Tag Archives: crucifixion

A LOOK BACK: Denial and the Cross

Read  Mark 8:34-38

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

REVDRMLKJRIf you are Christian you have, no doubt, come across today’s scripture reading before. In one fashion, or another, you have heard that following Jesus means that we need to deny ourselves and pick up our cross. Part of the problem of being a Christian is that, all of these centuries later, we hear Jesus’ words in ways that I believe he never intendeded them. For instance, when we come across today’s Scirpture passage we often interpret it in ways that both trivialize the cross and demonize ourselves into something less than valuable in the eyes of God.

An unhealthy understanding of Bible passages such as these can lead to an unhealthy, and perhaps damning perception of self, of neighbor and, ultimately, of God. So let me begin by stressing what this passage is NOT saying. First, this passage is NOT saying you should hate yourself or deny yourself your basic needs. It is not saying that at all! God created you and God does not create junk or rubbish. God created you, and all, with a divine and holy purpose in mind. Thus, Jesus is not telling us that in order to be his disciple we need to hate ourselves, look down upon ourselves, or neglect to take care of ourselves. To do such would be sinful and would not be in line with God’s will for us. After all, God calls us to be good stewards of God’s creation (in which we are included) and to go against that would be to go against God’s call.

Second, this passage is not intended to trivialize the cross. There is a TobyMac song called Irene, in which TobyMac sings “Pick up your cross and where it everyday.” This is both a reference to Luke’s parallel passage (Luke 9:22-25) and to the trinket people often where on a necklace fastened around their necks. But this is not what the passage is referring to at all. It’s not referring to a necklace, nor is it referring to a lamented obligation, or a personal challenge one has been going through; rather, Jesus is referring to the instrument of capital punishment he would be affixed to as a means of painfully and humiliatingly exterminating his life.

What Jesus is ultimately saying in this passage is that, if anyone wishes to be his follower, we must deny any part of us that would hold us back from following him. Regardless of what those things are (e.g. our sins, our hangups, our fears, our desires, our hopes, our dreams, etc.) we must be willing to put them aside and be willing to pay all costs for being associated with Jesus. Even if the cost is our very lives, we must be willing to give it all to follow Christ. It has nothing to do with self-loathing, though. It has to do with one’s identity! If one truly identifies as a Christians, and sees him/herself as belonging to Christ, then that will be the most important thing to him/her over and above anything else, including his/her own life.

There are numerous examples of people who saw Christ as being at the core of their identity. This week it behooves us to look at the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a disciple of Christ who denied the fears and things that held him back from following Christ. Dr. King certainly picked up his cross, the burden of fighting for equality and freedom for all people regardless of their skin color, and ended up paying the ultimate price for doing so. When we look at Dr. King we see a man who certainly denied himself, picked up his cross and followed Jesus.

The question for us today is this, will we let our fears and our desires keep us from accepting Christ as our Lord? Will we refuse to pick up our cross because of the possible consequences? Will we deny Christ, or deny the parts of ourselves that keep us from accepting Christ? Will we be ashamed of Christ, Christ’s message, and the way of the Cross because it is more convenient for us to do so? Or will we deny our own convenience for the sake of Christ, for the sake of others and for the sake of God’s Kingdom? The choice is ultimately yours and I pray that your response is one of affirmation rather than one of denial and embarrassment. The world could use more disciples of Christ and the hope, healing and wholeness that such disciples bring in Christ’s name.

When we deny the poor and the vulnerable their own human dignity and capacity for freedom and choice, it becomes self-denial. It becomes a denial of both our collective and individual dignity, at all levels of society. – Jacqueline Novogratz
Lord, I give me the strength to deny the things that hold me back from you, to pick up my cross, and to follow you at all costs. Amen.

Good Friday Tenebrae Service Online

Good-Friday-1Join Rev. Todd and First United Methodist Church of Newton for their online Good Friday Tenebrae Service on YouTube at 7:30 p.m. https://youtu.be/U_sG4ysCAAU.
Holy Week is more than just Easter. It starts with Palm Sunday, works its way to Upper Room and Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, to the foot of the cross on Good Friday. Without the suffering of Christ and his death on the cross, there would be no Easter! Join First UMC of Newton tonight night at the foot of the cross and prepare for the joyous celebration of Easter morning!

