The Dark Side of Palm Sunday … Why We (Always) Kill Him

It is a matter of fairly firm historical record that Jesus…

  • Was born in the 1st century to a rather inconspicuous family in Nazareth of Galilee
  • Launched a public ministry some time in his late 20’s or early 30’s which immediately generated controversy
  • Was crucified around Passover as something of an insurrectionist or revolutionary by a strange collaboration of Jewish and Roman ruling authorities

And if the Gospels are to be believed in any real historical sense, then it would seem that not only was this rejection/crucifixion part of the POINT of Jesus’ ministry; he actually was rather acutely aware of it – so much so that he often went out of his way to PROVOKE it.  To bring down upon his own head the “casting out” that the prophet Isaiah spoke of as being part of the divine vocation of God’s righteous “servant” (Is 53).

Some examples include…

  • His provocation of the crowds that swooned over his first sermon in Luke 4 – the famous “Nazareth Manifesto” in which Jesus claims that the great day of cosmic restoration was at hand in his ministry
  • His scandalous suggestion that Samaritans might be closer to the purposes of God than Jews (Luke 10 – the parable of the Good Samaritan)
  • And his in-your-face parable in Luke 20 in which he claims that the Jewish people had in fact launched a coup de etat against Yahweh to wrest his possessions from Him, and that Yahweh’s response would be to give the divine purposes away to others

No wonder the crowds that welcomed him enthusiastically on Palm Sunday killed him on Good Friday!  Jesus was in their face.  Always.  Always pushing them, prodding them, exposing the lies, hatred, nationalistic idolatry and God-hating that dwelt deep in the heart of those who (rightly) felt that they were the heirs to the divine promises.  But what was he doing?  And why would he do it that way?  Why not a “nicer”, more “user friendly” ministry?  Whence comes the desire to stir up animosity Jesus?  Can’t you be more like Tony Robbins?

But then all of a sudden we’re reminded … that Jesus doesn’t come to rubber stamp our self-sufficient, self-aggrandizing, self-justifying, self-made world.

Rather, he comes to expose it…

To lay it bare…

To unveil it’s dark roots…

Because only by so judging it (and us) does he have any hope of saving us.  Or as Barth says, “[It is] in his NO God that God utters his YES over us.”  To put it another way, God’s affirmation of us in Resurrection is NOT INTELLIGIBLE apart from his negation of us in the Cross.  Easter Sunday is meaningless tripe unless we’ve encountered the personal and communal horror of Good Friday.  That WE DID THIS.  WE’RE responsible for his demise.

It’s an interesting thought-experiment every so often to put modern spins on some of the provocative parables Jesus told.  Like the Good Samaritan.  A classic tale about how a hated enemy – a true “beyond the pale outsider” to the purposes of God was actually closer than some of Israel’s religious leaders.  We read the story of course through our religious goggles (“What a nice story about ‘compassion’!”), and so are not scandalized by it.  But what if…

“One day, a conservative evangelical was on the way to the Republican National Convention.  He was waylaid by robbers, who beat him, stripped him, robbed him, and left him half dead.  A little later, Bill O’Reilly drove up, and when he saw him, kept on going.  Next, Sarah Palin drove up, and when she saw him, she too passed by on the other side.  The man was in dire straights and on the brink of death, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, The Reverend Jeremiah Wright came up, and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, bandaging his wounds, and pouring on oil and wine.  He took him to a hospital, promising to foot the bill.”

“Now which of the three” Jesus asked, “Do you think was a neighbor to the one who fell into the hands of robbers?”

(That was the last time Jesus ever preached at a Southern Baptist Church … they killed him shortly thereafter)

Or this:

“One day, a social progressive was on the way to do DC to do a bit of lobbying.  He was waylaid by robbers, who beat him, stripped him, robbed him, and left him half dead.  A little later, Barack Obama drove up (it’s not clear why he was cruising along the highway without his motorcade, but that’s beside the point), and when he saw him, kept on going.  Next, Keith Olbermann drove up, and when he saw him, he too passed by on the other side.  The man was in dire straights and on the brink of death, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, Glenn Beck came up, and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, bandaging his wounds, and pouring on oil and wine.  He took him to a hospital, promising to foot the bill.”

