Capital Punishment and the Idol of “Justice”

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove posted this article today about the shudder inducing Oklahoma execution story that is all over the news (since we’ve already apparently moved on from secretly recorded racist NBA owners). In the article he says:

“For Christians a botched execution during our celebration of Easter must remind us that an execution is at the center of our story. But our Lord was not the executioner, scrambling to maintain an appearance of control in a world gone mad. He was, instead, the one who chose to remain silent before his accusers. “If anyone had the right to set things right and gain control, Jesus did.”
via Botched Oklahoma Execution Reveals Self-Deception.

It is a good reminder that when we feel like we need justice and recompense, God’s true justice looks nothing like the false idols of “justice” we prop up. God’s example of justice and peacemaking got Jesus nailed to a cross. We would do well to remember that,

He committed no sin, nor did he ever speak in ways meant to deceive. When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed.”
1 Peter 2:24 (CEB)

We deceive ourselves when we believe that taking a life will somehow restore the balance for a life taken. However, sin and death do not play fairly. Looking at Jesus nailed to the cross might give the impression to those in power that death allows us to control life. Easter and the resurrection demonstrates that the worldly vision of justice redeems no one.

God’s vision of justice, on the other hand, leads to Christ’s resurrection and the promise of new life.

When we choose to kill we let death have the victory. When we choose life, though we may yet die as Jesus did, we let God’s kingdom shine through the cracks of this broken world.

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Are we Asking the Wrong Question?

Embed from Getty Images

Now that Lent is over and we’ve entered the Easter Season (yes, it continues on AFTER Easter, not just before) it’s time to get back to my regularly scheduled topical blog posts. Since we’re in the Easter season I thought I’d discuss something that many feel is central to the Easter story, the Gospel and what it means to be a Christian.

Specifically, what does it mean to be saved?

I posed this question on Facebook and here is a sampling of answers I received:

  • “To believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and was sacrificed so that we can be saved and to have a personal intimate relationship with Him.”
  • “On one level ‘being saved’ is to be reconnected with the force that gives life, ie reconnected to God and having that which brings separation (sin) removed.”
  • “It’s about healing and being ‘cleansed’ rooted in ‘righteousness’ …We are free to act out of our salvation all we want. We are free to ignore it all we want. We are “reconciled” already. We are ‘saved.'”
  • “Evidence of true salvation is a changed life. A fruitful life…a life that is led by intimacy with Jesus is evidence of true salvation. Though true intimacy is a life long journey that comes as one matures.”
  • “God saves us *for* or *to* something, not just *from* something. And that something is God’s kingdom, where love and justice and grace abundantly reside; where we are saved to do the holy ministry of Jesus Christ with the Holy Spirit.”
  • “It means that I was rescued by Jesus Christ’s death, to a new life, where I can now have a full relationship with God and live with him eternally. He paid the price, and once I accept Him as my Lord and Savior I become changed.”
  • “Upon repenting of my sins, and accepting JESUS as my Lord and Savior, his blood covers my sins, and I am saved. But, then I must follow through with living my life hearing his word, and doing as he instructs me.”
  • “When I hear people say “I’m saved,”–to me it just means they’ve said the saving prayer and aren’t going to hell, but it doesn’t tell me that they actually know Jesus.”
  • “Many people also can claim to be “saved” and are not. To the public, it is simply a general declaration of faith you identify with, and helps others to better categorize your specific beliefs. It’s not something, however, anyone can truly know of anyone else. It’s between the individual and God, and no one else can truly see all of what’s in another’s heart. “
  • “Being ‘saved’ in the eyes of God is to accept him as your savior and give you life to the service of him. However, for about 90% of people that have been ‘saved’ that act does not resonate into their daily lives and therefore has little meaning in the end. “

I appreciate my friends who took the time to respond and share their thoughts. As you can see, there is a bit of a spread in how my small subject sample understand the meaning of being “saved” and even some healthy doubt in the usefulness/effectiveness of the claim. Honestly, I’ve been wrestling with this concept for the past4 to 5 years. My response would have been very similar to many of these pre-seminary, but now (as a few of my friends also noted) I’m really starting to question the centrality/effectiveness of the concept of being “saved” and “salvation” in Western/Evangelical church culture. I blame seminary for unsettling the foundation that I had been taught up to that point. I blame good seminary instructors, books and articles I read for slowly deconstructing and reorienting my understanding of being “saved” and “salvation” as a Christian.

