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Copyright 2017 John Zehring
And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
It is perhaps because of this verse about Jesus being clothed in a purple cloak that purple or violet is the liturgical color for the six weeks of Lent.
The English word lent stems from an Anglo-Saxon word for spring. It is related to the English word lengthen and refers to the penitential period preceding Easter. Early Christians felt that the magnitude of the Easter celebration called for special preparation. As early as the second century, many Christians observed several days of fasting as part of that preparation. Over the next few centuries, perhaps in remembrance of Jesus’ fasting for forty days in the wilderness, forty days became the accepted length of the Lenten season. Since, from the earliest years of Christianity, it had been considered inappropriate to fast on the day of the resurrection, Sundays were not counted in the forty days. Thus, the Wednesday 46 days before Easter came to be regarded as the beginning of Lent.
This book is designed to stimulate engaging conversations for study groups during the six weeks of Lent which is why there are six chapters. Each chapter begins with discussion starters to stimulate the conversation. Then reflections and background information is provided, followed by related scripture texts connected to the questions. Please feel welcome to venture off the main path to explore new territory as the conversation leads. The six weeks of Lenten study recognizes that learning by discovery is the most powerful form of learning so rather than a lecture or having a teacher it is preferred for the group to lead itself by considering provoking questions and conversation.
During Holy Week and the celebration of Easter, it does not seem like the right time to engage in probing questions about what happened during Lent. So when is the right time? A group study during Lent is perfect. This work is designed for curious Christians who recognize that asking the tough questions does not weaken their faith. Nor is it discourteous, challenging to orthodox teaching, insulting to God or a sign of a weak faith. Rather, to probe out of curiosity is perfectly appropriate. You can see from the gospels that Jesus took people seriously. Jesus took people and their questions seriously as he did with Thomas, whom history inaccurately nicknames Doubting Thomas. He was not doubting. He was curious. Thomas had a lot of questions. Notice that even at the end, even when Thomas said he would not believe until he saw the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, Jesus still took Thomas seriously. In fact, Jesus used questions, even questions from hostile sources, as a teaching moment. This suggests that when we do not understand something, we are at least dealing with a kind teacher who has patience with us and takes our questions seriously.
The conversations delve into questions which Christians possess but are sometimes reluctant to ask like “Why did God allow Jesus to die?” Atonement can be difficult to understand. Might I go to hell? The discussions push the envelope and may cause intellectual conflict, but fear not. Conflict and wrestling with challenging ideas is creative because the mind attempts to resolve conflict. A group conversation that confronts real questions has potential to reaffirm current belief, to grow one’s faith and to consider which parts of belief are most important.
The purpose of this work is to stimulate using our minds to engage Lent and to work our way through Lent so that we are more fully prepared to celebrate the Day of Resurrection. May you and your group seek the leading of the Holy Spirit to guide you into truth, to remind you of Jesus’ teachings and to build up your faith.
A FEW NOTES ABOUT THIS BOOK
All scriptures in this work come from the New Revised Standard unless otherwise noted.
I have attempted to use inclusive language wherever possible in the words I have written, although I have not altered the author’s reference to God as “he.” I recognize that the Divine has no gender and for many it may be just as appropriate and accurate to acknowledge God as Mother or Father. Whichever pronoun is used, consider God as a loving parent.
Some of this work is adapted from other books or eBooks I have written. My website can be found by searching online for John Zehring books.
COVER PHOTO by Donna Taber Zehring
Week One: Hard questions at Eastertide
Week Two: Facing rejection
Week Three: Two Jesuses, two worldviews
Week Four: What was Jesus doing during Lent?
Week Five: The Seven Last Words from the Cross
Week Six: What comes next after Jesus?
About the Author
“If Christ has not been raised,
then our proclamation has been in vain and
your faith has been in vain.”
(1 Corinthians 15:14)
Do you feel threatened when your beliefs are questioned? What could the curious questioning of traditional beliefs lead to? Do you think God would be upset when you question traditional or orthodox beliefs? How do you feel when other people’s beliefs differ from your own?
Who killed Jesus? How should I feel about them? Am I wrong to hate them? Is hate ever justified?
Why did Jesus have to die? Why did God let Jesus die? Why did God allow to die somebody I have loved? Is it possible that I may have a tinge of being mad at God about something?
It is said that Jesus died for our sins. How would you explain that to another person? Do you agree and celebrate Jesus’ death as a ransom for humankind or does that idea make you somewhat confused?
Do you consider Jesus as God, as man or as both?
The Easter message proclaims “He is not here. He is risen!” There may be devout and faithful people in your congregation who love God and follow Jesus but may question if it was a physical resurrection. Do you think it might weaken your faith to discuss this question?
How do you feel about any person or institution which insists you must believe their way about Jesus?
Do you think that sometimes people get more concerned about the correctness or incorrectness of beliefs than they do about aspiring to live a God-like life?
We might as well start off with some of the toughest questions.
On Easter Sunday church attendance swells to overflowing. Longtime members whisper to one another how wonderful it would be if every Sunday could be like Easter. Additional services must be added in some congregations to hold all those who come to worship, to praise and to glorify God. The Easter message: He is not here. He is risen.
It can be an emotional Sunday, less so than Christmas for many attenders but for the church Easter is the highest point of the year – to celebrate the risen Christ. If the church were to ask and to listen to its people, it might hear that a number of its most devout members have some confusion or doubt about Easter. When do those members raise their questions and connect with others in conversation about the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? Certainly not on Easter Sunday. The swell of the organ and the overflowing of voices collaborating to sing the “Hallelujah” chorus overwhelms the intellectual curiosity about the events of Easter. And so, one of best times to consider the questions of the curious is during Lent and especially in a Lenten Study when faithful Christians gather to affirm but also to wonder about the meaning of Easter.
The beauty of a Lenten Study is that you are thinking people. You think about your faith, about the nature of God and about the Bible. In faithfulness, perhaps you also harbor some doubts or questions which are not frequently spoken about in church yet those questions linger in the background.
Your deep questions are heard. They need to be addressed sometime. Easter day is not appropriate, so let us consider them today. You and others raise tough questions at Eastertime. Like: Who really killed Jesus? Why did Jesus have to die? Why did God let Jesus die? If you do not think Jesus physically rose from the dead, is your faith in vain as Paul seems to say it is, and can you still sing the glorious Easter hymns with integrity?
Who really killed Jesus?
Two women were talking and one said, “I hate the Jews because they killed Jesus.” The other replied, “You really ought to hate Italians then because they are the ones who put him to death. The Jews did not have the authority to carry out a death sentence.”
The point is made: Hate enters the picture as someone to blame is sought. Hate is wrong.
It was not the Jews. Sometimes you hear people say that Jesus was killed by his own people. He might have been rejected by some of his own people, like his hometown folk. He might have not been believed in by some of his own people, like his four brothers. But it was not his own people who killed him. This is a significant and potentially explosive issue because this very question has led to anti-Semitism and to discrimination against Jews because of the mistaken idea that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death. Discrimination and hate is the antithesis of love which is the hallmark of Jesus’ teachings.
It was not the Italians. Rome occupied Palestine and occupiers are not usually beloved although there are reports of friendships between Roman soldiers and natives of Palestine.
You could blame the clergy, the religious leaders. That is a popular cry: “It was the religious leaders who killed him.” Some who sought his death were clergy types: Mathew wrote:
“Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” But, there were also good religious leaders like the Pharisee Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night or Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council who went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus – both of these Pharisees became followers of The Way, as Christianity was known before it was known as Christianity. A few malicious religious leaders cannot undermine all of the good and faithful Rabbis from local synagogues.
You could blame the crowd. How many Easter seasons have we heard it speculated that some in the Palm Sunday crowd may have been in the mob on Good Friday which called out for Pilate to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus. Actually, were it not for the crowd of faithful followers, Jesus would have been taken captive sooner which suggests that the Palm Sunday crowd was a different group than the Good Friday mob who sought Jesus’ death.
Perhaps the blame could shift to men because only men were mentioned in the plot against Jesus, or maybe just older men, bald men, white men. Before you know it, it gets ludicrous.
A science fiction story tells of an interplanetary council where representatives from many planets gathered to meet for the first time. Each was invited to introduce himself or herself and to tell about one major accomplishment from his or her planet. Around the table they went: Hunger has been eliminated and everyone has enough to eat, said one. Another told how peace and kindness triumphed over violence. Yet another spoke of how all illnesses were cured. One after another spoke of great achievements. Then came the time for the representative from earth to say something. He thought to himself: “What can I possibly tell about that compares to these?” Then it came to him and he announced: “The Son of God visited our planet!” All were truly astounded and peppered him with questions: “What did you do? Did you make him king? Did you build him palaces and bring him gifts? How did you treat God’s son?” A tear rolled down the representative’s cheek. He answered sadly “We killed him.”
Who killed Jesus may be the wrong question. Rather, consider who did not kill Jesus: it was not the Jews, the Italians, the clergy, a fickle crowd, his own people or men in general. The key is to not hate or dislike anyone because we blame them for Jesus’ death. Perhaps a tear rolls down our cheek as we reflect upon how our planet killed the Son of God. And yet even as he was being killed, he forgave them. What does that tell you about what your attitude should be? Do not hate. Forgive even those who know not what they do.
Why did Jesus have to die? Why did God let him die?
It can feel like heresy to raise the question “Why did Jesus have to die?” He died to save us from our sins, we are told from pulpit, pew and choir loft. Consider hymns which say so:
“There is a green hill far away, without a city wall, where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all.”
“O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world.”
“My faith looks up to thee, Thou Lamb of Calvary…”
“Jesus Christ is risen today, Al le lu la!… Who did once upon the cross… Suffer to redeem our loss.”
“Upon that cross of Jesus Mine eye at times can see, the very dying form of one who suffered there for me…”
Historic creeds of the church testify to the divinity of Jesus as the Son of God but become less specific when it comes to the reason for his death. A person could raise the question about why Jesus had to die and still be in full accord with the historic creeds and many contemporary statements of faith.
Perhaps the most common view of the cross is that Jesus needed to die to bear the agony, the pains and the penalty for our sins that we should have borne. In short, says this view, he died for us. It is as though we were under the condemnation of God and God was going to eradicate us but Jesus came to God and said “Let me bear it for them. Sacrifice me so that they may be forgiven and freed from their sin.” And so, Jesus became our substitute to bear the punishment that we should have experienced.
This is known as the substitution view. Like the Old Testament custom of sacrificing a lamb on the altar to please God, Jesus was the Lamb of God and was sacrificed for us. He gave his life as a ransom for many. He died that we may live.
Perhaps you have heard this view so often that you have not thought much about it. There are faithful, devout Christians who question the substitution view. And so, consider an alternative explanation for why Jesus had to die from Scottish New Testament bible scholar William Barclay, from his book . Barclay wrote about the substitution view:
Brought up in that view very early, while still a boy, I began to feel that there was something quite desperately wrong with it. It implies or actually says that something Jesus did changed the attitude of God – that God’s hand was posed to strike, his condemnation poised to obliterate, and Jesus came and begged us off as it were, by taking it upon himself. Somehow or other Jesus changed a wrathful, angry God in to a gentle God. I could always understand, even then, the saying of a little girl, “Mummy, I love Jesus but I hate God.” And I went to the New Testament and I could find no evidence for this at all, for the New Testament has nothing but God’s love – “God so loved the world that he sent his Son.” In Jesus God proves his love… Jesus did not change the attitude of God; Jesus shows what the attitude of God is like.
