Good Friday Reflection

ImageIt is Good Friday.  That is a somewhat strange title for such a gruesome day.  After all, it is on this day that we are reminded that God was not the one demanding the cross, we were.  On this day we stood in the crowd and told Pilate: “You are no friend of Ceasar’s if you let this man go.”  Even as Pilate returned from questioning Jesus and said he found no fault with the man, we were not satisfied.  We yelled, “We have no king but Ceasar!  Crucify Jesus!  Crucify him!  Crucify him!  We demanded that a life be taken.   

But the “Good” was not found in us… it was found in him.  Jesus had told his disciples he would be raised up and would draw all nations to him.  The crucifixion, of all things, would be the very means by which God would draw people to God (John 12:32)!  God transformed the instrument of our violence (the cross) into an instrument of God’s peace and reconciliation. Miroslav Volf helps us think about this deeper: “Christ is not a third party inserted between an angry God and sinful humanity; he is the God who was wronged embracing humanity on the cross.”

Remember the night of Jesus betrayal?  In that “Last Supper” with his disciples, Jesus took the bread and after giving thanks, he broke it, saying, “This is my body…”  Likewise, he took the cup and blessed it, saying, “This is my blood…”  It is only with time that the disciples begin to better understand that God’s taking on flesh through Jesus, God’s participation with humanity, paves the way for our participation with God.  His flesh sanctifies our flesh.  His life becomes our life.  In Christ, God becomes accustomed to “tabernacling” with humanity and humanity becomes accustomed to living with God.  The cross becomes the means by which God demonstrates God’s unfailing love for the whole of creation.  It is the tangible action showing God is willing to go to the very depths of hell to save all of Creation. God received our violence while pouring out his grace. 

In the final moments on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  By the tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, sin and death entered this world.  By the second tree, the cross, sin and death have been conquered.  Christ became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).  Reconciliation.  Redemption,  Recapitulation.

With his last breath, Jesus “gave up his spirit.”  At this moment, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in two.  The earth shook and the rocks split.  Everything that had once seemed so sure, so rock-solid… everything was shaken to the core. Sin, the means by which we live for ourselves, secure our desires, and maintain “control” – shaken.  Enmity between humanity and God – shaken.  Our inability to live obediently as God’s people – shaken.  Death, the bedrock of all we know – shaken!  All these things had given way to a more solid reality: God’s Love. 

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the punishment of God. 10 For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned—For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  16 And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. 17 If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 19 For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5: 6-11;15b-21).

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“Christ and the Powers” by Hendrik Berkhof

This is a very short book, but it is extremely dense.  Berkhof makes several observations about the Powers.  First, it is important to recognize that the Powers were created by God as part of the “good” Creation.  They are instruments to bring order to the Creation and they find their purpose in Christ, who is their Head.  However, the Powers are broken due to sin.  This legion of Powers now often works in ways that are not reflective of God’s character and nature.  They are coercive and their way always leads to death.  On the surface, they promise well-being and stability.  In some sense, they deliver on that promise, but always at the cost of our very lives.  It is both a material and spiritual problem.  We are enslaved to the system.

The work of Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection breaks the dominion of the Powers.  Christ’s crucifixion actually unmasks the Powers for what they truly are.  The resurrection is the sign of Christ’s reign and the Powers “dethronement.”  The Church is also a sign that the Powers no longer rule.  The Body of reconciled believers that contains both Jews and Gentiles, demonstrates Christ’s reign once again over Creation.  The Church is called to stand firm against the Powers, not defeat them… that is Christ’s role.  Rather, the Church unmasks the Powers by living out Christlikeness.  The Powers are further destabilized by preaching and teaching Christ, which opens our eyes to the true reality of our broken world.

The Powers can never really come back to autonomous authority.  But, we live in the “now and not yet” which means that the Powers still vie for dominion.  They do so in three ways: secularism, legalism, and “restoration.”  Berkhof suggests that the Church is largely responsible for these trends and offers the only worthwhile response to the de-stabilization of the Powers: following and embodying Christ.  In other words, we recognize that the Powers are still at work, but we maintain their proper role, which is subordinate to Christ.  We recognize that the “authorities” are broken people needing to be reconciled to Christ.  We do not follow “ideology” but continue to pray that Christ would be made manifest through the Powers’ work.

