As I alluded to in last week's letter, this week is about a central theological understanding that we are Easter people. Granted, that is a pretty strange term for some. The designation of “Easter people” highlights the significance that we are people of the resurrection. Meaning that we have an understating that death is not the end but a new beginning.
For Christians, we believe that there is nothing to fear in death since our salvation has been secured through the death of Christ. The image life after death is not lost to the timing of the Easter. In the spring as the lifeless winter ends, new life emerges from everywhere, both the new life we like (Flowers) and sometime that which we don’t (BUGS!). All in all, the new life that we are surrounded by is a reminder of the life in which new beginnings are always possible, and sometimes we need to let things go in order see their fullness once again.
It is interesting that in the adult human body between 50 and 70 billion cells die each day. This process is called Apoptosis. When everything is working well the adult will be healthy, but when this happens in exces, this will cause atrophy. Moreover, when an insufficient amount of apoptosis happens, it will result in uncontrolled cell proliferation, such as cancer. This thing that I find so fascinating is the fact that within the body, in order for us to be healthy, we have to die a little each day. How interesting is that? Obviously, as those cells die, new cells are created. I am not a scientist, nor is this meant to be a science lesson; the image here is that for an individual to grow and be strong certain things must come to an end.
When it comes to faith, the same thing is true: there are times when things need to die and times when things needs to be born. The understanding of resurrection as a part of life was not a new message to those who followed Christ. While it is true that many Jews did not, nor still do, believe in a resurrection, some Jews and many Mediterranean cultures had come from a realization of a life that extended beyond this one. They understood and could conceptualize a life that extended beyond this one.
What Christ brought to the belief in the resurrection was how we are to attain that life. What makes the resurrection story so profound is that since He is the sacrificial lamb, all we have to do in return is to give our faithfulness to him and we will be promised eternal life. However, many people struggle with just what faithfulness means and how we are called to live out that faithfulness.
This struggle with faithfulness is often where the religious battles ensue. We often fight over the questions, of how we are faithful, yet the promise that Christ gives is one that points us in a clear direction to a life that is not bound to this world. Thus, we are called to live into the promise and hope of a new life. This means that within the Christian world, a life lived for self-protection and preservation is a life that will ultimately lead to a separation from God. Just think of it as the example of apoptosis, if the cell were protected so that it would not die it could cause horrific consequences. If we do not continually allow ourselves to be made new, we run the risk of being separated from the fullness of life which God wants for us, possibly becoming so separated that we even lose ties to our faith in God.
Remembering that we have no fear of death, we are able to live each day. Moreover, when our time in this world comes to an end, we will live on! We can strive to make community, and to meeting people where they need to be met. Even when it makes us uncomfortable, we know that whatever might happen next is and will always be a Gift from God.
As we listen to the Easter story, we have to remember that we are Easter people; called each day to live fully so that when our days are ended, we can fully appreciate the glory God has in store. In living with God, we must be able to let go, even to let some things die in order that we can live and fully experience God. In true celebration of Easter, we will look upon the empty cross and remember Christ’s victory over death and the promise of life.
Growing up, every year the Sunday before Easter, we celebrated the pageantry of Palm Sunday. We waved our palms, some years to a reenactment of the event and others to a long procession of the choir. And despite, a noticeable lack of candy, it would have been hard to distinguish the celebratory feeling from that of Easter.
Hence the problem: Palm Sunday is not Easter! It is a gritty celebration of motive and positioning where people are giving praise, but on the other hand, they were plotting Christ’s demise:
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” Luke 19:39-40
Obviously, Jesus was no fool; he also knew the atmosphere of what he was entering. In reality, as some commentators write, the version found in the Gospel of Luke, the one we encounter this year, points to a triumphal entry which was more like a modern staged protest then a parade of some kind. In fact, if we take the full text (which many lectionaries cut off), the story continues:
41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Luke 19:41-44
In Luke, this scene continues with the only openly aggressive action that Jesus takes in the Bible, the cleansing of the temple. Nevertheless, that is still not the end, with the following teachings being a litany of some of the harshest most directed teachings about power and corruption, which is held in contrast to faithfulness.
Palm Sunday, and the pageantry that comes with it, has to be couched within the larger story, and ultimately even though there is a celebration, that celebration is merely a mask pointing to much darker story about our nature to one-day praise god, and then next to reject God.
As our final Sunday of preparation for Easter and setting us up for Holy Week, Palm Sunday reminds us of our humanity and faults, which we really don’t like to see. We play a role within this life that we can create perfection, and that we will always know and accept God, but often when God is so clearly working ahead of us, we turn to reject God in lieu of our own comfort. This is how we justify celebrating him one day, only to turn around and reject him the next.
As a pastor, I often see this in people and churches, especially when we get to “raw” places (the places where we feel the most vulnerable) in life. It is hard to put our trust in God that he has a bigger plan for us and that all things actually do come together. It is hard for many to trust God is working because God is working for us in a much larger way than we can see, because as people, bound by our humanity, we can only see the moment. Hence the reason the story does not end at Palm Sunday, nor is it even the penultimate expression of the passion story. It is the transitory walk from the Lenten observation to the Passion leading to Easter.