Barclay wrote about how he actually left Christianity for a time because he could not accept this substitution view that perceived that in order to satisfy God’s holy justice God punished the only perfectly good man there ever was, his own beloved Son. He wrote: “I began to feel I could not believe in a God like that or trust a God who did such a thing. For a while I was out of Christianity altogether, completely.”
How sad to think that there are women and men who love God and who follow Jesus and yet who must leave the church because they feel like outsiders… outside a traditional understanding of the substitution view which holds that Jesus died for the atonement of our sins. Even as legendary a bible expert as William Barclay left for this reason. Now, listen to why he returned:
I began to think again and I came to that thing which is always in my mind: that in Jesus we see perfectly displayed the mind of God. This IS God – in these last days, in that last week – this is God from beginning to end, saying “I love you like that. You can batter me, you can bruise me, you can forsake me, you can crown me with thorns, you can treat me with injustice and you can scourge me. I love you. Nothing will stop me from loving you. And this is why, in the end, Jesus had to die: because if Jesus had not died it would have meant that at some point the love of God said, “Thus far and no further. Stop, I can’t love you anymore.” And so, the reason for the cross is, most of all, a demonstration of the unconditional love of God.
So here proposes another view of why Jesus died: because in those moments, Jesus – the second person of the Divine Trinity – exemplified God’s unconditional love and demonstrated that there can never be any limits to God’s grace.
Theologians and bible scholars themselves over the centuries continue to grapple with this question. If you like William Barclay are not comfortable with the substation view, do not leave the faith, for God’s arms stretch wide enough to encompass every view of the cross.
Was it a physical resurrection from the dead?
This may be the hardest question: If you do not think Jesus physically rose from the dead, is your faith in vain (as Paul says) and can you still sing the glorious Easter hymns with honesty and integrity? Would you sing words you do not believe?
A longtime church member told how she has a hard time with Easter because she does not really believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. That is what the Easter songs and the story tell about: “He is not here. He is risen.” Note the present tense.
Paul wrote: “If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
What you think about Jesus is called your “Christology.” Do you think of Jesus as God or as man or as both? Was he more one than the other?
Imagine it on a scale of 1 to 10.
At the highest end, the ten, this view of Christology holds that Jesus… the Christ… is 100% God. This is the highest Christology which believes that Jesus was not man but was God in a man’s body. “The Father and I are one,” Jesus said in John 10:30. Both are equally God. Later Jesus told the disciples “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). A ten on the scale holds that Jesus is purely divine and not human.
On the other end, the one on the scale, this view of Christology holds that Jesus is 100% man. This view believes that he was the son of God or a son of God because he told the truth about God. Jesus got it right better than anyone. He had an inspired view of who God is and what God is like. This view recognizes that in his teachings, Jesus of Nazareth did not point to himself but he pointed to God:
He did not say pray like this: “Our Jesus who art in heaven.”
He did not propose that the greatest commandment was “To love the Lord your Jesus with all your heart, mind, soul, and might.”
He did not encourage his followers to “Seek first the Kingdom of Jesus.”
He did not come to preach the good news of the kingdom of Jesus. In Luke 4 (43) Jesus declared that he came to preach “the good news of the kingdom of God… for I was sent for this purpose.” About God. Not about me. It’s not about me, Jesus would have said.
It’s about God. That is what is really important, is it not? The most important thing is what Jesus taught about God. So the low end of the Christology scale perceives a Christ who was the son of God… anointed by God… sent… inspired… pointing always to God… a man, teaching a way of life of love and forgiveness… the God-like way to live… the very best way for humans to live.
In-between, around the 5 on the scale, this view of Christology sees Jesus as possessing a duel nature, being both human and divine. Here Jesus is the Word become flesh: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” Jesus is God, the second person of the Trinity. And Jesus is man, who suffered like us. Paul wrote (Hebrews 2:18) “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” He is like us humans. He understands what we go through for he himself went through it. The reason there are two candles on many altars is to symbolize the two natures of Jesus: human and divine. Man and God. Both.
It is possible that in many congregations there exist people on every mark of that one-to-ten scale. The best gathering of God’s people is inclusive, embracing every person with all of their beliefs, doubts, warts and all. In the most God-like congregations, you can be a two, four, six, eight, or ten and still be a member of the Christian church. There is room for all.
It is possible that you may wake up on different days and find yourself at a different place on the scale. You might be all over the place. Some days you wake up and you are a 10, believing that Jesus is God, that he and the Father are one. Other days you wake up and perhaps you are a 1, believing that what Jesus taught about God is what is important. Most days, perhaps, you fall in the 4 to 6 range.
So which is right? What is the correct number? No one can tell you which number is exactly right, but here who is exactly wrong: if you meet anyone who insists that you must believe a certain way and be a specific number, turn your body 180 degrees, lift up one foot, pound it down hard and run as fast as you can to get away from that person, because: They. Are. Wrong! No one can tell you where you must fall on the scale. You are just as welcome to your understanding of the nature of Christ and his resurrection and wherever you fall on the scale, you can sing those Easter hymns however you want and still be welcome, included and valued. That kind of extravagant welcome seems downright God-like. Trying our best to be God-like is one million times more important than where a person falls on the scale.
That is the message from this difficult question we raised: you being God-like is a million times more important than where you fall on the belief-o-meter. God accepts and loves you just as you are. Go and do likewise: accept others the same way, wherever they fall on the scale.
Our lives are rooted in belief, as Jesus taught (John 20:29): “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We are all still a work in progress, “coming” to believe. And yet, never be afraid of the quest for truth. God has nothing to fear from your search for truth or your curiosity. And Jesus, called Rabboni or teacher by those who knew him best, could not be imagined to be insulted by a student who raises hard questions or who is curious. That is not the nature of a master teacher.
And so, as Jesus would say: To God be the glory.
Scriptures to consider
When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.”
The bible refers to Jesus as the stone which builders rejected. Do you think Jesus felt rejected? If Jesus feels like us and suffers like us, why would he not possess the same kind of feelings that we have? How does rejection feel?
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, God said that “I am a jealous God.” Would that not presume that God has feelings? Do you think God has feelings? How do you think God feels when we reject God?
Can you think of people in your life or experience who have triumphed over a rejection?
When you face rejection, how does it make you feel? What are healthy responses to feelings of rejection? What are unhealthy responses? How do you move on to manage rejection?
If someone you cared about experienced a rejection, how would you advise them?
A difficulty shared is a difficulty halved. A joy shared is a joy doubled. Can you tell about a time when that applied to you?
People will not remember what you said, did or accomplished but they will remember how you made them feel. What are some ways we can help others feel more valued?
Jesus, the stone rejected by builders, became the cornerstone of something new. What do you think the bible means by that? Have you witnessed in others or yourself how rejection later became the cornerstone for something new?
The same verse in Psalm 118 that talks about the rejected stone goes on to say: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Easy to say on a good day. How can a person say that on a bad day?
A verse that reoccurs through the bible is: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” In the New Testament, this refers to Jesus. He was rejected. He is the stone the builders rejected. Yet this rejected man has become the chief cornerstone: The head of the Church.
There is another whose life was filled with rejection. When he was seven years old, his family was forced out of their home on a legal technicality and he had to work to help support them. At age nine, his mother died. At twenty-two, he lost his job as a store clerk. He wanted to go to law school, but his education was not good enough. At twenty-three, he went into debt to become a partner in a small store. At twenty-six, his business partner died, leaving him a huge debt that took years to repay. At twenty-eight, after courting a woman for four years, he asked her to marry him. She said no. At thirty-seven, on his third try, after two failed attempts, he was elected to Congress. Two years later, voters rejected his bid for re-election. At forty-one, his four-year-old son died. At forty-five, he ran for the Senate and lost. At forty-seven, he failed as the vice-presidential candidate. At forty-nine, he ran for the Senate again and lost again. He never won an election… any election… without a dissenting vote. At fifty-one, he was elected president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was a man who knew rejection. And yet, despite failure and rejection, Abraham Lincoln could still believe in himself so much that he could say this: “I shall prepare myself and my opportunity must come.”
Presidential scholars rank Lincoln as the greatest president. More books have been devoted to preserving his legacy than have been created for any other president. And yet, in his time, he was rejected by masses who did not like him. Here are some quotes which were spoken about Lincoln:
You cannot fill his empty skull with brains.
He is a political coward
Timid and ignorant
A man of no education, shattered, dazed, utterly foolish
The craftiest and most dishonest politician that ever disgraced an office in America
A half-witted usurper
A mold-eyes monster with a soul of leather
The present turtle at the head of government, a slang-wanging stump speaker
An unmentionable disease.
The story of any great person is a story of accomplishment in spite of failure and rejection. The story of YOU is a story of what you are able to do even in the face of rejection.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
A keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place. While it may not be the biggest stone, it is the most important. Can you imagine ancient builders of mighty arches sorting through their pile of cast-off rocks, searching for one of their rejects to use “up there” to hold it all together.
This passage from Psalm 118 fascinated the early Christian writers. It is quoted or referred to all over the New Testament: in Acts, I Peter, Romans, Ephesians, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Originally the Psalmist crafted this as a picture of the nation of Israel. Israel was the nation which was despised and rejected. The Jews were hated. They had been servants and slaves of many nations but the nation which was despised and rejected became the chosen people of God. The stone which the builders rejected, in the Old Testament, was the nation of Israel. Then, in the New Testament, the rejected stone came to refer to Jesus.
Jesus spoke about the rejected stone in Matthew, Mark and Luke which makes us wonder: did Jesus feel the rejection? Not appreciated? Not valued? Did Jesus have an ego? If the Word which became Flesh came to dwell among us and to feel what we feel and hurt like we hurt, would not he too have some bad days when it felt like he was not valued, not appreciated nor understood?
Matthew records that when Jesus taught in his hometown, listeners are astounded. They asked “Where did he get all this stuff? Is this not Joseph’s and Mary’s boy. We know his family. We know his brothers. Who does he think he is?” (Matthew 13:54-58, paraphrase). Matthew adds “And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.” There is a lesson for you there: you cannot do many great deeds when you do not feel valued.
We wonder how Jesus felt when the crowd cried for Pilate to release Barabbas rather than Jesus. That could not have made Jesus feel valued. And then, from the cross he spoke: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That sounds like a very human cry of rejection and if that is what it was, it assures that he can understand it when you and I do not feel valued, wanted, included, appreciated or needed.
In Acts, religious leaders were annoyed with the disciples. They put them in custody overnight. Then they called them on the carpet and grilled them: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” asked the rulers and elders. Peter explained that the teachings and the acts of healing were done “… by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead… This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner.” (Acts 4:10,11).
The rejected stone first referred to Israel, then referred to Jesus and perhaps there are times when you feel like you are the stone which was rejected. When you have been rejected, perhaps it felt like a punch in the stomach. Rejection knocks the wind out of you and makes you dizzy and confused. Rejection feels like a slap in the face. It stings. It can make you angry. A natural reflex is to want to put up your fists and strike back. Look how we phrase it: FACING rejection. It is in your face, open and exposed like a slap. Rejection can squash your self-esteem, rob you of control, strip away your power, whither your creativity and leave you feeling weak or vulnerable. Rejection has the potential to make you feel like you are not appreciated or valued. It can turn you into a door mat, allowing others to walk over you. It can de-inspire you to not care, to give up or to go cry.
