Mutual Submission: The Holy Spirit Works Through Women, Too

As we observe Holy Week, we are reminded that women were the ones who stood by the cross and were first to preach the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. Throughout the Scriptures, women have played a significant role in contributing to the kingdom of God.

In the 21st century, many who choose to follow Christ continue to question the posture of Jesus toward women. Some more traditional interpretations of Scripture use verses from the Bible to say that women should be in specific roles in relationship to their families and greater society. These interpretations often prevent women from having leadership roles in homes, churches, and/or society at large.

Yet, when we look at the overall trajectory of the New Testament, Jesus was one of the most liberating leaders in his relationship with women. Consider some of the interactions between Jesus and women: Jesus’ ministry was funded by women (Luke 8:3); women followed Jesus and the disciples and were responsible for “caring for his needs” (Matthew 27:55); it was a Samaritan woman to whom Jesus first identified Himself as the Messiah and she went back and introduced her whole community to him (John 4); women were the ones who revealed that Jesus had resurrected and was gone from the grave after He had been buried (Matthew 28:5-6); women were present at the Upper Room when the Holy Spirit revealed itself during Pentecost (Acts1:14); and women were called and gifted as evangelists and missionaries in the early church (Romans 16:3).

Despite the many verses that talk about the role of women in both following Jesus and helping to establish the early church, there are verses in the New Testament that have been used to limit the role of women.

One of the most prevalent passages is Ephesians 5:21-33 which begins with the statement “Submit to one another in Christ” (5:21). In the original Greek there is one verb in this entire passage which speaks of mutual submission – the way that both husbands and wives should submit to one another. Nonetheless, this passage has been used to say that women should submit to their husbands (5:22) only – and that as such, women are less than men and their roles should be determined by gender in the context of marriage. But the heart of the passage is about mutual submission – where both men and women are called to lay themselves down for the sake of another.

Rather than looking to the few places in the New Testament where women’s roles are seemingly limited, I would encourage a much more thorough study of verses that emphasize – for both men and women – the use of their spiritual gifts. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 speak to both “brothers and sisters” in the Lord. The gifts that are addressed include: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helping, guidance, and different kinds of tongues. These gifts are not limited according to gender.

Evangelicalism Is Not a Bad Word: 8 Redeeming Qualities of Conservative Christianity

Evangelicals and conservative Christians often seem to get a “bad name” in the press and popular culture. It is true that Christians, and evangelicals in particular, have our own portion of historic and contemporary failings. Nonetheless, there continue to be many redeeming qualities of the evangelical faith tradition and those who call themselves followers of Jesus.

1. People who identify as evangelicals are followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace and Savior of the world. This is a good thing! Jesus’ teachings focus on both the love of God and love of neighbor (Luke 10:27). For evangelicals who take Scripture so seriously, the heart of Christian faith is that we are called to love one another.

2. Jesus teaches what it means to do good in the world and to treat one another with love and respect. Even other faith traditions such as Islam and Judaism acknowledge the teachings of Jesus as being of great value. The parables of Jesus are full of lessons about what it means to live rightly in community.

3. Jesus modeled what it meant to care for the poor, the “least of these” among us. Evangelicals have a rich tradition of caring for those in need through acts of compassion, charity, mercy, and justice. Marvin Olasky wrote a great book about this called The Tragedy of American Compassion.

4. Evangelicals believe that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means, we are all in the same boat! We are fallen, fallible, make mistakes, and are in need of mercy and redemption. No longer must we strive for perfection, but we may rest in the truth that as humans, we are all in need of God.

5. The “Good News” of the Gospel is one of abundant and merciful grace. Because of Christ’s love for us, the grace of forgiveness is extended to all of those who are willing to receive (Romans 5:8). This is the best news of all! Even the criminal on the cross, who was executed next to Jesus, was welcomed into the kingdom. Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). In our world today, this Good News of grace is manifested in evangelical ministries such asPrison Fellowship, which is committed to restorative justice because: “As Christians, we believe that Jesus — Himself brought to trial, executed, buried, and brought to life again — offers hope, healing, and a new purpose for each life.”

6. Evangelicals believe that we have access to God through the Holy Spirit. Spiritual disciplines and other intentional practices create space for us to commune with God and to be nourished in our souls. My book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (InterVarsity Press, 2013) talks about how our spiritual relationship with God helps fuel us toward greater engagement in the world. One such example, is the way the historic evangelist Watchman Nee of China committed to the study of Scripture as an essential way of staying intimately connected with God. Nee ultimately died in a communist prison because of his commitment to the Gospel.