“Now which of the three” Jesus asked, “Do you think was a neighbor to the one who fell into the hands of robbers?”

(And that was the last time Jesus ever preached at an Episcopalian church … they killed him shortly thereafter.)

Is this saying too much?  I think not.  Most of us use Jesus as a “symbol of provocation” and apply it to our enemies.  “Boy,” we think, “if only Jesus were here now, he’d have something to say to all of those gay people out there.”  Or “Boy,” we think, “if only Jesus were here now, can you imagine what he would say to all those war-mongering right-wingers?”  Jesus, we seem to think, would be on our team.

Such thinking only betrays how like the people of Israel in Jesus’ day we actually are.  God was their tribal deity.  Jesus should somehow validate their sense of being “in the right”.  He should “fit” within their world somehow.

But he doesn’t

Because he’s “other”

And his kingdom is “not of this world”

It doesn’t fit within conservative politics or religion

It doesn’t fit within liberal politics or religion

In fact, it lays everyone, on every side of the aisle, bare, and calls them all to account for their complicity in putting Him on the cross.

We can’t tolerate Jesus

And the extent to which we think we can only goes to show how idolatrous our view of Jesus is.  For the moment Jesus stops being a provocateur to US and our agenda, our sense of being in the “right”, is the moment that we depart from the real Jesus.  He is the “rock of stumbling.”  Not just for “those people” “out there” who we think ought to come under divine judgment, but for us, who are satiated and comfortable.  Jesus is our “rock of stumbling” too – for those of us that think we have our politics and theology “just right”.  That’s why we kill him.  Because he relativizes all of us to the Great Good that is God, before Whom every last one of us falls down embarrassed.

The great Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard famously wrote:

“Remove from the Christian religion, as Christendom has done, its ability to shock, and Christianity, by becoming a direct communication, is altogether destroyed.  It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds NOR OF HEALING THEM; by discovering an unreal and merely human compassion, it forgets the qualitative distinction between man and God.”

Or perhaps we could just go to Paul:

21But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

The salvation that God brings us will not be accessible to us if we treat it merely as an “ornament” to decorate an already-right, already-put-together life.  It is an “other” that calls our self-made universe of values into question.  Only by inflicting his “deep wounds” in us can God “save” us.  And the biggest “wound” of all is realizing our complicity in the demise of Jesus.  That WE – the intelligent, urbane, enlightened, spiritual, sophisticated, “religious” folk, were ultimately the ones that drove Him to the cross.  (Isn’t it curious that we didn’t have to look to the atheists or the communists to kill Jesus; we were perfectly capable of it ourselves.  We evangelical, charismatic, catholic, protestant, liberal, missional, emergent types.)  To that extent, we’re self-condemned.  The cross is both our judgment and our salvation, if we’ll be honest.

I’m sorry if this offends.  And some of course will be offended.  But that is the nature of the gospel, the kingdom, and the Messiah that God sends us.  It, and He, is a scandal, an “offense”.  Our unwillingness to see him as an offense TO US PERSONALLY is, I think, an EXACT INDEX of the actual distance that exists between us and God.

“He who falls on this Stone will be broken to pieces; but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” (Lk 20:18)

I want to be broken all over again…

Come Lord Jesus.

At the end of the most epic series I’ve ever preached…a Spiritual Formation reading list

Okay, so I actually haven’t preached that many series’ in my life, so perhaps the standard of measurement is off … but this series went on for A WHILE!  9 weeks.  I really have no idea whether anyone at Bloom enjoyed listening to them, but I sure enjoyed preaching them.

