The Veil

pexels-photo-208216
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I wrote these words this morning. On the second Friday of each month I meet with a group of men for the study of Scripture, prayer, and mutual encouragement. These men are my elders, and they have met together for over twenty years. I’ve served this group as part of a teaching rotation since summer 2017, at which time they welcomed me. Today we were unable to gather due to the pandemic, and thus I sent a meditation via email. This is it.

Scripture Reading:

32 As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. 33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 34 There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. 35 When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. 37 Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.

38 Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” 41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.”

48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

Meditation:

I’ve been slowly reading through Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics I.1: The Doctrine of the Word of God. Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who lived from 1886 to 1968, and he is considered a giant in the history of theology. He was educated by Adolf von Harnack at the University of Berlin and then by Wilhelm Hermann at the University of Tubingen, both leading theologians during their time.
 
Barth later came to reject the form of Protestant liberalism that he was taught by his mentors while pastoring a small church in a village called Safenwil. It was there that Barth wrote his commentary The Epistle to the Romans, which he revised several times. Barth later taught theology in Germany, until he was pushed out by the Nazis, whom he rejected. He was asked to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. He refused.
 
Barth is well known as the primary author of the Barmen Declaration, which, in short, proclaimed that the Church’s highest allegiance was to Jesus Christ; thus Christians should not pledge fealty to the Nazis or other earthly lords. Barth mailed a copy of the Barmen Declaration to Hitler personally.
 
In The Doctrine of the Word of God, Barth describes what he calls “The Speech of God and the Mystery of God.” One of his observations, which has stuck with me, is that Jesus came into the world publicly, and yet not everyone received him the same (this is an observation that preceded Barth in Scripture, but nonetheless, a good reminder!). The Word of God was revealed, and yet not all said, “Oh, here is God!” Even in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, many where still unable to see what was plainly in front of their face. Barth observes that this has been the case with many events throughout time.
 
Barth says it simply: “The veil is thick.” Barth writes that when God speaks, God acts, and what was concealed is suddenly revealed as “not just His act but His miraculous act, the tearing of an untearably thick veil, i. e., His mystery.”  Barth goes further, saying that those who are able to perceive God’s action and hear God’s speech are enabled to do so by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s action that opens our eyes, softens our hearts, and unblocks our ears.
 
Today is Good Friday. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is one that we tell often. If we are preaching the gospel, we should constantly and routinely bring ourselves back to a fresh consideration of what Jesus did in his life, death, and resurrection. We should keep all three in view. But we shouldn’t minimize or ignore or gloss over or neglect the cross. I think we do. We move too quickly past the cross. Why?
 
In the Protestant tradition, at least in more recent years in the North American church, we have often focused on Jesus’ life or his resurrection. We emphasis Jesus’ example and his moral teachings, or we focus on our eternal hope and the gift of eternal life.
 
Too often, we think we’re pretty good people, and Jesus’ teachings can help us be a little better. We like the idea of resurrection and eternal life, because it offers comfort. But the cross is where our sin is dealt with, which means we must think and consider carefully the fact that we are sinners. We must consider how we have failed and rebelled, we must look at the ugliness within. We move too quickly past the cross, for it reminds us not only of the death of Jesus, but what also needs to die in us. It is a horror to behold.
 
We are rightly horrified. But we must look. We must gaze upon the Christ, and consider how in his death what was hidden has now been revealed. We must consider how your sin, my sin our sin, has been dealt with. God’s mystery is ours to contemplate and to enter, to encounter and to behold.
 
In our Scripture reading today, we see that there are some who are plainly unable to see Jesus as he is, as Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior, the Redeemer, and our truest friend. They see Jesus as a threat, a false teacher, a revolutionary, an outsider, even an enemy. The veil is thick. Having rejected Jesus, they nail him to a cross. Jesus is stripped, mocked. He is considered a spectacle. A weirdo. A fool.
 
And yet, there were some who saw something very different, and perhaps the longer they gazed upon Jesus, something more profound began to come into view. They began to perceive that this was no ordinary human being. Yes, he was a human being. There, he bled, he suffered, and he died.
 
And yet! The moment Jesus gives up his spirit (it is Luke who tells us that before Jesus did this, he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” and prior to this, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed to the Father to forgive those who crucified him, “for they know not what they do”), Matthew reports that something incredible happened. The veil in the temple, which separated the temple sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, was torn in two from top to bottom, and that many miraculous signs accompanied this event, including earthquakes and the raising from the dead of “many holy people.”
 
You might have noticed that the first people to proclaim that Jesus was indeed God’s Son were a centurion and others who were overseeing the execution. Outsiders to the Jews; people who were not in the covenant community. Matthew also notes the presence of the women, watching from afar. Some walked away from Golgotha unchanged. But a few wondered, “Did God do something there? I’ve never seen anything like it. Was I seeing God? Who was this Jesus?”
 
