Mary, Let Go Of Me

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When was the last time you mourned? Some of us have only a few distant moments we can remember, while for others, mourning seems all too familiar. Mourning is an honest and raw expression of grief, sadness, and loss. It can hit us square in the chest, in the most unexpected moments, and from those periods of mourning onward, our worlds never quite feel the same again.

That’s where we find Mary on Easter morning in John 20:11-17. Weeping, she bends to look into Jesus’ tomb, and cannot find his body. She meets two angels sitting in the tomb, and explains to them that she doesn’t know where they’ve put him. Turning around, she meets Jesus face-to-face, and believes he is a gardener. He speaks her name, and immediately she realizes that it’s Jesus.

Overwhelmed with emotion, we can presume that Mary embraced Jesus, because he then responds, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Moments before, Mary was mourning the loss of Jesus. She believed not only that he was dead, but also that someone had stolen his body. So it makes sense that she felt overwhelmed with emotion and clung to him. In some ways it sounds harsh for Jesus to tell Mary to let him go — until we understand the true meaning of those words.

“I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus wasn’t just being wordy — he was trying to point us to another text that Mary would have known very well.

The widow Naomi directs her two widowed daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, to return to their childhood homes. In Ruth 1:14-18 Orpah turns back, but Ruth instead proclaims, Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” 

“Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” — Ruth 1:16

“I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” — John 20:17

Jesus tells Mary to release him, not because he doesn’t love and care for her deeply, because her clinging is inappropriate, or because she is self-sufficient enough on her own. He tells her not to cling to him because he needs to ascend to God. And in ascending to God, he offers Mary the same promise that Ruth made to Naomi.

Wherever Mary goes, Jesus will go; wherever Mary stays, Jesus will stay. Her people are his people, and her God is his God. And now that he has resurrected, even the power of death will never separate them again.

That’s the hope that Jesus offers us on Easter: not that we will never mourn and grieve, not that life becomes perfect and infallible, but that He remains with us through every trial, sigh, and tear. His resurrection breaks the final barrier of death.

In those moments when we feel completely alone and abandoned, when we wonder where God is, and how we will ever get through the trials and difficulties that we face, Jesus offers us this promise, and we remember it on Easter Sunday:  Wherever we go, Jesus goes; wherever we stay, Jesus stays. Our people are his people, and our God is His God. And now even death cannot separate us from the his true and unending love.

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“It Is Finished…” But What About The Resurrection?

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A few months ago I attended the filming of Adam Hamilton’s study of John. I sat in the audience, smiling and holding a coffee mug, while a camera crew filmed a series of six devotional presentations. After each devotional, Adam opened the floor for questions from the audience members.

Toward the end of the day I raised my hand to ask, “Why would Jesus say ‘It is finished’ if he hadn’t yet resurrected?” 

Adam responded well, but I still wanted more of an answer. So I researched and read quite a bit, and came to the realization that in order to understand the “It is finished” verse, we need to know a bit more about the full scope of the Gospel of John.

Of the four gospel accounts, John portrays Jesus as the most confident and determined. Jesus performs a lot of miracles, talks of himself in “I am” terms (which cues back to God’s description of Himself in Exodus 3:14), and predicts his death over and over again. One of the greatest examples of John heightening Jesus’ sense of mission is how he depicts Jesus praying before his arrest. I wrote about Luke’s account of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives earlier this week and entitled it, “When Jesus Also Doubted.”

In contrast to Jesus sweating blood and praying for another way out in Luke, John claims that Jesus began his prayer, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.” (John 17:1-5).

It’s almost as if Jesus had a to-do list while he was on the earth. In his prayer before his arrest, Jesus acknowledged to God that he had checked off most of the boxes, and now he needed to subject himself to arrest and death in order to complete the list.

So Jesus proceeds through his persecution and crucifixion, and in the moment just before he died, he proclaimed, “It is finished.” In his death, he had completed all of the tasks that God had commissioned him to do while he was on the earth.

The resurrection, the moment of in-breaking hope, happened three days later. But that wasn’t on Jesus’ to-do list; it was on God’s. In the moments before Jesus dies in Luke, Jesus states, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life” (Luke 23:46). Jesus placed his hope, trust, and life in God, knowing that God would resurrect him.

