Easter Without Hindsight, Part 31

Easter Without Hindsight: What made Jeshua stand out? He made people feel special …

I had a phone call last night from someone who has followed the of the Lent journey from the start. The thing that stood out for her, apparently, was the way that Jeshua made people feel special.

I started the series with the idea of looking at how different groups of the people who lived with Jeshua (and, in some cases, watched him die) saw him given they didn’t know how the story would end. Knowing what people thought they were looking at helps us to understand what Jeshua thought of himself and better informs how each of us sees him. I didn’t notice, until it was pointed out to me last night, quite how that made people react to him the way they did.

There were those who only saw him (or were unable, maybe, to see him any other way) in the light of their own cultural assumptions. Perhaps they were the ones, like Caiaphas and Pilate, who were perhaps trying to do all the right things for all the right reasons and ended up killing an innocent man. Reagan’s suggestion for the most dangerous nine words in English spring to mind: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Then there were those who had some kind of personal interaction with Jeshua and often  managed to overcome their culture-shock. My friend last night gave Zaccheus as an example of one whom Jeshua made feel special. All the good things (starting with his deciding to turn away from his corrupt life) mentioned in the gospel afterwards resulted from this personal reaction to Jeshua.

I wonder how that observation might be reflected in the 21st Century churches? To what extent do we also view Jesus through our own religious and cultural assumptions? Like the Jews around Jeshua, how many of us view him as our churches have (often unconsciously) taught us to. I remember how many people were shocked, a few years ago, to see Mary and Jesus, on Christmas postage stamps, depicted in a traditional Indian form. Jesus was no longer the long-haired, blue-eyed blonde with a California sun tan that they were used to. Mary suddenly wasn’t Julie Andrews in a blue nun’s habit.

Conversely I am also struck by how many people have a faith that is often radically different from their church upbringing because of a personal encounter with Jesus. I myself was born into a Roman Catholic family and I only discovered this in 2004 when a Catholic relative asked me why I had become an Anglican priest. I grew up in Anglican churches full of ornate religion and by the age of ten the church had thoroughly inoculated me against Christianity.  I wouldn’t even have wasted my time on a senseless question like: “Does God exist?”

Then by chance (or maybe ‘God-incidence’) I met people (a plug here for Min-y-don, in Wales) who knew Jesus and didn’t seem to have much religion. Suddenly I could see God! Then I discovered that God had built the entire Hebrew faith, culminating with Jesus, just for people like me. Guess how special I felt then?

It didn’t stop, and hasn’t stopped, all kinds of grief pouring into my life ever since but now I can’t lose my faith. When most of his disciples left him after he fed the 5,000 and said he was the Bread of Life (John 6:66) Jesus asked the Twelve whether they were going too. “Where would we go?’ replied Peter. “You have the words of eternal life.” Like Peter, I can’t go either. I know too much. Its too special.

As I sit in the ‘dunnunto’ (where the pew-fodder who are ‘done unto’ in Church sit) this Easter perhaps I’ll remember that Jesus never seemed to invite people to come to special church services, or to join special clubs. Instead he left his theology in a meal his disciples could share with others for all ages. He spent his time making those around him ( and often the last people who would be comfortable hanging out with religious folk) feel special about themselves.

Easter without Hindsight, Part 30

Easter without Hindsight, Resurrection: “We know this can’t happen, but this is what we saw.”

If a friend one knew was dead suddenly appeared with a cheery “Hello!” one would be a little freaked out. Luke records just this kind of incident in the days after Jeshua’s execution and burial. He had died just before the start of the Sabbath day (each new day starts at sunset in Hebrew culture) on Friday night. Jeshua had been hastily entombed by his disciples, including Nicodemus, a powerful Pharisee in Jerusalem (cf. John 3), and Joseph of Aramathea. Joseph is believed to have been a trader and possibly Jeshua’s relative. Some traditions say Joseph took the young Jeshua to Glastonbury, maybe to buy tin. That story inspired the English poet, Blake, to write the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’.