God’s People, part 229: Pilate

Read John 18:28-40; 19:1-16

“Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!’”  (Matthew 27:24, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Pontius_Pilate_BustPart 229: Pilate. For a man central in the capital punishment of Jesus of Nazareth, there isn’t a whole lot known about Pontius Pilate. As far as is known he was a part of the well-established Pontii family, who were originally of the plebeian class. Plebs were the general population of free Roman Citizens and were not a part of the ruling Patrician class. Thus, Pilate’s family genealogy was of humble origins during the Roman Republic; however, the Pontii family flourished in the Roman Empire, and the family eventually attained the consulship, which was, at the time of the Empire, a symbolic representative of Rome’s heritage.

Pilate, himself, was appointed as prefect of Jerusalem in 26 C.E. Nothing is really known of him prior to that date. A prefect was a military officer who was appointed by the Emperor as a governor of a less important province of the Empire. At the time, Judaea was a province that was an annex (or extension) of the province of Syria. They typical term length for prefect was 1-3 years, Pilate stayed in his position until 36 C.E., a whopping ten years.

The only primary historical sources we have to rely on in regard to Pontius Pilate are the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, the Alexandrian-Jewish Philosopher and Historian Philo, and the New Testament Gospel accounts. Both Josephus and Philo describe Pilate as a brutal prefect and details some events that are seemingly left out of the Gospel accounts. This has led some scholars to argue that the New Testament Gospel writers were trying to sterilize and soften Pilate’s role in Jesus’ death in order to (A) not upset the Romans too much by the writings or (B) to lay more of the blame on the Jewish groups that were kicking Christian Jews out of the synagogues.

With that said, not all scholars subscribe to that theory and a close reading of the Gospels actually lead one to dismiss it altogether. First, the Gospel’s main focus with Pilate is on his part in the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. Aside from that, they don’t really mention him at all because, until he comes face-to-face with the Roman Prefect, there is no real reason to talk about him. Second, a close reading of the Gospels uncovers Jesus talking about a time when Pilate was particularly brutal in his dealings with the Galileans (people from Jesus’ home region):

“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
(Luke 13:1-3, NRSV)

It is clear that the Gospel writers were not trying to soften who Pilate was and, in my humble opinion, we get a fuller account of the man by reading both the Gospels and the works of Josephus and Philo. These works, when considered together, show a man who was both cunning and cruel. He was a politician who understood the need for diplomacy; however, he was also a military leader who knew how to crush any hint of a rebellion with a swift and brutal blow. The fact that he remained in his post for 10 years (9 to 7 years more than the average prefect) is an indication that he was able to balance cruelty with diplomacy.

In fact, Jesus’ trial is a good example of just how he did that. When Jesus was brought to him, he asked him questions and then found him to be “innocent of the charges.” Why? Because blasphemy against the Jewish God was not a concern of the Roman Empire. When his accusers claimed that he was a Galilean claiming to be king, he sent him to Herod who was Tetrarch (aka regional ruler) of Galilee. When Jesus was sent back to him, he then questioned him on charges of treason against Rome.

The end stunt of washing his hands clean of the blood was not a display that he considered Jesus innocent or that he even cared what happened to this Jewish rabble-rouser. Pilate would have seen Jesus as a threat, no doubt; however, it allowed him to pass the blame away from Rome and onto local Jewish officials. Why? So that he could avoid an uprising against Rome, of course.

Pilate wasn’t stupid and he knew that if he ordered the death of a Jewish Messiah figure during the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, he’d potentially have a riot on his hands. What’s more, he couldn’t just let Jesus walk out alive either. So, he played some political theater. In the end, though, Pilate brutally put an end, or so he thought, to the Jesus movement.

What’s important for us to realize is that God’s people today, like the people in Jesus’ time, often look to the government as their savior and, in doing so, they sell out their true Savior in the process. Jesus was handed over to Pilate, not because the Jewish religious leaders liked Pilate, but because Jesus challenged the status quo and Pilate was the expedient way to avoid Jesus leading people further away from the authority of the religious establishment.

