Ep.124: Crucifixion Day.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.  

When John 19 tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, it does not focus on the details of his torture. Nor does it interpret the meaning of his death. Instead, it quietly emphasizes four moments of revelation in the story. 

First, Pilate put a sign on Jesus’ cross that said, “King of the Jews”. The chief priests objected, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews’–write that he said he was king of the Jews.” Pilate dismissed them, saying, “What I have written, I have written.” For John, the sign on the cross was not just a Pilate-sign, it was a God-sign because it stated in three languages of the Roman Empire that the man being crucified was king. 

As the soldiers shared out Jesus’ clothes, and as they cast lots for his cloak instead of ripping it into equal pieces, John saw another revelation. In his gospel, he quoted Psalm 22:
    They divided my clothes among them,
        and cast lots for my garment (John 19:24, quoting Psalm 22:18).
For John, the crucifixion was not merely an unhappy ending, perpetrated by Pilate at the insistence of the Jews. It was part of a greater story that started in the Old Testament and continued on crucifixion day, even as the Roman soldiers distributed Jesus’ last possessions. 

The third revelation John noted followed Jesus’ complaint on the cross, “I am thirsty.” The watchers responded by using a sponge on a stick to give him wine vinegar. John quotes Psalm 69 which says: “They gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps 69:21). There it is again: the story of Jesus’ torture is not a random event, it is part of a larger narrative predicted long ago, working itself out unexpectedly in Roman times. 

Earlier in John’s gospel, John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the Lamb of God. One of the rules for sacrificing a passover lamb was “Don’t break any bones” (Ex. 12:46).

On crucifixion afternoon, the Jews asked the soldiers to break the legs of the crucified, to hasten their death so the bodies could be dealt with before the Passover holiday started that evening. When the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, instead of breaking his bones, one of them speared his side, releasing a flow of blood and water. John describes this moment of revelation by quoting the Old Testament again, “Not one of his bones will be broken” (Ps 34:20), and “They will look on the one they have pierced” (Zech 12:10). It was important to John that the Jesus, the new Passover lamb, was killed without breaking his bones. 

With Jesus dead and pierced, the Romans let some compassionate Jews bury him in a borrowed tomb. 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, John’s gospel invites us to believe that behind the story of your unjust and untimely death, God was telling a different story. Pilate’s cynical sign, “King of the Jews” was God’s sign that he was preparing a kingdom for you, Jesus. As the soldiers divided your clothes and the watchers gave you vinegar and your bones were not broken, we hear echoes of God’s hidden story. In your death as a passover lamb, God was preparing a passover feast for Jews and Romans and Greeks–for the whole world. Teach us to be welcome guests in the passover meal you serve.

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.123: Psalm 53: Is There a God?

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Psalm 53 is exactly the same as Psalm 14, except  for two words. Twice where the earlier Psalm calls God “Yahweh”, Psalm 53 calls him “Elohim.” 

The Psalm opens with a striking assertion:
    The fool has said in his heart,
      “There is no God” (v. 1). 

Nearly 40% of Canadians don’t believe in God or a higher power. Is Psalm 53 calling them fools? Let’s take a  brief look at atheism today and consider whether it is just foolishness.

Charles Dawkins, the popular British evangelist for atheism, says that as human thinking and civilization mature, superstitions and religions fall away. And we are left with a rational, empirical, evidence-based view of life, free from primitive notions of gods and demons and angels.

Charles Taylor, the well-known Canadian philosopher from Montreal, describes this as a “subtraction theory”. and says it doesn’t work that way. If you subtract superstition and belief in God from a worldview, what is left is not the rational system Dawkins describes. Rather, the modern western worldview has replaced belief in God with a belief that human reason and science and initiative are all we need to give meaning to life. The new belief can no more be proved than the old one.roved than the old one.

I think of it like this: if belief in God is a swamp you can drain, does draining the swamp leave you with a tidy bit of land where good stuff grows? Or has the subtraction of the swamp left a muddy and uneven place where new creatures and plants take over? Does draining the swamp of American politics create a just and reasonable society?

Charles Taylor describes today’s culture as “cross-pressured”. By that he means we have many options for belief. For example, fundamentalist Christians believe in God and in six literal days of creation. Fundamentalist atheists profess certainty that God is just a myth. The rest of us live in a cross-pressured space where sometimes it feels like faith in God doesn’t make much sense, and at other times we feel that science and modern culture have excluded the most important aspects of life.  