7. Evangelicals have a deep and historic commitment to extending the love of Christ to the entire world through global mission. Missions is not always an extension of Western imperialism, but also includes movements of devout believers committed to learning alongside of communities from around the world. Consider the lives and ministries of Jim Elliot, James Hudson Taylor, Corrie ten Boom, David Livingstone, and Eric Liddell. While this is certainly an imperfect history, there is much beauty in the history of evangelicalism and global mission.

8. And lest we forget, evangelicals are some of the most committed to interceding on behalf of the world in prayer. Just this past week, thousands of followers of Jesus gathered in our nation’s capital at the 64th Annual National Prayer Breakfast. Hosted by Members of Congress, many gathered specifically to “seek the Lord’s guidance and strength as well as to reaffirm our faith and to renew the dedication of our Nation and ourselves to God and His purposes.”

These are just a few small examples of some of the contributions and assets of both historic and 21st century evangelicalism. The history of the evangelical faith tradition is full of incredible strengths and celebrations… and many moments of which we must lament and repent. For a discussion on historic and current sins of the church, please see the recent book I co-authored called Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith.

For more information about evangelicals in America, see Jonathan Merritt’s recent article from the Atlantic called “Defining ‘Evangelical‘“ which details historic and contemporary definitions of the faith tradition.

Also see renowned historian Mark Noll’s extensive works about American evangelicalism. His books are well worth the read.

May we not “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in our contemporary discourse on American evangelicalism.

Charleston: 5 Things White Christians Can Do in Solidarity With Our Brothers and Sisters of Color

A dark cloud hung over our nation this week after the horrific news of the deaths of nine people during a prayer meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. No response can rectify this tragic loss of life, but followers of Jesus can choose to stand with families and communities in Charleston by seeking to respond in acts of love and solidarity. For some white Christians, we question what actions we might take in response to the racial hatred expressed in this appalling crime. Here are some possible ideas, shared in the spirit of seeking to encourage the body of Christ to come alongside of our brothers and sisters and the community of Christians in Charleston who have experienced this significant tragedy and loss.

1. Pray for the family and loved ones of those who were killed. Pray by name, asking for God’s mercy and comfort. Petition the heavens that God might be especially present during this time of great need for the family of the victims and for all victims of racial violence:

Clementa Pinckney, 41, the senior pastor of the church
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, an assistant pastor
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Ethel Lee Lance, 70
Susie Jackson, 87
Cynthia Hurd, 54
Myra Thompson, 59
Daniel Simmons, 74
DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49

Learn about their lives and commitment to the Christian faith. Pray for their community. Pray against racism, violence, and hatred.

2. Reach out to the pastor, leaders, and members of an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), or other African-American churches, in your community by writing a letter or calling to express your concern, love, and solidarity. This was modeled by Senator Mike Johnston who felt convicted in the middle of the night that he needed to make an intentional effort to reach out. He wrote a letter affirming his refusal to “stay silent after this abomination.” And he shared these words:

“I drove here to reaffirm the overwhelming supremacy of love. And to stand with millions of other white men who are proud to call you brothers and sisters, and who feel compelled now to right the wrongs of generations past by ensuring that these lost loved ones you will not grieve alone, this hollow hatred you will not face alone, and this righteous justice you will not seek alone.”

Charleston3. Intentionally listen, regardless of your own discomfort or disagreement, to the cries of the African-American community in response to this tragedy and other racial injustices being perpetuated across the United States. Read op-eds and open letters from the black community. Listen to African-American and other voices of color expressing anger, frustration, and grief at their experiences as non-whites living in the U.S.

4. Commit to learning about the realities of African-American history and present day injustices affecting communities of color in the United States. One place to start is by following #CharlestonSyllabus recommendations on social media which include numerous books and other resources such as Race: A Theological Account by J. Kameron Carter; A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by James M. Washington; A Just Forgiveness: Responsible Healing without Excusing Injustice by Everett Worthington; the book I co-authored called Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, and many others.

5. Host a worship experience at your home church community focused on intentionally grieving and lamenting the shooting in Charleston and what is happening right now in our nation around issues of race. Read about what five pastors are planning to incorporate in their services this week at Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal.

