth.
“But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively
like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.
          «And that is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. For His ignoble idea is to eat the cake and have it; the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve. He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long.
«Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. We can drag our patients along by continual tempting, because we design them only for the table, and the more their will is interfered with the better. He cannot "tempt" to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been   forsaken, and still obeys.”
Could it be that Jesus’ “abandonment” by God was not a cry of despair but a cry of a mature            
faith? Another way of saying what he prayed in Gethsemane about not his but God's will be done? 
When we reach those lowest, driest moments is it possible we might find him there rather than 
to give up and give in to despair?

Screwtape does give us a reason for why God doesn't just swoop in and save Jesus at the last 
minute. But is it believable? Plausible? Jesus did say some funny thing would happen after his death.
But none of us paid much heed to all that. No, the truth is Jesus is dead and gone! What we'll do 
now is anyone's guess. It's going to be a long day, I think.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Worth a Thought or Heresy?

What if the reading of the creation stories in Gen.1-2 offered by Greg Beale that the Garden of Eden, Eden itself, and the uninhabited lands outside Eden symbolize the temple (Garden=Holy of Holies, Eden=Holy Place, uninhabited lands=temple courtyard) and God’s aim is for his image-bearers to extend the boundaries of that Garden Holy of Holies to finally encompass the whole earth making it a place where God can dwell with his people forever is on target. That makes Gen.1:28 the original “Great Commission.”

If God’s aim is as just stated then his mandate to turn this planet into a Holy of Holies is what human rebellion disrupted and what God’s call to Abraham and Sarah restarted by dealing with sin in order to fulfill God’s creational design.

This means that God’s Tempe-building project is his primary concern and focus. That’s what he’s working on and what calls his followers to work on. This is the “it” the whole God-thing is about (or what we call “salvation”).

And this salvation takes place in the midst of history, in our lives, here and now. Scripture tells us God has determined that his plan will succeed. We don’t have to worry about being included in it. The only real question is whether we will participate in the “salvation” God offers and Christ won for us on the cross. And that’s to play our part as God’s renewed image-bearers and temple builders. God still wants this world to be his eternal temple dwelling with us. And for us to share in its construction now (see 1 Cor.3:10-17). Call it discipleship, Christian life, sanctification, whatever, it’s about temple-building. And its about now.

Of course, we won’t finish the job or do it all right, or maybe even well. But God will see to it that our work is cleaned up and filled out by his grace and used in constructing the New Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies coextensive with the new creation in Rev.21. Perhaps, if we had this understanding of salvation we might have a greater sense of urgency and importance about our lives with God now, less interest in what divides us or is worth fighting over, and an easier time keeping our eye on the ball.

Worth a thought? Heretical?

Good Friday of Holy Week 2017

Entry into the City
John August Swanson

The gathering clouds, the many soldiers, the kinetic energy of the painting, create a sense of foreboding, that something is about to happen to Jesus. Likely not good. The following reflection seems apropos for this Good Friday.
A God Torn to Pieces: Good Friday, Nietzsche, and Sacrifice
By Adam Ericksen 4-16-2014

Friedrich Nietzsche is a favorite whipping boy among Christians. It’s difficult to blame my fellow Christians for this. After all, Nietzsche is known for many provocative anti-Christian statements, but his most provocative statement might be that “God is dead.”

And yet, in his latest book A God Torn to Pieces: The Nietzsche Case, philosopher Guiseppe Fornari makes a claim that is just as provocative: “In the end [Nietzsche] was much closer to Christ than many who would claim to be Christians.”

Wait …Nietzsche was closer to Christ than many Christians? How could that be?

Nietzsche understood the implications of what Christ did on Good Friday better than many who claim to be Christians. Nietzsche was closer to Christ than many Christians because he knew the Christ that he rejected, whereas many Christians don’t know the Christ whom they call Lord and Savior.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thursday of Holy Mysteries

The Entry into the Holy City
John August Swanson

For this Maundy Thursday I offer the following fine reflection from Frederick Schmidt. Swanson's painting has about it an air of mystery which ties in nicely with Schmidt's thoughts.

