Friday, April 12, 2019

Luke 22:39-62

There is a powerful song -- probably one of the earliest Christian worship songs -- recorded in Philippians 2. It talks about how the eternal Son of God did not count his status as God something to be grasped but emptied himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Theologians talk about this as Jesus' kenosis, from the Greek word used here to describe this "emptying." What we see in this passage of Luke is still more of Jesus emptying himself. At the beginning of this passage you could make the argument that Jesus is still a powerful figure. He is an influential teacher, the leader of a committed group of disciples. He has widespread appeal to masses of people and some influential friends. His miracles and his movement have drawn the attention of both the crowds of common people and of the ruling elite. Little by little, everything is stripped from Jesus.

Jesus goes in darkness to the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, to pray. This was near the home of his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus, but Jesus stays in the garden that night, in a grove of ancient olive trees. He is in agony, knowing what is to come and yearning for another way forward. His committed disciples are a short distance away, but they're sleeping. Of course they still believe themselves loyal, even to death, but they just can't stay awake.

Except Judas. Judas is wide awake, and he leads a band of thugs to this spot precisely for the purpose of betraying Jesus. The disciples try to fight and Jesus prevents the conflict from escalating. Cut off from their "fight" reflex, the disciples resort to "flight" and run off into the darkness. Jesus is left alone with his betrayer and with those who will take him to an illegal trial under cover of darkness.

Peter trails along at a distance in the dark. He longs to stand up for Jesus, but after being rebuked by Jesus for striking out with his sword (not to mention proving himself a less-than-adequate swordsman by merely cutting off a man's ear) he is uncertain. Like so many of us Peter is drawn to Jesus but afraid to take a stand.

Peter's presence provides the next step in Jesus' emptying. As long as Peter kept his mouth shut, we might believe that at the very least, scattered though they are, Jesus' followers remain loyal. We might say that Jesus still has some stalwarts hidden here and there. But Peter betrays this fantasy for what it is. Peter speaks three times, each time denying that he even knows Jesus -- and this (in all likelihood) happens in Jesus' hearing.

The eternal Son of God gave up the glory of heaven -- the incessant worship of angels who  sang his praises and proclaimed his power, the acknowledgement that it is him, the Son, who holds all the universe together -- he gave all that up to become human. In the measureless wisdom of God, he was born as a tiny baby in an out-of-the-way corner of Judea. We celebrate that at Christmas every year. But here the incarnation becomes complete in its unfathomable existential measure: Jesus is cut off from his community, his influence, his reputation. He is no longer the one who gave sight to the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. Instead, he is a shameful criminal, deserted by his band of rabble and pressed into an inquisition under cover of darkness.

He is truly what Isaiah described -- despised and rejected, a man from whom we hide our faces. Smitten and rejected, utterly alone, without appeal and without beauty.

Strangely, the Bible insists that Jesus did this for us. There are depths to plumb here, but for the moment let it be enough to say this: No matter what rejection you have suffered, what betrayals you have endured; no matter what loneliness haunts you, what isolation cuts you off from love and from community; no matter how your reputation has been smeared, no matter how your actions and words have been twisted, Jesus has been there before you, and he has fallen deeper into the abyss than you have gone. You are not alone in the pit. The Son of God loved you and gave his life -- not just his ability to breathe, not just his heartbeat, but his relationships, his reputation, his status -- for you. He died the death you fear, so that you are never, can never be alone. Even if your narrative gets worse -- and it might -- so will Jesus' story. He has the trials, the flogging, the cross yet to endure. But in the end, he died your death so that you need not endure without hope, and he rose from death so that you know you, too, will rise -- not just from death but from meaninglessness, from hopelessness, from alienation and isolation. The Garden of Gethsemane is for you. The cross is for you. The resurrection is for you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Luke 22:24-38

It is the night of Jesus' betrayal and arrest. He has shared in his last meal with the disciples, and now he has a few key things to teach them before he is taken from them. What will he focus on?

Jesus' initial teaching goes to the heart of his message, but it doesn't arise from a carefully prepared lesson plan. Instead, Jesus responds to his disciples' bickering -- whether playful or serious, we can't know -- about who would have the highest station in his coming kingdom. There is so much a person could say about this: the height of the disciples' rudeness, how completely they have missed his point over the past three years, the radical shift in understanding that is to come in the next few days, and more. Let's focus for just a moment on what seems to be Jesus' key point. He contrasts the world's understanding of authority and power and greatness over against his own kingdom and a kingdom-based understanding of power. Jesus says "I am among you as one who serves."

Then Jesus says something that, if we're not careful, sounds like underneath it all he truly does buy into this world's views on power. He affirms that the disciples have stayed with him in his trials (v. 28) and he goes on to say that he is giving them his kingdom, just as his Father gave it to him, that they may eat and drink and serve as judges in that kingdom. Our initial assumption about Jesus' meaning might be that finally they will be rewarded for their faithfulness -- that Jesus will give them some indulgence, some reward. Be careful here: Our views on what constitutes power have been so twisted by this world's assumptions that we are in great danger of completely missing Jesus here.