Some have been rejected by a good friend and feel betrayed. Some carry the rejections of childhood: you were not the one they picked, you did not get in or you were not accepted. When the team was picking players, your name was not the one they called.
Noel Paul Stookey – the Paul from legendary folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary – sings a song about right fielders:
Saturday summers, when I was a kid,
we’d run to the schoolyard, and here’s what we did,
we’d pick out the captains, we’d choose up the teams,
was always of a measure of my self-esteem,
cause the fastest, the strongest, played shortstop and first
the last ones they picked were the worst
I never needed to ask, it was sealed,
I just took up my place in right field.
… where he did not feel very valued… out in right field.
Some face rejection by a spouse. It’s been great in the past but something happened. Some feel rejected by one of their children: not consulted, not called or not cared for. You gave them so much of yourself and now it is like they do not care. Some feel rejected by their parents. They expect what you cannot deliver. All you want is a loving touch, an affirming hug or words that say “I accept you just as you are.” But it feels like you cannot live up to what they want. Some were rejected by a mother or a father and that song plays in your head: “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.” Or, a fatherless child.
Some face rejection by your employer. You gave them everything. You were important. You modeled the company’s highest standards and values. You worked long and hard. And now you feel rejected. People are rejected by business partners, colleges they want to attend, jobs they hoped to get, committees on which they have served, colleagues with whom they work and some are rejected by none other than themselves. For some, it is hard to accept yourself. You know you should. You know God accepts you. But it is easier said than done.
Some professions require a higher ability to face rejection, like sales, political leadership or writers. Seasoned authors know there will be many rejections even after successes. Consider some of the greats:
Leon Uris went into Bennett Cerf’s office at Random House with the idea for EXODUS. Cerf blinked, shouted at him, and kicked him out.
THE PETER PRINCIPLE by Laurence Peter was turned down by seventeen houses.
THE SAND PEBBLES which won the Harper Price Novel Contest and was a Book of the Month selection was rejected by Random House twice.
Doubleday turned down UP THE ORGANIZATION and DAY OF THE JACKAL.
J.P. Lippincott turned down LORD OF THE FLIES.
LOVE STORY which sold more than seven million copies was turned down a dozen times.
The editor at Rutgers University Press grew bored after a quarter million words of a book and sent a form rejection to Thomas Wolfe for his book LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL.
Harcort, Brace Jovanovich said no deal to THE GODFATHER.
Bantam Books did not spot the potential in LOVE STORY, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK or the PEANUTS cartoon series, all of which went there before somewhere else.
LUST FOR LIFE by Irving Stone was turned down by seventeen publishers.
THE DOCTOR’S QUICK WEIGHT LOSS DIET by Dr. Stillman was rejected sixteen times before it became one of the bestselling diet books of all time.
Richard Hooker worked for seven years on his humorous war novel MASH only to have it rejected by twenty-one publishers before finally it was accepted.
THE GOOD EARTH by Pearl Buck was declined by more than a dozen publishers. One British publisher passed it up twice.
KON TIKI was turned down by twenty houses. One editor who rejected it framed her report which read, “Who wants to read about a bunch of crazy Scandinavians floating down the Pacific on the bamboo raft?”
Another editor framed his letter saying “yes” to Margaret Mitchell. But that wasn’t until her book GONE WITH THE WIND was turned down by fourteen others.
CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL which made it to the New York Times best-seller list began when Mark Victor Hansen and Jack Canfield envisioned a book of heartwarming stories. More than 140 publishers rejected the book. They called it “too Pollyannaish.” A small Florida firm named Health Communications took a chance, sold 112 million copies and spun off a pile of offshoots.
J. K. Rowling’s agent sent the first Harry Potter book, HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, to a dozen publishers, each of which turned it down.
You know who holds the title for the most rejections? A British novelist named John Creasey. He got 753 rejection slips. Creasey holds another Guinness record: He is the author of published 564 novels.
A man named George holds the record for the most strike-outs in baseball. 1,330 times he struck out. He is in the baseball Hall of Fame, elected in 1936 but not for his strike outs. For his other record… George Herman Ruth. Babe Ruth. Then there is Ty Cobb, the great slugger who had a lifetime average of .367. He got a hit once out of every three times at bat. He did not even hit every other pitch. So why would you think that you should bat 1000?
Rejection is a way of life for people in publishing, music, business, athletics, the professions and in everyday life. It was for Israel, it was for Jesus and perhaps it has been for you. So when you are feeling the pangs of rejection, consider some possibilities for managing rejection:
James and John let out what they were feeling: they wanted to be great. They said to Jesus (Mark 10:35-47) “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you…. Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” To their jockeying for position, Jesus replied: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
You can become great. Anybody can be great because anybody can serve. Want to sit at the head of the table? “Not me,” responds Jesus, “and not mine. Me and mine are here to serve,
not to be served.”
Service occurs in your encounter with other people. You can serve another by helping them to carry a burden, by lifting them up with a good word, by a touch of reassurance and care, by listening or even by just showing up and not saying anything. You can serve another by email, telephone, text message, in a meeting, a hallway, a car or a family room. Service is not so much the action as the attitude that my role as a follower is to serve.
What really impresses people? Is it the one who sits at the head of the table? Or is it the one who did something for you, helped you, affirmed you or made you feel good about yourself? Is not that the one you value? One who serves.
Being rejected can feel embarrassing. So, it is natural to keep it bottled up inside where the feelings fester upon themselves. When you share your feelings with another, he or she can help you gain some perspective on the rejection. This is essentially what Paul wrote: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12). Consider the arithmetic of that: A difficulty shared is a difficulty halved. A joy shared is a joy doubled. Share with another who cares about you and allow them to cut the difficulty in half.
A world-famous entertainer said: “I do not know the secret to success but I do know the secret to certain failure is trying to please everybody.” Jesus’ own people took offense at him. Jesus did not please everybody. Neither will you.
Allow yourself to move on. You may never forget the sting of rejection but you can learn to manage your feelings about it. Allow yourself to be happier.
There is a palliative nurse in Australia named Bronnie Ware whose job is to care for patients in the last twelve weeks of their lives. That led her to observe the clarity of vision that people gain at the end of their lives and how we might learn from their wisdom. “When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,” she says, “common themes surfaced again and again.” This led Ware to record their dying themes in a blog which caused such a stir of attention that she put her observations into a book called . One of the top five is this: “I wish that I had let myself be happier.” This is a surprisingly common one, Ware wrote. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called comfort of familiarity overflowed into their emotions as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others and to their selves that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.
Allow yourself to be happier. Share with others your feelings about rejection. Share with God the Serenity Prayer: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
REGARD OTHERS AS BETTER THAN YOURSELF
When you do not feel valued, turn to Philippians (2:3,4): “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
This is counter-intuitive, like when your driver-ed teacher taught you to turn into the direction of a skid. If your car is sliding on the ice, regain control by doing the opposite of what you want to do, which is to turn away from the sliding. Nope. Turn into the slide, gain control of your tires and then steer to safety. Is it not the natural inclination to regard yourself as better than others? How many times have you said “Well, at least I’m better off than so and so?” Here is a bible attitude which is counter-intuitive to human nature: Regard others as better than yourself. Adopt that attitude. Recognize that God values you so much that you can possess the ego strength to consider others as better than yourself. That recognition refocuses you to appreciate being valued by God.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. What do you think about people who talk non-stop about themselves? That is what people think about you if you do that. On the other hand, have you ever been with a person who shows so much interest in you that they make you feel like you are an interesting person? You love to talk with them. They engage you, zero in on your interests and your thoughts, they probe, ask, reflect and demonstrate a genuine interest in you. They show an interest in what you think. So this verse is good advice: show interest in others and guess what? They will become interested in you and they will value you. If you cannot remember the verse, take a clue from your anatomy: we have two ears and one mouth. So, let us listen twice as much as we talk.
MAKE OTHERS FEEL VALUED
One of the greatest insights from common sense is this: People will not remember what you said, did or accomplished but they will remember how you made them feel. Make people feel good about themselves and they will remember you and value you.
A Spanish Princes named Maria Barbara Debraganza saw herself as homely and unpopular. She did not feel valued or appreciated. She took lessons from the famous harpsichordist Domenico Scarlatti and here is what changed her life: not the music and not the teaching but how he made her feel. She wrote in her diary “He treated me as a person through whom beauty flowed, and I became beautiful.”
You have power over another by how you make them feel. You have the power to help another see herself or himself as a person through whom beauty flows. Because of you, she or he will become beautiful, smart, engaging, gifted or valued. Even if you do not feel valued and even when you feel rejected, if you show value to another, they will rise up to their highest and best because of you. You valued them. Their self-value rose and to heck with all your achievements or honors: they value you because of how you made them feel.
Do not prejudge who you think needs to be valued. Everyone needs to be valued. Do not think only of the down and out, the lowest or the least. The successful and the achievers have the same need to feel valued and so does everybody else in the middle. You have a great gift to offer another, for God’s sake. You can value them, believe in them, see the best in them, hold high expectations for them and treat them as a person through whom beauty flows.
If you do that, you will find yourself feeling valued and valuing yourself.
TRUST GOD TO USE THE REJECTED STONE AS A CORNERSTONE
Trust God to use the rejected stone as a cornerstone for something else. Could it be that rejection is what shapes you, propels you, strengthens you, motivates you and even makes you great? Could it be that it is rejection that is the critical secret ingredient to your ultimate success? Could God use the stones in your life which were rejected… to become the cornerstone for something else? The bible’s message is “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
God did not cause the rejection. God does not cause bad things to happen to people. But could God use it? In Psalm 118 following the verse so often quoted about the rejected stone, look at the next verse: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” Your rejection can be used by God and later, as you look back upon it, you may see the rejection as a part of what recreated you into the fine person you have become.
And now, the capstone that places rejection into divine perspective. Look at the next verse because it contains the potential to become a cornerstone of your attitude, your spirituality and your faith, Psalm 118:24: “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
May that be the pledge you make every morning when your toes touch the floor. When you forget, say it later. Do not let a day go by without being reminded that this is God’s day. Pledge to rejoice and be glad today.
Consider changing one word: the pronoun. Instead of “Let us rejoice and be glad” I substitute the first person singular: “ will rejoice and be glad.” Then underline and capitalize the word WILL: I WILL rejoice and be glad. In that word is determination. I determine that I will… I choose to… I pledge to… I intend to… With this daily mantra, there is a commitment to God and to self to find something to be glad about even if your soul is stinging from a rejection.
By adopting this verse as your mantra, you indicate your desire to find something to be joyful about in this day. No matter what happens in your waking hours, you will find some joy. Not only that, but perhaps you also declare your intent to bring joy to someone else today. At the least, do no harm: do nothing to take joy away from another.
Joy comes from relationships, from service, from accomplishing something or from knowing that you have done something well. Joy comes from a closer walk with God. Jesus said: I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete (John 15:11).
Repeating the verse raises the question: Do I feel God’s joy in me? Is my joy complete? If not, what is missing? Is it possible that if I do not feel God’s joy, what may be missing is my connection to the vine where I draw nourishment and renewal? To declare “I will rejoice” becomes a declaration of intent that I will search for a deeper connection to God, the wellspring of joy. It is a stated desire to know God better and to love God more.
Being glad evokes feelings of pleasure, delight, happiness or cheerfulness. I’m glad you are here today. I’m glad I made that decision. I’m glad to be going on vacation. I am glad to receive that news.