Close your service with this powerful prayer from April 26, 2015, written by the late senior pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. Pinckney, who gave his life while ministering the Gospel:

“Lord of all the names that we call you, we invite you into this space today.
We pray that you would fill this place, Emanuel, with your love.

May we remember that the name Emanuel means ‘God with Us’ and so we invite you and we welcome you into this place.

And God we pray that you would make ‘Emanuels’ of all of us, that we may be filled with your love, for we know that only love can conquer hate, that only love can bring all together in your name.

Irregardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love. Together we come to bury racism, to bury bigotry, and to resurrect and to revive love, compassion, and tenderness.

We pray that you would bless and empower all who are here to reach and to feel the love and to share the love.

We ask all now in reverence and holiness, may we together say, Amen.”

These are only small steps to begin to engage. White Christians must stand up in solidarity next to our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ in Charleston and around the country. We must be willing to use our voices to turn the attention of our nation to the racial injustices that continue to be perpetuated and to declare loudly and boldly that all racial violence and hatred must come to an end.

Visiting Prisoners, Finding Jesus

“I was in prison, and you came to me.” – Matthew 25:36

Recently a federal judge ordered the immediate release of the last member of the “Angola 3,” Albert Woodfox, from his decades long solitary confinement. Woodfox has spent almost all of his 43 years in prison in solitary confinement, the longest of any prisoner in the United States. All the while, he has proclaimed his innocence in the 1972 murder of Brent Miller, a prison guard at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

At the time of this writing, Woodfox is still in jail while other judges and courts debate his release. I do not know Woodfox, but I call another member of the Angola 3 “friend.” I spent time visiting and writing letters with Herman Wallace after I met him on a prison-ministry trip to Angola in 2006. I talk about what this friendship with Wallace meant to me in an article I wrote shortly after his death and brief days of freedom.

The news surrounding Woodfox prompts me once again to reflect on the way incarceration influences our society in the United States. The United States Bureau of Justice estimates that 6,899,000 adults were under the supervision of a correction institute at year end 2013. (This includes those on parole and probation, etc.) The International Centre for Prison Studies puts the total prison population in the United States at 2,270,000 people. This is the highest number of prisoners in one country in the world. China is second with 1,657,812 prisoners. If one looks at the rate of incarceration based on population instead of total numbers, the United States is #2 at 698 prisoners per 100,000 people. In first place is Seychelles with 868 per 100,000. The United Kingdom is 98th with 149 prisoners per 100,000 residents.

The United States is rife with prisoners. Literal actual prisoners who sit behind bars. You don’t have to look far to learn that one’s likelihood of being a prisoner at one point in your life is highly correlated to your race, your gender, and your socio-economic status. Michelle Alexander’s ground-breaking book The New Jim Crowoutlines this miscarriage of justice in terms of what it looks for African Americans to face the Prison Industrial Complex. Between racial profiling, harsher sentences, and the school-to-prison pipeline – there is much room for the church to live into the call of Jesus to go to those who are in prison.

When we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick, and go to the imprisoned, we are acting in obedience to the commands of Jesus. We are loving both God and our neighbor and thereby fulfilling the greatest commandments. There is no room in Jesus’ teaching at this moment to differentiate between who is worthy of food, clothing, and a visitor. The words are simple, if the physical condition of hunger or nakedness or sickness or imprisonment exists, then as Christians we honor Jesus by meeting these needs. There is no room in this part of the discussion to debate whether someone is worthy. We feed. We clothe. We visit. We go.

Years ago when I lead the prison ministry at Willow Creek Community Church, I was exposed to several different facilities throughout the state of Illinois. We were involved in more than one juvenile detention center, in jails around the state, and in a few prisons that were scattered throughout Illinois. I became a chaplain at Cook County Jail, and one of my highlights of the Christmas season was preaching the Gospel to men struggling with addictions. Somehow the worship of those who are behind bars reflects the freedom that comes from Christ with a vigor that is not often experienced outside in the “free” world. As I continued to have my heart turned toward the incarcerated, the prison ministry volunteer leaders kept putting pressure on me to take a trip to Angola Prison in Louisiana, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

prisonersThe name itself – Angola – has roots in slavery and the oppression of black bodies. In the early 19th century, Angola was a slave-breeding plantation, a place where slaves from Angola, Africa were brought to be bred and then sold into the Southern slave market. In 1901 the state of Louisiana bought the property and it was eventually turned into a prison. Racism has deep roots in incarceration.

