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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Jehovah Reigns

As we consider the significance and impact of the death of Jesus on a cross, awaiting the resurrection that Sunday will bring, may the words of Charles Wesley be an encouragement and reminder to us of who God is.

This Easter weekend, may God bless you and encourage you by his Spirit and by his Son Jesus Christ.

Jehovah reigns on high
In peerless majesty;
Boundless power his royal robe,
Purest light his garment is;
Rules his word the spacious globe,
Established it in floating seas.

Ancient of days!
Thy name And essence is I AM;
Thou, O Lord, and thou alone,
Gav’st whatever is to be;
Stood thine everlasting throne,
Stands to all eternity.

The floods, with angry noise,
Have lifted up their voice,
Lifted up their voice on high;
Fiends and men exclaim aloud;
Rage the waves and dash the sky,
Hell assails the throne of God.

Their fury cannot move
The Lord who reigns above;
Him the mighty waves obey,
Sinking at his awful will,
Ocean owns his sovereign sway;
Hell at his command is still.

Thy statutes, Lord, are sure,
And as thyself endure;
Thine eternal house above
Holy souls alone can see,
Fitted here by perfect love,
There to reign enthroned with thee.

Unlocking ‘Inception’ (and a reference to 1999)

“You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Eames states these words in a conversation with Cobb as the two discuss the idea of inception – successfully planting an idea in a subject’s mind.   The characters, played by Tom Hardy and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively, unlock the key to Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, with this sentence.   The movie, unfortunately to some puzzling and not worth the time to figure out, is both complicated with its plot layers, yet at the same time more simple than we first realize.   Therein lies the beauty of the story.

In a way, it reminds me of the story of God and his creation: complicated layers of depth and meaning in its plot, yet very simple to understand in the theme that unlocks it.   But, just as in Inception, the simplicity needs the complexity and the complexity needs the simplicity in order to tell the story in the best way possible.   It is the only way to grasp the full and nuanced detail yet focused truth.

Granted, I finally saw the movie almost three years after it first came out; therefore this post might be a little late.   Oh well!   However, Inception is perhaps one of the best and most original stories out there.   The greatness of Inception is that the film does just that – inception – to the viewer’s mind, especially in light of the final scene.

There are two possibilities to explain the movie.   The first is that there was indeed a level of reality evidenced by Arthur, Ariadne, Eames, Saito, Yusuf, etc.   From this level of reality, the crew progressed into dreams in order to work in Fischer’s subconscious.   This understanding is more clear cut and easier to handle.   However, the problem with this idea is that, considered against the second possibility, this explanation renders the movie flat and without an extremely rich layer of storytelling, depth, and meaning.   If you are one who is happy and content with this idea, read no further.

The other possibility is that the only layer of reality was the relationship between Cobb and his wife, Mal.   Therefore, what we viewed throughout the entire movie was Cobb’s dream – a dream that ended up being at least five layers deep.   But here are the inevitable questions: why? and so what was the point of the movie then?   I point you to Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   In a single word – inception.   The point of the movie: planting an idea in Cobbs’ mind. But even more masterful and genius in Nolan’s storytelling: planting an idea in the viewer’s mind.

In addition to other negative emotions from his wife’s death, Cobb was overcome by guilt, shame, anger, and depression.   Forgiveness – again, think of Eames’ statement – was being planted into Cobb’s mind so that healing could finally occur in his life.   The movie was not about Fischer and his father at all, but solely about Cobb’s healing.   This “simplest version of the idea” is present in the movie’s themes: forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.

In the story of God and his creation, of which humanity is a critical part, there is a word that encompasses forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   It is the theme present throughout of all scripture.   It is both the “simplest version of the idea” and the key to unlocking scripture’s complexities and nuanced detail in order to find its focused truth.   This word is love.   More specifically, it is God’s love.   It is holy love.

The themes in Inception are demonstrated clearly with the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing between Fischer and his father; however, this storyline is meant to illustrate and label these ideas so that we can apply them to what the story is actually about, Cobb’s overcoming of his own pain, anguish, and guilt.   Forgiveness and reconciliation are shown to Cobb – ‘incepted’ to Cobb if you will – so that he can finally see and apply these ideas as his own, and therefore be able to finally heal from his own trauma.

