“His Blood Be On Us and On Our Children”

August 22, 2014

Last Sunday’s sermon text includes these verses:

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”  And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24-25)

In the sermon we focused on Pilate’s guilt, despite his proclaimed innocence. But we also saw that Pilate could be forgiven, the same way that you and I can be forgiven: By grace through faith in the death and resurrection of the man He crucified. Furthermore, we saw that, beginning in the 2nd century, some church traditions say that Pilate did indeed come to faith.

However, there’s an ugly side to that tradition. In the church’s early decades, the great majority of believers were Jewish in ethnicity. By the late 2nd century, that was no longer the case. Rather, there was considerable animosity between Jews and Christians. Many Christians then began to use Matthew 27:25 as justification for hatred of Jews. You see, they would argue, the Jewish people as a whole are willingly accepting blame for the death of Jesus. And that blame continues through all future generations, since they accept it on behalf of their children.

This horrible distortion of the text has continued over the centuries, leading to persecution and hatred of Jews time and again.

Why is this interpretation a distortion? Because it is inconsistent both with the story surrounding this text, and with wider biblical teaching.

First look at the surrounding context. Jesus entered Jerusalem a few days earlier to the acclaim of the Jewish crowd (Matthew 21:7-11). The crowd in chapter 21 holds him to be a prophet (Matthew 21: 46). The crowd in the next chapter is astonished at His teaching (Matthew 22:33).

The crowd in front of Pilate in Matthew 27 has to be persuaded by the chief priests and elders to turn on Jesus (Matthew 27:20). We don’t know how these leaders persuaded them, but given the accusations against Him in His trial before the High Priest, it seems the religious leaders were able to convince the crowd that Jesus had committed blasphemy. That would explain why so many in the crowd now think He deserves death.

But many Jews have been following Jesus, and, of course, all the disciples are Jews. They don’t believe He should be crucified!

So (a) this crowd is not representative even of those in Jerusalem at this time, much less of all Jews everywhere; and (b) the crowd, stirred to a frenzy through the manipulations of the religious leaders, calls out for blood without understanding what they are doing (as Jesus Himself says in Luke 23:34).

Thus, at most the crowd takes the guilt of Jesus’ death on their own descendants and not all Jews. But given their lack of understanding, we should question even this.

When we look at wider biblical teaching, we see that even this limited understanding of the guilt of the crowd’s descendants is wrong. First, a few weeks later at Pentecost many who were in this crowd – and even some religious leaders – come to faith in Christ and are forgiven for all of their sins, including this one (Acts 2:36-41, Acts 6:7). Second, Scripture is clear that while sin does often have a multi-generational impact, children are not condemned by God for the sins of their parents other than Adam (Ezekiel 18, Jeremiah 31:29-30; for Adam, see Romans 5:12-21).

So, no: This text does not teach anti-Semitism. Nobody is saved because of their ethnicity. And no one is condemned because of their ethnicity. All have sinned, Jew and non-Jew. All deserve God’s just condemnation.

Who, then, is responsible for Jesus’ death? Who crucified Jesus?

Many individuals were responsible. Judas. Caiaphas. Annas. Pilate. Others.

But in a larger sense, I crucified Him. You crucified Him – if you trust Him as Savior and Lord. For He paid  my penalty. And, if you are in Christ, He paid your penalty.

As Johan Heerman wrote 400 years ago:

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.

And yet He died so that those in the crowd before Pilate, so that their descendants, so that you and I, murderers that we all are, might live in union with Him as beloved children of God for all eternity.

So away with all anti-Semitism. Away with all semblances of ethnic superiority and hatred. Before God we all are equal – equally guilty. And before God, by His grace through the death of His Son, we all can be equally loved.

 

Love, Suffering, Obedience – and Resurrection

August 1, 2014

What is love?

There are a thousand answers to that question, since we use the word “love” in so many different ways. So let’s narrow the question down:

What is God’s love? And what does it look like when we love with God’s love?

In a recent book – A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships – Paul Miller argues that this type of love is a one-way covenant; we step out in love without needing or even expecting a response. This makes us vulnerable, and often leads to suffering. We rightly cry out in lament over such suffering. But faith holds on to God’s covenant love in the midst of suffering, so that we continue to walk in obedience – we continue to love. In this we are following the path of Jesus’ life – love, suffering, death. But Jesus rose from the dead. And as God raised Jesus, He similarly will bring about a form of resurrection in us.

Miller masterfully brings out these truths from the book of Ruth, following Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz through their journeys of love, suffering, lament, obedience, and resurrection. Consider these selections – and may we follow the path of love.