Unfortunately, while we are supposed to be Easter people, I will talk about that more next week, Christians in modern-day America often act like “Palm Sunday Christians” quick to give praise and devotion but with a good amount of doubt or certainty about God that may or may not be true. The result of this convenient faith modeled in Palm Sunday is a Christian Church that is often seen as either selfish, mean, or hypocritical. This view contributes to a Christian attrition rate that is bigger and deeper than any time in history, and it is not just main-line churches: statistically, even with the perceived growth of the “Mega-Churches” or the “Evangelicals,” on average we are not growing, and have been on a decline since the late nineties.
I posit from working with various congregations that this is because most churches are just as quick to reject ways in which God might be calling and where God is calling us to be the next, than to ask how and where we can engage. Moreover, while we are willing to see the God we want to see, we often reject a God that might call us to do a new thing, to step out, to live into the freedom and life he wants for us.
Just think about it either in your own life or in the life of the church, how many times has someone given you an opportunity, and you quickly thought of a million reasons why not. When you had times when you clearly saw God at work, and you never shared it. Conversely, even when you denied Christ in order to justify your own actions or to alleviate your own fears.
This is why the story about Palm Sunday is so important to help up prepare our hearts for the ultimate gift that we celebrate over the next week. So we remember the Passion, teachings and ultimate gift, which happens on the cross and remember that our God is not one of convenience, but demands our full devotion and acceptance. We must take this time to recognize the invitation to faithfulness Christ gives to us and explore our hearts asking the question: Are we truly committed to Christ, or do we just like the idea?
Yours in Christ,
The religious world is a buzz this week after the election of a new pope. Both within the Catholic church, the Protestants, and even the non-Christian world are hopeful for what type of Christian leadership this man will bring.
All of this brought me back to 1980 when I received communion in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa from Pope John Paul II. There were a lot of memories of that day, from the long walk from our house to Living History Farms just outside Des Moines, Iowa with my mother, two brothers, and a red wagon. We watched the Papal Helicopter land in the sea of seemingly millions of people (I was only 5 ½ at the time). We sat on our blanket and enjoyed the mass; mostly my brothers and I were fighting and playing around as little boys do, but when it came time for communion WE ALL GOT TO TAKE IT!!! We did not even get to take communion at church (that is another story).
When the host was brought out to the crowds, the young priest who was serving our section handed out communion saying that in the spirit of ecumenism the Pope wanted all to partake that day. To be honest, I cannot remember a word said and many other memories are vague, but I remember that, and I remember the grace, compassion, and welcome of that young priest. It was pretty cool, and I have to say that I always looked to John Paul as an important person; well, maybe not in his later years. However, when he was young and focused on evangelizing the young, you cannot underestimate the power of his message.
For my mother, the event was not to be blessed by someone closer to God then she was; it was to participate in a time of faith and spiritual growth. In the Protestant church, we do not look to the Pope as anything more than another person who is seeking to understand what is meant to be faithful. In the reformation, much of what the reformers were fighting was not the inherent evil of the Catholic Church; rather it was the shameless corruption of an organization corrupted by power and greed.
That was highlighted within a Papal figure that went so far as to sell people a way out of hell. These tickets to heaven were called indulgences. The practice of selling indulgences has been long abandoned within the Catholic tradition, but the symbolism of that corruption was strong. In fact, when looking at the history of the Pope and the reformation, one of the key aspects is that ultimate, unchecked power will both destroy and tear down even the best of people.
Interestingly, this Pope is starting at a place of humility. Reports are that he even paid his bill when he checked out of his hotel room the other day. Who knows what will happen within the Catholic Church, and to some Protestants, there is a seeming question of who cares; to some there is even a hope for the implosion of that tradition. Nevertheless, the reality is that when one part of the body of Christ suffers, we all feel it.
I wish the Pope lots of good will and hope that he can speak to a global generation that has been lost to ambition, war, and power. As a Jesuit, an order that is actually very similar to the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition in theological essentials, we know that he will be different from those who came before him. We also know, from what he has already said that Pope Francis will be approaching the role of Pope as a servant leader. All which is good.
However, as with any leader, we will pray that he does not let power corrupt the ministry that he has been called to, and that we might learn something from the witness that he gives. While we do not accept the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, we do want a strong message and good example of Christ within the figure, since that is the most visible Christian in the world. We can hope that he models a Christ-like compassion, and a fervent call for all to be comfortable and proud to be Christians of all walks.
Yours in Christ,
On Wednesday, during the Lenten class, we got into a discussion about theology and practice. This discussion has been bouncing around in my head ever since.
I began to think of myself when I first got to seminary. I would not call myself a far-right conservative, though some of the other students might have. I was young and naïve. Actually, I was quite confused. To me at the time both sides were confusing. When I listened to the far right I heard about a God that I did not know. He was a vengeful God that was coming to place judgment and wrath on the poor sinners. As an individual, the only way to salvation was through a dedicated life of personal discipline and prayer to God.