The Thursday of Holy Mysteries
April 13, 2017 by Frederick Schmidt 1 Comment
Some weeks ago I began yet another painting project at home, the third room so far. I have a piece of advice to share with you: Never say “never.” I’ve said, “Never,” to painting two or three times, to no effect.
Anyway, I find painting exceedingly boring, so I usually troll through old movies that are dialogue heavy. They are distracting and I can follow them, without actually watching the TV screen.
One of my more recent weekend choices was “Paper Chase.” It’s the story of a new law student named Hart and his struggle to clear the hurdles associated with what is called 1L and, in particular, his struggles with the imperious Professor Kingsfield, his contracts professor.
The movie is filled with tidbits that reflect Kingsfield’s approach to the classroom, which – although described as Socratic – could also be described as “assault with the intent to teach.” Kingsfield tells the new class of incoming students: “You come in here with skulls filled with mush and, if you survive, you will go out thinking like lawyers.” He tells another student, “Here’s twenty-five cents. Go call your mother and tell her that you’re not going to be a lawyer.”
Basically, the message is that life as a “1L” is life on a knife’s edge or on a precipice. It’s dint of effort. Gut it out. A “see if you can make it, kid” kind of world.

Red more at

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Wednesday of Holy Week

Entry into the City, John August Swanson, 1990.

Wednesday of Holy Week 2017
            The central figure of Swanson’s painting is, of course Jesus riding into town on a donkey.  But . . .
“Have you heard the legend of the Christian donkeys? This is the story that has been told about the little donkey who was Jesus’ mount on Palm Sunday.
“It is said that a donkey carried Mary to Bethlehem and is also referred to as a Nativity Donkey.   The Nubian burro has a cross on its back because it is believed that these donkeys carried Jesus to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
“To ride on a donkey signified coming in peace, this symbolic event served to reinforce what Jesus had told the people of Israel: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he [is] just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon a donkey, and upon a colt the foal of a donkey.” (Zechariah 9:9 KJV)
“Many Christians believe that the donkey had known what Jesus was about to go through with his trial and suffering. They say that seeing the tragic event of Jesus’ crucifixion, the donkey wished he had been able to carry the cross for Jesus, as he was the one who should carry such burdens. The donkey turned his back on the sight but he could not leave Jesus whom he had carried.  He wished to stay until all was over because of his love and loyalty.
“In reward for the loyal and humble love of the donkey, the Lord caused the shadow of the cross to fall across his back and the donkey has carried the cross ever since as a sign that the love of God carries a reward for all to see.” (
          Though not nearly so loving and loyal to Jesus as this donkey, King Jesus graciously commands each of us to “take up our cross” and follow him. His cross marks not our bodies (tattoos don’t count) but our way of life, our attitudes, assumptions, actions, relationships, our public life in the world . . . everything!

          And that’s what it comes down to this Wednesday before the Great Triduum celebrating the Last Supper, Gethsemane, betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and finally, Jesus’ resurrection. Will we go with Jesus to the cross? Will we bear his cross in our lives as witness to his unexpected and certainly undeserved love? Will we? 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Slouching Toward Easter

          Why is there so little passion/enthusiasm in the church today? This was a question asked on FB today. I responded, “Our God is too distant, our Christ is too small, and the Holy Spirit is elsewhere. Our churches do not know who or what they are or what they are to do in the world. Otherwise everything is just peachy.” I was not being flip. That is what I really believe.

          Shortly after another post came up on my feed from Mike Frost about the greatest Easter painting ever. He proposes The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection or simply The Disciples (1898). Its artist is little known Swiss, Eugѐne Burnand and the painting is hung in an old railway station in Paris on the left bank of the Seine.

                 John and Peter are rushing to the tomb having just heard Mary Magdalene’s incredible testimony. The white-robed John has his hands clasped in front of him in an almost prayerlike grip. He is full of the energy of anticipation: “Could Jesus really be alive?”