I did not make the trip to Angola because of Jesus’ call to go to those in prison. I went because I could not believe the stories I had heard about the way the people behind bars lived such a vibrant and compelling faith. When I arrived, I found inmates serving as pastors and leading different Christian communities throughout Angola. I met inmates who took their call to ministry so seriously that they requested to be transferred to other prisons in order to be able to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I went to those in prison, and I saw Jesus.

I know that the majority of the people behind bars are there because they have committed crimes. I also know it is critically important to minister to the victims of their crimes and others affected by the consequences of their actions. They have broken the laws of the land. Yet, even so, my visits to Angola and other prisons force me to ask how God sees men and women who are behind bars. What does the call to Christian forgiveness mean in this context? How do our assumptions and presuppositions affect the way we view the structures and systems of incarceration?

If you are a Christian, I encourage you to go to those who are in prison. Check with local churches or Justice Fellowship to find out how you can be a part of ways that the body of Christ is already ministering to those behind bars. As you come to know prisoners, seek to educate yourself about the data and stories of those who spend time incarcerated. Seek justice, especially when justice means confronting structural inequalities present in our current system.

Go to those in prison, you will find Jesus there.


Portions of this article adapted from the “Incarceration” article in my Social Justice Handbook (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

Arizona Mosque: “Why Do You Hate Us?”

In early November last year I was invited, along with Palestinian Christian Sami Awad and Israeli Danny Sherman to speak to a group of Muslims in Phoenix, Arizona. We, as American and Palestinian Christians and an Israeli Jew, were able to speak with this community about peace-building efforts in the Middle East. It was a blessing to have this time and the people I met there were excited and willing to be a part of these peace-building efforts.

When we opened up the floor for questions about half way through our time that evening, a young Muslim boy in the audience raised his hand and asked, “Why do Christians hate us?”

Sami Awad initially answered this question. He told the boy that it’s not all Christians that hate Muslims. He said that Christians who claim to follow Jesus and hate, attack, and fear Muslims are failing to live into the teachings of Christ. For Jesus tells us to love everyone. Christians are even called to “love our enemies.” (Matthew 5:44)

When I heard this young Muslim boy’s question: “Why do Christians hate us?” My heart was broken. Hatred toward Muslims is wrong — for all of us — especially for those of us who choose to follow Jesus.

When I had the opportunity to respond to this young boy’s question, I said, “Because we don’t know you.” Getting to know people who are outside of our standard circles — particularly those outside of our own faith traditions — is a crucial step to raising awareness and enabling ourselves to build bridges that lead to peace. This is especially true for high-tension and multi-faceted subjects like the conflicts in the Middle East and the growing tension between American Christians and Muslims.

AZ ArticleThis talk took place at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix. The same place where people organized an anti-Muslim rally and on May 29 protesters showed up outside wearing shirts with profanity and carrying weapons. I can only imagine what that young boy must have been thinking. I can only wonder if people within that community remembered our words about what it looks like to follow the teachings of Jesus. In the face of such divisive force, how might those Muslims have experienced Christian followers of Jesus?

It’s devastating to me as a follower of Jesus to see some of the ways we as Christians have responded to other people of faith. I hope that Muslims and people of other faiths who have been victimized by people claiming the name of Christ hear from me my deepest grief at this injustice. I hope these words convey my apologies on behalf of the Christian community for ways you might have been mistreated simply because of the things that you believe. I don’t believe that is what Jesus calls us to do; I believe Jesus calls us to be a lover of all people. And I believe that Jesus says to us that we should respond to the needs of all people regardless of their religion, or regardless of any other differentiating factor.

Despite the threatening site of people armed with weapons outside of the Muslim place of worship in Phoenix that night, stories of peace and stories of transformation still came out of this conflict. The Washington Post reports, “About 250 mostly armed anti-Muslim demonstrators — many wearing T-shirts bearing a profanity-laced message denouncing Islam — faced-off against a crowd of roughly the same size defending the faith in front of a Phoenix mosque Friday night.” In that city, that night, at least as many people stood for peace and community as stood for violence and division. That is not a small thing.