Jesus completed so much while he was on the earth, and in his final breaths he finished the last task on the list. And that’s what we mourn and what we celebrate today. That Jesus had to endure such violence, persecution, and death, while knowing that God always held him, and would never leave him nor forsake him. Jesus knew that in dying, his trials on earth were over, and that God would physically resurrect him three days later. And upon his resurrection he would no longer suffer — he would instead spread hope, joy, and celebration.

What Jesus Said About The Afterlife

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As a chaplain and a pastor I get a lot of questions about the afterlife. People want to know what happens in the moments after we die.

I have heard a variety of answers from other pastors about this weighty and pertinent topic. Some of them use what I call Chutes & Ladders imagery, claiming that the faithful among us begin climbing a ladder to the heavenly gates, while the others find themselves whooshing down a hellacious slide shortly after death. Others give an answer that sounds something like teleportation — upon breathing our last, our souls get zapped into heaven or into hell. And still others merely shrug their shoulders and state that we simply can’t know.

I struggle with these answers, mostly because we can’t find them in the Bible. And what we do have in the Bible holds a lot more meaning than Chutes and Ladders, teleportation or, worst of all, the absence of existence.

In Luke 23:39-43, Jesus is hanging on the cross with two robbers who are also hung on crosses on either side of him. Then this happens: “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.’” 

Jesus doesn’t say that we need to climb or slide or teleport to a new location. We’re simply with God after we die. And if we’ve been trusting God throughout our lives to faithfully walk with us, doesn’t it make sense that we wouldn’t be on our own after death? 

When Jesus claims in Matthew 28:20 that “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” we need not think that God’s presence somehow disappears upon our passing from this life. It seems to me that in many ways, our journey with God simply continues.

Without proof-texting, and without eschewing the Bible, we can read the story of Jesus on the cross and know that as he died, he firmly believed that his spirit would live on with God. While he didn’t talk about heaven, hell, clouds, or fire, he did speak about paradise. And not just paradise for himself, but also paradise with us.

So may we hold tight to the hope of paradise today. May we prayerfully reflect on the meanings of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday. And in the midst of the fear, doubt, and ambiguity that all of us face at some point or another, may we rest in the knowledge of our future place in paradise.

Slowing Down

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It struck me yesterday how busy Holy Week is. Especially for pastors and lay members in the church — we have so many services that hold such importance, all squished into a very small window of time.

With so many events taking place, it seems easy to lose sight of each movement of Holy Week. But then again, as I read the Passion Narrative again this week, I realized how easy it is to push past some of the most meaningful moments in the text in an effort to get to the resurrection.

The story of Peter’s betrayal is a text that I have previously rushed through. Jesus had already predicted so much that came true, and Peter’s denial didn’t seem to really move the story forward in any especially distinct way. Yes, Jesus predicting Peter’s denial in Luke 22:31-34, and Peter’s actual denial in Luke 22:54-62 show Jesus’ power to prophesy, as well as Jesus’ unfailing love for Peter. It’s an amazing story, but in the scope of the crucifixion and resurrection I found it easy to skim past.

If we pause and give these verses just a little more attention, we see a much larger narrative at work. We don’t typically tie Jesus’ beating and taunting in with Peter’s denial, but as my husband and I read the text this week he pointed out connections that can change the way we look at this text.

Just after Peter denies knowing Jesus in Luke 22:54-62, the writer begins describing how Jesus’ captors beat and taunted him. The text states in verses 63-65, “The men who were holding Jesus in custody taunted him while they beat him. They blindfolded him and asked him repeatedly, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?’ Insulting him, they said many other horrible things against him.”

On the surface it just sounds like they’re mocking him. Like they’re taking one attribute Jesus claimed to have, and daring him to do it again. And in Jesus’ resolve, he holds back and refuses to give in to their taunts.

The text is far more subversive than that. The writer wants us to see that as Peter fulfills Jesus’ prediction of denial, Jesus’ captors dare him to prophesy. Yet Jesus doesn’t need to yell out a new prophecy, because Peter is literally fulfilling one at that very moment.

These are moments that we can miss in the midst of Holy Week and in the chaos of our lives. But they’re sitting in our Holy Book, waiting for us to grasp them. So may we slow down and pay attention today and in the coming days. Because as we prepare to approach the cross and the tomb, we have such greater truths to grasp than even this.