Easy to say on a good day. On your worst days, the verse reminds you that you intend to still find something to be glad about. If it does not fall into your lap, search for it. When something really bad happens, tell God: “I am glad for…”
No book of the bible uses the word “glad” more than the Psalms. There were plenty of things which made the Psalmist glad, but one of the writer’s greatest contributions was to show that people can find gladness from their relationship to God. Notice how he describes joy coming from “in you” or “in him”:
I will be glad and exult in you. (9:2)
Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. (33:21)
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you. (40:16a)
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. (90:14)
THIS IS THE DAY
The first words of the verse remind to live in the present and to not miss the moment. It is a summary of the bible’s overall message about where you should live: not in the past, not in the future, but live in the present. This day.
Learn from the past and appreciate it but do not live there. Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, wrote George Santayana. The past is a treasure but THIS is the day that the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad IN IT. Plan for the future and prepare for it but do not live there. Failing to plan is planning to fail. People of faith believe that the best is yet to come. The future is a hope but THIS is the day that the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad IN IT.
THIS is the Lord’s Day. Act in the living present. Do not miss the moment. Find something to be glad about. Find something to rejoice about. And if you have been slapped by a rejection, trust that God can use your rejection for God’s glory and for your betterment.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” During Lent consider how Jesus was rejected. He was the stone that was rejected which later became the chief cornerstone of God’s kingdom. Many others too have felt the pain of rejection: presidents, athletes, business executives, writers, artists and everyday people. It hurts. It lingers. Even if the feelings never go away, you can learn to manage your feelings. There are attitudes you can adopt and actions you can take. Perhaps the greatest is to trust that God can use everything that happens in your life to make you a better person and to adopt the commitment that “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Scriptures to consider
O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Psalm 118:1, 2, 19-29
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand. The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high priestly family. When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?”
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone
Ephesians 2:19, 20
To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”
1 Peter 2:7
So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (Matthew 27:17)
How would you describe the world-views of Jesus bar Abbas (Barabbas) and Jesus bar Joseph?
Do you ever feel caught between a vision of a good life and a vision of a God life? How can we grow our faith to put first the things Jesus bar Joseph calls us to strive for first?
Who are folk heroes today? Why are they folk heroes?
How, why and to whom was Jesus bar Joseph a threat? When the crowds asked for Jesus to be crucified, why did Pilate ask: “Why, what evil has he done?”
Do you think being a Christian prevents or reduces bad things from happening to you? Do you think other people believe this is so?
Tell about a charismatic (gifted) person who has used his or her gifts for good. Tell about a charismatic person who has misled people or abused his or her gifts.
People tend to believe a leader more if he or she has a twinkle in the eye, speaks spontaneously, uses humor, maintains lingering eye contact, proposes a bold vision and possesses the capacity to hold listeners in the palm of his or her hand. How would you discern whether or not to believe a message when packaged with those attractive traits?
You will know them by their fruits, said Jesus bar Joseph. Tell about someone you know or have met who radiates God’s spirit within.
Two men in the New Testament were named Jesus. They were about the same age. They grew up in the same region. Both boys were named after their fathers, using the Hebrew phase bar which means “son.” They did not have last names then, so one was known as Jesus Bar Joseph and the other as Jesus Bar Abbas. Jesus the son of Joseph and Jesus the son of Abbas.
Both boys likely grew up in the same kind of one-room house of mud-dried bricks with a courtyard and roof made from a mat of reeds. They did not spend much time in houses then so flexible furniture was the rule: mats for sleeping, carpets and cushions for sitting on, a chest for storage and an oil lamp for light. We know that one of them had four brothers and at least a couple sisters. Perhaps the other did too. The family slept in the living room or the loft side by side, with dad at one end and mom at the other.
Both Jesuses would have been raised on a diet of bread, olives, oil, buttermilk, cheese, fruits and vegetables – whatever they could grow. Meat was rare. Bread was the principle food, made from wheat or barley flour. Others enjoyed the ancient foods: figs, grapes, raisins and pomegranates. There were no knives, forks or spoons. Meals were around a low table, sitting on the floor with legs folded under or leaning back, sort of like a picnic. Sometimes a mat substituted for the table.
Grace would have been said before meals at both boys’ homes. They had common prayers before meals. One of the common graces that both Jesuses likely prayed at every meal was “Blessed art thou, O Jehovah, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.” God received the credit, the thanks and the blessing. We tend to bless ourselves, our food, our table, our families or our guests. They blessed God.
Around the table or the mat when the whole family gathered for supper, dinnertime conversation would have been dominated by one topic. Can you guess what it was? Government. Not much different from today. But then, it was not government of the people, by the people or for the people. Then, it was government of a foreign power: Rome. Although historians note relationships were not all bad between the occupiers and the occupied, it would be an understatement to say that the Judeans hated the Romans. They hated the exploitation, the taxes, the extortion, the rules, the constant presence of Roman soldiers and the imposition of Roman law.
Both Jesuses as boys played in the village. When boys spotted a Roman soldier heading their way they would run for cover. It was the custom and the law that a Roman soldier could require a citizen and particularly boys to carry their heavy equipment and personal effects for the distance of one mile. The citizen would have to walk back a mile. So when they saw a soldier coming towards them, they would run and hide. One mile was all that the law required. One of the Jesuses would later refer to that common practice when he encouraged his followers to walk a second mile – to do more than is expected.
Anyone who worked to undermine the hated Roman rule would be considered something of a folk hero. There was a radical para-military underground group who acted with great zeal for the overthrow of the Roman government. Because of their zeal they became known as The Zealots. People silently cheered them on and wished them well.
A contemporary young mother told about her son going off to school and being pressured by a bully. The mom said, “While we never condoned hitting in our home, I secretly harbored a wish that he would haul off and clobber the kid.” That was how the Zealots were received. The people did not wish for a solution of violence but harbored a wish that somebody would clobber those bully Romans and overthrow the foreign oppression by whatever means it took.
Jesus bar Joseph invited a zealot, Simon, to become one of his twelve disciples (Luke 6:15). No doubt some of his others sympathized. In fact, most people had misinterpreted the hoped for Messiah as a political Messiah, sort of a Superman Zealot who would rise up to overthrow the hated Romans by whatever means necessary and restore Israel to its glorious place as the land of milk and honey.
Do we not idolize those who stand as a David against a Goliath? They become our folk heroes.
Nelson Mandela. South African black nationalist. Imprisoned 28 years (1962–90). President 1994. Nobel Prize for Peace.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Broke laws. Frequently imprisoned. Nobel Prize for Peace. Assassinated.
The Massachusetts farmers-turned-soldiers of the American Revolution, overthrowing the British. Folk heroes.
William Wallace, resistance fighter, Scotland’s greatest national hero.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor, plotted to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Caught, imprisoned and executed. To many, a folk hero.
Robin Hood, legendary outlaw, hero of English ballads, robbed the rich and gave to the poor, stood against the Sherriff of Nottingham, who represented the central government.
Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, better known by his nickname Che. Advocate of guerrilla warfare, prominent Communist figure in the Cuban Revolution (1956–59) and later a guerrilla leader in South America. His face adorned posters.
Folk Heroes by whatever means they believe will work strive to overthrow oppression and to advocate for the common people.
Jesus bar Abbas. Zealot. Part of the underground, the resistance, plotting to overthrow the Roman oppression of Israel. To the people, a hero. To the Romans, an enemy of the state.
Both Jesuses were popular. Both had followers, disciples and admirers. Both had those who hated them and plotted to do them in.
Even the most beloved heroes are challenged by Hero Killers who are out to do them in and would assassinate them if possible. Or better, get someone else to take care of business. Getting rid of them is their mission in life and it does not take many to betray. In the case of Jesus bar Joseph, it took only 1/12th of his disciples.
Both Jesus bar Joseph and Jesus bar Abbas attracted crowds.
Both inspired with messages of hope for a better future.
Both had what the media refers to as “star power.” Charisma.
Both were men of principle.
Both Jesuses devoted their lives for the betterment of others.
Both were willing to die for it. Both Jesuses were a threat.
Both Jesuses possessed a vision for a new kind of Kingdom. Both visions centered on a quality of life.
Jesus bar Abbas and Jesus bar Joseph both had friends and family who probably encouraged them to cool the rhetoric, play it safe, do not make waves, do not rock the boat and be more patient… like blacks were told during the Civil Rights movement: be patient. Wait. But there comes a time when oppression cannot be overcome by waiting.
What do we know about Jesus bar Abbas? His path intersected the other Jesus at the time of the trials of Jesus bar Joseph. Jesus bar Abbas: Barabbas for short. All four gospels tell about him, an unusual occurrence in itself.
Matthew says he was a notorious prisoner. Of course, so was Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mark says he was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. Mark does not say that Jesus bar Abbas actually pulled the trigger, but the rebels did. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was part of a rebel group acting to eliminate Adolph Hitler.
Luke says he was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder. John says Barabbas was a bandit.
Barabbas knew the price he could have to pay and he was prepared to die, if necessary, for the noble cause. For the Resistance. He sat in his cell on death row eating his last meal, knowing he would be summoned to the gallows very soon. He would become a martyr. He never asked to be released. Can you imagine his pounding pulse when the door to his cell opened and the jailer entered with the news “You’re free to go!”
Then, there was Jesus bar Joseph. What had he done to deserve this, asked Pilate who had examined him? What evil has he done? The interlocutor of this Jesus could find in him no crime.
Pilate was a man of expedience. A practical politician. He could sense the tide of public opinion going against him. That is not to be taken lightly. Pilate was, of course, in charge and put there by none other than Caesar himself. He was Governor of Judea. Procurator. He had a good job.
Not everybody knew but Pilate knew that he could be replaced if he could not keep these people in their place. He witnessed it happen to his colleagues in other regions. All it would take would be a message from the high priest, a missive to Rome about their dissatisfaction with Pilate and he might find himself Assistant Governor on some remote island. So, how to avoid displeasing these shouting people?
Ah ha. The old custom. Not used much but still on the books: At their festival of the Passover, which the Romans could have cared less about but it was a big deal to people, there was a rarely used custom whereby the Governor could release one prisoner. Ah. Ok, he tells the crowd. YOU choose. Who do you wish me to release? Which one? Jesus bar Abbas or Jesus bar Joseph, who is called the Messiah, the King of the Jews
Matthew 27 (20-22): Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!”
It was a different crowd from the previous Sunday, nicknamed Palm Sunday. The Good Friday mob was rigged. There might have been a small band of followers of Jesus bar Joseph there but it was a louder crowd chosen by and encouraged by the Hero Killers. The Elders persuaded the crowds.
It was not the Jews. You know that this is human nature. Germans would have done the same. British would have done the same. Arabs would have done the same. Americans would have done the same. So would have whites, blacks, male, female, gay, straight. Never blame the Jews. Or the Romans. People are people. These people were more interested in the vision advocated by Jesus bar Abbas than the one advocated by Jesus bar Joseph. These people called for Pilate to release the popular bar Abbas.
Jesus the son of Abbas. Ironically, that comes from Abba, which means father. Barabbas’ name means Jesus the son of the father. The other Jesus, son of Joseph, told better about the heavenly Father than any other. If you were authoring a novel, you might think the names should be just the other way around.
It would be unfair to vilify Jesus bar Abbas as a bad man, an evil doer – to try to contrast these two as some sort of ethereal galactic battle between good and evil, light and darkness. Why have all four gospels captured this part of the story?
