Archive | April, 2009

Easter: It isn’t kids’ stuff

11 Apr

ea-00004-ceaster-girl-in-rabbit-suit-with-eggs-postersEaster is for grown-ups.

That’s not to say Christmas is just for kids, but we can tell that story to children, start to finish. Babies are cute. Farm animals are usually cute. Angels singing in the sky are cool. (There’s the terrible interlude when King Herod orders the massacre of Bethlehem’s little boys, but that episode is easily avoided.) Christmas is mostly G-rated.

But the only way to talk about Jesus’ resurrection is to deal with a gruesome, unjust death. Easter is rated R – literally, if you recall Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ five years ago.

So for the sake of the kids, we bring on the bunnies. The children wave palm branches one week and the next hunt for eggs and wear new outfits. But in between there’s not much for them. The story is too brutal, and it’s too close for comfort.

Read or listen to the story of Jesus’ arrest, trials and execution in one sitting, focusing on what people around Jesus are doing, and you might notice how familiar it sounds. Change the names and a few details, and we could be hearing about some guy getting railroaded by the old-boy network in some mid-major city.

The disciples get confused and then angry and then scared. They want to do the right thing, but they can’t pull themselves together. Peter, the so-called rock, crumbles when confronted by the first-century equivalent of a teenage waitress.

The establishment leaders perform the familiar dance of self-preservation, huddling to engineer an exit for this popular and powerful outsider who threatens their tidy universe.

Perhaps they acted with intentional evil, but maybe they just fell into that long parade of people who convince themselves they are doing the right thing for the public. To those who are charged with maintaining order, any whiff of chaos smells like dung. Security and stability, they say, sometimes require distasteful methods, even if they contradict the values they claim to protect.

So the Jerusalem leaders, intelligent men, decided that Jesus simply had to go, even if he made some sense and raised the dead. (How paranoid and myopic they grew, plotting to murder not just Jesus but Lazarus, the man he raised, because he was a walking demonstration of Jesus’ abilities.)

They talked their way past “Thou shalt not kill” and a dozen more of their holy commandments, in the same way other intelligent people have talked their way into murder, torture, genocide and countless other horrors, all in the name of the people.

We’d recognize the Roman governor too. Pilate, the caretaker of troublesome fringe province, was intrigued by this mostly silent peasant standing before him. But as a minion of the Roman Empire, he discarded his humanity long enough to serve political practicality.

How ordinary and recognizable all this is. And yet, like it or not, this story emerged as one of the great hinges of history. Even our dating system says so.

Momentous events should happen in Rome or its latter-day equivalents – Beijing, Paris, London, New York, Washington – involving people with big offices, big bank accounts or big election returns.

But no. This story could be transplanted anywhere. It’s like the history of the world pivoted around the case of an itinerant preacher in, say, Knoxville.

That’s part of the story’s power: it’s not only for there and then, but also for here and now.

According to New Testament scholars Craig A. Evans and N.T. Wright, “The Gospels never say anything like, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death’ (not that many first-century Jews doubted that there was); or, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die’ (most people believed something like that anyway); or better, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised at the last.'”

Writing in Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened, they point out that the gospels interpret Jesus’ resurrection as a “this-worldly” event that established Jesus as the Messiah, “the true Lord of the whole world.”

“The line of thought within the Gospels,” they observe, “is, ‘Jesus is raised, therefore God’s new world has begun, and therefore we, you, and everybody else are invited to be not only beneficiaries of that new world but participants in making it happen.'”

A story that immediate, that familiar, that deadly serious – even grown-ups struggle with it.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 11 April 2009.

Christians serve Passover seders. Is everyone OK with that?

4 Apr

seder-starter-kitThis is a story of two stories. One story is about redemption, freedom and new life from the hand of God. The other is about – well, much the same. The question is how much one story can be shared and changed to tell the other.

Next week is the Jewish Passover, the annual festival that retells and celebrates how the people of Israel were freed from slavery in Egypt. The centerpiece of the holiday is a ritual meal, the seder.

This year, Passover occurs during the Western Christian Holy Week, which is part of the other story. The two events don’t always coincide, but the timing is significant because, according to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus was crucified around Passover time and, while scholars dispute this detail, Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, may have been a Passover seder.

It’s little wonder, then, that many Christian families and congregations have started to observe a seder, but with a twist: They not only tell the story of the Exodus but tie it to Christian teaching. Beyond the shared spiritual heritage, they also draw parallels between their own faith and the Exodus, with their common themes of redemption and renewal.

“Whenever I do this, it’s always strengthened my faith and helped me to realize again what God was willing to do bring me into his family,” said Arthur Joyce, pastor of the Johnson City Alliance Church. “It is a definitely a spiritual experience.”

Joyce started observing seders at home more than 20 years ago as a way to increase his family’s understanding of Christianity’s history. Then he started inviting congregation members to join them, and within a few years it grew into a regular, if not annual, congregational event. The meals have grown so popular that the church must take advance reservations, capping the attendance at 70 people because of the limitations of the church kitchen.

“I’ve had some folks who won’t miss it,” he said. “It’s a rewarding experience for them in that it draws them closer to God, to let them know how much he loves them.”

Joyce considers their ritual “an educating and worship experience.” They serve the Lord’s Supper at the end of each seder – “as Jesus did,” said Joyce. “We’re using his words and I make a definite point that this is what Jesus did at this part.”

Many Jewish people are comfortable with this Christian innovation. Joyce has talked informally with a rabbi who sounded supportive, and he knows of other churches where rabbis have led the meals.

But the thought of Christian seders troubles others, including Howard Stein, rabbi of the B’nai Sholom Congregation in Blountville.

“I’m very concerned about the phenomenon,” he said this week. “By introducing Christological ideas and imagery into the Jewish ritual, Christians are co-opting the Jewish observance and thus attempting to impose a Christian world view on a Jewish ceremony.”

Rather than helping Christians understand the symbolism and significance of the Passover, Stein said, the practice changes the observance to conform to Christian theology. The two faiths may share a religious heritage, he said, but we can’t forget they eventually separated.

“The early followers of Jesus were still part of Judaism, but there was this difference in belief in whether Jesus was the messiah,” he said. “That’s the central divide. Over time that difference caused them to diverge, and that raises a problem in injecting Jesus into the Passover ritual.”

There’s also a historical problem: Today’s elaborate seder tradition didn’t exist in Jesus’ time. The Passover meal was, by comparison, a simple affair. The more intricate ritual developed in the centuries after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed some 40 years after Jesus walked the earth.

“The seder we have now is modeled on the Greek-Roman symposium, a meal with instruction and discussion,” he said. “So placing too much symbolic weight on the various elements of the seder is historically inaccurate.”

If Christians want to understand the Passover, Stein advised, they should talk to Jewish friends or leaders, and attend a Jewish seder to listen and learn.

“Having a relationship depends on understanding each other’s beliefs,” he said. “The distinction goes back to how we look at Jesus, and looking at that distinction is important.”

The two stories share much, but not everyone thinks they can they share a meal.

 Johnson City Press, 4 April 2009.
Image: A “seder starter kit” available from the Christian online retailer Reign Forest Ministries, an online Christian retailer (http://www.reignforestshop.com/).

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