When Jesus assigns a kingdom to his disciples, when he affirms them for standing with him over time and trial, when he tells them they will eat and drink and judge the twelve tribes of Israel, he is not conferring titles and uniforms and power structures on them. Rather, he is telling them that as he has invited them to follow him and they have obeyed, they will step into his character and his role. He is the one who rules over the kingdom as the suffering king. He is the one who eats (by being obedient to his Father's will, cf. John 4) and drinks the cup he is about to suffer (cf. v. 42). He is the judge who, by his very presence and by people's reactions to him, judges the nation. So the disciples will "rule" by embodying Jesus' nature as the suffering king. They will be figures of immense spiritual authority as they go out into the world to proclaim Jesus' resurrection, and they will suffer terribly. They will recognize God's will to save the nations through Jesus' death and resurrection and through their proclamation, and they will strive to be obedient to that will. They will take up the cup of martyrdom. They will indeed inherit Jesus' kingdom. They will proclaim freedom for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberty for the oppressed in the name of the risen King Jesus.

None of this confers on them the authority to raise an army, levy taxes, build a property base, or line their own pockets. When Jesus' followers have stepped into these kinds of worldly activities, we are a far cry from his kingship and his kingdom. As if to make this comically clear, Jesus advises the disciples to arm themselves (this is a tough passage for those who say Jesus is a pure pacifist). In response to Jesus' words about making sure they have swords, the disciples say they have two. Hardly an army, not enough even to be an armed gang -- but Jesus says it is enough.

Working through the gospel of Luke these past months, I have been struck over and over again how completely Jesus turns the values of our world upside-down, and how hard it is for us to read his words without simply importing them into our own understandings. We must learn to know Jesus' character and read his heart. As we do, we will find ourselves bit by bit transformed until we look like him in some ways ... and we will begin to take up the kingdom of servant-love he has assigned to us.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Luke 22:1-23

The threads of the story draw together now. The authorities have taken their stand against Jesus, and have moved from being disgruntled and upset about him to actively plotting to kill him. Jesus' disciples are nervous, even terrified, but even more they are clueless and simply trying to follow faithfully. Judas steps up to be the tool of Jesus' betrayal, willingly putting himself in the breach between the Jewish authorities and their plots and Jesus' last few days of human freedom before his death.

What of Jesus? Do we see Jesus as a victim or victor here? In the way of biblical truth, Jesus is both. Biblical truth is usually paradoxical; we must not choose a middle ground that reconciles the extremes, but rather live in both ends of the extremes at once. Most of the classic arguments of Christian theology find their best solutions in this methodology. Take, for example, the ongoing debate in our day between those who say God is absolutely sovereign and all is predetermined, on one hand, and those who say we are free to choose salvation on the other. Sometimes these positions are labeled Calvinism and Arminianism, though I'm of course caricaturing both without doing justice to either. But I know several prominent Christian schools that expect their students to choose, and thereby to align themselves with one or the other. How can we do this? The only way to do Christian theology in a biblical way is to live at both extremes. Of course God's sovereignty extends to the movement of every atom in the universe. Of course God has given us mind-boggling freedom to choose. If we let go of either extreme, our theology quickly becomes twisted and unbiblical.

Jesus here is absolutely a victim. He is the innocent lamb, about to be taken by the powers, run through an illegal sham of a trial, and sacrificed through the machinations of the Roman overseers. Satan will have a field day manipulating the temple authorities, the Roman governor, the disciples, Judas, and all the rest. How can you read this story and not have a terrible, pit-of-the-stomach sense of revulsion and hopelessness in the face of such injustice, such brutality, such horror?

But Jesus is the victor. Like Aslan knowing the deeper magic of the Stone Table, Jesus deftly navigates the machinations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. He has carefully arranged allies in key positions that will allow him to fulfill the scriptures, to tie together the threads of the Passover into a simple meal of bread and wine that he will bequeath to his followers in the night in which he is betrayed. He directs Peter and John to the upper room like a spymaster, knowing the hours are counting down and he will soon give himself to those who will beat and crucify him. He is absolutely powerless and absolutely in control.

There is hope for us in seeing Jesus in this biblical way. We have freedom to create webs of sin and error, intrigue and entropy, and we deal with the consequences of our own actions. We bear our sin and its fathomless stupidity. At the same time, Jesus, the Crucified One, lives to pardon us, to wipe our slates clean, to speak a new identity into our poisonous webs: There is therefore now no condemnation. Find yourself in me. Know yourself through my Father's words. You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

Both are true. You are a sinner, deserving of complete condemnation. You are completely free, exalted in Christ to complete innocence before your heavenly Father.

You say you can't reconcile these extremes? Don't try. Hold them in tension, rather, and use each to respond to the other. When you wake up and see only ugliness in the mirror, hear the words of Jesus calling you his beloved. When you exult in your achievements and your holiness, be reminded that you are completely undeserving, saved only by the goodness of God's grace.