Usama Shami, the President of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, invited the crowd inside to join the evening prayers. At least one protester, Jason Leger, took Shami up on this offer and later said, “It was something I’ve never seen before. I took my shoes off. I kneeled. I saw a bunch of peaceful people. We all got along,” Leger also vowed to never again wear his anti-Muslim t-shirt that he wore to the event.

That November evening I spent at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix, I said that we have to change the dialogue and change the conversation. We must get to know each other in order to pursue actions that lead to peace. I’m thankful for the story of one protester who decided to get to know his neighbor and how transformative his experience was in changing the dialogue. My prayer is that all people will make these same efforts towards peace.

I hope that as we as a national community continue to talk about interfaith issues. May we all intentionally work toward peace and reconciliation as we seek to love all people as our neighbors.

The Peacemaker’s Litany

Over the course of my ministry, I have had the great privilege of witnessing movements and individual leaders seeking peace. The broad scope of peace includes the personal quest for inner centeredness and rightness before God and also the corporate manifestation of Biblical shalom and justice in the world around us. In my research and writing (such as Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action), I’ve looked deeply at the connection of the spiritual lives of some of the world’s most influential peacebuilders. We should be encouraged to know there are incredible individuals and communities striving for peace in our own backyards, in the Holy Land, and around the world. For Christians, the foundation of this peace work is rooted in our spiritual practices that connect us to the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.

This Peacemaker’s Litany is one of my favorite personal devotions to help us to submit to the Prince of Peace.

Many years ago I was in a meeting at work and a guest came in to talk with us about the church in the Middle East. He shared this prayer:

Gracious Lord, we dream of a world free of poverty and oppression, and we yearn for a world free of vengeance and violence. We pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

When our hearts ache for the victims of war and oppression, help us to remember that you healed people simply by touching them… and give us faith in our ability to comfort and heal bodies, minds and spirits that have been broken by violence.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

When the injustices of this world seem too much for us to handle, help us to remember that you fed five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fishes… and give us hope that what we have to offer will turn out to be enough, too.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

When the fear of the power and opinions of others tempts us not to speak up for the least among us, help us to remember you dared to turn over the money-changers’ tables… and give us the courage to risk following you without counting the cost.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

When we feel ourselves fill with anger at those who are violent and oppressive, help us remember that you prayed for those who killed you… and give us compassion for our enemies, too.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

When we tell ourselves that we have given all we can to bring peace to this world, help us to remember your sacrifice… and give us the miracle of losing more of ourselves in serving you and our neighbors.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Walk with us Lord, as we answer your call to be peacemakers. Increase our compassion, generosity and hospitality for the least of your children. Give us courage, patience, serenity, self-honesty and gentleness of spirit need in a world filled with turmoil and terror.

Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

This prayer was written by Jack Knox and is used with permission. It may be found inJust Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (InterVarsity Press, 2013).

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One of the foundational ways we remain connected to Jesus Christ is through prayer. The ancient Christian church tradition of praying a pre-worded call and response prayer between the leader and the congregation is a powerful way to join together in unity and to pray for peace. In working for peace and justice, it is common to be at a loss for words as to how to communicate both the brokenness and our hope and cry for peace. Having words to repeat over and over again as we seek justice allows us to remain rooted in the truths of the peace of Jesus Christ. This is a way we can convey our hope for the world in situations that seem hopeless.

I was moved by the encouragement in Knox’s prayer to trust in God’s intervention and example. In Matthew 5:9 during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shared these words: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they will be called children of God.” Despite the quiet and reflective connotations of “peace” – peacemaking is often far from a tranquil endeavor. Intentionally praying prayers like this is one way to root ourselves in the strength needed to be called the peace-making children of God.

 

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Hugging Trees: Christians and the Environment

This month is Earth Month, with Earth Day on April 22. Communities and organizations take time to place a special emphasis on the environment and how our care (or neglect) of creation impacts us, our neighbors and future generations.

Growing up, my dad influenced my love for nature and being outside. I grew up “hugging trees,” not because of some New Age thing, but because my dad was always enamored with the tree trunks that could take more than a person to span the width of their trunks! He was in sheer childhood delight when we took him to the sequoias. Every once in a while, I find myself wanting to throw my arms around a tree both in memory of him and also to appreciate the glory of God’s creation!

Scripture affirms this delight at nature; Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Brilliant skies and captivating views encourage us to believe that there is a creator who is an artist.