Love and Covenant

[We learn through the storyline of Scripture that God’s love is a one-sided covenant, His determination to do good to His people, to redeem them, to make them His, despite their rebellion and disobedience. Thus, God’s love is also covenantal. Our love, if it is to be like God’s, must also be covenantal. The Hebrew word most often used of God’s love for His people is hesed. Paul Miller sometimes uses this word as an adjective to clarify that he is referring to that type of love.]

[There is a] modern myth that says, “Love is a feeling. If the feeling is gone, then love is gone.” Hollywood has no resources to endure in love when the feeling is gone. Actually, that’s the point when we are ready to learn how to love. 285

Ruth walks into the city ignored and, in effect, alone. One of the hardest parts of a hesed love is that you can love others, but there may be no one to love you. The very act of loving can make you lonely. . . .

But that loneliness, that dying, instead of being the end of you, can display Jesus’s beauty in you. The moment when you think everything has gone wrong is exactly the moment when the beauty of God is shining through you. True glory is almost always hidden—when you are enduring quietly with no cheering crowd. 809

The question is not “How do I feel about this relationship?” but “Have I been faithful to my word, to the covenants I am in?” As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt. 5:46). In other words, if I love only when I feel like it, then I’ve really not understood love. 923

[After Ruth goes to Boaz’s field:] If you are bent on pursuing personal freedom, you remain frozen hunting for the perfect field, the perfect person. You never land. You have to commit to make love work. We don’t love in general. We love someone, somewhere. Setting our affections on someone always means narrowing down. Election and love are inseparable. This goes against the spirit of our age, which prizes independence and perfection. . . . Often our difficulties with love are simply that we react to the constriction that accompanies love. But that constriction is inherent in love. To love is to limit. . . .

Ironically, the experience of love, of narrowing your life, broadens and deepens your life. The narrower your life, the broader your soul. . . . Love always involves a narrowing of the life, a selecting of imperfection. 1072

Life is a path or pilgrimage. It is lived not in isolated moments, but in trajectories of reaping and sowing. Everything we do now creates the person we are becoming. We do not live in an impersonal, rigid world in which obedience mechanically dispenses reward; we live in our Father’s world, a richly textured world organized around invisible bonds that knit us together. All of life is covenant. 1319

[Consider covenant as a kind of limitation:] Repentance often drives the journey of love. It moves the story forward. Because Naomi returned home, God’s grace will be unleashed in her life. Repentance involves a returning to the box, to the world of limits, that my Father has given me. I stop creating my own story and submit to the story that God is weaving. . . .

Life is like a beautiful garden with a tree whose fruit I can’t touch. That “no” defines and shapes my life in the garden. So my relationship with my wife is like a wonderful garden with a solitary “no”: I cannot touch or develop emotional intimacy with another woman. That “no” narrows and limits my life. It provides a frame for my love to Jill. I am keenly aware that I can destroy a forty-year marriage in five minutes. That limiting, instead of boxing us in, lets the story come alive. 852

Love and Suffering

Suffering is the crucible for love. We don’t learn how to love anywhere else. Don’t misunderstand; suffering doesn’t create love, but it is a hothouse where love can emerge. Why is that? The great barrier to love is ego, the life of the self. In long-term suffering, if you don’t give in to self-pity, slowly, almost imperceptibly, self dies. This death of self offers ideal growing conditions for love. 221

Self-pity, [that is,] compassion turned inward, drives this downward spiral. Instead of reflecting on the wounds of Christ, I nurse my own wounds. Self-as-victim is the great narrative of our age. . . . Enshrining the victim is so seductive because you have been hurt. But self-pity is just another form of self-righteousness, and like all self-righteousness it isolates and elevates. It elevates you because it says you are better than the other person; you are the victim. It isolates you because you live in and are nourished by your interior world, which can’t be criticized. 1677

Suffering and Lament

[We often do our best to hide our suffering. Indeed, sometimes we confuse laments over suffering with lack of faith. But Paul Miller argues that Scripture is full of laments, and that lamentation is a necessary step on the path to hesed love.]

A lament puts us in an openly dependent position, where our brokenness reflects the brokenness of the world. It’s pure authenticity. Holding it in, not giving voice to the lament, can be a way of putting a good face on it. But to not lament puts God at arm’s length and has the potential of splitting us. We appear okay, but we are really brokenhearted. (emphasis added) 693

Listening to a lament is a powerful way of loving someone who is suffering. By being present, by not correcting or even offering our own unique brand of Christian encouragement (“It’s going to be all right – God’s in control”), we give those who are grieving space to be themselves.