          Peter, more wide-eyed than John, has, if possible, even more at stake. John at least was with Jesus at the cross, bearing with him in his dying. Peter, though, had betrayed Jesus, quailing away from him with a coward’s fear. His hand over his heart is suggestive. Is he looking for the courage to believe the Magdalene’s testimony? Does he think his shame will be too much for him to face Jesus if he is indeed alive? Or will his heart be broken if he is not? Burnand has finely captured all this emotional energy on canvas.

          It strikes me that Burnand’s painting is certainly not of a church (in the persons of John and Peter) slouching toward Easter! Every bit as frail and fallible as the church today, with regrets and guilt that may well dwarf ours, full of doubt and despair as are we, yet they are leaning into Easter with a passion/enthusiasm we do not have. Tensed, expectant, perplexed, even hopeful that their relationship with Jesus will be somehow renewed beyond death.

          As I said above, we are slouching toward Easter. Trying to gin up enough energy to convince ourselves and others that it is really worthwhile to go to all the trouble to make Easter the “do” we’ve come to expect. We gather along with the twice-a-year attenders, praise each other’s new Easter garb, and greet them with “Christ is risen!” But we are not expectant, torn, grieved, or hopeful about renewing our relationship with the risen Christ. We could not easily be painted as the disciples in Burnand’s work on Easter morn.

          Why? As many reasons as there are people, I imagine. But I don’t think we expect to or do meet him. If we did, I suspect our lives would look more like Peter’s and John’s than they do. We even have the advantage of knowing what they did not know that first Easter morning – Christ is alive! That should quicken our step a bit to get to worship on Easter.

          Part of the reason is my comment to the post I cited above. Our God is too distant, our Christ is too small, the Holy Spirit is elsewhere. And the church has no deep sense of its identity and vocation in the world. Not much reason to hurry in excitement to church on Easter morning in that, is there? So we’re left slouching to Easter for yet another year.
It has the imposing title, The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection.
More often than not it’s just referred to by the shortened form, The Disciples or Les Disciples.
You won’t find it in the Louvre or the Met or the National Gallery. It hangs tucked away in an old railway station in Paris, now the Musée d’Orsay, on the left bank of the Seine.
It was painted in 1898 by a relatively little known Swiss artist named Eugène Burnand. He was something of an old-fashioned realist at a time when all the cool kids were embracing modernism. The Disciples didn’t make a splash when it was first hung. Burnand’s style was already considered passé by the 1890s.
But those who take the time to find it in the d’Orsay come away saying that viewing the canvas is akin to a spiritual experience. Some say it is the greatest Easter painting ever made.

Scroll up and look again at the picture.
As the first blush of dawn is tinting the clouds, Peter and John are rushing to the tomb of Christ. They’ve just been told by Mary Magdalene that she and the other women found it empty, that Christ has risen. Her words are ringing in their ears. But their faces and their bodies reveal they aren’t sure they can believe her.
John, the younger of the two, wrings his hands together anxiously. He was with Jesus when he died on the cross, the only disciple to stay by his side to the end. He looks as if he can barely bring himself to believe that Christ might be alive again . . .

Tuesday of Holy Week 2017

Entry into the City, John August Swanson, 1990.

Tuesday of Holy Week 2017

“People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’”

          Swanson’s painting captures this truth with the gaggle of children he has positioned nearest to Jesus. Boys and girls waving their palms are conspicuous by the position the artist gives them. It is they, perhaps, among all the people gathered to this moment, who give Jesus the truest and purest welcome to Jerusalem. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

          Why? Because they matter to him. In a world where children didn’t matter all that much to most adults and whose wishes and desires were often ignored and brushed aside, even by Jesus’ own followers, these social nobodies found an hospitable welcome with him. Imperial politics and the threat of Jewish revolt butted heads at festival time. Important, adult things consumed everyone’s attention. Jesus had his own unfathomable struggle with God and Satan in the offing. Yet, in the midst of it all, he had time and regard for those who had nothing to offer him or enhance his interests. The children. The children. Yes, the children.

