Tasting Death?

“And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9:1, NRSV)

“Then he drove it home by saying, “This isn’t pie in the sky by and by. Some of you who are standing here are going to see it happen, see the kingdom of God arrive in full force.” (The Message)

Here’s what Kent Brower says in his commentary on Mark (“Parousia” refers to Jesus’ return or second coming):

“In isolation, this statement seems to suggest that Jesus’ mission leads to the glorious appearance of the vindicated Son of Man. Through his coming, God’s rule will come in power within the lifetime of some of Jesus’ original audience.

“But if this refers to the Parousia, the prophecy fails: the Son of Man did not come before the death of some of Jesus’ listeners.

“Many scholarly proposals have been offered, including seeing it as predicting the resurrection, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the recognition that the kingdom has arrived in Jesus’ life and ministry, the miraculous growth of the church, the transfiguration, or the crucifixion. Each of these proposed alternatives has strengths and weaknesses. The preferred solution should be the one that makes the best sense of the saying in its narrative context.” (Mark: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, p. 237-8.)

These are all valid ideas and legitimate conclusions, certainly, but let’s set the stage for what is going on before reaching conclusions about Jesus’ prophecy.

After a long, 25-mile journey to Caesarea Philippi from Bethsaida, and even impatience and an acted-out parable on Jesus’ part because the disciples are just not getting the big picture, Jesus steers the conversation toward the Messiah.

It was evident from the conversation, though, that there was some confusion about Jesus’ identity, so Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter responded, “You are the Messiah.” Here, with the backdrop of Rome and Greece at Caesarea Philippi and their glorious pantheon of gods, a simple wandering rabbi and tradesman is revealed to be Israel’s Messiah. And when Peter names him as Messiah, Peter believes he’s the one who will unseat Rome and all of the other pagan influences that have corrupted Israel for so long.

But Jesus, in fact, turns things upside down, and talks about how he must suffer instead. Many believed, based on Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:13), that the “Son of Man” would make things right. Now, Jesus doesn’t deny his coming kingdom; the kingdom is coming, and Jesus will make things right, and fulfill Daniel’s vision, but it’s just not in any kind of way that disciples or Israel expect!

Here’s what Jesus does say about the Messiah, from the end of Mark 8:

“…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

And this – if you want to actually follow this Messiah who just ends up getting himself killed:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

He makes the same point three different ways: We must die to ourselves in order to have true life in God.

In the eyes of those with power, those who have indeed gained the whole world, and those who have first saved their lives, it is shameful – like carrying a Roman cross and being crucified for all to see. Not only is there physical pain and anguish, but there’s pain and anguish in the embarrassment of it! There’s shame, pain, and anguish on multiple levels. You have to deny everything that the world puts in front of you that distracts you from God and focus on Jesus first and foremost, pushing everything else away.

Pause and ask yourself: What are those things in your life, and are you willing to risk putting those things aside, even to the point of carrying humiliation like God carrying a cross to death, to follow Jesus? Jesus casts aside the temptation of Satan in the desert and the temptation of Peter, his new accuser in this chapter, to have a worldly, militaristic, and powerful kingdom, in favor of his true Godly kingdom: an upside-down power that comes in the form of humility, meekness, and selfless love.

And what about tasting death?

At first glance, it does look like a potential failed prophecy of Jesus if we think it refers to his second coming, as Brower discusses. But looking at the context of the verse, we can see that there’s more going on.

Consider that the Pharisees earlier in this chapter asked for a sign, and Jesus responded, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” He unloads on the disciples in the boat when they are not getting it. And he talks about death on a cross to the crowds, and says to them, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Perhaps, on a different level than all the other ideas – Parousia, resurrection, Pentecost, fall of Jerusalem, Jesus’ life and ministry, the church, transfiguration, and crucifixion – Jesus is implying that it will take an incredible miracle or sign, maybe one of the above events, before some people get the point about the kingdom of God, Jesus’ identity, and dying to one’s self. After all, one of the themes of Mark up to this point, and highlighted in this chapter, is people not seeing and understanding clearly the first time around. On the other side of the coin, however, is judgment: if it takes a sign like the Pharisees are asking for and depending on the motives, the consequences may be more dire than we expect.

As I close this post and as you consider these ideas, I encourage you to watch the following clip about Jesus and Barabbas. We watched it this past Sunday in the church community I am a part of. Jesus carried his cross and tasted death for each one of us because of his unconditional love and grace, even if we don’t deserve it or don’t even want to pick up our crosses in response to Jesus.