Women disciples returned on Sunday (e.g. Luke 24:1-12), the next working day, to complete Jeshua’s first burial. He was no longer there, but was later seen by two disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33), a town some miles away. While those disciples were in Jerusalem reporting the news to the Eleven (Judas Iscariot having left the Twelve under something of a cloud) Jeshua appeared (Luke 24:36-48) among them.

When the gospels use the word ‘resurrection’ the meaning is quite specific: a dead body coming back to life in this world. The concept of an ‘afterlife’ was quite different. There were also beliefs, like reincarnation, (not shared by Jews) in other cultures nearby. The Jewish belief (shared by the disciples, cf. John 11:24) was that ‘resurrection’ would only happen to righteous people at the end of the world. Hence the disciples’ initial assumption that they were seeing Jeshua’s ghost. Ghosts, whether or not one believes in them, are at least a known concept. The point is that none of Jeshua’s disciples expected him back from the dead into this world.

It’s also worth recalling that the disciples had believed Jeshua was messiah and would shortly lead a revolt against the Romans. To this day many Jews believe that Jeshua’s death on a Roman cross proves he couldn’t have been messiah. Jeshua didn’t even live long enough to lead a failed rebellion. Maybe that’s why the Twelve weren’t there when he died: perhaps they thought he was a good man but clearly not messiah.

Jeshua had a heck of a job persuading the disciples he was really alive. Is that so surprising? What would we think if we had been there? Most of us might find a ghost much more believable than a man back from the dead.

There’s a whole industry devoted to proving Jeshua could have risen naturally, which perhaps misses the point. If you were God wanting to leave an unmistakeable sign of your presence, what could be better than doing something that everyone, in every age and culture, agrees cannot happen naturally?

Did the disciples (the founders of the churches) make up the story? The earliest gospels we have all report that the women, going to continue his burial, reported Jeshua alive again. The disciples probably believed Jeshua’s death proved he wasn’t messiah. They also knew that no one ever comes back from the dead. So why invent a story that even they wouldn’t believe and then say the witnesses were women? In the Middle East (to this day) women’s testimony is devalued or ignored.

Wouldn’t we have expected them to have ‘credible’ (i.e. male) witnesses? Later gospels (like the Gnostic gospels) do down-play the women in the story and make the men more important. But the gospels in the Bible have all the ‘wrong’ witnesses. Might that be because that was what happened? The gospels report people who might have said: “We all know this can’t happen, but this is what we saw”.

Easter Without Hindsight, Part 29

Easter Without Hindsight: “So what am I doing that I don’t know?”

When the trial was over, Jeshua and the two brigands were scourged and taken to be crucified. Jeshua’s flesh would have been shredded from the studs set into the leather scourges and there would have been horror on the faces of the crowd at the injuries. To add insult the soldiers had platted a crown from thorns and had pushed it onto his head. The crowd dared do nothing but weep.

Jeshua continued to command events. “Weep for yourselves” he warned, offering a terrifying prophecy as his blood dripped from him: “Soon you will say ‘A blessing on the barren, on wombs that gave never birth and on breasts that have never nursed children. If they do this to green wood, imagine what they’ll do to dry.” He wasn’t the first to warn that violence against Rome would lead to destruction. If Jeshua was the “green” wood, a man preaching reconciliation who’s crucified, what fire will consume those preaching violence?

Crucifixions were done alongside busy roads so as many as possible would see. Don’t rebel against us, the degradation of crucifixion proclaimed to Rome’s subjects. Friends and family of the dying were watched and sometimes any suspected as seditionists, or rescuers, were summarily crucified alongside their loved ones. By noon, the three had been left naked to die, a last extra humiliation.