Beyond the beauty though, we have a responsibility to our environment. As Christians we do this both because creation is a beautiful, life-giving, part of God’s creation and because when we fail to care for the environment the disastrous effects are felt most profoundly by the world’s poor. Those living in poverty are most significantly affected by climate change, pollution, and other environmental degradation.

Climate change, perhaps the most well-known environmental issue of the day, affects everything from the water needed grow crops to the spread of disease around the world.

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon writes about why it is important for Christians to care about creation.In Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith, my co-authors and I point out that the religious thought and norms of early settlers to the North American continent encouraged them to “tame” the wild — clearing land, killing animals and otherwise “conquering” the nature they saw. Taken to the extreme — this type of theological understanding of “subduing” nature causes us to push species to extinction. What we need instead is a theology of “stewardship” for creation that encourages us to find the beauty and purpose in nature and work to cultivate all that is life-giving in the world.

We have a responsibility as humans created in the image of God — to carry forth the life-giving, sustaining, healing, and providing image of God into all the world. That includes our interactions with plants and animals and the environment. We do this for the inherent worth of creation, but also because these actions impact our fellow human beings.

Read the #ForgiveUsBook twitter chat on sins of the Church against creation

Invite Rev. Dr. Cannon to come speak at your church, gathering, or event on this or other topics of Christian Spiritual Formation and Social Justice.

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Good Friday, Oberammergau and God’s Love

In past years, I have sometimes looked to the remembrance of “Good” Friday with a spirit of dread. The darkness of the day. The magnitude of what we commemorate. Christ — the perfect unblemished human and Son of God, Deity incarnate — willingly gave Himself, even unto death on a cross for the forgiveness of sins for those who believe.

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

“Good” Friday remembers the day of Christ’s crucifixion on the cross. Christians enter into the reality of our brokenness, depravity, and need for God. In the church calendar, it is a day of mourning, sorrow, and grief. A time when we allow ourselves to wait in anticipation for what will come three days hence. In many churches, the clergy wear black and no candles are lit.

For a time, there is only darkness.

The holiday is also known as “Black” Friday which emphasizes the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. As Christ was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas appeared and greeted him with a holy kiss. Then the guards took him and arrested him. After his arrest, Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. Jesus was detained, taunted, and whipped by the guards. They cast lots for his garments. He was forced to wear a crown of thorns upon his head. “After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27:31)

One of the most powerful experiences I have ever had in relation to Good Friday was in 1990 at the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany. The play has been performed for centuries in the small German village as a commemoration of God’s favor upon the town. During the time of the bubonic plague, when almost half of the European population died of disease, the small town of Oberammergau prayed that Christ would spare their village. Not one member of the village died. In honor of God’s faithfulness, the town committed to performing a play every ten years to tell the story of the Passion of Christ.

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The Crucifixion of Christ – Oberammergau

During the performance I attended, the scene of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion was so vividly real. The drama took place on a stage set against the outdoors. Thus, the weather provided the backdrop as the story unfolded. When it came time for Christ to be crucified, the sky darkened and a blackness descended.

I will never forget hearing the words ring out “It is finished.” (The play is performed in German but translation is provided.) Just as the drama climaxed to this moment — thunder burst out and a stream of lightening lit up the sky. It was as if Creation itself was giving credence to the story that was being acted out on the very stage in front of us.

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.” (Matthew 27:50-51)

The power and significance of Christ’s death on the cross provides the opportunity for us to take pause. Although the story may be familiar, it is no less powerful year by year as we commemorate the most precious gift of Christ’s sacrifice.

May the reality of the Lord’s gift enter into our hearts this day. In Christ.

Amen.

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Maundy Thursday: Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet

All over the world Thursday evening, churches throughout the east and the west will host services to celebrate Maundy Thursday. The Thursday of Holy Week reminds believers of the Last Supper Jesus had with the disciples, and more specifically Jesus’ teaching about the power of what it means to be a servant.

Jesus knew what was to come. He had loved the disciples and the world while He lived amongst them and John 13:1 tells us he “loved them to the end.” Christ’s ultimate act of love would follow a few short days after the meal, but His lessons for those who followed Him were not yet complete.

Judas Iscariot had already made the decision to betray Jesus. And Christ knew what was to come. The Scriptures remind us that Jesus knew “all things were in his power” and that He had come from God and was returning to God (John 13:3).