The bible never sugarcoats life. Jesus’ life began with Herod killing babies and toddlers: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:16). Jesus’ life ends with a betrayal by someone he trusted (Judas), the crowd’s preference for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus and then his Crucifixion. Anyone who thinks that being a Christian prevents bad things from happening to them or protects them from problems is missing the story and message of the gospel. The two Jesuses illustrate some painful realities:
Two visions for a quality of life and both are appealing.
Barabbas was a folk hero with the revolutionary vision to rid the hated Romans from their rule over the Jews. Perhaps violence justified the means to the end but the end in sight was self-rule. If your country were taken over and ruled by another, extorting high taxes and fees from you to fuel the other country’s quality of life, would not you cheer for those who fought them? Jesus bar Joseph proposed a Kingdom of God quality of life. He held high expectations that followers put in second place other qualities of life to seek first the Kingdom of God. He proposed a way of living centered on love and forgiveness as the best way to live. He held high the value of a person’s spirit, recognizing that if a person’s spirit is crushed and broken, he or she cannot do much of anything but if a person’s spirit is in God’s hand, he or she can adapt and even thrive no matter what the physical reality. Jesus bar Abbas proposed a quality of life centered in the good life which would increase if Roman rule could be eliminated. The good life is appealing. For Jesus bar Joseph, the God life is demanding, putting God first, others second and self third. It will never be the most popular, as Jesus suggested in the Parable of the Sower. Only about a quarter of the seeds (the word of God) will take and grow root. Pilate chickened out of his responsibilities and left it up to the crowd to decide. Matthew says the crowd was “persuaded” by the Chief Priests and Elders. Jesus bar Joseph’s vision for a quality of life, rooted in God’s Kingdom, would grow to capture the hearts and minds of almost a third of the globe’s people. Jesus bar Abbas’s vision, also attractive to many, was the one chosen by the crowd and the consequence was death for Jesus bar Joseph.
The dangers of a charismatic leader.
People will follow a charismatic leader even if it leads them off the cliff. Research in public speaking, for example, demonstrates that people rate a speaker as more credible, believable and personally appealing if the speaker is spontaneous, uses humor, maintains lingering eye contact, proposes a bold vision and possesses the capacity to hold listeners in the palm of his or her hand – even if the speaker is 100% wrong. We’ve seen it in clergy, politicians, salesmen and saleswomen, educators and TV personalities – the twinkle in the eye, the gleam in the smile and the lilt in the voice trumps truth, honesty, honor and good leadership. Perhaps Jesus bar Abbas had the gift – charisma literally means gift. Perhaps Barabbas had the gift to excite the crowd, mesmerize the mob and compel people to follow his vision. Jesus bar Joseph had the gift too. He called his twelve disciples by simply inviting them to “follow me.” Without knowing about what he believed or stood for, they dropped their nets and followed. Something charismatic must have been going on there.
A study in Educational Psychology was conducted among students in a medical school. Two lecturers were presented. The first was a distinguished scholar with impeccable credentials, significant achievements, scholarly publications and a rather dull but original presentation. The second was an actor named Dr. Fox who was presented as a medical scholar decked out with degrees from institutions which did not exist, publications from non-existent journals and awards from made-up societies. However, the actor was an attractive and charismatic speaker with a glowing personality and a twinkle in his eye. He spoke without notes and his presentation was lively, filled with humor and enthusiasm. He appeared highly knowledgeable with a firm grasp on fabricated statistics. Following the two lectures the students were asked: “From which lecturer did you learn the most?” Dr. Fox was highly rated even though no one caught or challenged his fictitious credentials. The students loved the charismatic presentation. They really liked him and therefore believed him.
Charisma is a gift. Like any gift, it can be used or abused. We are well-served to ask ourselves when witnessing a charismatic personality: am I attracted to this person because of the charisma or because of the value of the message? It seems that the crowd before Pilate was attracted to the charisma.
Can we be misled? How can we know who to follow?
Perhaps the best answer for learning how to identify false prophets and deciding who to follow was suggested by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount (from Matthew chapter 7):
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.”
Sometimes people and their messages look like the real thing but they are not. The disciples lived in a land with a variety of religions and philosophies. How would they know who to believe? How could they know who to trust?
With competition from other prophets, preachers or philosophers who would love to claim their following, how would the disciples know who to trust? How would they know which to believe? How could they discern what is good and true?
You will know them by their fruits, answered Jesus. By how they live. That is as true for the disciples as it is for you today.
The Apostle Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control… -- Galatians 5:22, 23 (RSV). When a Christian invites God’s spirit to dwell within and seeks to be live in God’s presence, these fruit become life goals. The follower aims at them and nurtures them. When running low on any of the fruits of the spirit, the follower asks God to infuse more of God’s spirit within. The fruit can be symptoms of a problem: a deficiency of the God’s spirit within. A person who is not kind, gentle or loving is one who, at that point, is lacking God’s spirit. For example, the Dali Lama said: Kindness is my religion. We suspect there is a lot more to his religion than one word but we understand what he means. If a person is not kind, who cares what is his or her religion? It does not seem to do them much good. If another is kind, we are inclined to see the Spirit’s inner light radiating from within. When a person is kind, you want to hear what they have to say. When a person is unkind, their words become useless. Kindness is a telltale sign of the Spirit’s presence. Kindness is like the canary in the mine. If the canary dies, poisonous methane gas is present. If the canary dies, run. Get out of the mine because poison is present. If kindness dies, poison is present and poses a critical threat to the health and survival of the soul.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. It becomes useless. Useless is not something you want to be. To the disciples and to us today, Jesus gives us a criteria for evaluating who to believe and what to believe: Thus you will know them by their fruits.” Fruits of the spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control. These fruits of the spirit must apply genuinely to people of every faith, gender, nationality, race, socio-economic status, experience, sexual orientation, color of skin or any other criteria. Every man and woman is a unique wonder, never to be repeated in all of history, and should be treated as God’s most sacred creation. To hold otherwise is a symptom of the spirit’s absence.
Someone has said there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not. Life is too complicated to divide it between an ugly evil and an attractive good. Sometimes the other worldview is attractive too. There have been bad leaders in our world and even when their actions were not God-like, they still had a following and sometimes a majority.
Jesus bar Joseph was the light shining in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. The Gospel of John (1:10-12) tells how “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In that kind of world Jesus Christ leads those who follow him to become children of God. When God’s spirit is in them, the fruits will be evident: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Perhaps you have heard sermons implying that if you were in the crowd on Good Friday, you too might have shouted “Release Barabbas. Crucify Jesus.” Maybe that was trying to play upon guilt or shame. The contrast between the two Jesuses is deeper than that and more subtle. The heart and soul of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to put God first – to seek first the kingdom of God. We may try and fail and try again but the expectation is that as followers we will live into a growing faith that puts first what should be first.
Scriptures to consider
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. …
Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!”
They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22, 23, 25
Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Mark 23:37, KJV
Why might understanding the events and teachings of Jesus during the six weeks prior to the cross might help you more fully appreciate the coming Day of Resurrection?
Do we make religion too complicated? Jesus taught unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Tell about what you think he meant. Do we hold too high expectations of ourselves or others when what God prizes most is our childlike faithfulness?
To a wealthy person who tried hard to live a good life and obey the commandments, Jesus said “You lack one thing.” Obviously just obeying the commandments were not enough. What are things that people might lack that hold them back from fully following Jesus? If Jesus were to lovingly look you in the eyes and say that you lack one thing, do you think you would be willing to get rid of it in order to follow him?
The most important part of Christianity is known as the two great commandments. What are they? How do you explain them? Jesus took the great Jewish Shema and added one word, to love God with all your mind. Discuss whether you think religion or spirituality can become so emotional that it diminishes an intellectual and thoughtful approach to God.
Jesus told a parable which explained that God will judge this way: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” How do you feel about being judged by God that way? Tell about a time when you did something or gave something simply because you wanted to do it for God. Discuss how your country, state or local government meets or does not meet the needs of its weakest members.
Towards the end of Jesus’ purple journey, he arrives at the hillcrest overlooking Jerusalem and cries: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee…” What does that mean? Why would a government at any level reject the wisdom and insight of prophets in its midst? Is this happening today?
Just before the cross Jesus stayed with his best friends. “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” Estimates of the value of this perfume suggest it was worth a year’s wages. Judas said that it was wasted and that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the needy (except that Judas would have stolen it for himself). The act was an extravagant gift of love. Discuss the merits of Mary’s act vs. Judas’ point. This was the last kind act anyone would ever do for Jesus. Tell about how in desperate or tragic times even the smallest act of kindness is treasured.
In the Garden, Jesus prayed “nevertheless not my will but thy will be done.” Could you pray that prayer? Even in times of utmost anxiety, could you tell God what you want but then yield yourself into God’s hand? Do we not prefer to be in control? Discuss how hard it is to “let go and let God.”
It is sometimes suggested that some in the Palm Sunday crowd which greeted Jesus with the waving of palms and shouts of adoration may have been the same crowd on Good Friday which shouted for him to be crucified. On Sunday the crowd proclaimed “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!” Five days later cries were raised to “Release Barabbas!”
A study of the biblical texts suggests that these were two different crowds. The Palm Sunday crowd was not the crowd which later cried for Jesus to be crucified. Rather, the Palm Sunday crowd was his loyal followers and because of them Jesus lived a little longer. The Palm Sunday crowd kept Jesus from being killed sooner. Because of his followers, Jesus’ adversaries could not get to him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” They intended to kill Jesus sooner but because of the crowd of Jesus’ supporters, they could not. Were it not for these crowds, the Pharisees would have handed him up months sooner. Had they succeeded, the world would have missed some of the most important parts of the bible.
What would we have missed? As we meditate upon the six weeks prior to Easter known as Lent, marked by the liturgical color of violet or purple, consider what Jesus was doing in these last six weeks. His purple journey began when he went to the mountain one last time to make sure he was choosing the right course. This became known as the Transfiguration. Then he came down the mountain and headed for Jerusalem and for the cross.
Jesus went up to the mountain to pray taking with him three of his disciples: Peter and the brothers John and James. On the mountain as Jesus prayed, the appearance of his countenance was altered. His face changed, which is what “transfiguration” means, and his clothing became dazzling white. Do not think of his face change as some sort of bizarre contortion. It was more along the lines of a person answering the phone who gets some very good news and you can see their whole face change. Jesus was sort of “on the line” with the glory of God and his face changed and he glowed.
The bible says the witnesses saw Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. What was the topic of conversation: His departure and his coming death on the cross. The bible points out that Peter, James and John were fighting to stay awake, but they did. They saw God’s glory. Peter was so overwhelmed that he wanted to stay up there forever.
A cloud came and overshadowed them. The disciples were terrified. A voice came out of the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Bible scholars say that the Transfiguration probably took place on Mt. Hermon, elevation 9,200 feet. It was so high it could be seen from the Dead Sea a hundred miles away.
This was a turning point in Jesus’ life. It is at this moment that Jesus turns to head for the cross, which is why it occurs a week before Lent begins. Like the Continental Divide where all the waters flow either to the Pacific or to the Atlantic, Jesus’ life was now flowing towards Jerusalem. Jesus went to the Mountain to seek the approval of God for the step he was about to take. He knew he was on the way to the Cross. He had told his disciples it was so. But he had to make quite sure beyond all doubt that he was doing what God wished him to do. He had to make certain that it was indeed God’s will that he should go to the Cross. Atop the mountain Moses, the great law giver to Israel and Elijah, the great prophet, essentially confirmed that Jesus was right to go on. Then came the very voice of God to assure Jesus that he was on the right way. A glimpse of the glory of God and Jesus was changed… transformed. In that moment, Jesus’ prayer was answered. He knew beyond a doubt that he was right to go on. Then he turned around and headed on his purple journey towards Jerusalem.