But if we are going to truly call ourselves his disciples, understanding the point of God’s kingdom and Jesus as Messiah, then we must be willing to do the same. When we taste the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and follow in it, we find life and we find God’s kingdom in all of its power and full force.

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A Lesson in Holiness: Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D.

The story of Emilio Sandoz, the fictional Jesuit priest of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, has a lesson to teach us about holiness.   Now, I have yet to read Children of God, the sequel to The Sparrow; regardless, I believe the lesson still stands.   And if you have not yet read The Sparrow, and whether you like science-fiction or not, it is an excellent book which will both challenge you and move you. I highly recommend this book!

In a previous post, At the Edge of Science and Theology: ‘Cosmic Speculative Theology‘, I wrote about the possibility of intelligent life on other planets and what that might mean for Christianity; Mary Doria Russell does a great job of exploring this concept in The Sparrow. Father Sandoz, along with a few friends, find life on the planet Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system of our galaxy; he and a group of Jesuit missionaries are able to go to Rakhat. The reader experiences the positive of what holiness truly is – love for God and love for neighbor. And while these are not human beings, the Runa and Jana’ata are another species of God’s intelligent creatures; the Jesuits show them the great love that they deserve.

But in the negative of what holiness is – a lack of sin – we are forced to face perhaps our most difficult challenge in practicing the positive of what holiness is – love. I don’t mean ‘negative’ in a way that has a bad connotation; I mean ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ simply in terms of what holiness is and is not. It is just the plus side of thinking – love – and the minus side of thinking – not sinning.

Nonetheless, events happen on Rakhat which haunt Emilio to the point where he can barely speak of them. These events are so horrendous that they cause Emilio to struggle with overwhelming and crippling amounts of both shame and guilt.

When he returns to Earth, he becomes an outcast because of the public’s perception of what happened on Rakhat.

I belong to a denomination called The Church of the Nazarene, part of the Wesleyan-Arminian branch of protestant Christianity; we have a strong focus on holiness.   We discuss theological doctrines like ‘Christian Perfection’ and ‘Entire Sanctification’; these are the ideas that, through God’s power in the Son and the Spirit, we are filled with God’s love so much that it is as if there is no more for sin!   It is a sound doctrine, but there is a very strong focus on avoiding sin or even any perception of sin.

The great temptation and danger is to only think of holiness in terms of what it is not – not sinning – rather than what it is – fully living in God’s love! And when we only think in terms of what it is not, then we miss what it is!   Inevitably, we must ask: what will we do when we are confronted with sin, whether it is in ourselves or in another’s life?

If we see sin, or even the perception of sin, in another’s life, then distance and separate ourselves from the person and offer nothing but sharp words, we miss the opportunity to show and live the positive of what holiness is – love. If we run from our own sin within us and don’t deal with it in the right way, criticizing ourselves and becoming our own worst enemy, it can weigh us down to the point that we are crippled with overwhelming guilt and shame.

Either way, we forget three of God’s most basic qualities in holiness: grace, forgiveness, and compassion.   We lose sight of Matthew 6:12: “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

With news of the events on Rakhat, there was the idea among Earth’s people, and even many of Emilio’s colleagues in the Society of Jesus, that Emilio must have done something horrible and sinful. In the pursuit of holiness to the point of self-righteousness, there was little grace shown to Emilio. There was a strong initial tendency to focus on the negative of holiness – not sinning – rather than a demonstration of the positive of holiness – love.

We should always be willing to understand circumstances and do the right thing in the midst of a bad situation; this is being faithful to God. But it should not be to the point where we miss the opportunity to demonstrate love with grace, forgiveness, and compassion. To love, no matter what (and it really, really, REALLY means no matter what!), is our most basic obligation as Christians; it is what separates a true Christian from the rest of the world. In the pursuit of holiness, Christian perfection, and entire sanctification, a disposition towards love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion, is where we must lean to first.

Christ, our example in holiness, came to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to the demon-possessed man running wild, the woman at the well who had been already been with so many men, the woman accused of adultery and about to be stoned, the man who struggled to believe, and the tax collector who stole and cheated so many people out of money. Christ came to this world to offer grace, forgiveness, and compassion to even the criminals and the depraved hanging on the crosses next to him on Calvary.

Christ came to offer his love to the people that the fictional Emilio Sandoz represents – the misunderstood, the broken, and the ones struggling with crippling guilt and shame. And Christ came even to offer love to the people who would jump to conclusions and judgment about Emilio.

Christ came for you and for me. Christ came for the sinners.

Christ was beaten, suffered, and died.   He slowly and painfully suffocated to death while hanging on a cross in one of the world’s most barbaric forms of execution. He came so that through this atoning sacrifice, we, the sinners, might finally be reconciled to God.

Christ came so that you and I, absolutely broken people, yet still God’s loved and created beings, might have hope in true life and love of God through the risen, living Christ. Christ came so that you and I can learn and live the positive of what holiness really is – love.

Christ came so that you and I, in being a positive example of Christ’s holiness, can show God’s love to the depraved, the criminals, the adulterers, the demon-possessed, the thieves, the frauds, the unbelieving, and the liars.

Christ died for the ones who sinned against him, the ones who beat him, clamored for his crucifixion, sentenced him to death, nailed him to a cross, spit on him and mocked him as they watched him die so that – yes – even they could receive God’s love and be a part of Christ’s family.

As I mentioned before, perhaps our most difficult challenge in holiness is not necessarily practicing the negative – not sinning  – but practicing the positive – love.   Christ died for all; are we willing to show the type of love that Christ showed to all?

Father Emilio ‘Meelo’ Sandoz, S.J., Ph.D. offers us a challenging reminder to focus on what holiness is. And the lesson? With Christ as our example, and by the power of the Spirit of God working within us, the positive of what holiness is – love, to include grace, forgiveness, and compassion – is something that we must live out towards one another every day, no matter what, and no matter whom.

Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, and Facebook

In case you haven’t noticed the people walking around with ash crosses on their foreheads, today is Ash Wednesday.   It is an important day in the Christian calendar which marks the beginning of the season of Lent.   It is a time when Christians fast from something (i.e. meat on Fridays for my Roman Catholic friends) in order to turn their attention to God, preparing their hearts for the holy days that come during the week of Easter.

Tonight I had the opportunity to attend the service at the West Chester United Methodist Church; the Methodists are Wesleyan cousins of my own denomination, the Church of the Nazarene.   It was a beautiful service; they have a great choir as well! But during the course of the service, several ideas were on my mind:

There is sorrow in repentance for the sins that we so often commit against God and one another.   There is a grieving that we have not done more in our lives to devote ourselves to God and his kingdom.   There is a yearning to prioritize God in our hearts, seek after his Spirit, and know Christ as our example.

And while there is a realization of our utter insignificance as we consider the perspective of God’s absolute power, especially with the common reading of Genesis 3:19 and the placing of ashes on our foreheads, there is the sudden and awe-inspiring awareness that comes with it – God still desires to know, love, and use each and every one of us in the expansion of his beautiful kingdom of holy love!   If that does not demonstrate the depth of God’s love for his creatures, I don’t know what does.   This understanding is made real when we take the elements of Christ’s body and blood through the bread and the wine (or grape juice for those of us in the Church of the Nazarene and other Protestant denominations); Christ died on a cross and rose again so that each one of us may be reconciled to God and become an incredibly useful part of his kingdom and the body of Christ on earth.

Last year during Lent I decided to give up cookies and other sugary sweets; I barely survived. The day after Easter I only ate cookies, cookies, and more cookies. This year I’ve decided to fast from the Western world’s most addictive social media site – Facebook.   All too often, we replace real relationships with virtual relationships. Christ tells us in several of the gospels what is most important – love God with everything that we are and love each other in the same way (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). In fasting from Facebook, I hope to be able to invest more time in real relationships with people rather than virtual relationships with people; it means actual phone calls, trying to get coffee with friends and talking to them face to face, and training carrier pigeons to bring small, handwritten, coded messages to various cities across the nation (it also means smoke signals!).

Tomorrow is also Valentine’s Day; pretty much every time this holiday has come around, I have thought to myself, “Ugh.”   Of course, I may also think this because I have always been single and have never quite managed to find that certain girl to love. But as we commemorate this holiday, perhaps each one of us, and whether we have someone to celebrate this day with or not, can remember the great love that God shows each and every one of us. We can dwell and meditate on the true standard-bearer of love, Jesus Christ. We can think about what it means to love one another, our friends, family, and even enemies, with Christ’s example of selfless love. Let us not dwell on the selfish love that culture and society too often try to overpower us with in greed. This might be more in tune with the season of Lent and what St. Valentine would have wanted when he was martyred in the year of our Lord, February 14, c. 270.

Let us repent during the weeks approaching Easter. Let us grieve, mourn, and be in sorrow for the sins we have committed toward God and toward one another. Let us yearn to be in communion with God’s Spirit. Let us desire, more than anything else, to prioritize our love for God as we fast from whatever it is we are fasting from. Let us seek to love God with everything that we are and love each other in the very same way. And let us rejoice that through Christ we are an integral part of God’s amazing kingdom of holy love!