Pilate was a Roman who was known for his brutality and his sharp diplomatic wit. He represented the Roman Government, not God’s will. The same is true about our political leaders today, they represent the current government and national interests, not Jesus Christ who is the true and ONLY Savior of the world. Will we place our faith and hope in the government, selling out Christ in the process, or will we place our faith, hope and loyalty in Jesus Christ, at all costs? The choice is ours.

Who is your master? Jesus Christ taught us that we cannot serve two; therefore, we must choose only one.

Lord, you are my master, my Lord, my Savior, and my friend. Guide me away from looking toward anyone else for what can only come from you. Amen.

God’s People, part 159: Crucifixion

Read John 19

“Then at three o’clock Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’…Then Jesus uttered another loud cry and breathed his last.” (Mark 15:34, 37 NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

fullsizeoutput_2d7Part 159: Crucifixion. I am a huge fan of and collect films portraying the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. I own the of the original black and white Cecil B. DeMille 1927 silent film, King of Kings. I own many of the films following that from the 60’s such as The Greatest Story Ever Told starring Max Von Sydow through the latest one, Son of God starring Diogo Morgado. In fact, I not only own and love it, but the very first Jesus film I can remember watching was the 1961 remake of the King of Kings starring Jeffrey Hunter on TV with my family on Easter Sunday.

Honestly, up until the late 90s and early 2000s, most of the films really toned down the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I certainly understand why. Crucifixion is not a good way to have to die and with the heavy censorship of films and music that was in place prior to the late 90s, no one wanted to risk making the crucifixion more realistic. That and many producers knew that Christian audiences would not appreciate it either. They wanted wholesome films with little to no violence and sterile language. So, there was no way that they were going to gore up the crucifixion.

Rather, those films focused more on Jesus’ life and teachings, and they toned down and almost sterilized the passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. While these films are all great films in their own right, the unfortunate consequence of censoring the suffering and crucifixion of Christ is that it takes away from the real sacrifice that Christ made.

Thankfully, that began to change with the 1999 Jesus miniseries starring Jeremy Sisto. While that film did not lay it thick with the gore, when Jesus was crucified he can be heard screaming in agonizing pain and blood can be seen splattered on the cross and dripping from his wrists. Again, not too much…but enough for you to cringe at the thought of what was happening. Then, by 2004, Mel Gibson released his film The Passion of the Christ and went to town on showing Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. The film was so hard to watch, and so powerful, that people left the theater with the same full bucket of popcorn they went in with. It was the film that brought me back to my faith in Jesus, because it made me truly and deeply reflect on why Jesus would go through with that.

Without belaboring this, crucifixion was a terrible way to die. First, before one ever made it to the cross, they victim of crucifixion would be punished for the crimes they had committed. They would we whipped and beaten. The Jews had a law that a person should be whipped no more than 40 times minus one. Whether the Romans adhered to that or not is unlcear, but by the time Jesus would have had to carry his cross, he would have been severely beaten, bruised, bloody, and his flesh torn from the shards of glass and rock that hung from the flagella at the end of the whip.

Then there was the crucifixion itself. The criminal would have had to carry the cross beam up to his/her place of crucifixion. He then would have been laid down and his arms would have been tied to the beam, followed by the hands/wrists being crucified. The cross beam would then be raised up, with the body intact, onto the vertical beam which is already erect. Once the cross beam was in place nails would have been driven through each of the ankle bones into the sides of the cross, and a sentence would be placed above the head of the crucified. In Jesus case, it read in Latin (Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum), in Greek (βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων), in Hebrew read right to left (יֵשׁוּעַ מִנַּצְּרַת, מתי כז 3‡מֶלֶךְ הַיְּהוּדִים), and in English (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews).

The crucified would spend hours, if not days, lifting his/her body up to breathe out and lowering his/her body to breathe in. Eventually, due to exhaustion, the crucified’s own body weight would crush his/her lungs and they would suffocate to death. It was a slow, laborious death that no decent person would ever wish upon anyone. This is how Jesus died.

