Saturday, April 7, 2012

Reflecting on the Rock

We often chastise Peter for his reaction when Jesus stooped to wash his feet on Holy Thursday, but I can’t help but think that every person in that room felt the same way when they watched their Teacher and friend of the past three years stripping down to his undergarments and stooping to serve them. No doubt they all were shocked at what they witnessed. If anyone in that room should be washing feet, it certainly shouldn’t be Jesus!

I sometimes think that Peter gets a bad rep because, unlike some of the others, in this situation and others recorded in the Gospels, he tended to speak first and ask questions later. (Witness his reaction during the Transfiguration—in a moment that transcends spoken words, Peter just couldn’t keep his mouth shut!) But I tend to imagine that Jesus liked that quality in Peter. Yes, he could be impulsive and rash, yes, it might get him into trouble at times, but Peter was also bold and courageous—willing to step out when others held back. (Witness Peter’s walking on water while the others stayed in the boat as well as the way in which Peter does not hesitate to enter the empty tomb on Easter Morning.) Jesus needed a person with exactly the qualities that Peter possessed to accomplish what needed to be done.

Jesus once called Peter, the Rock, on which he would build the church. It’s been suggested that in our modern parlance Jesus might have referred to Peter as Rocky. This of course brings to mind the series of Rocky movies featuring fighter Rocky Balboa. Rocky was famous for being able to take a beating and keep getting back up, for being the undersized fighter who, against all odds—and with lots of training and dedication—triumphs over the toughest foes.

The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done! Rocky Balboa

Somehow, I picture Peter as being similar to Rocky. (I don’t know if he’s quite the same physical specimen as Sylvester Stallone was back in the day, but I do picture him as a rugged fisherman who was probably in good shape.) Peter would take a lot of “hits” along the way as he followed Jesus; he would make his share of mistakes—which the Gospels document. Regardless, from the moment Jesus saw him casting his nets along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus knew he wanted Cephas, whose name he changed to Peter—which means “rock”. Why?

I suspect it’s because Jesus knew Peter was tough—and I’m not just talking physical toughness, though he certainly might have been. No, just like Rocky, Peter’s toughness goes deeper. He’s tough emotionally and, even more, he’s tough spiritually. Jesus says that even the gates of Hell won’t triumph over him.

Nevertheless, in the next 48 hours, Jesus knew that life was going to hit Peter harder than ever. Given time, Peter would recover and keep moving forward. In the end Peter would be a winner. But on Holy Thursday night, Peter fails Jesus in every way a person can fail. As he cowers in the darkness denying he knows Jesus, Peter seems anything but tough, anything but strong. He’s protecting his own hide; he doesn’t want to be recognized as one of the twelve. The man who hours ago arrogantly claimed he would never abandon Jesus, now denies that he knows him and flees the scene, leaving Jesus alone to face his fate.

Any rock can be changed (when they do we call them metamorphic rocks); but it usually requires being buried underground and subjected to pressure and heat. In the case of Peter—the Rock—Holy Week is the impetus for change. Living through the betrayal, the arrest, the trial, the denial, the abandonment, the crucifixion, the burial—and most importantly—the resurrection, is the crucible that supplies the “pressure” and “heat” that are needed to strengthen the Rock for the next chapter of his own ministry.

By the time we meet Peter on the day of Pentecost, he has begun to “get it”; he has had some time to reflect and starts to understand how all he has lived through was exactly what Jesus predicted. The arrogance and impulsiveness that so defined him in the Gospels begin to fade and the boldness and courageousness that characterize him in Acts start to move to the forefront. Peter does not change overnight; transformation takes time. I suspect he probably never fully loses the rash, impulsive tendencies. The less desirable qualities are part of what makes Peter the unique person God created him to be. But God redeems those qualities and uses them for his glory.

I wonder if this insight can help us when we face crucibles in our own life? Do we face difficult circumstances that there’s no way around? Are we buried under challenging life circumstances? Are we under pressure? Are we taking heat? When we face challenges we have a choice: We can lament about them or we can learn from them. Speaking from experience, I’d say I usually do a little of both; I think the key is being open to learning even as we lament. That seems to be what happened with Peter. He was devastated by his failure in the moment, but he eventually learned a great deal from his experience.

Peter’s example reminds us that—if we let them—the difficulties and hardships we live through can actually change us, strengthen us, and equip us for the unique role that God needs us to fulfill.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Towel Proceeds the Cross...

Tonight is Holy Thursday. One of the scenes we often recall on this night is the scene in John’s gospel where Jesus, knowing this will be in final time with his disciples, wants to set the tone for what lies ahead. He knows the fate that awaits him… and the fate that awaits them, and he wants to try and prepare them as best he can. He will tell them many things in their time together about what will happen in the coming days—John 14–16. (As is clear from their reactions, they do not understand it all in that moment; it is only later, when it all plays out just as Jesus says, that they begin to piece it together.) He will pray for himself, for them, and for the world—John 17. And then he will lead them forth to face his fate—John 18–19. But before all that, however, Jesus becomes the living embodiment of what he is about to teach them—John 13 (esp vv 1-15).

The prelude to Christ’s suffering on the cross to save all of humanity is his picking up a towel and stooping to serve those he loved.