Here’s what we covered in 9 weeks:

  • Week 1 – Introduction; Harnessing the Latent Life of God
  • Week 2 – We Belong to Someone (spiritual practices are not first therapeutic; they’re about our presenting a “self” to God that’s worth all He is–we actually preached about Judgment in this message)
  • Week 3 – The Practice of Solitude; Embracing Aloneness
  • Week 4 – The Practice (and tension) of Prayer
  • Week 5 – Why Self-Denial?  (This was the Sunday before Lent began)
  • Week 6 – The Dark Night of the Soul (When God feels absent)
  • Week 7 – The Practice of Community/Confession
  • Week 8 – The Practice of Servanthood
  • Week 9 (tonight) – What the Heck is the Bible (and what should we do with it?)

(You can listen to any of these messages at our website under “services” and “talks”)

Looking at that list, I actually lament that we can’t spend more time … there’s just SO much more to talk about … Disciplines like Sabbath, Simplicity, Generosity, Secrecy, Celebration, etc.  But I suppose … we’re in church-world, and there’s a lot of preaching in front of me : )  Don’t “blow your wad early” as they say.

Nevertheless, wanting to stimulate our folks at Bloom to dig into the issue more, I did decide to put together a short reading list of some of the works in the area of spiritual formation/spiritual practices that have been MOST influential to me.  Here she be:

  • Richard Foster, “The Celebration of Discipline.”  This THE classic modern work on both the WHAT and the WHY of spiritual disciplines/practices.  If you only read one book on spiritual disciplines, make this the one.
  • Dallas Willard, “The Divine Conspiracy.”  Challenges us to view our lives through the lens of God’s present kingdom and to develop a “Curriculum for Christlikeness” based in spiritual practices that take Jesus seriously as a TEACHER.  Incredible book.
  • Dallas Willard, “The Spirit of the Disciplines.”  This is Willard’s earlier work.  Attempts to diagnose why the spirituality of most Christians in the West is sick and how we can recover a robust spirituality through spiritual practices.
  • James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God.”  Smith is a disciple of Foster and Willard and it shows.  Great book with some AMAZING suggestions for practicing a God-centered life through things like Sabbath, getting enough sleep, etc.
  • Brother Lawrence, “The Practice of the Presence of God.”  Lawrence was a 17th century monk known for his peculiarly intimate relationship with God.  This is a tiny book but a MUST READ account of how this humble monk “practiced” communion with God in the humdrum of daily life.
  • Henri J. M. Nouwen, “In the Name of Jesus.”  Nouwen was a Catholic priest who did perhaps his most influential work while serving as an on-site chaplain for a community of disabled people.  This is also a tiny book but a MUST READ on the disciplines of prayer, community, and Scripture reading.
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together.”  Bonhoeffer, a theologian, pastor, and major leader in the resistance movement against the Nazis, composed this book during his most vital experience of community: leading an illegal, underground seminary.  It is a fascinating account of how Christians can “do” spirituality in community.  Buy it.

I admit.  I’m not as well versed in the classics as I ought to be, and this list is more representative than exhaustive.  Would you add others?  Which ones?

Anyhow, I hope you decide to pick up one or two of these books to learn from some of the great devotional masters on what it takes to make the “journey” into God, the “far shore” that we always pursue but never (in this life at least) reach.  Learning about spiritual disciplines has been one of the great joys of my life and surely the reason that my faith has not spun wildly out of control on more than one occasion.  Being “rooted” in Jesus is the best place to live.

He is endless.  Enjoy Him.


John Paul II on Love and Discipleship

As a born-and-raised evangelical, my tradition taught me to be a bit suspicious of “them Catholics” out there.  Spooky people, you know?  Believing in weird things like Mary-worship and cannibalism, they were best to be thought of as second-class Christians and perhaps people to be avoided.  Same God?  Maybe.  Same Jesus?  No way.

(Shame on us.)