This begins the journey to the cross. For us this is known as the season of Lent, marked by the color purple. And these are the events or teachings we would have missed had Jesus’ supporters not protected him for a few weeks longer:
The mustard seed
On his journey to Jerusalem Jesus taught: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you’. (Matthew 17:20b)
The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds. You do not need the towering faith of a saint or the mature wisdom of a life tempered by experience. It is enough to come to Jesus with whatever faith you have. The mustard seed illustration invites you to trust that your faith is sufficient for God to use to give you the attitude to move mountains and to believe that nothing will be impossible for you.
Jesus himself never actually moved a mountain. He is using the teaching technique of hyperbole or a dramatic exaggeration to illustrate a great truth: if you have even the tiniest seed of faith you can move mountains of challenges, problems or opportunities. Should it ever feel too complicated or unrealistic, be reminded of how Jesus took the children into his arms and told how it is a simple, childlike faith that pleases God – a faith of love, trust, obedience and service.
Become like children
On his purple journey, Jesus blessed the children and gave a promising assurance that faith in God and access to The Almighty is available to those with the simplest of faith. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3
Faithfulness is what God wants most from you. When you consider the entire bible and think it is all a matter of rules, regulations, thou-shalt-nots or self-sacrifice then consider again. What God wants is for you to be God’s faithful child: to love, to obey and to follow. Perhaps that is why Jesus asked his followers to become like children. Mother Theresa said: “God does not call you to be successful. God calls you to be faithful.” Who bounds out of bed in the morning wondering how they can grow in faithfulness to God? Not most of us.
Children have a way of understanding… an innocence that enables them to grasp deeper mysteries perhaps better than adults, which may be why Jesus said “…unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 18:3). It is within your grasp but Jesus used the word “change.” Unless you change… Should it ever feel it is too complicated or unrealistic, be reminded of how Jesus took the children into his arms and told how it is a simple, childlike faith that pleases God – a faith of love, trust, obedience and service.
Is there something you lack?
A story is told in Mark 10 and Luke 18 about what might have been Jesus’ 13th disciple. On the route to Jerusalem, a man ran up to Jesus, knelt before him and asked: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “You know the commandments” and then he listed off half a dozen of the Ten Commandments. The young guy must have tried hard to live a good life and to do his best because he responded “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Mark explains how Jesus looked at him, loved him and said “You Lack One Thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Why does it say that Jesus loved him? There are few people in the gospels to whom it says Jesus loved them. Why this guy? Because Jesus is about to invite him to become a disciple. He is going to extend one of the most remarkable invitations in history, to say “Come, follow me” just like he did to Peter, Andrew, James, John, Bartholomew, Thaddeus, Thomas and the others. This is not a rhetorical question. Jesus loved him and the potential he had to become a child of promise and to fulfill his destiny.
Notice: the “go sell what you own” part is not spoken to you. It was for this one guy. It was a specific prescription for a specific patient. Jesus did not require poverty as a prerequisite to become a follower. He does not demand people to liquidate their investments or savings to be a Christian. Here is Jesus point: He said “You lack one thing.” That particular guy lacked the ability to connect with Jesus because his stuff got in the way. Except for his need to own, he could have been one of Jesus’ own. He could have walked with him and talked with him. He might have authored a gospel. To him and to him alone, Jesus observed “You lack one thing.”
Jesus’ statement was not spoken to or intended for you or me. However might there be anything that we put before God where God might turn to us, love us, call us by name and say “You lack one thing”? Anything that stops you from being able to give yourself to the Shepherd or keeps you from following God is what you lack. It could be material things, a need, a want or even the best laid plans.
Were it not for the crowd of Jesus’ supporters, his adversaries would have killed him sooner, what else might have been missed?
We would not have been inspired by the story of James and John competing for the highest places of honor, where Jesus told them how (Mark 10:45)… “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…”
We would not have the two Great Commandments. These are the hallmarks and foundation of the Christian faith: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39). These are drawn directly from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus took the great Jewish Shema from Deuteronomy and turned it into Christianity’s greatest commandment, except that he added one word: mind. This is a reminder that our love for God should also be a thinking faith as well as a feeling faith.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus revealed the Parable about “the least of these” which is also known as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats or the Parable of how God will judge. When God judges, God will favor those who helped people in need. The NRSV translates it: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” What we do to the “least of these” we do to God. Conversely, what we do not do to those in need, we fail to do to God. Mahatma Gandhi said “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” We might paraphrase Gandhi to make it personal, to say that a person’s greatness is measured by how he or she treats “the least of these.” When we help those in greatest need on the margins of our society, perhaps we will hear the King say: “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.”
In his final days, Jesus arrives and cries his lament over Jerusalem which has become one of the most notable laments in human literature: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee…” (found in Mark 23:37 and Luke 13:34).
There were two Last Suppers in his final week. The first came in Bethany, because that is where Jesus stayed whenever he came to Jerusalem, with his personal best friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary. In one of the most tender acts of extravagant love recorded in the bible “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The second was the Last Supper, a celebration of Passover with the disciples when they broke the bread and shared the cup. Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me.” And then, he was betrayed by one he trusted.
Were it not for the crowds, we would not have his words from his final conversation with the disciples, like when he comforted them: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many mansions. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? … Where I am, there you may be also.”
Nor would we have known about his Garden Prayer with its powerful example of total yieldedness to God: “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
Those are some of the things Jesus was doing or teaching about during the period of Lent, his and our purple journey from the transfiguration to the garden. Had it not been for his crowd of loyal supporters, it is likely he would have been put to death much sooner. In some ways that feels like a bittersweet accomplishment because he was put to death and in a cruel way. His life’s story is bittersweet, like the line from the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross which says “sorrow and love flow mingled down.”
Hopefully our walk with him on the purple journey will help us to gain a fuller overview of Lent and to appreciate more fully the Day of Resurrection when Easter comes and God makes all things new.
Scriptures to consider
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you’.
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him.“ One thing you lack, ”he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why: I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’ “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.’ “Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because – I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’ “Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’ “He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me – you failed to do it to me.’ “Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”
Matthew 25:31-46 (from The Message)
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
Mark 23:37, KJV
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:34)
From the cross Jesus said “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What do you think about forgiving people who have not asked for forgiveness? Are there people you find it hard or impossible to forgive? What are the benefits of forgiveness? The costs?
Jesus told the thief on the cross “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Why do you think Jesus said that to a thief being executed? Did the thief do or say anything worthy of Jesus’ assurance of paradise? Do you think this kind of grace can apply to people who have never sought to follow God? Would that bother you? Might it seem unfair? Does grace need to be fair?
Jesus cried “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Have you ever felt that way? Do you think God allows bad things to happen to good people? What would you say to someone who feels abandoned by God?
Jesus said “I thirst.” Tell about how you view Jesus on the cross – as a man, as God or as both. Would Jesus the Son of God feel pain, hurt, rejection and thirst or hunger like we do?
When Jesus said “It is finished” his words can also be translated as “It is completed” or “Mission accomplished.” What do you think he meant by this last word? Knowing that he would rise, make appearances and interact with people do you think that it might not be yet completed?
The final word from the cross was a quote from Psalm 31“Into your hand I commit my spirit” which goes on to offer a profound prayer of yielding to God: “But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God. My times are in your hand’.” Is that a prayer you would dare to pray? How do you feel about yielding your times into God’s hand? When you turn your problems over to God, do you trust God with them?
In what way do you think a person’s celebration of Easter Sunday is enhanced by reflecting upon or discussing the suffering of Jesus on the cross?
It is increasingly rare for people to attend a Good Friday service where they hear about the Seven Last Words from the Cross and rarer still for them to discuss the meditations about those words. And so, Lent is an appropriate time to hear them again, reflect upon them and discuss their meaning.
FIRST: Forgive them. The first of the seven last words: And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. (Luke 23:34).
This is one of the most incredible things that Jesus ever said. This word from the cross lifted forgiveness to its highest and best. A New Testament scholar was asked if Jesus forgave Judas for betraying him. The scholar pointed to this verse which would have included Judas and the Chief Priests, Pharisees and Scribes as well as the crowd that hollered “Crucify him.” It would logically extend from the cross to those even today who would betray him or ignore him: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” This is God-like forgiveness.
A woman asked if we must forgive people who have not asked us for forgiveness. “I can see forgiving those who ask me to,” she said, “but if they don’t ask, why should I bother forgiving them?” Good question. There may be some who have hurt you whom you feel you could never forgive. Notice that the ones who crucified Jesus did not ask for his forgiveness. They did not know what they were doing. They were acting in ignorance, selfishness and even meanness. They did not ask for his forgiveness but Jesus forgave them. This not only serves as a model for us on how to forgive but assures us that there is nothing we have ever done that could be outside the range of God’s forgiveness.
Christian forgiveness is an amazing thing. When Stephen was being stoned to death he too prayed (Acts 7:60) “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Then he died. There is nothing so amazing or rare as Christian forgiveness.
Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor, used to say to himself every morning, “Today you will meet all kinds of unpleasant people. They will hurt you, and injure you, and insult you. But you cannot live like that. You know better, for you are a person in whom the spirit of God dwells.” You cannot live like that. Sometimes we would like to live like that but we cannot because God’s spirit of love dwells within and love always seeks that which is in the highest and best interest of another.
We are Christ’s women and men who follow and imitate the one who said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
SECOND: Today you will be with me in Paradise.
The second word was spoken to the thief who hung by Jesus side. The two thieves on each side of Jesus where talking back and forth. One taunted Jesus: You… Messiah… Save yourself. Ha. Save us. The other essentially told the first to knock it off. “We’re getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he turned to Jesus and notice what he did NOT say: He did not ask for forgiveness. He did not say he was sorry for his deeds that led to his execution. He did not ask for any special privilege. He did not recite the Apostle’s creed, the Lord’s Prayer or memorized verses. He did not repent. He offered no remorse. He did not say “Oh, if only I had it to do all over again.” All he said was: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That is what led to the second word from the Cross: Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Legend names the thief Dysmas. Dysmas is the patron saint of convicted prisoners. Dysmas is the name known by every inmate on death row. That is about as low on the food chain of humanity as you can go and that is who Jesus spoke to: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus never said that to anyone else, even to all the good and faithful people with whom he came in contact. We might guess that the good go to be with Jesus when they die, but ironically, Dysmas is the only one in the gospels whom we know for sure is with Jesus.
Therein lies hope, not only for death row inmates but even for all the people you know and love who are not people of faith, who never darkened the door to a church, who never attended Church School or who never tried to live a life of love and forgiveness.
A personal illustration: I remember looking at my grandfather in his casket. I loved him, went to see him so many times, he took me fishing for catfish, I spent hours and days sitting in his barber shop with him but he did not like religion. He came to America as a teenager to run away from the church in Lithuania. Never went to church. Never mentioned God except to curse. I do not know if he ever prayed. Probably did not own a bible. I cannot say if he ever did anything to help another or lift a burden. He had prejudices. He would not have called himself a person of faith. But I loved him. He was my Grandpop and as I looked at him lying there, I found hope in this word from the cross: that if Jesus could accept and welcome Dysmas and promise him paradise, then there was hope for my grandfather too.