The soldiers played dice for their possessions, then there was little for them to do but to wait for death to come. The dying men could support their weight on the spikes through their ankles, which was excruciating but they could still breathe. Or they could hang on their arms, perhaps less painful, but breathing was more difficult. As they supported their weight on arms, then legs, their strength faded until they suffocated. Some executioners thoughtfully placed a bar for the victim to stand on, so death was delayed. That night, though, Sabbath started. All three were to be dead by sunset. The troops would break their legs later on so that, unable to ‘stand’, they would suffocate in time.

Jeshua, though, did not wait that long. As the afternoon drew to a close he “gave up his spirit” and died in his own time. Instead of breaking his legs a soldier pushed a spear through his chest to check. When it was pulled out, there was no pulsing emission, just a stream of blood and water.

Perhaps strangest of all Jeshua didn’t curse those that killed him, as rebels like the Maccabees had in the past. Instead, enigmatically, Jeshua prayed as he struggled to breathe amidst the pain. “Forgive them, Father, They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jeshua offered the peace of God’s kingdom to all the wrong people and upset those who might have thought of themselves as obvious members. Instead of threatening Romans, as the Jews might have expected, he warned God would judge the Judeans, especially their leaders. He hung now, proclaimed as King of the Jews, but only by his Roman executioners, as an ironic explanation for his death.

Instead of cursing his executioners, Jeshua prayed that God would forgive them: the priests who gave him to the Romans, the crowds who called for a murderer to go free, Pilate who sentenced an innocent man and the soldiers who tortured him to death.

Any of them might have asked: “So what am I doing that I don’t know?”

Easter Without Hindsight, Part 28

Easter Without Hindsight: “What’s it to be, Pontius? Peace, or Quiet?”

Jeshua clearly troubled Pontius Pilate. Some say that his wife, Claudia Procula, had joined crowds listening to Jeshua and knew he wasn’t really a threat. Pilate may have been a bully but maybe the professional soldier in him hesitated about executing an obviously innocent man. Being manipulated by some uppity priests wouldn’t have done much for his sense of humour either.

It was Friday, the morning after the Passover feast, and Jeshua had been arrested in the night. After a pre-dawn interrogation, led by Caiaphas, the High Priest, Jeshua had been brought to Pilate for trial accused of inciting rebellion and proclaiming himself King of the Jews. The gospel accounts tell of attempts before the trial to find witnesses but in the end all they got from Jeshua was confirmation that he was messiah. Then again, most of the priests thought messiah was supposed to lead an attack on Rome.

Pilate had been asked to leave his palace to try Jeshua in the public square outside. That probably tested his humour even more. The priests wanted to stay ‘pure’ by avoiding entering a gentile dwelling. Not only were they manipulating Pilate but were insulting him too. Maybe he wondered, grumpily, where else a Ruler might leave his palace to see his subjects? Whose Empire was it anyway?

As he listened Pilate probably saw that the evidence of sedition was non-existent. He also saw that some in the growing crowds wanted Jeshua free and some wanted him dead. Pilate probably knew any judgement would upset half of the city and wasn’t much comforted by knowing he could choose which half.

Suddenly he realised Jeshua was from Galilee, the legal jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. Herod, Pilate knew, wanted to meet Jeshua and would doubtless appreciate the courtesy of the referral. Of course Herod had no more evidence than Pilate and, a couple of hours later, with even more people on the streets, Pilate still had to dispose of the case of the troublesome rabbi. With more time Pilate may have wondered about the gorgeous robe Jeshua was wearing on his return. It was the sort of robe one wore if one was claiming political office. Was Herod’s gift a warning to Pilate, or Herod having a joke at his expense?

Pilate’s last card to avoid executing an innocent man was to appeal directly to the crowd. He offered to release Jeshua in honour of the Passover festival.  Doubtless many in the crowd would have been delighted. The priests, though, were quick off the mark and demanded Barabbas, the brigand, be freed instead. Their supporters shouted for Barabbas’ release. Meanwhile the priests personally warned Pilate that if he released Jeshua they would tell Emperor Tiberius that Pilate was “no friend” of his.