In any event, I started to gain an appreciation for Catholic theology and practice in seminary, where I became friends with a guy who was part of a movement known as “Convergence”, blending the Catholic, Charismatic, and Evangelical streams of Christian faith.  Cool guy.  Also, I thought, weird.  But man, the way he talked about Catholic theology … and specifically about then-Pope John Paul II … He really made me feel like I was missing out on something.

Those who are close to me know that I’m a big Dietrich Bonhoeffer buff.  (I’m a nerd, okay?)  Bonhoeffer, of course, was a German theologian and pastor who did his best work during the rise of Naziism in Germany, and as a VERY young man, actively led church resistance to the dogma of Naziism, going so far in one instance to call the Fuehrer an “idol unto himself” on national airways.  (Ballsy, huh?)  In any event, I’ve come to love Bonhoeffer for his reflections on Christian morality … the whole “how should we live?” question.  Specifically, I love that Bonhoeffer thinks that “the good” is not really knowable apart from “God”, who is also not knowable apart from Jesus.  Which is all to say that Christians don’t really “do” morality.  They don’t know “good” and “evil”.  They just follow Jesus.  “Good” is not knowable apart from discipleship to the One who IS Good – Jesus, who makes manifest his Father.

Not long ago I listened to a series of lectures (nerd!) delivered at Wheaton College on the Sermon on the Mount.  One of the lectures was on Pope John Paul II’s reflections on the Sermon, and I was really impressed.  So, nerd that I am, I bought a couple of his books.

I’m not kidding … THEY BLEW ME AWAY

And what blew me away MOST was how downright … well … “evangelical” he seemed.  Specifically, at points I felt like I was reading Bonhoeffer’s famous “Cost of Discipleship.”  In one of them, entitled “The Splendor of Truth”, John Paul writes (reflecting on Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5 that the righteousness of the disciple must “surpass” that of the Pharisees):

“Jesus brings God’s commandments to fulfillment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbor, by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning.  Love of neighbor springs from a loving heart which, precisely because it loves, is ready to live out the loftiest challenges.  Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love.”

So for JPII, “perfection” for the disciple is part of a moral and spiritual journey in which we learn to love in deep, sacrificial, vulnerable ways.  This is how God, who is Good, gets ahold of the human soul; it’s how we “fulfill the Law.”  But lest we think this whole thing can be divorced from Jesus and turned into some works-based, legalistic moral do-gooding, John Paul goes on:

“Jesus himself is the living ‘fulfillment’ of the Law inasmuch as he fulfills its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: he himself becomes a living and personal Law, who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit, he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions.”

Unbelievable!  There, in the place where I had once thought only dead legalism and rule-keeping could live (Catholic theology), John Paul calls us to recognize that…

  • Christ is the fulfillment of the Law through his cross-work
  • Discipleship is about following him in his “cross-shaped” life
  • And all of this is possible ONLY through the enabling work of the Holy Spirit

I remember being in a New Testament theology class in seminary and hearing NT scholar Grant Osborne saying the EXACT SAME THING in reference to this piece of the Sermon on the Mount.  “Good Lord,” I thought after reading this, “why hasn’t anyone ever told me to listen to John Paul II before?!”

In any event, I submit this piece to you as an encouragement (be you an evangelical or otherwise), to FOREVER DISAVOW YOUR SUSPICION OF CATHOLIC THEOLOGY first of all, and to READ JOHN PAUL II second of all.  He’s good.  DANG GOOD.  You’ll find your soul enriched and your understanding of discipleship GREATLY expanded by this welcome, if unexpected, friend.

Thank God for the gift of John Paul II.

The Giving God

Tomorrow I’ll be preaching the 8th (8th!) message in our series on spiritual practices at Bloom called “Spiritual Architecture” … (I wonder if people are going to start getting bored of this stuff … maybe they already are … ha!)

The practice we’ll be covering tomorrow is Servanthood.  The text is Philippians 2:5-11.  Famous text:

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

There’s really a lot to say, but what I’m finding fascinating is the suggestion one New Testament scholar makes about verse 6.  The NIV leaves out any attempt to try to get at what Paul’s saying when he says that Jesus, “BEING in very nature God” did not seize equality with God as a divine right (or take advantage of it for himself … however you want to understand “something to be grasped”).  Some translators want to make that phrase a sort of concession.  I.e., “DESPITE THE FACT that Jesus was God, he did not consider…”

This scholar, however, suggests something different.  Something that squares up what Jesus did with the kind of God that Jesus reveals.  He says we ought to translate v6 like this:


Now that’s fascinating.  Because it says something about Jesus, and specifically about the God Jesus reveals.  That IT IS PRECISELY THE CHARACTER OF THIS GOD TO LAY HIMSELF OUT AND LOWER HIMSELF FOR THE SAKE OF OTHERS.

In other words, the Cross was not an accident or a concession God made.  The Cross of Jesus is consistent with and reveals the deep character of the God Jesus referred to as “Father.”  THE CROSS FLOWS FROM THE INNER LOGIC OF TRINITARIAN LOVE.  This God “empties” himself.  He is (to use an old theological term) “kenotic” (self-emptying) in his basic orientation.

That is to say, he is love.

Jurgen Moltmann writes:

“But if the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Son to the point of death upon the cross is the ‘revelation of the entire Trinity’, this event too can only be presented as a God-event in Trinitarian terms…Anyone who really talks of the Trinity talks of the cross of Jesus, and does not speculate in heavenly riddles.”

Wanna know what the Trinity is like?

Look to the Cross.

Into the Light…

Joe (not his real name) and I were in a guy’s accountability group back in the day.  The purpose of the group was simple: celebrate life’s victory’s, share life’s pains, bear life’s burdens.  Not too complicated.

Joe was a bit older than me, a seasoned “vet” as a Christian, but was in an awkward place spiritually.  Joe planted a church years earlier.  The church fizzled after a few years.  Since then, Joe’s heart had gotten cold, and in his words, his relationship with God had become … “polite”.  As in, “You take care of your business, God; I’ll take care of my business.  I’m not walking away from you, but I’m not RISKING anything for you ever again either.”

Like I said, chilly.

When we began group meetings, Joe was 5 years-post the demise of the church.  He had tried everything the break through the ice in his soul.  Seminars, books, conferences, intense religious experiences.  Nothing worked.  Willing to participate in the group (perhaps as something of an experiment), Joe also admitted a bit of skepticism.

Several months later, during one of our meetings, Joe spoke up (we always began group meetings by celebrating places where we saw the hand of God at work): “Guys, you know I came into this experience cold.  I’d done everything I knew to crack through the icyness of my soul.  Nothing worked.  But it’s weird…now…I can feel it all breaking up…It’s like my soul is getting warm again…and I’m not doing ANYTHING different other than just meeting with you guys and laying it all out every week…somehow this experience of community is transforming my heart.”


What if the deepest experiences of holy intimacy are closed to most of us NOT because we haven’t tried all of the tricks in the evangelical “book” for “falling in love with God again”…prayer retreats, scripture reading, conferences, workshops, seminars, etc. …

But because we lack spaces where deep openness to other people of faith is experienced?

Check this out:

“5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we claim to have FELLOWSHIP with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have FELLOWSHIP with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-8)

Give that a “think on” for awhile.  John is linking “fellowship” (Gk: koinonia – the deepest kind of knowing-and-being-known) with God to the concrete experience of “coming out into the light” with other people. There, “koinonia” is indeed experienced.  But it is not one-dimensional.  It’s multidimensional.  We expose ourselves to other people, and discover the depths of Jesus Christ.

Is it possible that the raw power of Christ to make “all things new” in us is only known to us in raw, open, naked community?

I think so …

Deep, transparent community isn’t an “add-on” to an experience of faith that’s really “about” something else (me and my own personal Jesus).  It’s the very essence of it.

Move out into the light.

Embracing darkness…

At Bloom, we’re participating in Lent.  And now that we’re more than two weeks into it, for a lot of us, this whole thing is starting to HURT a little…  Craving the food we decided to give up, wishing the commitments we made weren’t quite so ambitious, looking for loopholes in the system, quietly begging “off” in our souls, counting down the days till it’s over, etc etc.

And even more, many of us are finding ourselves saying, “Geez, I gave up all this stuff and thought FOR SURE that by now I’d be experiencing some kind of heavenly ecstasy.  Why haven’t I had my out-of-body experience of transcendence yet?  Where is GOD in this?”  It’s easy to feel let down.  “I want my money back.”

As a pastor, hearing people say this … my (excessively morbid?) heart actually rejoices a bit.  Let me explain.

The experience of inward “dryness” when making pilgrimage to God is a common experience of saints down through the ages.  In fact, in the 16th century the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross gave this experience a name.  He called it “The Dark Night of the Soul.”  For John, The Dark Night wasn’t a bad thing.  In fact, it was an abundantly GOOD thing, for it was during these experiences that the soul was being FREED from excessive attachment to the external support of good feelings and being strengthened to love and serve God.  He wrote:

“…the darkness of the soul mentioned here…puts the sensory and spiritual appetites to sleep…It binds the imagination and impedes it from doing any good discursive work.  It makes the memory cease, the intellect become dark and unable to understand anything, and hence it causes the will also to become arid and constrained, and all the faculties empty and useless.  And over all this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud which afflicts the soul and keeps it withdrawn from God.”


You know, the truth is that despite what we say about our experience of faith, if you talked to MOST Christians, they’d tell you they’ve had at least one experience like this, if not many.  (It’s been documented, for instance, that Mother Teresa had an extended experience of inward darkness that lasted for much of her life.  Think about that.  Mother Teresa!)  And I think if John of the Cross is right, then we have something to learn from these experiences…

As Americans, we tend to measure EVERYTHING by how it makes us feel.  Does an experience make us feel good?  It must be good then. Does an experience make us feel bad (or fail to make us feel good)?  It must be worthless.  The technical term for this is Hedonism: the idea that pleasure is the ultimate good.

The PROBLEM with this is that it makes true virtue IMPOSSIBLE.  Jesus taught that following him would often entail suffering.  More often than not, doing what’s right doesn’t immediately lead to pleasure.  Often it leads to pain.  And if we can’t embrace that idea, we’ll never grow in character, never advance in virtue.  Richard Foster writes: “The notion, often heard today, that such experiences should be avoided and that we should always live in peace and comfort, joy and celebration only betrays the fact that much contemporary experience is surface slush.”

That’s what’s so beautiful about The Dark Night.  If we embrace it, we’ll increasingly find ourselves freed from the need to always feel good, and will learn instead to choose what’s right BECAUSE it’s right.  To choose GOD because He’s God, not because choosing him makes us feel fuzzy inside.  The death of subservience to feelings is the beginning of virtue.  Foster continues: “The dark night is one of the ways God brings us into a hush, a stillness so that he may work an inner transformation upon the soul.”

But this is hard for us because most of us have been sold a bill of goods about what following Jesus is supposed to be like.  We were promised a version of faith in which embracing Christ would give us “our best life yet.”  And while that may be true, we forget that the path to getting to the “best life” (the life that GOD actually does want for us, but will likely look far different from Christianized versions of the American Dream), is a path that entails purgation…the sweet sufferings that purify the soul and make us capable of seeing and embracing God.  As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5).

So if you’re in a “Dark Night if the Soul” embrace it.  Keep pressing in.  Keep journeying on.  Keep choosing the Good, even if it doesn’t seem to be “rewarding” in the moment.  And know that God is doing a good, deep work in you through it.



PS – We talked about this issue this past weekend at Bloom.  Listen in on the website under “services” and “talks”.