Berkhof states it succinctly, “It can happen that Christ’s church, by her preaching, her presence, and the patterns of life obtaining within her fellowship, may represent such a mighty witness and so forcefully address the consciences of men far beyond her borders, that they generally orient themselves by this reality, tacitly accepting it as a landmark.  They do so because they know of no better gaurantor of a decent life, of mercy, freedom, justice, and humanity than a certain general acknowledgment of the sovereignty of Christ, or (as they prefer to say it) of ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christian values'” (58).

Theological Vision of the Old Testament

God speaks.  The Spirit of God hovers of the waters of pre-creation chaos.  In the midst of that chaos a word is breathed, ordering the chaos and separating the waters from the waters.  Space is created.  Space in which life is possible, sustained by God’s life-giving blessing: “It is very good.”  God speaks and the Creation responds.

Chaos seems to be quite the wily serpent for it rears its ugly head to strike.  Humanity questions God’s goodness and clenches the fist of rebellion, grasping the fruit of knowledge so that they might “be like God.”  Humanity becomes both perpetrator and victim to the sin that so easily corrupts.  Humanity does not engage in dialogue with God, merely speaks to the serpent about God.  In the end, they find themselves naked, ashamed, and hiding themselves from God’s presence.

God enters the Garden calling out for humanity to respond, as if God did not already know where they were.  Yet, God calls inviting genuine response.  God initiates the relationship again, despite the infidelity of the couple.  However, the rupture is severe.  Adam blames God, blames woman, and she blames serpent.  Right-relationship between God, humanity, and creation has been severely disrupted.  Of course, we know that God does not immediately punish them with death, but there is death (animal skins).  And, God does not curse humanity, although their labors increase.  God kicks Adam and Eve out of the Garden.  However, even this can be seen as a merciful act of a God that does not desire to be forever separated from humanity in their sinfulness.

Yet, the story does not get any better.  Cain kills his brother, Abel, due to jealousy.  Violence enters the story.  The watery chaos of destruction is making itself visible.  Lamech, a descendent of Cain’s, kills a young man and claims he will be avenged seventy-seven times to Cain’s seven times.  Violence has escalated to astronomical levels.  The hearts of all humanity is constantly bent toward wickedness and God repents of having made humanity.  This change of direction means that God will no longer sustain the life-giving space of creation but will allow the chaos to swallow up creation in its destructive wake.

However, Noah finds favor with God.  For this reason, God tells Noah to build an ark, a space where life can be preserved.  Although the waters separated in the Creation narrative collapse in on themselves, Noah, his family, and the animals are preserved.  God again separates the waters from the waters, re-creating the space where life can be sustained through blessing.  Although humanity is still wicked, God covenants never to destroy the earth through a flood again, chaos will never prevail.

This covenant with Noah shows God limiting God’s power for the sake of relationship.  God will maintain fidelity, even when God’s people and creation do not.  However, God, as we see in Noah, is disposed to “salvation” and re-creation.  Thus, God begins to call, inviting and initiating response with humanity and creation.  Terah, Abram’s father, responds to God’s call minimally, moving his family to the land of Ur.  He becomes a resident rather than remaining a resident alien.  Thus, God calls to his son, Abram, to leave everything behind and follow him.

Abram listens and begins to follow God, who covenants with him.  God will make Abram a great nation, will lead him to a land (space for life), and make him a blessing to all nations.  The blessing of a new creation is being initiated here with this Adam of the nations.  If curse came through the one man, so will the blessing.  God will again make the fruitfulness of creation a reality, even in the midst of barren possibilities.  God is committed to this project.

The story seems well on its way through the rest of Genesis.  There are times where the promise seems perilously close to failing, yet God makes a way through barren wombs, family intrigue and deceitfulness, and even world-wide famine.  However, the story of Exodus seems to put a screeching halt on this hope.  A pharaoh that does not remember Joseph comes to power and begins an anti-creational campaign of holocaust.  All males are to be drowned in the Nile’s chaotic waters.

