Holy Saturday: Following Jesus

On this Holy Saturday, the last day of Lent, we continue to reflect on the death of Jesus and on what it means to follow him, as we wait for the dawn of resurrection. What does it mean to follow Jesus in this time of ascending evil, destruction, scapegoating, and death?  First, what it does not mean:  Following Jesus does not mean submitting to oppression or choosing to suffer.  Jesus raised up women, children, outcasts, and others who were despised and oppressed, and showed that they were worthy children of God.  Surely we are called to do the same.

Nor did Jesus seek suffering for himself—nothing in the gospel accounts point to that.  Rather, he was true to his mission as he had declared it: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  By his preaching, teaching, healing, community building, and actions that challenged the ruling Powers, he incurred their wrath.  As a result, they plotted against him and had him executed.  Jesus’ death was the result of the way he lived his life.

The story of Jesus and his “passion” was not something he had wanted for himself, nor was it the plan of an angry God.  Rather, in full integrity and freedom of choice, he refused to back down and betray himself, his mission, the people he loved, or his God.  Further, in the agony of Jesus, the suffering God endured the full impact of human sin and evil, and continues to suffer at our hands as God’s beloved children and creation itself are crucified today.

The question arises:  Why would we want to follow Jesus, who experienced such a horrendous death, or a God who undergoes suffering?  Why not instead focus on something positive, or find a faith that enables us to transcend the world’s suffering, or point to a God who looks on from a distance and sees only harmony?  Or, why not interpret the message of Christianity as being based on the God-ordained sacrifice of a beloved son who came to die to set things right?  Then all we have to do is say “yes” to this story, accept this (ahistorical) Jesus into our hearts, and worship him.  This at least allows us to accept the supposedly predetermined status quo.

But Jesus did not call on his friends to worship him, but to follow him:  to reject the cultural values of wealth and worldly power and to practice and promote the values of tolerance, justice, peace, and love.  This requires an “ethic of risk,” because it places us at odds with the dominant institutions of our day, just as it placed Jesus at odds with those of his day.  And we see clearly not only what human-constructed systems did to Jesus, but what they do to those “surplus populations” that threaten the order of global corporate-dominated capitalism today.

Still, even on Holy Saturday, as we remember the death of Jesus and so many unjust deaths throughout history until today, we anticipate and live into the reality of Easter.  The light of the Risen Christ is with us, making it possible to face the evil, pain, and darkness of our time and to celebrate compassion, beauty, and love.  His Living Spirit is with us, making it possible to set out on the path of following Jesus into the heart of the struggle for a better world.

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This is the final post in Sharon’s series, A Lenten Call to Resist.

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Good Friday: Contemplation and Resistance

Good Friday 2014 at Beale Air Force Base

Today is Good Friday, the darkest of days, when Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus and stand by him in his suffering.  It is also a dark season in the world, with the Trump Administration dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, threatening North Korea, bombing Syria and Yemen, targeting immigrants, abandoning climate legislation, dismantling the social safety net, eviscerating education, and unleashing corporations to wreak unregulated havoc on the earth.

I grieve.  I enter and face the darkness.  I resolve “to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as Paul did when he visited the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:2). This has been my ongoing spiritual practice during this season of Lent.

Contemplating the death of Jesus in prayer and holding space for that story throughout the day grounds me in the painful reality of Jesus’ time and of ours.  It helps me to face and bear what seems unbearable—that the evil powers of this world, the “rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:8), seem to have the upper hand, and are crucifying what is precious, destroying our hopes and dreams and everything that we hold dear.  But the ability to bear this apparent reality—that the dominant institutions and systems of our world are moving us toward global death—depends on my determination to resist.  Otherwise, how could I simply “accept” this cruel, unjust, and unspeakable state of affairs? That would be consent and complicity.  Instead, I choose to stand in solidarity with the crucified Jesus and all other victims of Empire, to follow him in nonviolent resistance to the Powers, and to risk the same fate.

For me, contemplation and resistance go together.  In contemplation, we assimilate actions that we have taken in the world and receive clarity and inspiration for further actions of mercy, justice, and nonviolent resistance to the Powers.  In our actions in the world, we express the love and insight that we have received in contemplation. Contemplation and resistance go together.

Reflecting on the cross, the death of Jesus, and all the other deaths throughout history can bring us face to face with our complicity and our rock-bottom poverty of spirit.  We may even experience what seems to be the absence of God, as Jesus did as he hung on the cross, crying out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” As we reflect on our own personal failings and our participation in unjust systems, we discover our moral bankruptcy, emptiness, and inability to control the outcome of events.  We recognize that our wisdom and strength are inadequate to the task of personal and social transformation, and so we surrender ourselves, our very being, to God, whose wisdom and power are hidden in mystery.  Our ego stops trying to justify and defend itself.  We die to ourselves.  We enter the darkness, the depths, the journey of emptiness and loss and letting go, the dark night of the soul, trusting beyond trust, where trust has been betrayed, hoping beyond hope, where all hope is gone.  Paradoxically, it is by entering this very darkness that light dawns and hope is reborn.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  The mystics call this the Via Negativa, the way of nothingness.  It is the Way of the Cross.

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This post is part of Sharon’s series, A Lenten Call to Resist.

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God’s Restorative Justice

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I started this Lenten Call to Resist series as a public way of rejecting the theological sadism of right-wing Christianity, which sees God as damning all humanity except those who believe in Jesus, the “perfect sacrifice,” sent by God to die in our place.  This is an ancient theology of retributive justice, based on Anselm’s medieval satisfaction theory of the atonement.  It points to a God who cannot (or even worse, will not) freely forgive human sin, who needs someone to die for divine honor to be restored and to be reconciled to humanity.

Since this is a foundational belief of the Christian Right, which helped elect Donald Trump to the presidency, it makes sense that its true believers support the scapegoating of Muslims, harsh policies toward immigrants, unconditional support for aggressive (and even deadly) police actions, unrestricted access to guns, punitive laws (such as the death penalty), and military policies based on domination, violence, and war.  Policies such as these are consistent with the view of a wrathful and punishing God, who can only accept those who, under fear of hell, are willing to jump through a series of theological hoops that, in my mind, are too small for a compassionate thinking person to get through.

On the other hand, the God I have come to know through Jesus is a God of restorative justice who reaches out in love to everyone, regardless of creed, social standing, or background and invites them into a reconciled relationship with God, self, others, and creation itself.    Like Jesus, God reaches out to us, offering forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love.  Jesus did not preach his healing, saving message for his early disciples only, but for all.  He did not simply reject the world’s values, demonstrate his vision of an inclusive community based on alternative values, challenge the governing authorities, and stand firm in the face of death for his early followers alone, but for those who would come after.  He lived faithfully and died “for us.”

Those of us who hear the Spirit’s call are invited into a process of truth and reconciliation. It involves facing and coming to terms with our history, our past, our immersion in whatever culture and milieu we find ourselves, and our current participation in social sin and institutional evil.  This reconciling process of “salvation” also involves accepting ourselves and the apparently limitless willingness of Divine Love to accept us as we are.

This is not exactly a get out of jail free card.  For Love to be effective in my life, I must do my part.  What is my part?  Here’s how twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich put it:

“You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.” By simply accepting that we are accepted as we are, we are set free from guilt, shame, and pre-patterned bondage of the past. This crucial choice sets us free to start anew, to enter a new way of living that includes openness to the ongoing transformation of our lives.

The way I have experienced this process goes far beyond anything that I could work out on my own.  Fortunately, God’s restorative justice is always at work.  Like the Prodigal in Jesus’ parable, I am always welcomed home.

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