When I listened to the far left, I heard about a God I did not know. She was soft and comfy; she was a mother figure that nurtured and forgave us no matter what we did, being a good person was the ultimate expression of faith. Christ, God, and Bible did not seem to be as motivating as feeling and society.
Interestingly throughout my ministry I have found that both sides of the church are valid and good. However, much of the good that comes from both sides is drowned out by what happens at the extremes. At the same time, there is a comfort in the extremes. Within the extremes, the answers are clear and seemingly helpful and understandable, but what I have often seen, and have difficulty with, is that the question many of the groups ask is, “What is best for me?”
They veil this inwardly focused understanding by using the language of “Theology.” For example, they might make arguments along the lines “it is theologically wrong to . . .” Because of the power that is imposed on the word theology, it makes for some difficult discussion, especially if the topic has nothing at all to do with God but our own comfort or sensibilities.
For me, Theology is simple and based in the etymology of the word theology. Unlike the Latin “ology” which in the scientific realm that suggests “The Study Of . . .”, the word theology is a Greek in origin and roughly breaks down to two words Theo and Logos. Theo meaning God, Logos meaning Words, together making it " Words about God. " This means that “theology” is about how we express God though our word and ultimately lifts up God.
Thus, when the driving force of theology is not solely a deeper relationship with God, we often see well-meaning people get side tracked by personal ambition, power, etc. To me this is among the greatest of sins: putting ourselves in the place of God. This leads to judgment, which causes division and leads to moral structures that are focused on individual perfection rather than the communal good.
Unfortunately, this often leads to people and communities getting hurt and the body of Christ being divided. As I have seen in contemporary fights over abortion, sexuality, and other social issues, the argument of both sides rarely matched up, creating a situation where communities, churches, even families are divided, leaving the body of Christ that much weaker.
The saddest part is that most people are not at those extremes, but get sucked into them. Often because those of us who long to give witness to God, build community, and work together have a hard time being heard over a very loud minority. As people, we tend to bear allegiances to ideologies and constructs rather than the pursuit of faith, and we are often far more concerned about being right then finding the truth. Our challenge as a church, and as a community, is to teach about faith and model good theology as we use our words to paint a picture of God that calls us all to be reconciled to one another.
Yours in Christ,
Sitting on the Presbytery Council, I know that there is a reality that some churches have and will continue to leave our denomination. Over the next year or so the San Jose Presbytery may lose a half a dozen or so churches. The reason stated is theological differences, though listening to the discussions the focus is not in an honest dialogue about faith and theology, it tends to be about, money, power, and control on both sides! I have seen this since I was ordained. Often when the theological debates have been raised, they quickly devolve into a quest for who is right, who controls the issues, and ultimately who controls the church.
Hopefully, you picked up on the problem with what I just wrote. The problem is that when we talk about the " who " we are talking about which side, not the Who that is crucial, which is God! Platitudes are often given to " God being in control, " but often that becomes a tool in our desire to have our way or to assert ourselves, even create division. This means that we ultimately work to serve our own interests.
When I think of divisions, I often think of the destruction of the Tower of Babel, when the people were scattered, given new language and separated from each other. As a collective they lost the ability to be a singular community and probably lost a knowledge base as that would have been scattered too. With an incredible loss like that they were forced to create a power structure so that they might compensate for what they did not have and instead of having a society working together for a common goal, they worked to protect their individual interests. Subsequently, wars and struggles for power ensued.
This is not to say that the predestruction time was all-good, that is also not true! They were building the tower out of a corporate unfaithfulness. Being Christian, we are shown a light through the Pentecost story that is a call once again to come together. This time not for the building of a tower to reach God, but to create a community to share the Love of our God who is intimately connected to our world since we now have the ability to speak and come with each other through the shared message and witness of Christ. If we let this happen, we should have been able to overcome our differences and work together for the common goal of Christ.
Nevertheless, that was not going to happen. Almost immediately the new Christ followers fought, split, and asserted power over each other, and the legacy we are left with are churches which genuinely believe that their way is the sole way and that their approach to Christianity is the only approach. This often led to bitter fights. Often tearing each other down. This means that even though they may in the pursuit demonstrating faithfulness, the resulting dissension within churches and a lack of healthy models furthers the atheists claim to the lack of God and creates faithlessness to the greater community.
This makes me wonder where Christianity might be if the evangelical fervor were united with the progressive compassion? Where we entered theological discourse from a place of exploration rather than a place of correctness and certainty, might we be able to witness in a powerful way a love that transcends the message of Christ to a lost and broken world. Might the struggle to find and live into Christ be a model of faithfulness to a world struggling?
As Christians we struggle to know what God wants for us at times. However, one thing we know, whether it is in Leviticus, or Matthew, is that God calls us to love each other, to show compassion, be humble and walk together. I know there is nothing that I can do to change the minds of the churches that feel they must leave our denomination. Nor do I have the ability to change the minds of those who left our church for the same reason. What I can do is ask for guidance, and pray that one-day as we are all going to be united, we realize how much better life can be when we work together and for the common goal of a life in Christ.
Yours in Christ,
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen