When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Luke 24:9-11 (NIV)
Of the three authors of Jesus’ biographies (aka “the Gospels”), Dr. Luke is known for his attention to details not found in the other three. One of these details that stands out for me is the attention he gives to the women among Jesus’ entourage and inner circle.
Much earlier in his accounts, Luke shares with us that a group of women were traveling with Jesus and the Twelve. They were also financially supporting His miraculous mystery tour around the shores of Galilee:
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.
Luke 8:1-3 (NIV)
Contemporary followers of Jesus don’t give enough attention and credit to Jesus for radically shifting the status of women in Hebrew and Roman society. The status of women in those days was as poor as it has been throughout most of history. Women were perceived and treated as inferior to men. One of the daily prayers that a good Hebrew man would recite thanked God that he was not born a woman, a dog, or a Gentile. It was socially unacceptable for a man to speak to a woman in public. Freeborn women in the Roman Empire fared somewhat better than women in Hebrew world of Judea, but not much.
Jesus was a game-changer. He broke with convention. He spoke to women publicly. He touched them, healed them, and treated them with love and grace. It is no wonder then, that women would be among his most staunch supporters. I also find it fascinating that among the inner circle of female advocates is Joanna, the wife of the head of King Herod’s household. Another fact comes to my mind this morning that among all the accounts of Jesus’ kangaroo court trials before the Jewish High Priest, the Jewish religious authorities, the Roman Governor Pilate, and the Judean King Herod, there is only one person who speaks up on Jesus’ behalf. The wife of Pontius Pilate sent her husband a private message urging him not have anything to do with Jesus and all of the turmoil being stirred up against Him.
In the years to follow, the spread of the Jesus movement was, in part, fueled by the fact that the status of women within the movement broke with social convention. “In Christ,” Paul wrote, “there is neither male or female.” When Jesus followers gathered for their love feasts women were welcome at the table with men. It may seem like a baby step in contrast to modern society, but in the day it was a major game-changer. It should also be noted that once the Jesus Movement became an institution called the Holy Roman Empire, women were quickly stripped of what gains in status that they had been enjoying.
In the quiet this morning I find it, therefore, worth pondering that in yesterday’s chapter Luke makes it clear that it was the women of Jesus’ inner circle who followed Jesus to the cross and witnessed the entire bloody affair while the men were hiding in fear for their lives. In today’s chapter it was the women to whom word of the resurrection was first given, and the men who concluded that the silly women were being non-sensical.
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23:42 (NIV)
Just last week I read a news blurb of a convict who was executed. It was your typical news flash on such stories in which just the basic facts were starkly recounted with little embellishment. Years ago, he was convicted of murdering his own wife. Before he died he expressed regret for what he’d done. He apologized to his loved ones, acknowledging the he understood why they couldn’t forgive him, but expressing the hope that they might someday be able to do so. He then said that he couldn’t wait to meet Jesus. He was given a lethal injection and died a few minutes later.
Fascinating. For some reason, I’ve found those few lines of news unusually coming to mind in the days since I read it. There’s more to that story.
Today’s chapter is Dr. Luke’s account of Jesus’ execution. Much like the news blurb, it recounts many facts with little embellishment. What embellishments Luke adds create more questions in me than answers.
With the eye of a playwright and storyteller, I find myself making a mental list of the characters in the story and how they contribute to the narrative.
Jesus, the lamb led to slaughter, refusing to speak or offer a defense.
Pilate, Herod, and the Jewish religious leaders are the power brokers playing their own chess matches of personal power, public opinion, and political intrigue.
Jesus twelve appointed male disciples and heirs to His earthly ministry are the key characters not present (John was there, according to his own account, but Luke does not record this).
The oft forgotten women who have traveled with Jesus, supported Jesus, and provided for Jesus and his disciples are there at a distance, witnessing the execution. This includes Jesus’ mother. One of the women is, ironically, the wife of the head of Herod’s household.
The Roman soldiers are carrying out their duty and having their sport with the victims. As an added perk they get their choice of the victims’ spoils.
The presiding military officer, a Centurion, is observing.
Then there are the three executed convicts.
What struck me was the convict who was crucified next to Jesus and came to Jesus’ defense. The only character in the entire saga of the passion who comes to Jesus’ defense is a convicted, guilty (by his own confession) death-row inmate. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he said.
How did he know about Jesus’ kingdom?
There’s more to this story.
Had he been among the crowds in Galilee, or in the temple courts, who heard Jesus teach? Had he and Jesus spent time talking in a holding cell as they waited to hear the Roman soldier announce “Dead man walking.”