After the meal was over, Jesus shocks his followers by stooping to do the job that even the lowliest servant tried to avoid. The weather in Palestine is hot and dry, the streets of Jerusalem were not paved, and the footwear of that day did not cover the feet. Make no mistake that what Jesus was about to do was a dirty task that no one wanted to be the one stuck with. Yet, Jesus voluntarily does it. He strips himself of his outer clothing (perhaps a foreshadowing of all that he will soon be “involuntarily” stripped of?) and stoops to wash his disciples feet. As he puts back on his clothes, and they pick their jaws up off the floor, Jesus doesn’t miss the teachable moment.

Jesus tells the disciples that if they want to be his followers, they must follow him in every way—and that means they too must stoop to serve one another, and stoop to serve the world.

Every time I read this passage and I hear Jesus say, “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you,” it challenges me. I am by nature pretty me-focused and service forces you to be other-focused—whether the other is your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your co-workers, etc. You have to put their agenda on par with your own, and that requires sacrifice, and sacrifice is by its very nature, hard. Service is not something that tends to come naturally to us; it’s something we have to practice.

On Holy Thursday we get a chance to practice service. When we participate in foot-washing or hand-washing, we reenact Jesus’ example and intentionally stoop to serve others. Often, we do this in pairs. To have another person wash my hands is always a humbling experience. Likewise, to have someone else allow me to serve them this way requires trust and vulnerability on the part of that person, and is always very moving.

Now consider what this night must have been like for the disciples, what it would feel like to have the hands of the Lord of Creation wash your feet? It’s almost beyond comprehension; I can sympathize with Peter’s reaction to it all.

Consider too that those same hands that so tenderly washed the disciples feet in the Upper Room would, in just a few short hours, be bruised and broken as Jesus endured torture, first at the home of the High Priest, and especially during his time with Pilate. (Luke says that Herod got in on the act as well!) These same beautiful hands that stooped to serve on Thursday would be stretched out on a cross and nailed into place on Friday. Jesus’ hands—and in fact, his entire body—would be broken to heal our brokenness—i.e., so that all of creation might be made whole and holy again. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.

It’s important to remember that the original disciples didn’t necessarily know that Easter was coming. (Scripture can sometimes make it seem like they did, but I simply don’t think that is true.) For them, the Last Supper was very somber, and the turn of events was unexpected; the events that followed were downright gut-wrenching, as they watched the man they called teacher and friend for three years betrayed, arrested, and subjected to torture, culminating in one of the most brutal forms of execution ever invented at the hands of their oppressors and enemies—the Romans.

Make no mistake, for tonight, and for the next 48 hours, from the disciple’s perspective, it appeared that the “bad guys” have won, and darkness reigns.

Part of our problem, perhaps, is that more than 2000 years later, we know how this story ends and, naturally, we tend to want to rush to the “good” part. That’s understandable, but we need to resist that urge. I think it takes something away from our experience of Easter if we rush to the end of the story, or worse yet, skip over the darkness entirely and simply show up on Easter Morning when Christ is risen and all seems hopeful and light-filled.

We need to let ourselves spend some time in the darkness of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. We need to contemplate how it would have felt to not know how this story was going to end. Then the startling news of the empty tomb and the light of Easter Morning will shine out all the more!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Holy Week: When the Fool Became the Hero

I have been pondering the irony of the convergence of the secular and liturgical calendars this year. This year, April Fools Day and Palm Sunday—the start of Holy Week—are the same day. To some, especially political and religious leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus and his band of followers marching into Jerusalem must have seemed like fools... especially to Pilate and his well organized Roman legions. When they saw Jesus, all they could perceive was a threat to their status that needed to be eliminated.

We see this illustrated in the exchange between Pilate and Jesus during his so-called trial—see John 18–19. Pilate simply doesn't "get" Jesus. (For that matter neither does Caiaphas or Herod.) He claims to be a King, but Pilate simply can't wrap his brain around the kind of King that is standing before him. He doesn't "look the part," so Pilate concludes he must be a fool. To Pilate, anyone who challenges the authority of Caesar is clearly fool-hearty—and guilty of treason.

On the other hand, the "crowds" that the Gospel writers (especially Mark) say often gathered around Jesus throughout his ministry seemed to "get" Jesus. It is most likely that these were the same people that lined the road and spread palm branches as Jesus road toward Jerusalem on a donkey that day. The majority of these folks were not people in power; they did not benefit from the status quo of the Pax Romana. These people were eager to welcome Jesus as a hero, and perhaps this made them more willing to believe that he was their long-awaited Messiah. They were ordinary people willing to, if you will, put their faith in a “fool.” They needed to hope for something better and Jesus clearly gave them that.

Paul says the Gospel will seem like "foolishness" to those who don't believe—people like Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, and to some degree, even Jesus’ own disciples! He also describes himself as a "fool for Christ.” Paul suggests that those who have Christ in them discover an entirely new way of living is really possible in this world. Jesus came to demonstrate that Way, and was so convinced of its reality that he was willing to die for it.

On Saturday however, Jesus truly looks the part of a fool—and a dead one at that—but by Sunday, everything changes.

On Friday night it looks like everything has failed and nothing has changed, but incredibly by Sunday Morning, the stone is removed, the tomb is empty, and Christ is risen! In the Resurrection, we find out Jesus wasn't so foolish after all. Humanity's worst is once and for all overcome by heaven's best. The fool becomes the hero; the hero becomes the fool. It is the Great Reversal that is the basis of our faith.