When Jesus Also Doubted

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I recently came across a post that Rachel Held Evans published in March 2013 called “Holy Week for Doubters.” In it, Rachel describes the questions that many of us fear asking on Holy Week; the deep questions of faith and doubt. Those questions can often catch more of our attention on Holy Week, as we attend numerous services, travel to visit family, suffer through Good Friday, and celebrate on Easter Sunday.

It struck me as I read her post that we are not the only ones who doubt on Holy Week. In fact, Jesus endures a time of great trepidation and doubt just before his arrest. 

After Passover Jesus goes on to the Garden of Gethsemane or to the Mount of Olives, depending on which gospel you’re reading. He retreats there to pray. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s accounts, his prayer time is tumultuous. Particularly in the gospel of Luke, Jesus experiences a moment in which the reality of his circumstances come to the fore, and he is petrified.

Luke 22:41-46 states, “He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed. He said, ‘Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.’ Then a heavenly angel appeared to him and strengthened him. He was in anguish and prayed even more earnestly. His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” 

I have had a number of times in my life in which I felt the weightiness of doubt. I began asking questions, reading a lot, and wondering what really holds up and stands strong in the end. However, I have never reached such a point of anguish as to begin sweating blood.

Jesus knows his fate in this situation, and doubts his ability to endure it. So he seeks. And the response he receives is a heavenly angel who arrives to give him strength.

Sometimes when we doubt, we need comfort more than answers.

I often describe the spiritual journey as a Jenga tower. Do you remember that game? A series of blocks all stacked upon one another, slowly growing while simultaneously creating more holes. And if you touch the wrong block just a little too hard, the whole tower comes crashing down.

So we resist asking questions, we hold them close to our chests, in an effort to prevent all that we’ve built and all that we believe from falling to pieces.

The beautiful thing, though, is that after those blocks are scattered across the floor, we get to pick them up. And instead of building one tall tower whose pieces all have to fit just right, we can build a house. 

We begin anew with a foundation on the God who understands doubt; the One who once sweat blood in a garden, who once begged for God to change his circumstances. And we create a home. A home that we can change, that we can remodel, and mostly that we can dwell within, knowing that the ground upon which we stand has promised to remain with us always, to the very end of the age.

A Guide To Eucharist

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As we approach Holy Week there are a number of texts that will need their fair share of time, so I thought I’d start working through them a bit early. Palm Sunday is tomorrow (you can read about it here or listen to me preach about it here), and I will celebrate it with some friends who are Catholic and decided to return to Nashville to visit for the weekend.

I wasn’t raised Catholic, but my husband was. Between the two of us I think we have, in some form or fashion, participated in almost every Christian denomination. Each denomination has its own nuances in theology and polity (which means how they’re organized and what they do as a group). Communion is one of those topics that has divided congregations due to matters of both theology and polity, and the specificity required to discuss it can make the topic seem daunting. So I thought I’d create a little Guide To The Theology And Polity Of Eucharist as we prepare to approach the Last Supper this week. It’s not Eucharist For Dummies; rather, it’s Eucharist For All of Us Because The Topic Is SO Complex.

A Guide To Eucharist:

Theology

  • Transubstantiation — This is the belief that when a priest consecrates the bread and wine, the substance and the essence of the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. This is the view of the Catholic Church.
  • Consubstantiation — Martin Luther developed this belief in response to the Catholic Church’s understanding of transubstantiation. Rather than believing that the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ, Luther instead said that Christ’s body and blood are “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. They dwell together. This view also goes by the name “Sacramental Union,” and the Lutheran Church subscribes to this understanding of Eucharist.
  • Receptionism — This is the view that the Holy Spirit can work in the bread and wine to deliver the actual body and blood of Christ to the individual who consumes the elements. Christ’s presence is spiritual, rather than physical, and relies heavily on the faith of the individual who participates in the sacrament. The Presbyterian Church and Reformed traditions hold this understanding of Eucharist.
  • Memorialism — Christ is not present physically or spiritually with the bread and wine; rather, Communion is a time to reflect and remember the life and passion of Christ. Baptists and a number of other denominations follow this view; it also goes by the name Holy Communion and The Lord’s Supper. (For more information on the Theology of Eucharist, click here).