I find so much intriguing about this man. Jesus didn’t explain the Four Spiritual Laws and lead the man in the sinner’s prayer. Jesus only defense was to one of the weakest and least powerful characters in the story, an executed criminal by another executed criminal. The only act in this man’s “death-bed conversion” was simply to acknowledge Jesus before another convict, and humbly ask to be remembered.
In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the spoken faith of two guilty, convicted, executed criminals. I find myself thinking about my own guilt. I find myself thinking about Jesus’ repeated teachings about simple, small faith being all that is required. It is indicated from the story that this is true no matter the moral standing of the one expressing such simple faith.
Sometimes I think that we religious humans complicate things that Jesus presented as very simple.
The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. Luke 22:61-62 (NIV)
As a child, I had a healthy conscience. If I had done something wrong, it weighed on my heart like the proverbial millstone Jesus referenced as just punishment for causing a little one to stumble. Looking back, it’s fascinating for me to think about the things that sent me into attacks of shame and the the things I could convince myself weren’t “that bad.”
It starts at such an early age, doesn’t it? The mental gymnastics of moral justice: What’s bad? What’s very bad? What’s not a big deal (if you can get away with it)? What sins weigh heavier on the scales of justice within the family system, the school system, the neighborhood system, and the peer group system?
It was fascinating for me to become a father and observe just how opposite two children with the same genes can be within the same family system. One daughter’s conscience was impregnable. She always pled “not guilty” no matter how red-handed she might have been caught. She remained stoically resolute, stuck with her plea, and quickly appealed any parental verdict as prosecutorial overreach and abuse of power. At times it was comical, at other times it was maddening.
With the other daughter, all it took was a look. A look of condemnation, or worse yet – a look of disappointment. Her little spirit wilted. Tears flowed. If nature helps to determine temperament, then I’m pretty certain she got that from me. Oh, that parenting could always be as easy as a look.
The look. That’s what struck me in today’s chapter. I find it fascinating that Luke included this little detail. Peter utters his third denial and immediately the rooster crows. With that audio cue, Jesus turns and looks directly at Peter. The denial, the rooster, the look. The weight of his denial, his sin, and the hollow emptiness of his emphatic assurance to be imprisoned and die with Jesus all come crashing down on Peter in a moment. He runs. He weeps bitterly.
As a child with a healthy conscience, it’s easy for me to feel that weight. I identify with Peter.
“Me, too, dude,” my spirit whispers to the weeping, shamed, unworthy Simon. I totally identify with Peter at that moment; The seemingly ill-chosen ”Rock” and ”Keeper of the Keys.” By default, I ‘m ready to sit down with Peter and have a shame-induced pity party.
But, there’s something else I noticed in today’s chapter: Jesus knew. Jesus not only saw Peter’s impending denial and failure to follow-through on his assurances, but He also saw past the failure to the sorrow, repentance, and restoration. Jesus’ perceived that Peter’s fall would ultimately help mold him into a more solid, humble, and capable leader. Much in the same way that, as a father, I knew that one daughter’s tender spirit was going to develop into a heart of compassion that God would use in one way, and that God would use my other daughter’s strength of will and resolution for different but just as meaningful purposes.
In the quiet this morning I find the realization that I’m quick to sit and wallow with Peter in the failure and shame. This, however, means that I am slow to accept God’s perfect knowledge of me, my shortcomings, my failures, my heart of repentance, my restoration, and all that He is molding me to be for His Kingdom purposes. Embracing the former without embracing the latter is to accept an incomplete reality: Jesus remains very disappointed in me and I remain shamed and self-condemned. Within days, the resurrected Christ would stand on a beach graciously prompting from Peter three “I love you’s” to replace the three ”I don’t know Him’s.” Peter remains on course for the journey of love, faith, leadership, transformation and sacrifice to which he’d been called from the beginning.
It’s so easy for me to see “the look” of Jesus as one of a disappointment. But just as I could “look” at my daughters and see beyond their momentary infractions to the amazing individuals they would grow to be, “the look” of Jesus always sees beyond my failure to the fullness of all I am and will be in Him.
Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.” Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)
When I was a child, I attended a small neighborhood church that was liturgical in practice. This meant that the sanctuary was laid out in a very specific way that catered to the ancient liturgy. There was a lectern on one side that was “lower” and served common uses such as announcements and a non-clergy member reading scripture or a responsive reading. Then there was a taller lectern on the other side which was only for the reverend to preach his sermon. There was an altar where communion was served which most people in the church believed sacred space. Children were taught to stay away and be careful of offending God by going where we weren’t allowed or treating the space disrespectfully.