Yet, the Hebrew midwives act subversively to the empire.  Pharaoh remains nameless while the heroes of the story, those seemingly without power, the midwives, find themselves successful in subverting Pharaoh’s diabolical schemes.  However, Pharaoh will not cease and tries to apply more pressure to see that his regime remains in power.  Moses is born in the midst of this tumult.  Although his parents try to keep him, they finally find that he is too difficult to keep from being heard.  His mother weaves a basket of reeds, a little ark, which carries Moses upon the waters of destructive chaos into the welcoming arms of Pharaoh’s daughter.

Of course, we know the story.  Moses eventually must flee Egypt and finds himself in exile in the desert.  There God calls him to lead God’s people out of Egypt.  It is difficult to get Pharaoh to submit to God’s plan, but finally Pharaoh relents.  Israel journeys out of Egypt to the Sea of Reeds.  Pharaoh does not take long to change his mind and begins pursuing the Israelites.  Israel, encamped by the waters, finds themselves trapped between “the devil and the deep blue sea.”

The people cry to Moses and Moses prays to God.  As in the beginning of creation, God separates the waters from the waters and dry land appears for the emancipated slaves to cross over.  A space of salvation is made.  Pharaoh and his army pursue the Hebrews, but the waters of chaos come crashing in upon Pharaoh and his army.  The same watery grave that Pharaoh had intended for the Hebrew males becomes his own grave.  The entropic reign of death destroys itself.

God leads the people to Mount Sinai where Moses is given the Decalogue and issues God’s call to the community.  They are to be a “royal priesthood and a holy nation.”  They are called to reflect God’s character and nature back into the world, to the nations.  God’s creational agenda can further be seen in the construction of the tabernacle (sacred space for life), which is construed in creation language.  In this way, Israel is constituted to be a microcosm of God’s reign in the world, in which space is created in the midst of chaos and life can happen.

By this embodied existence, the nations will also know that YHWH reigns over the heavens and the earth.  The gods of the other nations will be exposed as impotent and lifeless.  Those that rule in anti-creational ways will find themselves the victim of their own wickedness and God’s justice will be enacted for the “widow, orphan, and foreigner.”

Of course, ideally Israel would fulfill their vocation with fidelity and obedience.  It would remember the great deliverance they had received by God’s hand.  And, they would be a people consecrated to God alone, by which the nations would come to praise YHWH as king and sovereign over the whole earth.  After all, God instructs Israel that they will not in turn become just another Egypt!

This, however, is not the picture we typically see displayed in Israel’s political and spiritual life.  Rather, “every man does what is right in his own sight.”  Although there are some spiritual high points, even within the monarchy, Israel is continuously wrestling with becoming like the nations rather than becoming more like God.  The prophets whom God sends, reminds the people of their vocation and their call to enact justice and mercy.  Yet, they quite often continue to pursue greed, idolatry, and exploitation.

Despite warnings of judgment, Israel largely ignores the God of dialogue.  They rather turn it into a monologue about themselves, exploiting the poor and downtrodden.  God’s wrath and judgment are poured out upon Israel in the form of Exile.  The great deportation of Babylon’s victory swept the people away into a strange land.  Once again, the waters of chaos threatened to overwhelm God’s people, utterly destroying them in the process.  They wept bitterly and cried out in the midst of their anguish.  In the midst of that struggle, Israel remembered God’s deliverance from Egypt and the ordering of chaos in the creation.  If YHWH had created this world from such destructive forces, the Lord could raise these dead bones to life.

God’s word comes to the exiles promising freedom, sight, and hearing despite a situation that had brought bondage, blindness, and deafness.  God had not forsaken them.  Israel is called to newness in the midst of Babylonian hegemony.  They are called to live in the subversive narrative of God’s new creation even in the midst of Babylon’s (and Persia’s) claims of sovereignty.  A shoot would come from the stump of Jesse; new life was possible in the midst of the regimes of death.  The day of the Lord was coming in which all would be made right, justice would be enacted, and all things would be made new.  Although it had not yet happened, Israel could even now begin to participate in a foretaste of that coming Kingdom.

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