Recently I’ve been reading the “King Jesus Gospel” by Scot McKnight and he points out that we’ve transitioned from the “apostolic” or “King Jesus” Gospel presented by Jesus and the apostles to a “salvation” Gospel preached in most Western Evangelical churches today. He goes to great pains to make the argument that the “King Jesus” Gospel has a much different focus than the “salvation” Gospel most of us would be familiar with. He writes,

“the gospeling of Acts, because it declares the saving significance of Jesus, Messiah and Lord, summons listeners to confess Jesus as Messiah and Lord, while our gospeling seeks to persuade sinners to admit their sin and find Jesus as the Savior…much of the soterian [salvation] approach to evangelism today fastens on Jesus as (personal ) Savior and dodges Jesus as Messiah and Lord.”

For McKnight, the “are you saved?” approach today, focuses on our sin and need of salvation through Jesus. For those preaching in the book of Acts, McKnight argues for the primary importance of confessing Jesus as Lord, Messiah and Christ as promised in the story of Israel. At issue then with a “salvation” Gospel is getting people “saved” without an understanding or grasp of what it really means for Jesus to be Messiah, Lord and Christ.

Another recent article that had me pondering the idea of being “saved” again was posted by a rabbi I follow on Twitter. The Coffee Shop Rabbi posted, “Have You Been Saved?” and ruminated on this question she been asked in the past and discussed what salvation means in a Jewish context. She states, “I am here to tell you that I have not been saved. However, I have on my shoulders the ohl hashamayim, the yoke of the covenant, and therefore I am on a mission to save what I can of my tiny little corner of the world. I am not on that mission by myself. I am on that mission as one of the Jewish People.” I think Jesus talked about a yoke somewhere too…

I’m with McKnight and the Coffee Shop Rabbi in thinking that there is more to “salvation” and being “saved” than just praying a prayer, going to church and living a good life. I’ve even strayed from telling people that I’m 100% sure I’m saved. I know in the Orthodox tradition salvation is understood as a life process and truly only happens once one is welcomed into Heaven. We are continually “saved” throughout our life, growing ever deeper in our process of sanctification.

Finally, is “are you saved” even the question people are asking or concerned with? Is there a greater  possibility of evangelism if we open up to answering other questions? Answering questions that people are actually wrestling with in a Gospel centered fashion? What if we were more concerned with, as the Coffee Shop Rabbi suggested, leaving the world a better place than when we found it? Might evangelism be more effective if we saw it as the kind of process that we can invite people to join in on and walk with them through? Can we be more effective in “saving” others by serving the world, answering their questions, and engaging with the world in a meaningful way in order to fulfill the law in the way that Jesus demonstrated?

Sorry for ending with questions and no real solid answers…but that’s where I’m at.  Feel free to leave a comment with your own answers, questions or share with your friends to see what they have to say.

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Easter

ResurrectionAlmighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saint of the Week – Sava Stratelates “the General” of Rome

Sava Stratelates “the General” of Rome

Sava Stratelates “the General” of Rome

Today we return to our regularly scheduled Saint of the Week business. For this week’s saint I’m going to go way back in Church history to the third Century (200s AD) and even cross some traditions. This saint is an officially recognized saint in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and he is remembered on April 24th.

This week’s saint is Sava (or Sabbas) Stratelates.

Sava was from a Gothic tribe and served in the Roman military. He had attained the rank of “stratelates” or general in the Roman army. Tradition says that Sava had been a Christian since his youth. He was known not only for his military service but also for helping the needy, visiting Christians in prison and even for healing the sick and casting out demons.

The emperor Aurelian heard Sava was a Christian and asked him to recant his faith. This was probably due to Aurelian’s efforts to unify Roman religion around the Roman god Sol Invictus or the “Unconquered Sun”. It probably did not sit well with Aurelian that one of his generals worshiping a god other than what was encouraged by the emperor. Sava, however, did not recant and instead threw down his officer’s belt (effectively resigning from the Roman military) and declaring he would never recant and forsake his faith. This obviously did not sit well with Aurelian and those who had come to hear him recant. Sava was apprehended, he was beaten, flogged, burned with torches and thrown into a large cauldron filled with tar. Sava miraculously survived all this and even through the torture he refused to recant. Because of his faithfulness it is said that 70 other soldiers became followers of Christ that day. Those 70 soldiers were beheaded for their new faith and Sava was throw into prison. That night while in prison, Sava saw a vision of Christ that encouraged him to stand firm, remain faithful and to not fear. The next morning he was tortured even more and was eventually drowned in the Tiber river a around the year 272 AD.