As a young man, I attended a giant church that had no such liturgical trappings. In this church, everything was functional. It was all about the audience’s experience. Great lighting and great sound that allowed for a great product. The pastor of this church was rabid about building bigger and better buildings for the weekly show and attracting bigger names to perform in the area.
Along my spiritual journey I’ve had to come to terms with the “edifice complex” I was taught, have witnessed, and in which I confess I have participated. There is definitely something to be said for a nice, functional space for a local gathering to meet, organize, worship, teach, learn, pray, meditate, and serve one another and the community. More about that in a moment.
There is also the spiritual reality that Jesus exemplified and taught. It was a paradigm shift massive as to be difficult for people to believe and embrace 2000 years later. It is simply this: God does not dwell in buildings.
God is omnipresent (that is, everywhere) because Jesus is the force of creation holding the universe together: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Jesus said that after his death, resurrection and ascension, He was sending Holy Spirit to dwell in us: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Therefore, God’s “Temple” is no longer a place in Jerusalem or a bricks-and-mortar edifice down the street. God’s Temple is the bodies, hearts, minds, lives of those who believe and follow: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19).
For the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, local gatherings of believers met in one another’s homes where they shared meals, worshipped, prayed together and supported one another. Some scholars estimate that over a million followers of Jesus were meeting regularly in tens of thousands of homes around the known world.
In 312 A.D. the Roman Emporer Constantine became a Christian and Christianity quickly became the state religion of Rome. The Jesus Movement, almost overnight, became the Holy Roman Empire.
[cue: Star Wars: Vader’s Theme]
Empires are concerned with controlling masses. Controlling masses requires authority that people will respect, follow, serve, and obey. One way to control the masses is to control their religious beliefs and routines. Therefore:
Only “priests” or “ordained clergy” can preach, teach, marry, bury, and absolve you of your sins. (You are a “common” person with no access to God except through the Empirical structures)
Only individuals appointed by the supreme authority and his minions (Caesar, Pope, Cardinal, Bishop) are allowed to be priests or ordained clergy. (You have little hope of becoming clergy unless you jump through many difficult and expensive academic and religious hoops set up by the Empire’s institutions. Probably not unless you know someone or a have a lot of money to bribe, oops, I mean, “donate” to the Empirical authorities – which is how we will wind up with wealthy children and corrupt individuals becoming the Pope)
The words used for teaching and the worship of God will now only be sung, written, read and spoken in Latin, which the uneducated masses will not understand. (This makes it easier for the Empirical religious authorities to control said masses of uneducated followers as they become dependent on the Empirical authorities for everything including knowledge, forgiveness, salvation, the salvation of loved ones prayed out of purgatory, and et cetera [<– that’s Latin, btw])
Worship must now be centered within an opulent, massive, awe-inspiring structure that stands out in the middle of the squalid little local shacks and structures people live in and use for daily business. (The Empirical institution thus reminds people wordlessly, day and night, that both God and the Empirical institution are higher, better, and different than you are in your poor little common life. It is both something for you to ever reach for and something to which you will never reach without the Empirical institution itself making a way for you)
And, that was the beginning of the edifice complex for followers of Jesus. I find it a fascinating contrast to today’s chapter. Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the last week of His earthly journey. Jesus has spent most of His three-year ministry speaking to crowds on hillsides, fields, and from a boat to throngs of people sitting on the shore. He also spoke in small-town synagogues. His followers of backwater fishermen and men from small towns in Galilee were awed by the massive Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, however, shrugged it off with the foreknowledge of what would become of it:
“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
A couple of thoughts this morning as I ponder these things along side of almost 40 years regularly journeying through God’s Message:
I believe a functional, central location for followers of Jesus to gather is a good thing.
I believe that making meeting spaces beautiful, inviting, welcoming, clean, and efficient are good things, even God-honoring things, for everyone who gathers there.
I believe that architecture is both a highly specialized craft and a creative art form that can powerfully embody and express many things with breathtaking beauty.
I believe that the churches and cathedrals built throughout history are works of art that have much to offer in both history lessons and inspiring us creatively and spiritually.
I also believe that a building can become an object of worship rather than a setting for it.
I don’t believe that a church building, it’s rooms, altars, stained-glass, podiums, and decorations are sacred in any way (though they can be special in many different ways and on many different levels).
I believe that it is the individual human beings of simple and sincere faith who gather within a church building and it is their corporate and collective worship, prayer, and fellowship that are sacred.