That is how big God is, with arms wide enough to hold the whole world in his hands: to forgive, to give his grace and to say even to a thief “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
THIRD: Behold your son… behold thy mother.
The third word from the cross comes from John 19:26: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
The unnamed disciple in this verse is John. This word from the cross occurs in John’s gospel. If you go to Ephesus this day, you will see the House of the Virgin Mary where Mary went to live with the Apostle St. John. Go online and search simply for “Ephesus Mary” to see many descriptions of John’s and Mary’s final residence.
Agonizing as it must have been to be crucified, imagine seeing your mother watch and sensing the pain she felt seeing her firstborn son die before her eyes. Mary was probably in her mid-forties. Scholars presume Joseph had since died, especially since he was not mentioned in any of the narratives about Jesus’ trials or crucifixion. Widows did not have much of a life or means of support in those days. From the cross, it was Jesus’ concern that his beloved mother be cared for by the disciple whom he loved. And, not insignificantly, it was Jesus’ concern for his faithful disciple that he would have Mary to be like a mother to him.
FOURTH: Why have you forsaken me?
The forth word: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This, like a number of Jesus’ words from the cross, was a quote from the Psalms. Jesus was quoting his own bible, the Hebrew Scriptures from Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”
It is often the words to a psalm or a hymn that come to mind in troubled times as well as in times of praise for God. Some read the Psalms, love them and internalize them so that the Psalms become their own words. Repeating a Psalm can often express a feeling better than our own words can express. This was the human side of Jesus speaking. He was God, he was man. Now he expresses the depths of despair and feelings of abandonment like we do. Perhaps that is a natural human thing to do.
After a natural disaster, it is not uncommon for the question to be raised: Where was God? How could a loving God allow this to happen? Same with violence on the streets or from wars or hunger, poverty, meanness, poor government leadership, disease or the loss of a loved one – we might question the same way. Did you ever feel that way? We know in our heart of hearts that God is with us and God loves us and loves them but there are times the question haunts: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
FIFTH: I thirst.
The fifth word: “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture), ‘I thirst’.”
When John adds the editorial comment “to fulfill the scripture” he is referring again to the Psalms (Psalm 69:21): “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” This incident also reveals the human suffering of Jesus. He was thirsty. It points to the meanness of the human spirit, giving him vinegar instead of water.
There is a deeper meaning as there often is with John. After Jesus said “I am thirsty” the next verse says “A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.” Only John tells that it was on a hyssop reed that they put the sponge containing the vinegar. A hyssop reed was a stalk like a strong grass which was no longer than two feet. Why use a hyssop reed to affix a sponge? John is referring to Exodus 12:22: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin.” That was the instruction to the captive Israelites in Egypt for the first Passover when the angel of death was to pass by and slay every first born son of the Egyptians. The Israelites were to slay the Passover lamb and smear the doorposts of their homes with its blood so that the angel of death would pass over their houses. It was the blood of the Passover lamb which saved the people of God. John is making the link: It was the blood of Jesus which was to save the world. When Christians celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, the words spoken also link to this verse: “For this cup is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out… for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:28)
The hyssop reed also provides an unexpected clue to an amazing fact. A soldier holding a two-foot stalk could reach Jesus’ mouth. That means that Jesus on the cross was only a couple feet off the ground. At crucifixions, the beam with the body was lifted and tied to the already affixed upright pole which typically was eight or nine feet high. That is not so high. Imagine a six foot tall man on a crossbeam attached to an eight foot pole. He would have been only a couple feet off the ground so that a two-foot stalk of grass could touch his lips. Depictions of the Crucifixion by artists sometimes have the cross way up high as if in the clouds and far removed from people. Not so. For Jesus’ painful and cruel death he was only a couple feet off the ground, close to people. Like people who hurt, Jesus too could cry “I thirst.”
SIXTH: It is finished.
The sixth word: Jesus said, in Greek, “tetelestai.” Translation: “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
That could sound like he lost the battle and just gave up, with a shout like that. His shout must have made a powerful impression for it is in every one of the gospels. It is John which adds that he died with the shout “It is finished” (John 19:30). In English, that could sound like a sad ending or a cry of being defeated. But in the original language of Greek, tetelestai can mean the opposite. It means mission accomplished. It is a victor’s shout, as a racer might shout crossing the finish line. An accurate translation could be “It is completed” as Jesus finished the work that God sent him to accomplish.
Those who have enjoyed the benefit of concluding a successful career as they enter retirement might have some of this same sense. They have completed their work. While they might look back to reminisce, they are best served to look ahead with the faith that the best is yet to come. On Good Friday, Jesus completed the work God send him to do. But… Sunday is coming!
SEVENTH: Into thy hands…
The seventh word from the cross: “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.”
One last time Jesus quoted the Psalms. Psalm 31:5 was his last word: “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.” This is one of the beautiful prayers of yielding to God. Interestingly, it was a prayer that Jewish girls and boys were taught to pray at bedtime much like you might have been taught “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray Thee Lord my soul to keep…”
How tenderly beautiful and ironic that those are the last words Jesus spoke from the cross. Jesus died with a child’s prayer on his lips. The Psalm, which Jesus would have known well, continues in verse 14 to offer one of the most powerful prayers you could ever pray: But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, “You are my God. My times are in your hand.” The most beautiful prayers in the bible are the shortest and this is one of the best of all. You can pray it about anything, entrusting into God’s hand whatever it is that you worry about or the one you are caring about. Turn it over to God: My son or daughter is in your hand. My health is in your hand. My career is in your hand. This conflict I am facing is in your hand. What I am worrying about is in your hand. You can make the substitution to place anything into God’s hand.
And so, Jesus died with complete trust and yielding into God’s hand, from whence he came and to where he will return.
Easter Sunday is coming. And yet, Easter becomes more meaningful when you reflect upon the passion of Jesus on the cross, even to sympathize with him in his suffering. The word sympathize comes from words which means “to suffer with.” When we suffer with him, we also rejoice with him as the Easter words are spoken: He is not here but has risen!
SEVEN LAST WORDS OF CHRIST:
FIRST: And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” And they cast lots to divide his garments. (Luke 23:34). COMPARE: “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. But you, O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!” (Psalm 22:18, 19)
SECOND: And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) COMPARE: “Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
THIRD: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home. (John 19:26)
FORTH: And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew. 27:46; also Mark 15:34) COMPARE: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1)
FIFTH: After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), “I thirst.” (John 19:28) COMPARE: “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (Psalm 69:21)
SIXTH: When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
SEVENTH: Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46) COMPARE: “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.” (Psalm 31:5)
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.
We understand little about the Holy Spirit. What we know from Jesus’ lips was told about the night before he died. Discuss what you know or have heard about the Holy Spirit.
Jesus told the disciples that after he goes, the Holy Spirit will come. He said that the world cannot receive the Holy Spirt. Why cannot the world see or know the Holy Spirit?
Jesus said If you love me, you will keep my commandments. It seems like there is a decline in the number of people who love him. People may know about him but that is not the same as loving him. Discuss in your group if loving Jesus is how you would characterize your faith. Tell about Jesus’ commandments you might not keep except for the reason of your love for him.
You know him, Jesus said of the Holy Spirit. Does that apply to you? Tell about how you know or have experienced the Holy Spirit. Have you ever looked back on an event in your life and wanted to say “That was the work of the Holy Spirit”?
One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to testify on Jesus’ behalf. Since the world cannot know or receive the Holy Spirit, we would assume the testifying is to those who already believe. What is the point of that? Do you think people who are open to the work of the Holy Spirit are more likely to grow or strengthen their faith than those who are not as open? If so, would that not encourage individuals to seek the Holy Spirit’s testifying? Would that not encourage churches to do so as well?
There is a saying: “That which you are seeking is guiding you to seek.” Have you ever felt guided in such a way? Do you think that was the work of the Holy Spirit?
Another function of the Holy Spirit is to guide you into all the truth. Discuss experiences where you have felt guided or led by the Holy Spirit. Did you feel the Holy Spirit’s guiding at the time or was it afterward that you considered that you were guided?
A denominational leader traveled his state visiting churches. Many seemed to lack in spirit and most seemed to be declining in attendance or influence. When asked the impressions from his visits he concluded “I think the Holy Spirit has departed from our churches.” What do you think he meant by that? How would you wish churches to become even more open to the work of the Holy Spirit?
After Jesus left, the disciples scattered and hid. They feared the authorities would come next for them. There was little courage and much disorientation. Jesus’ followers had no idea what would happen next. Then the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost and it changed them from despair to courage. Their lives turned around and they became known as “the men who had turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Do you think the Holy Spirit comes to people that way today and changes them into something new?
In Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples he concluded “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Some religious leaders have proclaimed that God is still speaking. God continues to reveal God’s word through the Holy Spirit. John Robinson, the pastor to the Pilgrims who stayed behind when the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower, said: “I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word.” Why would God not continue to reveal more truth and light? In contrast, a few religious leaders disagree and say that no, God has already spoken through God’s word in the Holy Bible. To them, everything needed to be known is contained in the bible. What do you think? Has it all been said already? Or is there more to come? Can you give examples of ways in which God is still speaking?
What comes next after Jesus? This is a question worthy of conversation towards the end of Lent. Jesus told them about it after they ate the Last Supper in a lengthy conversation known as the Farewell Discourse. This is his final teaching before the cross. They were afraid, of course, once they comprehended that he was really going away. He comforted them… “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). They must have wondered to themselves… what comes next? What is going to happen? Will we be alone?
Sprinkled throughout his farewell discourse Jesus used the word Paraclete four times to refer to what will come after he is gone: the Holy Spirit. There are other times Jesus spoke about the spirit of God using the word pneuma. The disciples were familiar with that but the Paraclete is something new. The Paraclete passages are full of intrigue and mystery. They are supposed to. They tell better than anywhere else in the bible what is known about the Holy Spirit and these teachings were revealed by Jesus the night before he died.
Reflecting upon the work of the Holy Spirit usually occurs on Pentecost Sunday weeks after Easter. Why do this in Lent? Because what we know about the Paraclete is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching during the period we call Lent. What we know about the Holy Spirit from Jesus’ own lips is presented in the final chapters of the Gospel of John. John is the only gospel where the Paraclete is found.
The Revised Standard Version translates the word as “Counselor.”
The New Revised Standard Version translates it as “Advocate”
The King James Version translates the word as “Comforter.”
Today’s English Version translates the word as “Helper.”
The Contemporary English Version simply translated the word as “The Holy Spirit.”
Counselor… Advocate… Comforter… Helper. The most accurate translation is probably advocate. An advocate is one who is “on your side.” Attorneys are sometimes called advocates because they are hired to be on your side. The Holy Spirit, following after the manner of Jesus, is on your side. On a day-to-day basis, the Holy Spirit is your helper.
Consider the four Paraclete Passage:
FIRST: The spirit abides in you
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:15-17)
This is the first time the disciples are introduced to the Paraclete. There is so much packed into this passage:
If you love me… Underline the word “if.” Jesus’ first Paraclete passage begins with the conditional word if. The word if presumes a condition: IF this THEN that. For example, IF you turn out the lights at night THEN you cannot see well. IF you want a good job THEN you will need education. The IF is not a requirement. It is a choice. Jesus does not and cannot require anyone to love him. No person can require another to love him or her. But IF you do, THEN certain behavior or action will follow. IF you love another person THEN you will want to give them the bigger piece of the cookie when you break it to share. IF you love your child or grandchild THEN you will sacrifice for them. So Jesus starts by saying “IF you love me…” If you do THEN you will keep my commandments. People do things for love that they would never do if it was simply required. Who would ever love their enemies or pray for those who persecute them except for the reason that they love Jesus.