Save an innocent man? If Pilate had tried to justify his decision that way Tiberius might have just pointed to the bodies of other Jewish rebels hanging dead on crosses across Judea. Had Pilate been so careful about justice for any of them? Pilate could now chose to do the right thing and feel at peace. Or he could do the expedient thing and live a quiet life, untroubled by his Emperor’s wrath.

“What’s it to be, Pontius?” Jeshua might have asked: “Peace, or quiet?”

Easter Without Hindsight, Part 27

Easter With Hindsight: The Last Supper, Exodus and Passover Redefined

Religious leaders usually leave their followers detailed instructions about continuing their work after their death. Jeshua was refreshingly different. Many have written about him, or reported what he said, but Jeshua himself simply left his followers a meal to enjoy.

Passover may be the most important celebration of the Hebrew year, so Jeshua’s disciples would have been looking forward to sharing the feast with their rabbi. This year they were in Jerusalem itself. Were they dreaming that next year they would be together amid the luxury of the King’s Palace? First though, they had to overthrow the Romans.

Jeshua had been in the Temple most days since they had arrived in the city. He had taught huge crowds and answered his critics in ways that had drawn admiration and outrage. Jeshua probably had local supporters from previous visits to the city. This year one of them (unnamed in the gospel accounts) had provided him with a venue for the celebration feast. It was probably a wealthy supporter, since only the wealthy were normally able to add upper room onto their roofs, purpose built for guests, especially one large enough to fit Jesus, the Twelve, and others probably including Mary, Martha, their brother Lazarus and so on.

The location had been kept secret as long as possible. Jeshua would have known the authorities wanted him off the streets, if not dead. Maybe some disciples were smiling at the thought of the outraged priests and the Temple police searching for them in vain.

The feast would have proceeded in the normal way. Each item of food, the lamb, the bread, the herbs, were symbolic of the bitterness of slavery and the haste of escape. Traditional questions were asked and the ancient stories of the Exodus were told in reply, not least so the children present learned the significance of the history of Passover. The disciples expected Jeshua, as leader, to take the role of family head at this most family-centred celebration.

Unexpectedly perhaps the celebration ended up centring on him. He took bread and wine and redefined Passover. The symbols of Israel’s historic escape from slavery in Egypt now became symbols of the escape of all humanity from a much more daunting slave-master: sin itself. The disciples who grasped Jeshua’s meaning saw him proclaiming a new Exodus story.

Jeshua tooks the unleavened bread and broke it: a symbol of his body soon to be broken in death. He took wine and made it a symbol of the blood he will soon shed. What were the disciples thinking as it dawned on them that Jeshua was casting himself as the lamb, slaughtered by each family the night before Israel escaped from slavery? The lambs’ blood marked the Hebrew houses in Egypt so that when death fell on the nation that had  enslaved Israel, it passed over the houses of the Hebrews. Justice for their sins would now pass over any marked with Jeshua’s blood.

What did his disciples feel as they realised, maybe for the first time, what their rabbi’s warnings had really meant? Jeshua’s death would be as literal as that of the lamb they had just eaten in celebration.


Easter Without Hindsight, Part 26

Easter With Hindsight: In this world you get law. In the next you get justice

Jeshua spent much of his time answering questions but then occasionally asked them of the people around him. Luke records such an occasion after he arrived in the Temple.

‘How can messiah be the son of David?’ he asked. ‘David himself said in the book of Psalms: “The Lord says to the Lord of mine: ‘Sit here at my right hand until I place your enemies underneath your feet.” David refers to messiah as “Lord of mine”, Jeshua points out. So how can messiah be David’s son?

Many around Jeshua have struggled to grasp his vision of God’s kingdom. They had immense difficulty thinking outside the cultural stereotypes that most of them have inherited. They see messiah as a new king on David’s throne and ruling a free Judea. To Jeshua messiah is much more than just a human king. In the Psalm (now psalm 110, written by David) King David himself calls messiah “Lord”. There is only one power bigger than Israel’s king, Jeshua implies: God himself. Jeshua is referring to one of the passages in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, that messiah will in reality be the embodiment of God himself.