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Russian icon from Pskov early 16th century – Jesus Washing the Feet of the Disciples

My favorite part of this passage recounts the interaction between Jesus and Peter. As the meal progressed, Jesus got up, removed his outer clothing, and placed a towel around Him. The following conversation ensued between Peter and Jesus (John 13:6-10):

He [Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean.

What an incredibly powerful picture. Bold, proud, stubborn, determined Peter. “No, Lord… you shall never wash my feet.” I can see his defiance and resistance. Of course Peter would never allow Christ the Savior to humble Himself to such a degree.

Jesus’ actions of washing the disciples feet was an ultimate act of humility and servanthood. He wanted the disciples to follow His example and to be servants to the world, just as He served them in the simple act of washing their feet.

Christ gently responds to Peter’s reticence. “Unless you allow me… you will have no part with me…” Peter, chastised and perhaps ashamed, unabashedly responds — I can see him wholeheartedly and with great exuberance replying, “then not only my feet but wash every part of me” — the indication of these words imply Peter’s deeply passionate commitment to Jesus. The thought of not being “with him” was too much to bear – Peter’s desire was to be completely intimate and close to Christ. The symbol of desiring his whole body to be washed represents Peter’s intentionality in being fully devoted to Jesus.

The cleanliness Jesus discussed was more than that of dirt simply being removed from the feet of his disciples. Rather, Christ spoke of cleanliness synonymous with purity of spirit. He spoke of “not everyone” being clean because He knew already that Judas would betray Him.

As with Peter, Jesus invites us to experience the forgiveness of having our whole bodies cleansed. His act of service — first exemplified in the washing of feet and later profoundly expressed in His death on the cross — is an invitation for all who follow Him to be purified and washed completely clean.

May Christ reveal Himself to us as we reflect upon His actions of service this Maundy Thursday.

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Holy and Great Wednesday: In Remembrance of Her

Eastern Orthodox Christians all over the world celebrate the Wednesday of Holy Week as “Holy and Great Wednesday.” One of the key aspects of their worship that day remembers the woman who anointed Jesus with her tears.

Traditionally, the Hymn of Kassiani is sung which commemorates this event and tells the story from the woman’s perspective. The hymn was written in the 19th century by St. Kassia who is now acknowledged as one of the saints of Russia.

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O Lord, the woman who had fallen into many sins, sensing Your Divinity, takes upon herself the duty of a myrrh-bearer.

With lamentations she brings you myrrh in anticipation of your entombment. “Woe to me!” she cries, “for me night has become a frenzy of licentiousness, a dark and moonless love of sin. Receive the fountain of my tears, O You who gather into clouds the waters of the sea. Incline unto me, unto the sighings of my heart, O You who bowed the heavens by your ineffable condescension.

I will wash your immaculate feet with kisses and dry them again with the tresses of my hair; those very feet at whose sound Eve hid herself in fear when she heard You walking in Paradise in the twilight of the day. As for the multitude of my sins and the depths of Your judgments, who can search them out, O Savior of souls, my Savior? Do not disdain me Your handmaiden, O You who are boundless in mercy.”

This story is written about in the Gospels. Jesus went to the Pharisees Simon’s house to have dinner. A woman, who lived a sinful life, heard the news and came to Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume and wept over him washing his feet. Jesus used the occasion to teach about forgiveness. As we prepare and remember Christ’s death and resurrection – this is a beautiful passage upon which to reflect:

Matthew 26:6-13

6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

We have not yet escaped a world where the service and acts of worship from women are free from the disdainful critique of men. But we worship a Jesus, a Savior, a Messiah who sees these gifts and acts of leadership for their beauty and importance. Jesus calls this service and leadership from a woman, yes, a sinful woman, part of the Gospel story that should be remembered always.

Holy Week is a week full of God’s love for all, but the attention given to women in a society that treated them as second-class citizens is part of the beauty of the greater Gospel story. This woman will be remembered always when the Gospel is preached.

A few days later, it will be women who will be among those there at the foot of the cross and then it will be women who are the first to tell, to preach, the good news of a Risen Savior.

Blessings to you this Great and Holy Wednesday.

Note from the author: An earlier version of this article seemed to imply that April 1, 2015 was Great Wednesday in the Orthodox Tradition. In fact, Orthodox Holy Week begins the following week. April 1 is part of Holy Week in the Western Tradition.

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