I pray that, like Sava, we would have the faith to stand up when our faith is challenged. I pray that when challenged, we would not respond with violence, anger, hatred or slander. I pray we would throw down our weapons and pick up our cross to follow Christ as Sava demonstrated. I pray that when asked to choose between allegiance to earthly leaders, countries, military or ideals over Christ that we would humbly remain faithful to Christ.

More Information:
Orthodox Church in America – Martyr Sava Stratelates “the General” of Rome
Wikipedia – Sabbas Stratelates
Serbian Orthodox Church – The Holy Martyr Sabbas Stratelates

St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Believe the Resurrection

Good thought from St. Cyril of Jerusalem today as try to remember that Easter and the resurrection continue to change everything.

“Cannot the Creator who gave existence to a person that did not exist bring to life again a person that did exist but is now dead? Every year he makes the corn spring to life that had withered and died after it was sown. Do you suppose that he who raised himself from the dead for our sake will have any difficulty in raising us to new life? Or look at the trees. For a number of months they remain without fruit, even without leaves. But once the winter is past, they become green, they become green all over, new, as if risen from the dead.”

via St. Cyril of Jerusalem: Believe the Resurrection | Fr. Ted’s Blog.

Lenten Lectio: Reflection for Easter

Resurrection by Mikhail Vrubel, 1887.

Resurrection by Mikhail Vrubel, 1887.

Last Sunday was Easter Sunday and signaled the official ending of Lent and the beginning of the Easter Season which runs from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. Much like Christmas, in the Christian calendar the season of Easter continues beyond the actual day. Rather than getting sucked into the commercial calender where once the holiday is passed all symbols of the season are removed and we are pushed to move on to the next thing, the Christian calender calls us to exist in the season and remember that our lives are continually changed because of what happened on Easter. Easter is a game changer and it’s effects last well beyond Easter Sunday. Let’s look at a passage from the resurrection account in the Gospel of John.

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, “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.’”

Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
John 20:11-18 (CEB)

Like I said before, Easter is a game changer. There is a cosmic shift when Jesus comes out of the tomb. The powers, authorities and rules that dominated the world up to that point were defeated and the life of Jesus was vindicated. Sin was put on notice and those who thought they had triumphed over the challenges of Christ had been proven wrong. They tried to silence Jesus and commit him to the fickle memory of history. Once in the grave he would be forgotten and nameless. Easter Sunday wrecks their plans.  As Paul tells us:

“Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Philippians 2:9-11 (CEB)

This is all well and good and this is pretty much what we sang about this past Sunday. However, there is a nugget of truth that the resurrection story reveals that I think we miss.

Jesus calls Mary by her name.

Jesus is glorified and given a great name that will not be lost in the fog of history, but in that his followers also are promised to not be lost to time, history and death. In the resurrection, one of the biggest cosmic shifts is that in Christ our lives are given new meaning, purpose and identity.

In Christ, we matter.

In the body of Christ, we have a purpose.

When Christ sees us, he knows our name.

Knowing somebody’s name is a great honor and can be very powerful. Marketing and sales people have known this for years. Getting someone’s name and using it regularly creates a sense of relationship that can open up further opportunities. Knowing someone’s name, or allowing somebody to know yours, opens up the channels for a deeper relationship that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Often, the world, sin and death want to strip us of our identities and unique presence in the world. People are made into statistics, national identity becomes a check box and children are sacrificed for ideologies.

In the resurrection, we all have names, we all have individual value, those who are in Christ participate in the reforming and restoration of a world cracked and spoiled by sin.

In the resurrection, we are not forgotten, those who are in Christ are known.

“But those who did welcome him,
those who believed in his name,
he authorized to become God’s children.”
John 1:12 (CEB)

As Jesus called Mary by name, so to is it God’s desire to know us and call us by name. Because God seeks to know us as his children, to know our names and our stories, we should desire to know others and to enter relationship with others. To know them, give them an identity and welcome them into the restored post-Easter community of God.

To know and be known by the hopeless.

To know and be known by those who grieve.

To know and be known by the humble.

To know and be known by those who are hungry and thirsty.

To know and be known by the merciful.

To know and be known by the pure in heart.

To know and be known by the peacemakers.

To know and be known by the harassed.

To know and be known by the insulted and falsely accused.

Prayer for Easter Sunday

ResurrectionO God, who for our redemption gave your only-begotten Son to the death of the cross, and by his glorious resurrection delivered us from the power of our enemy: Grant us so to die daily to sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.