Polity

  • Wine vs. Juice — You’ve heard of Welch’s Grape Juice? It was created as an alternative to wine. Thomas Bramwell Welch was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Connexion, which strongly rejected the sale and consumption of alcohol. In 1869 he found a way to stop grape juice from fermenting, and began marketing it to a variety of churches who were also a part of the temperance movement. Some denominations continue to use grape juice because of their stance against alcohol, while other use it out of sensitivity to members who have struggled with addiction. Still, many other churches continue to use wine.
  • Shared Cup — A number of churches serve communion to their congregants from a single cup. The individual receives the bread and either dips the bread into the cup of wine, or drinks from the cup itself. The minister then drinks whatever is leftover in the cup (including the sopping, gooey bits of bread that coagulate in the bottom of the cup).
  • Intinction — If you’re ever at a service and the minister says you will take communion “by intinction,” it means you dip the bread into the cup of wine or juice. A few years ago while I was officiating a Sunday service, I announced that we would take communion by intinction, and the first person who approached the altar grabbed the cup and took a large gulp of it. I was confused, the congregants were confused, and eventually they caught on that they should dip their wafers rather than swigging from the cup.
  • Individual Cups — Mr. Welch is a part of this story as well. When he developed his unfermented grape juice, some churches continued to try to drink the juice from a shared cup. Within a few weeks, the entire congregation would come down with same illness. One of the beautiful properties of wine is that it kills germs — the unfermented juice didn’t. Shortly after committing to using unferemented grape juice, churches realized they couldn’t all drink from the same cup without spreading germs and sickness, so they began either practicing intinction or using individual cups.

I hope this has been a nice primer on the nuances of communion. It certainly did not cover all of the nuances in theology and polity, but perhaps you learned just a little more about the sacrament we celebrate together.

Climbing Trees

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Confession: I was a back-pew sitter for three years of my life. I was young and enthusiastic about the ministry I witnessed at the new, hip church I began attending, but I sat in the back row. I remember feeling welcome in the services, but not in the community. The church was happy to have me attend, to worship, and to hear the sermon, but for some reason each of my attempts to get plugged into a small group, Bible study, or some form of community failed for the first three years of my attendance.

While I read the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10 this week, I found myself thinking back on that time in the church and identifying with Zacchaeus. You can read the full text here, but this is my summary:

Zacchaeus is a short, little guy, and a tax collector, and he hears that Jesus is coming through their town. He really wants to see Jesus, but he can’t see over the crowd of people. So he climbs up a tree, and Jesus calls to him and asks to stay in his house. Zaccheaus celebrates the honor of hosting Jesus in his home, but those in his community grumble, stating, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” In response, Zacchaeus declares to the Lord that he gives half of his goods to the poor, and that he has returned four times the amount of any extra money he took from those in his community. And Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

To fully understand this story, we have to understand the job of a tax collector in the 1st Century. To get the job, individuals would submit bids stating that they would collect a certain amount of money, and the person who bid the highest typically got the job. The highest bidders were also often the richest in their communities, because they knew they could use their own wealth if they didn’t meet their quotas. The tax collectors would then often hire out other individuals to collect on their behalf, and that’s why Zacchaeus is specifically cited as “a ruler among tax collectors” — he probably had subordinates working for him. The payment system required the tax collector to give the governor the amount of money he originally bid, and everything left over was his profit. So you can see how the system could get corrupt pretty quickly, and why the community may be ambivalent about helping him out.

Zacchaeus was an outsider — he was the one who collected taxes in his community, and therefore they struggled to trust him. But Zacchaeus flies in the face of their stereotypes and projections, and proclaims that he has gone overboard to remain righteous and just within the parameters of his vocation.

I can’t get over the image of Zacchaeus in the tree. He climbs up there, knowing that he is too little to see over the crowd and knowing the the crowd simply won’t help him. So he dwells up in the tree, waiting for Jesus.

It makes me wonder how many people in our lives and in our communities are waiting up in the trees. They are too fearful to face the crowd below, or the crowd pushed them up there because they didn’t believe or behave the way the crowd wanted them to. And out of their love for Jesus and their fear of the Church, they choose to live in the trees. 

The back row was a nice tree to live in — it gave me the opportunity to witness and to encounter Jesus every week. But can you imagine the sweetness of having a community who pulled me down, embraced me, welcomed me in, and led me to Jesus? I have since been blessed to experience that in a number of other congregations, and the warmth of that acceptance is indescribably good and holy.

So let’s look around us today, let’s peek up into the trees of our lives and our communities, and let’s see who may be yearning to be drawn back in.