I believe that a church building and an institution’s emphasis can subtly convince individuals that they attend the church rather than being the church as Jesus intended.
I have observed very sincere individuals who believe the following, perhaps without giving it much thought: God resides in the church building. I visit God an hour every Sunday to pay respect and spiritually make the minimum premium on my eternal fire insurance policy which, I hope and trust, will get me into heaven and avoid hell. I leave God there at church to go about the other 167/168ths of my week.
This morning I imagine Jesus shrugging as he looks up at the Temple. “It’ll be a rubble heap in about 40 years,” He says to His disciples.
“Then what is sacred? What lasts? What remains?” Simon the Zealot asks.
“You are sacred, as is every person in whom my Spirit dwells,” Jesus replies. “What remains? The faith, hope, and love that is in you and flows out of you, Simon. And all fruit your faith, hope, and love produce in those whom you love. You are my church, Simon. You are God’s temple. And, you are more beautiful than this temple or any building a human being could construct.”
What Jesus actually taught was that when individuals believe and follow, they become living, breathing, active temples of worship in which God’s Spirit dwells. What is sacred and/or profane is what we put in, what flows out and how we relate to God and others from the inside out.
At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Luke 13:31-33 (NIV)
This past Sunday I gave the message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. I made the simple observation that in almost every story, television show, or movie the protagonist is trying to avoid, escape, or solve death while attempting to cling to, extend, and/or enhance life. Life is such a basic human desire we hardly even give it much thought.
I found it fascinating that in today’s chapter Luke continues to foreshadow Jesus’ death. Both Pilate (an official of the occupying Roman Empire ruling over the region, who would eventually sentence Jesus to die by execution) and Herod (a regional monarch who killed John the Baptist and before whom Jesus would stand trial). Both of these rulers were known for their violence and cruelty.
Herod’s family, in particular, had a long history of holding onto power by killing anyone they saw as a threat. It was Herod’s father, Herod the Great, who upon hearing from the three wise men that a prophetic sign told them “the King of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem, proceeded to have every baby in Bethlehem under the age of two slaughtered in an effort to prevent Jesus from growing up and threatening his reign. His son, Herod Antipas, who is referenced in today’s chapter, carried on his father’s bloody, corrupt legacy.
At the end of today’s chapter, Jesus is warned that Herod is attempting to have Him killed. In yesterday’s chapter is said that Jesus has been attracting stadium worthy crowds so large that people were trampling one another to get near Him. This would have rattled Herod. Any person with that kind of popularity was a threat to his position and power, and Herod learned from his father that clinging to power required killing anyone who was a threat to take it from you, (even if that threat is just a baby).
What I found interesting is that Jesus expresses neither fear or concern. Rather, Jesus doubles-down and tells the messengers to return to Herod and tell “that fox” that He would press on:
[Jesus] replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
Beyond the attitude of courage and perseverance in Jesus’ reply, there is also an important subtext that is lost on many readers. Jesus references three days to reach His goal, foreshadowing the three days in the grave before His resurrection. He then offers a puzzling statement about no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem.
Back in chapter 9, Luke stated that Jesus was “resolutely” fixed on going to Jerusalem. Jesus has consistently been criticizing the religious leaders and their ancestors for killing the prophets sent to them. He has also been making consistent, metaphorical references foreshadowing His own death. Jesus is on a mission and He can see how it is all going to play out. He isn’t the victim, but the instigator of events that He knows will lead to His death.
I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’ words to His followers in previous chapters:
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?
Luke 9:23-25 (NIV)
I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.
Luke 12:4 (NIV)
Everything Jesus is doing runs contrary to our most basic human instincts. Humans want to avoid and escape death at all costs. Humans want to cling to this life as long as we can along with everything we can possibly acquire within the finite amount of time we’re given. Luke offers his readers Pilate and Herod as exhibits A and B in today’s chapter. Two men at the top of the heap who will kill anyone who threatens their position, wealth, and power. Jesus, however, is the antithesis. He’s moving in the opposite direction and telling His followers that they must follow if they want to experience the Kingdom of God.
In the quiet this morning I find myself reminded of a passage I referenced in last Sunday’s message. Jesus’ friend Lazarus is dead. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, tells Jesus that if He’d have arrived sooner then her brother would not be dead. Jesus replies:
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
He then asks her a question:
“Do you believe this?”
Do I believe it?
And, if I say that I do believe it (and I have been saying it for almost 40 years), am I willing to follow Jesus in the opposite direction of the basic human instincts of this world?