Throughout his ministry Jeshua has warned those around him that their vision of messiah, as a human ruling a small country at the end of the Mediterranean, is simply inadequate. They also face great danger if they don’t turn away from the violent nationalism that has simultaneously replaced their true calling as God’s people.  Approaching the climax of his public ministry Jeshua tries to get them to see God’s bigger picture. Messiah won’t just rule in Jerusalem. He will share God’s own throne over all creation.

Jeshua compares messiah’s greatness with the vision of greatness presented by the powerful people his followers see about them. He points to the scribes, powerful and wealthy lawyers in Jerusalem. For the purposes of comparison in his remarks, they represent the powerful elite.

‘Watch out for the scribes who go about in long robes and enjoy being greeted in the market place, sitting in the best seats in the synagogues and taking the top tables at dinners.’ Here Jeshua is adding to his earlier comparisons with the ‘rulers’ who ‘lord it over others’.

Clearly these people think they’re important, he points out. Then he reminds his listeners of what they all know of many such people. ‘They gobble up widow’s houses and make long prayers they don’t mean’. The lawyers were known to use their legal skills to exploit the poor and the defenceless and in Jeshua’s day, few were weaker or more defenceless than a widow.  Their religious conviction is mostly for show. He points out one scribe, making a public show of his donation to the Temple, one that such a rich man would barely notice, with a widow who quietly gives all she had.

The powerful may have lost any awareness of God. If they have a vision for Israel it will be for their own self-aggrandisement and gratification. God sees that, Jeshua points out to his people. God will also see that both the scribe and the widow will get justice.


Easter Without Hindsight, Part 25

Easter Without Hindsight: A New Eye on Easter

The difficulty that his disciples were still having with his counter-cultural message was clear to Jeshua as he approached Jerusalem. Just days from his final confrontation with the governing powers of politics and religion John and James, two of the first disciples that he ever called, asked him if they could sit to his left and right (Mark 10:32-45) “when you are there in all your glory.”

The brothers had often heard Jeshua’s warnings that he will suffer, die and rise again but they clearly think that he’s being metaphorical. In fairness to them, everyone, including the Jews, knows that no power on earth can raise the dead. Jews like John and James believed that resurrection will happen at the end of this world. Coming back to life in this world would be inconceivable to them, as it is to the rest of humanity.

They saw that at the end of this journey Jeshua will reign as a king in Jerusalem: the descendant of King David, rightfully back on David’s throne. Just how persistent this vision remains is also demonstrated in the book of Acts (1:6) when some disciples even ask Jeshua, at that point having risen from the dead: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

John and James realised that there will be suffering involved as messiah overcomes the powers that stand in his way. When he sits on his throne in Jerusalem, though, could they sit either side of him? Prime Ministers in his government, perhaps?

“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Jeshua asks James and John in reply. “Can you receive the baptism I am going to receive?”

He is, first, referring to the cup of wrath spoken about by the prophet Jeremiah. In Jeremiah’s day God’s wrath at Israel’s wickedness descended on Jerusalem in the form of conquering armies. Jeshua sees his task as taking God’s wrath at the wickedness of the whole world, and Israel’s in particular, onto his own head. Then he reminds them of the start of his own journey, his baptism by John the Baptist. Now, instead of going down into water, he will go through death itself, so that forgiveness can be released for the whole world.

Jeshua’s death on a Roman cross was neither metaphorical, nor a ‘tough’ challenge that leads to a successful outcome. Jeshua’s crucifixion turns humanity’s normal measures of success and authority upside down. In the pagan nations the high and mighty lord it over others but that’s not how it will be with you, Jeshua teaches them. The greatest among them, he tells his disciples, must become servants of all: “for the son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” His reference to Isaiah’s “suffering servant” (Isaiah 53) made it clear to his disciples where Jeshua believed this journey was going to finish.

Little wonder then, that those who understood him were afraid (v32) as he led this particular pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem.