Jesus the Blasphemer

But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Mat 26:63-66)

[Jesus said,] “I and the Father are one.” Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)

This week a mob in Pakistan attacked three college students accused of blasphemy, killing one and injuring two. According to Al Jazeera, vigilantes have killed 69 accused blasphemers since 1990, while the government has killed 52. Last year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (PDF) reported that there were 40 Pakistanis on death row or serving life sentences for blasphemy. Some of them, like Asia Bibi are Christians. Most are not.

Until recently, modern Americans could close their eyes to the violent passions that religious speech and identity can trigger. Progressive Christians tend to see the violent opposition to Jesus in economic, social or political terms. The empire did it. Indeed, it did. That, however, is not the primary lens through which the Gospel authors viewed the crucifixion. In the eyes of many of his coreligionists, Jesus was a blasphemer. He claimed to be one with the Father, at whose right hand he would soon be sitting. Jesus’ opponents considered this to be blasphemy, and for that he deserved to die.

Seven Words from the Cross

The  church of my childhood always conducted a worship service built around Jesus’ seven last words from the cross. I still think that’s a good way to go.

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Luke 23:34

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
Luke 23:43

Woman, behold your son …  Behold your mother.
John 19:26–27

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34

I thirst. 
John 19:28

It is finished.
John 19:30

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
Luke 23:46

Looking for the Easter Vigil

The United Methodist Book of Worship contains an order for the Easter Vigil, a beautiful and moving liturgy that dates back to Christian antiquity. The service, which takes 2 – 3 hours to complete, begins outside with the kindling of a fire, from which the Pascal Candle is lit. The congregation processes inside by candlelight for the opening liturgy and the reading of the Old Testament story of creation and redemption. The readings are interspersed with prayers and psalms (or hymns). Permit me to recommend highly the responsorial chanting of the psalms. Be a monk for a few hours. The chants echoing in the darkness are a taste of heaven. It feels as if one is actually a participant in the great divine drama. The liturgy of the word concludes with readings from the New Testament and a sermon. The service then moves to the sacrament Holy Baptism and a renewal of baptismal vows by the entire congregation. The service concludes with a celebration of Holy Communion and the normal closing elements of worship.

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Skip the Atonement Theories on Good Friday

Today is the day to tell the whole story of Jesus’ last hours in earthly flesh: his agony in the garden, his betrayal and abandonment by those closest to him, his arrest, his trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate, his torture at the hands of soldiers, his crucifixion, his words and his conduct on the cross, the reaction of witnesses and bystanders, the heavenly events that accompanied his crucifixion, his death, anointing and burial. Telling the whole story is important.

This is not the day to reduce the gospel narrative to a bare fact – Jesus died – and then use that fact as a springboard for an exposition of the doctrine of atonement or the history of sacrifice in the Old Testament. It is not the day to reduce the meaning of his crucifixion to a single theory of salvation. The church’s observance of Good Friday focuses on retelling the story of Jesus’ last day, not on a theological system.

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