With this idea, the rest of the characters are projections of his own subconscious; his children, too, would be projections meant to symbolize the hope of healing in the story and the act of healing itself when he finally sees their faces.   It is a possibility that some of the characters, such as his father, could be the ones performing inception, though it is not critical to know who.    Moreover, the viewers see just how far his guilt is buried in his own being; he must go five layers deep in order to finally come face to face with his guilt and forgive himself. We also see the elaborate systems of protection that his subconscious has created in order to bury his source of pain, rather than confront it.

And while this understanding is a much richer understanding of both the complexity and simplicity of the story, the final scene is the pinnacle of Inception; the final scene is inception.   I asked myself – why would Nolan leave the end open in such a way that we do not know if the final scene was reality or a dream, with the top spinning in such a way where it could be either one?   The answer to this question shapes whether my first or second explanation is more plausible.

The answer is that it does not matter.   It is not supposed to matter.   Remember Eames’ words: “You need the simplest version of the idea in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”   The simplest version of the idea is forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing.   Although in my second explanation they are revealed in a much deeper and more profound way, these are themes that are present in both understandings!   So whether the movie ends in a dream or reality, Nolan’s point hinges on neither – “the simplest version of the idea” remains the same.

Herein lies the brilliance of Inception, a movie, where similar to our dreams, we thought we were going to escape for a few hours: Nolan is able to perform inception on those who viewed the movie.   The viewers ask the question of whether it was a dream or reality, eventually coming to a conclusion on what really happened, while the “simplest idea” of forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing is planted within the viewers mind.

He quite literally spells out the answer to the last scene as soon as the movie is over.   Was it a dream or reality?   It does not matter; it is Inception.   It is incredible and genius storytelling.

However, the idea of inception existed long before Christopher Nolan was even born; it is an idea evident in God and his relationship to humanity, although not necessarily so subversive.   God gives us a choice in the matter.   Humanity was originally created to be together with God, operating in a perfect union with him and bound together in holy love to experience true life.   “The simplest version of the idea” was, and still is, love.   It was what gives people life, goodness, and an opportunity to participate in the kingdom and work of God.   In sinfulness and selfishness, though, humanity separated itself from a true understanding of life and love; as a result, we have death and all of its consequences.   We unfortunately see the effects of death all too often in our world.

But God is still there, calling to us everyday, attempting to plant a seed within us that there is something more to life than what appears on the surface; he is working to bring us back toward him.   For some, that seed takes hold and grows naturally; others might deny that seed.   But no matter who we are and whether or not we have denied the idea before, God is still calling to us with this “simplest version of the idea”: love.   It is up to us to accept it; in accepting it, we realize the forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing that Cobb experienced, but on a much deeper and cosmic level.   It does not matter how deep our guilt, shame, or depression is buried, or what walls we’ve built around it, God can and will break through if we allow him so that we may experience true life and love in God.   In communion with God, we return to the way we were created to be.

There was another movie released in 1999 which suggested ideas of a dreamworld and a harsh reality.   In The Matrix (yes – it’s already been 14 years!), when a person was unplugged, one realized the truth of what was happening; but the truth of reality was not as easy as living in the Matrix.   This may serve as a good warning to us: in choosing life in God, there will be times of difficulty when our faith will be stretched.   Christ warns us of this multiple times; nonetheless, there is truth, hope, and love in God.   We are no longer under the bondage and delusions that sin offers.   The truth is ultimately better than living in the Matrix.

God is calling us, each and every human being living on the planet, back to him.   His Spirit is planting seeds even in the most unknowing mind that might one day grow and mature.   God has extended grace to all the creation, evidenced by the work of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; it is a reality offered to each one of us with life in God through the Spirit and Christ.   It is an opportunity for true life and love and an opportunity to begin to break free from the constraints of sin and death.

It was not only the first inception, but it is the continuing inception at work in all people.   I pray that this “simplest version of the idea” might begin to take hold in each of us today!

Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.