This doesn’t mean that Naomi’s judgment of God is correct. God is good and just. He will answer her frustration with more goodness. Naomi was interpreting God through the lens of her experience.

She stopped in the middle of the story and measured God. A deeper faith waits until the end of the story and interprets experience through the lens of God’s faithfulness. Is this something we tell Naomi? No. It is what we tell ourselves. Good theology lets us endure quietly with someone else’s pain when all the pieces aren’t together. It acts like invisible faith-glue. 706

The opposite danger of not lamenting is over-lamenting. Dwelling on a lament is the breeding ground for bitterness. Bitterness is a wound nursed. Our culture’s emphasis on the sacredness of feelings often gives people an unspoken theology of bitterness. They feel entitled to it.727

Faith, Love and Obedience

[Difficult situations compel us to conclude:] You simply do not have the power or wisdom or ability in yourself to love. You know without a shadow of a doubt that you can’t love. That is the beginning of faith—knowing you can’t love. Faith is the power for love. 617

Unlike the Israelites who wanted to return to Egypt, Naomi is obeying, doing the right thing by returning to the Promised Land. Her feelings were all over the place, but she put one foot in front of the other as she returned. We can summarize her response this way:

Bitterness openly expressed to God + obedience  => a raw, pure form of faith

Bitterness openly expressed + disobedience => rebellion

Through a sheer act of will, Naomi continues to show up for life. In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the senior devil, Screwtape, warns his junior devil of the danger of this obedience.

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause [the Devil’s cause] is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will [God’s will], looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. 747

Ruth’s act of loving put her at the bottom of society, but she doesn’t push back on her lowered status. She accepts the cost of love. Like Jesus, she takes the lower place. Love and humility are inseparable.

When serving is combined with humility, the serving becomes almost pleasurable. You are thankful for any gift given you. In contrast, pride can’t bear the weight of unequal love. . . . ride makes others’ joy, or even the possibility of our own joy, feel phony. It is an odd sort of authenticity where we demand that others be as depressed as we are. 1393

Jealousy is extraordinarily deceptive. It is by far the most destructive sin in communities and organizations that I’ve been a part of, and yet, I seldom hear it mentioned or confessed. It always masks itself as something else, creating a hidden chain of slander that drags someone down. A multiheaded hydra, it begins with an inability to rejoice with another’s success, leaks out as gossip, and finally erupts as slander. Jealousy seeks to gain by destroying others, while hesed  [love] loses by giving itself. One is the heart of evil. The other is pure gospel.  1494

Many Christians get stuck trying to grow their faith by growing their faith. They try to get closer to Jesus by getting closer to Jesus. Practically, that means they combine spiritual disciplines (the Word and prayer) with reflection on the love of God for them. But that will only get you so far. In fact it often leads to spiritual moodiness where you are constantly taking your pulse wondering how much you know the love of God for you. Or you go on an endless idol hunt trying to uncover ever deeper layers of sin. Oddly enough, this can lead to a concentration on the self, a kind of spiritual narcissism. Ruth discovers God and his blessing as she obeys, as she submits to the life circumstances that God has given her. So instead of running from the really hard thing in your life, embrace it as a gift from God to draw you into his life. 2095

Obedience and Resurrection

[Miller discusses how the life of loving obedience often follows the shape of a J-curve: Our love and obedience leads to suffering, and so our life seems to get worse. But God brings about the upward slope of the “J” – in ways that we cannot know ahead of time, following trajectories that we never expected.]

[God teaches] us to love by overloading our systems so we are forced to cry for grace. God permits our lives to become overwhelming, putting us on the downward slope of the J-curve so we come to the end of ourselves. I encouraged my friend to embrace the downward path, not to push against it or worry about where his feelings were with his wife. Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:11, 18). Seeing the gospel as a journey remaps our stories by embedding them in the larger story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. His normal becomes our normal. 1004

Here’s what I have learned going through the J-curve:
1. We don’t know how or when resurrection will come. It is God’s work, not ours.
2. We don’t even know what a resurrection will look like. We can’t demand the shape or timing of a resurrection.
3. Like Jesus, we must embrace the death that the Father has put in front of us. The path to resurrection is through dying, not fighting.
4. If we endure, resurrection always comes. God is alive! 1021

We can do death. But we can’t do resurrection. We can’t demand resurrection—we wait for it. 1032

 May we love, suffer, lament, believe, obey – and see resurrection!

[Paul Miller, A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships (Crossway, 2014). Numbers after the quotations are Kindle locations.]