Here’s what Apple founder Steve Jobs said near the end of his life: 

  “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God . . . For most of my life, I’ve felt there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.
    “I like to think that something survives after you die,” Jobs said. “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures. 

   “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch: Click! and you’re gone.”

   Then he paused . . . and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.” (Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), pp. 570-571, as cited in Smith, James K.A. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 13.)    

Let’s pray. 

Our father, it is a modern invention that we can choose whether to believe in God. The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” But we modern thinkers try not to think with our hearts. We try to weigh the evidence and form logical conclusions. But all of us–Christians, atheists, and agnostics–are  subject to doubt that we have concluded rightly. And we are never sure how much our heart and our hidden motivations influence the conclusions we draw.

Jesus, king of truth, touch our minds, touch our hearts, touch our souls, until we know and feel your presence, until we lose our endless speculations and doubts. Teach us to be still and know that you are God (Ps 46:10)

We conclude with Psalm 53:

    When God restores his people,
    we will  rejoice and be glad (Ps 53:6).

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.122: Pilate's Predicament.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.  

Other than Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed mentions only two humans: the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. It says, “Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”

Each Sunday in church,  it strikes me as odd that I name a Roman politician in my statement of faith. What does Pontius Pilate have to do with faith? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to focus on people who contributed to faith instead of those who undermined it? Mary, for example. Or Peter who founded the Christian church. Or the apostle Paul, who spread the faith westward to Rome.

Instead of defending or criticizing Pilate’s appearance in the creed, here’s how it impacts me as I repeat his name each Sunday. 

The first thing Pilate does is connect my faith to a real place at a real time in the real world I live in. Much of the Apostles’ Creed deals with big and invisible beliefs–God the creator of heaven and earth; the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body. 

But when I repeat that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, it grounds my faith in the world I know. In Pilate’s system, politics trumped kindness. The empire he served dispatched worldwide suffering and injustice. Individuals like Jesus counted for nothing if they questioned the empire or rocked the boat. Pontius Pilate, Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson–all are pragmatists using their power to further their own interests, freeing some people and crucifying others. They take a convenient course, not a principled stand, as they work their way through conflicting demands of lawyers and lobbyists, fundamentalists and indigenous people, special interest groups and business. Pilate had a complicated job in a conflicted world. Just like the confusing world I live in today.

Pilate’s situation also brings out my sympathy with human weakness and short-sightedness. The Apostles’ Creed and the Gospel of John do not overtly criticize him. Instead, John presents him as a conflicted politician who found no basis for a charge against Jesus (John 19:6). He was worried about Jesus’ claim to be Son of God (John 19:7-8). But he was also worried that if he let Jesus go free, the Jews would complain to Caesar that Pilate was disloyal to Rome, that he permitted alternative claims to kingship. I sympathize with Pilate’s predicament and I don’t envy his choices.  

And Jesus is inexplicably silent before Pilate. When Pilate says, “Answer me please. Tell me who you are. Don’t you understand I can have you crucified?” Jesus only replies, “You wouldn’t have any power over me if God didn’t give it to you.” That’s not much help to Pilate the judge. He has nothing in his toolkit to tell him whether Jesus’ claims are religious fantasy or truth. Like Pilate, I often I come to a crossroads in life–feeling that behind the Jesus I speak with there might be an invisible kingdom and a world-changing power. But it often seems unreal and I’m not sure what to do.

Pilate’s place in the creed also warns me each Sunday about the danger of living by pragmatism instead of faith. Pilate didn’t have patience to sort out who Jesus was; he just wanted the Jews to shut up with their absurd religious arguments, to go away, and to quit bothering him. He ignored his unease about Jesus’ claims to be Son of God and king of truth. I face a similar risk: that I will ignore my unease about relationships and faith and duty, that I too will protect my comfort by letting the innocent suffer. Perhaps some day I will stand beside Pilate in the Guinness Book of Records as one who made the most pragmatic, the most opportunistic, and absolutely the worst decision ever.

Let’s pray.

Jesus,  how easy it is for us to believe that Pilate has the last word, or that the American empire has the last word. But when you suffered under Pontius Pilate you proved that God has the last word. The worst sins of empire, the most short-sighted political decisions, the most unjust judgement rates only passing mention in God’s history of salvation and in the statement of our faith. Jesus, you suffered under Pontius Pilate, and that suffering began the healing of the world.

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.