In the modern Western world, we have been privileged to not have to witness such executions. Even when we execute criminals, we do so in a way that is judged to be the most “humane” way possible. When reflecting on Jesus’ sacrifice and death, let us be challenged to NOT succumb to our privilege; rather, let us truly reflect on what he went through and let us come to the foot of the cross and lay our sins and shortcomings bare to the one who gave it all, and suffered the worst death imaginable, for our sake.

“My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  Paul of Tarsus, the Apostle in Galatians 2:20 NLT

Lord, as we approach Lent, help me to have the strength to be honest with myself and you regarding my sin so that my sins may be once and for all crucified with Christ and I may be free of their burdensome weight. Redeem me, for I am yours Lord. Amen.

Lord and Savior

Read Mark 1:29-34

Simon Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life. We believe, and we know You are the Holy One of God. ” (John 6:68-69 NLT)

Peter-upside-down02The danger with reading stories, or even watching them on the television or in the movies, is that we tend to turn the people those stories into two-dimensional caricatures at best. This is especially true when we look at historical figures in true stories. Take Abraham Lincoln, for instance. There is so much to that particular president for us to read on and learn about. We can learn about all of his failures, his chronic depression, his doubts regarding his faith, his troubled childhood, his tumultuous marriage, his lack of self-confidence. We can learn about his courage, his rising up out of the bare-bones frontier life to become a lawyer, a politician and one of the most beloved presidents. We could read about how vastly unpopular his presidency was, how scrutinized he was, and all of the resistance he met as he led a country through a bloody civil war.

And that wouldn’t cover even a fracture of the man. Yet, even so, when we think of Abraham Lincoln, we only think of a fraction of what I just mentioned. In essence, we see good old Abe as a fraction of a fraction of who he actually is. We think of him being tall, lanky, with a weird beard. We call him “honest” abe, and mythologize him as the single man who saved the union and brought an end to slavery. That would sum up our common understanding of him is but a mere caricature.

We do the same with the people in the Bible. For instance, take Jesus’ disciple Simon. We see him as bold and brash fisherman, who may or may not have been illiterate, who often put his foot in his mouth, and who Jesus renamed Peter and is the “rock” upon which the church is built. If we add anything else to that, it is usually Peter’s fear on the water and his denial before the crowing of the rooster on Good Friday morning. In fact, we caricaturize Peter and the other Apostles so much that we think, “Well of course they followed Jesus and did nothing else. They had nothing else going for them anyway, besides fishing and collecting taxes.”

Yet, there was so much more to the disciples than that. In fact, if we look at today’s suggested Scripture reading, we find out that Peter was married and was responsible for not only supporting his wife, but also his mother-in-law. Though it isn’t mentioned, he more than likely also had children. When he said yes to follow Jesus, and through down his nets, he wasn’t just leaving fishing behind; rather, he was leaving his ENTIRE FAMILY behind. He was leaving his wife, his mother-in-law, and his children to fend for themselves. He was leaving them without any source of income, and without any means of getting food. What’s more, what happens when taxes are due and they have no means of paying those taxes.

In other words, Peter was leaving behind HIS ENTIRE LIFE because Jesus’ claim on his life was THAT IMPORTANT. Peter devotion to Christ, albeit flawed and wavering at times, was rooted deep. Jesus wasn’t just the next best prophet to him, he wasn’t just Peter’s teacher, he wasn’t just the messiah come to liberate Israel, or any such thing. JESUS WAS LORD TO PETER, and Peter submitted his life to his Lord at all costs. Ultimately, many years later, Peter ended up giving that life up literally as he was, by tradition, crucified upside down in Rome.

Today’s reflection is this: what are you leaving behind to follow Jesus? What are you willing to give up, to part ways with, to sacrifice in order to follow THE ONE WHO HAS CALLED YOU? Do you see Jesus as neat and nice guy? Do you see Jesus as a wise, sagely teacher? Do you see Jesus as a warm and fuzzy “pick-me-up” at the beginning of your week? Or do you see Jesus as YOUR LORD and SAVIOR, the one you would cross land and sea to follow at all costs? Today’s challenge is to evaluate yourself, to evaluate your faith, and to move toward more fully devoting yourself to Jesus, who is Lord of all Creation.

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other.” – Jesus Christ (Matthew 6:24a NLT)

Lord, work in my heart that I may devote myself wholly to you. Amen.