Romans 5:8 tells us, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” That’s no small claim. Do we give it due consideration? Do we allow it to sink in?
 
On this Good Friday, let’s consider that claim afresh. Let’s behold the mystery. On the cross, Jesus died for us. God, in the flesh, made atonement through sacrifice, he instituted a new covenant in his blood, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). That’s the tearing of a thick veil. Do we see?
 
He has done it. Because Jesus has done it, he is now doing a new thing. In me, in you, and in us. Those who receive Jesus by faith are given the gift of eternal life, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and an imperishable, everlasting hope.
 
There is joy and peace, for in our inmost being, we can know, by God’s grace and with the Spirit’s consolation, that our sins–every last one–have been paid for on the cross. There is power, for as Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
 
Thank God that in and through Jesus salvation has been extended to us as a gift. Don’t rush past Good Friday too quickly. Behold the mystery and the magnificence. Behold the love. And let that love move and melt you, transform and change you. Let the life you now live in the body by one that is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and give himself for you, and for us.

Prayer:

Father, I give you thanks that you are a Redeemer, a Savior, a God who rescues us, and who reveals yourself as a self-sacrificing, loving God. Your love for us is beyond measure, and because of this, you are worthy of our adoration and our praise. Help us to live today perceiving you, beholding you, and let us be changed by what we see. Thank you for Jesus, for his cross, for his death, and for the forgiveness of sin that has been extended to us in the new covenant. Help us to live as faithful stewards, as servants in your household, and to honor you with our words, deeds, and dispositions of heart. Give us your peace and your joy, and make us a testimony to your grace. In the strong name of Jesus we ask these things, Amen.

Bad Headline. Powerful Journey.

This is a really great story about a guy named Anthony Federico.

Back in 2012 Federico worked at ESPN, and he wrote a terrible headline about Jeremy Lin, who played at that time for the New York Knicks. I remember reading Federico’s headline at the time, disbelieving that someone could fail to see the implications that would follow from their choice of words. I vaguely recall taking a screen shot in my office at home and saying, “Well, that’s a mess up.” Federico apologized and said he made an honest mistake. Soon thereafter he was let go by ESPN.

The whole experience was deeply devastating. People were wicked, social media outrage avalanches kept rolling, and death threats were hurled toward Federico. You can imagine how he felt. But Federico eventually was invited to lunch with Jeremy Lin. He apologized. Lin accepted his apology. Federico tells how that conversation proved to healing, of benefit for his mental health. Life went on.

He got a new job. During the lunch hour, he would go on walks, and he would pass by the open doors of a Catholic church. Martin Kessler reports:

“On one of my [Federico’s] walks, I happened upon a Catholic church, a busy basilica in the middle of downtown Stamford that was having Mass during the day,” he says. “And I didn’t even know that Catholics go to Mass on weekdays, and not just on Sundays. But the doors were open. I could see them going to church in there and [thought] maybe that could be cool, but, ‘Nah, I’m not that kinda guy.’

“So on the first day I go past it, and second day I go past it. And, how biblical, on the third day I decide I’m going to go to church in the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday. And I went into this 12:10 p.m. Mass. The regulars kind of called it the ‘suit and tie Mass’ because all the businessmen and women would leave their offices and come to Mass on their lunch break. And I started going to Mass every day on my lunch break. And it’s this oasis of stillness and silence and ritual, and it was just such a sharp contrast that it called to me.”

Federico noticed that, before Mass, the priest would hear confession.

“And often the line was so long for people going to confession that the priest would have to apologize to the five or six people still waiting in line, because he had to run up and start the Mass on time,” Federico says. “And, every day, I would see on this priest’s face this, like, anguish. So I was watching him one day, and I said, ‘Lord, if only we had more priests, we could have two lines of confession going —’  Ohhh, ‘If only we had more priests.’ “

Federico says that as a kid people had told him he should grow up to be a priest. But he hadn’t really taken the idea seriously. Until now.

That’s a powerful turn. Federico now serves as a priest. He shares how his experiences have helped him to relate to people who are suffering and to minister to them. He has an experiential reference point from which to understand how others feel when they are angry at God or believe God has abandoned them.

I enjoyed reading this story as a sports fan, but more so as a Christian. Check it out.

 

Reading George Herbert

Photo by Jonathan Singer on Unsplash

Lord, who hast formed me out of mud,
And hast redeemed me through thy blood,
And sanctified me to do good;

Purge all my sins done heretofore:
For I confess my heavy score,
And I will strive to sin no more.

Enrich my heart, mouth, hands in me,
With faith, with hope, with charity;
That I may run, rise, rest with thee

– George Herbert, “Trinity Sunday”

“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.

“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.

Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”

God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).

The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.

I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.

But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.