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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Good Friday: Night, Agony and Beauty

A continuation of my musings on Lent . . . .

Tomorrow is Good Friday. I told my children this morning that it wouldn't surprise me if a large percentage of Americans didn't even know why it is called that. "Oh Good Friday?  It's a day off work before Easter, that's why it's good!" I wonder how many realize that the price for their sin was paid on that day many years ago. Do they even comprehend that it is the day that the covenant was sealed with Christ's blood, that they can escape Hell because of what happened on a horrible Roman cross?

May I never forget that day or that Cross! It is a sacred, holy thing and the day we remember Christ's sacrifice is a hallowed one. Though I have pondered the observance of Lent and its place in church history, I would never deny the glory of the cross. It is a solemn symbol, to be sure, and not to be taken lightly. How can one look upon the blood soaking into the rough hewn wood and hear Christ's agony in His death throes and not be rendered speechless at the magnitude of His love for humanity?

Some of the comments on my post about Lent referred to the cross and our need for reverence and appreciation for it. I most heartily agree with those sentiments. We must never be "put off" by the Cross, but rather be drawn to it and hold it in high esteem. What was once viewed as an extreme instrument of torture and death is for us an emblem of deepest beauty and unending life.

Perhaps those who choose to enter into the denial practices of Lent feel it helps them, in a very small way, more clearly identify with the sufferings of Calvary. I can see how that could be. My question merely was "Is that what Christ wants us to do? Does it bring Him glory or pleasure for us to do so? Would He tell us to do this or is it a human tradition, not necessarily wrong, but neither clearly Scriptural?"

I'm still not sure of the answer, but one thing I do know - every Christian should bow in thankfulness on Good Friday and remember the cost of his or her salvation. What an appropriate time to look back at His suffering and thank Him for drinking that cup to the full! What a wonderful day to partake of the Lord's Supper and remember the "new covenant' in His blood! What a thrill to recall His promise that the next time He drinks the fruit of the vine will be with His bride in the New Kingdom! These are some of the thoughts I will be having as I join in communion with others at a Good Friday service. It will be a melancholy time as we contemplate His pain, but we will not weep because we find joy in a gloomy religion; we will weep as we remember that it was our sins that put Him there, that He died in our place.

The Cross is culmination of the price, but it is not the end of the story, of course. Still, without it, there would be no garden tomb shining and empty. For there to be new life, there must first be death. And Christ was that corn of wheat, planted in the ground in death, which would soon spring back to life, bringing forth much fruit.

In His garden sufferings, I imagine dread and submission and commitment and the power of evil rising toward crescendo. In His betrayal, I glimpse sadness and disappointment and aloneness. In His trial, I see agony and shame and obedience to death. In His Cross, I find a terrible beauty in the pathos and love in the pain. As the Son of God allows His human life to slip away, He holds onto His commitment to you and to me. He reaches out to place us back in the Father's hand as He gasps "It is finished." And as darkness shrouds Golgotha, Hades becomes strangely light as the Conqueror shatters the gloom and snatches the keys. Calvary's work is done; night is receding, morning is on the way.

Who Has the Right to Define It?

The Supreme Court heard two days of argument. The Justices are considering. Proponents want to see "restrictions" removed so no one is excluded, claiming they are entitled to equal benefits.  Rush Limbaugh says that it will eventually be legal nationwide. Bill O'Reilly says all the "opponents" can really do is thump the Bible.

What is the issue?

The definition of marriage.

Up until two or three decades ago, when someone announced he or she was getting married, it was naturally assumed that the spouse-to-be was of the opposite gender. That is what marriage is, right? Apparently not in today's language.

Marriage is no more understood to be a man and woman, joining together for life and raising children who will, as Mike Huckabee says, "become their replacements.

Now, we are told that marriage should be redefined to be two people joining together and, if they so choose, raising children which they must either adopt or have help from someone of the opposite sex in order to bear.

Not the same thing. It can be called some kind of union, I suppose, but it is not marriage, which was fundamentally defined by God and then again by Christ during His earthly teaching as a "one-flesh" relationship between a man and a woman.  (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5)

A same-sex "relationship" is unnatural, of course, since it does not propogate the human race and is contrary to the very anatomical design of mankind. This lifestyle results in health issues, not all of which are AIDS related, though that is the biggest risk, of course. And this lifestyle distorts the plan of the Creator.

I have to take issue with Bill O'Reilly here and say that, for me, having the Bible as the main argument for my position makes perfect sense to me and is no small confirmation of correct thinking. As a follower of Christ, I strive to center my entire life on the teachings of His Word. My politics flow out of that commitment; I cannot make up my mind about social issues apart from it.

I am not a gay hater. I have worked with gay people and know some gay people personally. They are human beings created in the image of God and have great value as such. It is not their intrinsic worth that is the issue, though many would like to say that it is. If we made social and political decisions based on our human worth alone our nation would be in jeopardy. Behavior does matter. Opponents of "gay marriage" do not deny the worth of those involved but object to giving same-sex relationships legal "marital" status, as if there were no difference. If one wants the benefits of "marriage" then he or she must be "married" - as in a lifelong commitment to a person of the opposite sex. To try to redefine this relationship to allow for deviations of the normal tradition is foolish. It is not the same thing.

Of course, none of this make sense if you do not believe that same-sex relationships are abnormal or a type of dysfunction.  It is becoming apparent that the problem in America is a much deeper one than merely a difference of opinion on this issue.  Our country has had a violent shift in its moral base. That would have to be the case when Bill O'Reilly can say that using biblical principles as argument doesn't amount to much. Our founders wouldn't have agreed with him. The embryonic documents of our nation reveal that those men had great reverence for biblical wisdom and often relied on the leading of Providence. But it has become unconstitutional to uphold religious slogans and displays and to pray in our schools, so it should not surprise us that the Bible is no longer seen as a legimate authority on social issues.

I know that many of you reading this agree with me and you've heard all the things I could say on this issue. So, this is not a new angle, but an affirmation of my right as an American citizen to free speech and of where I stand as a Christ-follower. 

Marriage is a sacred institution created by God, and it is He who has the right to define it. Even the decision of the highest court in the land cannot change that.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

In Remembrance of Me

I haven’t made up my mind about Lent.

There are strong feelings about this season – from those who observe and from those who don’t. I see good points on both sides. But today, I’m looking at the “not” side.

My strongest objection would not be to the theme of self-denial; I surely need more of that. Saying “no” to self, even in legitimate matters, is a practice that is rarely overdone.

No, the issue I would raise is the idea of the mourning and lamenting involved. And I see it on two levels.

First, if the approach is mourning for sin, as I’ve heard in some liturgical contexts, then that seems to fly in the face of forgiveness. Yes, we are to be abjectly sorrowful for our sin when we come to God; but our sorrow is to work repentance, a turning from sin. In other words, once we are forgiven, we are not to repeat the sin, but lean on Christ’s strength to resist it the next time around. Thus, it seems to me that keeping Lent by “mourning for my sin” is not giving full credence to Christ’s work on the cross which frees me from the continual bondage to sin.

Second, if the approach is a lamenting the suffering of Christ, that is contradictory to biblical teaching as I understand it. Jesus does not want morose followers. While He surely wants us to appreciate His sacrifice and honor Him for it, He does not wish us to dwell on the darkness of Calvary. Christians are encourage to be joyful; nowhere in Scripture do I read that we are to be mournful (except in Ecclesiastes maybe, but you have to understand that context). Yet, this feeling of sadness permeates not only the season of Lent, but many times, those special occasions when we partake of the “Lord’s Supper” – communion.

Let me explain.

“In Remembrance of Me.” It’s carved into heavy wooden tables standing at the front of church sanctuaries. The phrase is a pull-out of Jesus’ words to His closest disciples on the occasion of His last meal with them. But this wasn’t an ordinary dinner; it was what we call the Last Supper.

Commemorating the Passover was the last thing Christ shared with his followers before going to the garden to pray and await Judas and the soldiers. For every good Hebrew, partaking of the Passover Seder was essential. But for Jesus, it was even more important on this occasion. This meal was also a ceremony to signify the covenant He was about to confirm with His own blood.

In accordance with Jewish custom, the bridegroom would give a cup of wine to the bride who would accept it with the right hand and drink from the cup, thereby giving her consent to the betrothal. The bridegroom was then expected to agree to the bride price – a sacrifice on his part which he was willing to pay for his beloved.

Jesus gave the disciples the cup and promised that He wouldn’t drink the “fruit of the vine” again until the day when He would drink it with them (and with us), the Bride, in the new kingdom. Then, after the meal and all that took place there was over, He left that upper room and went out to pay the price. The terrible agony would end on a place called Golgotha, and He would utter the words “It is finished” signifying that all was completed according to the covenant.

But the words He spoke to the disciples when He broke the bread and shared the cup are the ones that influence our customary observance of “communion.”

“And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. {in...: or, for a remembrance } After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25)

What does Christ ask us to remember here? What are we supposed to dwell on as we partake of the bread and the cup? Is He admonishing us not to forget His suffering? Maybe.

But maybe He is asking us to remember Him. Would the bridegroom ask his bride to remember how much he paid for her? Would he instruct her not to “forget how much it cost me to get you?” If he did, she might wonder about his motives. No, more likely, he would ask her to think about him whenever she next took a sip of wine. He would want her to remember him and his love for her and the covenant he made to someday return for her – on their wedding day. He would ask her to remember in joy.

And I think that’s what Christ wants from us as well.

Now, I know there will be those reading this who will bring up the fact that many Christians today take their Christianity far too lightly anyway and that a sober reminder once in a while does us all good. I agree that I often forget just much Jesus suffered for me and stark reminders of that path of suffering and the agony of Calvary do me good. But I don’t think God intended that we spend several weeks focused on that aspect of our salvation.

I’ve heard it said that the early church observed the season of Lent. That may be so, and I would love to hear more about it. However, I find it possible that even the early Christians might have been wrong on a few things. After all, they were only human too. And being so close to the events of Calvary would make them even more prone to dwell on it.

So, I suppose now I sound really radical. I hope not. And I’d love to hear from you if you have additional thoughts or a different point of view. I’m always interested in dialogue in matters of spiritual and biblical importance.

And maybe I’m way off track here. You Bible scholars, chime in! I haven’t covered every possible angle, that’s for sure. These are just some thoughts that have occurred to me as I’ve pondered the idea of Lent this year and whether it is a biblical teaching.

I’m still thinking . . . .

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