          Somehow these no-accounts sensed they counted with Jesus. And they came to him. And he welcomed them. In all their no-accountedness. And this how they enter the kingdom of God.

          Nothing has changed since then either. It’s in our no-accountedness that we meet Jesus and enter the kingdom. Like children.

          Well, some things have changed, actually. It’s not with us. We still tend to operate on our accountedness and ignore those who have little or none. Same old same old. And Jesus still welcomes into his kingdom those who comes to him in their need for welcome and hospitality.

          What has changed is Jesus’ followers no longer seem to care or have time to welcome and provide hospitality for the no-accounts of our world. All sorts of thing clamor for the attention and energy of those who account themselves of some standing. Adult things. Politics, economics, family, and so on. All those things that make us count. The more we count, though, the less regard we have for those that don’t it seems.

          The children no longer come to us. The poor expect no welcome and succor at our doors. Sexual minorities fear to see us coming. Non-white people know they are not welcome in our sanctuaries. The Jesus we portray shoos the children away because he has bigger fish to fry.

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Monday of Holy Week 2017

Entry into the City, John August Swanson, 1990.

Monday of Holy Week 2017

John August Swanson’s wonderful painting “Entry into the City” captures in its large scope, multitude of images and characters, and in particular the setting sun amidst the dark and roiling clouds, much of the pathos of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the last week of his life on earth, the week we call Holy Week. Swanson’s painting will form the focus of this year’s Holy Week reflections.

In their book The Last Week (2006), Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan think it is probable that there were two processions into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday – one of the regnant Roman power and the other of Jesus enacting his upside-down kingdom.  Whether or not this happened on the same day so as to provide such a poignant point-counterpoint event may not be as probable as Borg and Crossan suppose. But both processions did occur and it is fitting to place them in implacable opposition as our two writers do. On with the story as they tell it.

Pontius Pilate the Roman governor assigned to Judea and Jerusalem would have come with his soldiers to Jerusalem for Passover.  An impressive and ostentatious would have entered Jerusalem from the west.  Cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold and the like glittering in the sun.

Down from the Mount of Olives in the north came another procession. No pomp or circumstance, dressed like the people who accompanied him, riding on a donkey trailed by his own followers and a band of peasants and commoners, some of whom he had healed and perhaps even one he raised from the dead, Jesus of Nazareth entered the city too.

Here was the truly triumphant procession and the true rejoicing of the season for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. This was indeed a radical procession. It thumbed its nose at the Roman Empire and all it stood for.

Then into the temple Jesus goes performing a piece of street theater overturning the tables in the temple and throwing out the moneylenders announcing in uncompromising fashion to the religious leaders that their alignment with the power of Rom was totally unacceptable to God. 
He ends the week with a Passover meal, making himself known to his closest followers one more time that his was not the imperial reign they probably hoped for. Not all. Rather by washing their feet as a slave Jesus enacted this last loving act of an upside-down king.

The stage is set. Jesus’ belief in and embodiment of the liberating, inclusive, non-violent, peace-seeking kingdom of God against the oppressive, greedy, elite-loving, peasant-starving kingdom of Rome. The sun and the clouds in Swanson’s painting. An alternative kingdom against the one presently in power. High drama fraught with religious and political meaning.

These two kingdoms were destined to collide. It was unavoidable now. They did. And we know how it turned out. The clouds overtake the setting sun and blot it for an awful time on the Friday of that week as Jesus died, murdered as a traitor on a cross with a sign acclaiming him “King of the Jews” mocking his last desperate breaths.

A question confronts all of us as we walk with Jesus from Palm Sunday to Good Friday: whose side are we on? Are we part of that motley crew of following Jesus fully aware that we are on a collision course with the values of our secular culture?  Do we only want to follow Jesus when we think he promises wealth, power and happiness? Will we turn against him when he turns out not to be who we thought he was?