You will keep my commandments. What commandments? Presumably by this time they knew and did not require them to be repeated. Presumably by this time you do too. You know how Jesus took the Ten Commandments and all of their variations and funneled them into two which are known as the great commandments: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). This may be the most important verse in the bible. #1: Love God. #2: Love neighbor. Who is my neighbor? The answer is found in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The commandments are not new. They are found in the oldest parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus zeroed in on them and lifted them up to be his two most important commandments, so important that everything else in the law and prophets hang on these two. Get these two right and you will grasp Christianity. “IF you love me” THEN you will keep these commandments. IF you love him, you will put God first in your life. Second, love all of God’s children, no exceptions.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate. Advocate? This is the first time the word Paraclete is ever used. Another advocate? What does ANOTHER mean? What were the disciples hearing, feeling or sensing? This implies that Jesus himself was their first advocate. When Jesus goes ANOTHER will come… the Holy Spirit.
To be with you forever. You cannot blame the disciples for wondering: Jesus was with them for three short years. How long will the next one last? Answer: Forever. This is the spiritual tipping point of the universe. Jesus after thirty-three years on earth will depart. The next, the Paraclete, will stay with them and us forever.
*Whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him*… Does this sound a bit unfair? Why cannot the world receive the Holy Spirit? Is God so judgmental that God only sends the Spirit to a selected segment of the faithful? If God so loved the world, why would not God want everyone to receive the spirit? Who is considered “the world”? “The world” is composed of people who do not desire to know God, love God or to keep the commandments. So why can the world not see him or know him? It may be a matter of self-selection. The world is not interested. The world does not care to know God, love God or keep the commandments. It is the world’s choice. They have self-selected out. It is not so much a matter of a person being an atheist or agnostic. Today the word is apatheists. That comes from the word apathy. It is not that apatheists do not acknowledge that the Lord is a shepherd. They just do not care. They are indifferent to it. To imitate Christ has no interest. The word apathy comes from the Greek words meaning without feeling. It is possible to acknowledge that something exists and yet have no feeling about it. U.S. polls frequently report that more than nine out of ten Americans believe there is a God. But believing that God exists or describing the characteristics of God is a far cry from describing yourself as one who chooses to be owned by and managed by the Shepherd. This is the difference between knowing God and knowing God. The world cannot see or know the Paraclete because it does not desire to.
You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. Knowing about God, the bible, church, theology or ecclesiastical traditions is nothing compared to knowing God. You know him. God is within you. God’s light radiates outward. When the Holy Spirit abides within, a person becomes changed. Paul wrote that if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come. Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit being in you. That changes what you want. It changes your goals and your desires. Now the highest desire is to aim at what Paul called the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control (Galatians 5:22, 23, RSV). Those are not the world’s aims. Rather, those become the aims of a person when the Paraclete abides within.
SECOND: The Paraclete will teach you and remind you
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:25, 26)
While I am still with you. Perhaps this is like the doctor calling you with bad news about test results which you suspected but hearing the doctor say it hits like a ton of bricks. Get the message, boys: I am going. I am really going away. Tomorrow. Perhaps this strikes the disciples as a turning point. Now they hear it from his own lips. Among their many questions, one of the topmost would likely be “Then what?”
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. If there was every any doubt, the comma is an equal sign: The Paraclete = the Advocate = The Holy Spirit. For us looking back, we know this. For the disciples, this is new. Jesus herein introduces the third person of the Trinity. Consider three important messages from this phrase. First, there is the use of the definitive article: THE. The Holy Spirit is not just the spiritual side of God but is a being in and of itself. Second, HOLY. The Spirit is holy like God. It is sacred. Third, SPIRIT. There are other words used for spirit in the Old and New Testaments. When Jesus spoke with Nicodemus about being born of the spirit, he used a word (pneuma) as he likened the spirit to wind. Now Jesus reveals the coming of The Holy Spirit, the Parakletos. When you add the definite article and the word holy to the traditional word for spirit, it becomes a new word and a new person of the Trinity: The Holy Spirit.
Will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. This phrase tells two of the key functions of the Holy Spirit. What does the Holy Spirit do? TEACH. How does the Holy Spirit teach? Consider the different ways people are taught and how they learn. The least effective learning style is by lecture. The most effective is learning by discovery. It may be that the Holy Spirit will teach you by declaring it loud and clear. Perhaps more likely, the Holy Spirit may lead you to learn by discovery. The Holy Spirit leads the Christian deeper and deeper into the truth of God. The Holy Spirit leads you into how best to live. REMIND. The Holy Spirit stirs in your mind, in your memory and in your subconscious. This is one of the reasons it is worthy to put some of the bible into your mind, so that it can be called to mind when it is needed or when the Holy Spirit wants to teach you. Sometimes when we think of in life as moving ahead on autopilot it is the Holy Spirit piloting us. Jesus assures the disciples that they are not alone in carrying on the Master’s work. The Holy Spirit is with them, will speak through them, teach them what they need to know and remind them of what Jesus taught and stood for. The word educate comes from a root word meaning to lead. The Holy Spirit, following after Jesus, will lead them and us.
THIRD: The Holy Spirit will testify on my behalf
“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.” (John 15:26)
When the Advocate comes. Note the word when. The Holy Spirit has not come yet. This is the promise of what will come when Jesus goes. This is the answer to the question raised by the title of this chapter: What comes next after Jesus?
Whom I will send to you from the Father. Remember that this study comes from the Gospel of John, the different gospel. It is unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke. Instead of beginning with the story of Christ’s birth, John begins by likening Jesus to the Greek concept of the logos, THE WORD. Jesus is The Word. Jesus was with God since the beginning and Jesus is God: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And then, God became human in the person of Jesus: And the Word became flesh and lived among us. John’s Gospel represents the highest view of Jesus as God, especially where he described Jesus saying: “The Father and I are one.” This is a divine mystery and difficult to fathom yet what John explains is that God and Jesus are one, the first to persons of the Trinity. Now, proceeding from them, the third person of the Trinity is soon to become a reality.
He will testify on my behalf. To testify is to tell about something which you believe in or which meets your needs. Testifying comes from personal experience. It is telling your own story. For example, if you testify about how your church meets your needs, who can argue? You are not telling others what they must do or believe but are giving your own witness about how your needs are met. It is like the phrase “word of mouth advertising.” When a person tells his or her story, you can tell whether or not he or she really believes what he or she is saying. To whom will the Holy Spirit testify on Jesus’ behalf? Jesus explained that previously: not to the “world.” The world cannot receive the Paraclete. Therefore we must assume that the Holy Spirit will testify to people who desire to receive the Paraclete… to believers. This is an intriguing thought. If people of faith already believe, why is the Holy Spirit needed to testify on Jesus’ behalf? The Paraclete testifies to build your trust, increase your faith, to strengthen and to undergird you. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. And so this function of the Holy Spirit is for you and for your benefit.
FOURTH: He will guide you into all the truth
Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. (John 16:7-14)
It is to your advantage that I go away. These men dropped their nets on the dock, walked away from life as they knew it and followed him devotedly for three years. They loved him. So how could it possibly be to their advantage for him to go away? Jesus answered the question in the next phrase: for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you. In other words, from Jesus’ point of view something better is coming. You could forgive the disciples for wishing it were not so. And yet they trusted Jesus and his promise of a new connection to God: The Holy Spirit will be the presence of the absent Jesus. When will the Paraclete come? At Pentecost.
He will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. Because this is an important function of the Holy Spirit, dig deeper into how other versions translated the verb prove. It is convince in the RSV, expose in The Message, show the people of this world the truth in the CEV and convict in the ASV. The Holy Spirit, along with teaching and reminding, will convince people about sin (disobedience of God), righteousness and judgment. Notice from earlier in the Gospel of John (3:17) that Jesus was not sent to condemn the world but to save it. A good translation for the word save is “to make whole.” To make the world whole was Jesus’ highest wish and teaching. To Jesus, wholeness is found in relationships: your relationship with God and your relationship with God’s children (all men and women). A good translation for the word righteousness is “right relationships.” And so, the Holy Spirit continues Jesus’ work: to lead women and men into the right relationship with God and with others. That is the path to becoming whole.
I still have many things to say to you. Imagine hearing first-hand the teachings of Jesus and then at the end he tells you there is still more. The implication here is that the Holy Spirit will continue revealing God’s truth to humans. Comedienne Gracie Allen said “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” God is still speaking and continues to reveal more.
He will guide you into all the truth. This too is a Divine mystery. When it comes to religion, people of faith can differ 180 degrees about what is truth. Put two Christians in a room and you will find three opinions about the truth. In his farewell discourse, Jesus was speaking directly to the disciples who were destined to carry on his work. It was critical that they be guided into all the truth, so that their writings and words about what Jesus taught ring rightly throughout the eons. If the Holy Spirit did that for the disciples, we can hope the Holy Spirit will do that for us too. We can hope that the Holy Spirit will cause in us a motivation to desire to search for truth. That will likely lead to an understanding about Jesus’ most important teachings which radiate out of his two greatest commandments – which are about relationships. We knew that, but it helps to be taught, reminded, convinced and guided.
Those are the primary functions of the Holy Spirit which Jesus revealed on the night when he was betrayed before he went into the Garden to pray, be arrested and led to the Cross. The Paraclete passages, full of mystery and intrigue, tell us of the functions of the Holy Spirit: Advocate. Teach. Remind. Testify. Convince. Guide. The Paraclete is not known by the world, who cannot see it and does not desire to. Rather, the Paraclete is for those who seek God, for you.
We need to know about God but even more, we as people of faith desire to know God. The Paraclete Passages lead us to see that it is the Holy Spirit that guides us to experience the Divine.
Scriptures to consider
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”
John 14:25, 26
“When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.”
“Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
John Zehring served United Church of Christ congregations for twenty-two years as Senior Pastor in Massachusetts (Andover), Rhode Island (Kingston), Maine (Augusta) and as an Interim Pastor (Arlington, MA). Prior to parish ministry, he served in executive administration at colleges and a theological seminary for more than two decades. He is the author of more than two dozen books and eBooks.
â€œLent Discussions for Curious Christiansâ€ stimulates engaging conversations for study groups during the six weeks of Lent, which is why there are six chapters. Each chapter begins with discussion starters to stimulate the conversation. Then reflections and background information is provided followed by scripture texts connected to the questions. The discussions push the envelope to raise tough questions about Jesus final weeks, his death and resurrection. However, wrestling with challenging ideas is creative because the mind attempts to resolve conflict. Conversation with other questioners contains the potential to strengthen current belief, to grow oneâ€™s faith, to love God with our minds as well as our hearts and to consider which parts of belief are most important. Some of the questions raised by curious Christians include: Why did God allow Jesus to die? Was Jesus God, man or both? As the stone which the builders rejected, Jesus faced rejection. How do you face rejection? What was Jesus doing during Lent? What if a person has serious questions about the physical resurrection? How can you understand the idea that Jesus died for our sins? Could there be another understanding? What was the last thing Jesus revealed the night before he died? What comes after Jesus? As curious Christians, we are well-served to work our way through Lent so that we are more fully prepared to celebrate the Day of Resurrection. Allow yourself and your group to seek the leading of the Holy Spirit to guide you into truth, to remind you of Jesusâ€™ teachings and to build up your faith through the asking of questions.