Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Jesus' Final Words from the Cross: "iThirst" (John 19:28-29)

28After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.

“I am thirsty.”
I’m going to come right out and say it: of all the words Jesus utters from the cross, I find these the most realistic. That’s not to say, of course, that Jesus didn’t say all the other things, too, or that the other words from the cross about forgiving his executioners and pardoning the thief aren’t equally important or true. Scripture is a reliable source of truth even if the gospel accounts are not direct eye-witness recordings, and those other final words from Jesus on the cross we’ve already heard about this Lent are vital for our faith in and understanding of who Jesus Christ was. It’s just that all of those other words—for example, “Woman, behold your Son,” or, in Luke’s gospel, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise”—all sound like things you’d expect a Son of God to say. They all seem to come from a deeper and more eternal point of view, spoken through the wisdom and experience of someone who is divine. They ring of godliness.
“I am thirsty”: well, that sounds like something a Son of Man would say. It sounds surface-oriented, borne of primal mammalian response. It echoes a need of the body, not so much of the soul. When Jesus looks at his tormentors and asks his Father to forgive them, “for they do not know what they are doing,”  that sounds like a matter of the spirit. It deals with something that has long-term implications. “I am thirsty,” sounds rather elemental, right-here-right-now. It is such a simple, humble, earthy request: I am dying and my mouth is dry. The other words place Jesus, in some way, almost above the people around him. This one places Jesus underneath them, simply asking for a drink.
Crucifixion (Diego Velasquez, 1632)
So this all seems more realistic to me, given the realities of a crucifixion. Crucifixion was a death sentence specifically designed to humiliate the victim and draw out death for as long as possible. In fact, it’s where we get the word “excruciating.” Scientists and historians disagree when it comes to the precise way that a crucifixion actually did someone in. Some say victims bled to death or died as a result of infection in the blood. Others say that they died from extreme dehydration. Still others say that they most likely died through asphyxiation, because their permanently outstretched arms made it difficult to expand their lungs properly and breathe. Regardless of how it happened, long and humiliating exposure was the objective, so it is entirely believable—realistic— that, at some point, Jesus, man on the cross, would feel the need to re-hydrate.
As it so happens, for the gospel writer John, Jesus’ desire for something to drink—and the subsequent offer of sour wine—was also a fulfillment of one of the Hebrew Scriptures. John sees an echo of Jesus request in the words of the 69th Psalm, which was a prayer for deliverance from enemies, and we, like John’s initial readers, can use the words to paint the picture Jesus of the cross:
                        “I looked for pity, but there was none;
And for comforters, but I found none.
                        They gave me poison for food,
                        and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

Historians tell us that this vinegar or sour wine that the soldiers offered would likely have been on-hand. It was a crude, cheap version of wine that had basically already gone bad, and so it could offer some relief, but not much. They offer it on a sponge extended on a branch perhaps because no soldier wanted him drinking out of one of their cups. For those who’ve paid close attention to Jesus’ life, the irony is overwhelming. Jesus’ first miracle had involved changing water into wine at a wedding at Cana. He had said then that his hour for glory had not yet come, yet the wedding guests then had made special mention of the wine’s high quality. The best wine had been saved for last! Here we find Jesus in his hour of glory, lifted on the cross, and the wine is almost undrinkable. But Jesus drinks it anyway, as I assume any human would.
This is more important than we might initially think. Many of the earliest and thorniest controversies in the Christian faith actually had to do with the relationship between Jesus’ divine and human natures. We think little of this these days, aware of the teaching that Jesus was somehow totally human and totally divine at the same time.  However, some early believers could only make sense of Jesus and his life by saying that he was not truly human at all, that his body was some type of illusion. They looked at the crucifixion and denied that if God was actually hanging there he would be feeling anything at all. People with this viewpoint eventually lost their argument, partly because of Jesus’ human desire and ability to drink while he was dying.
As it turns out, not a single word from Jesus is insignificant. If Jesus says he’s thirsty, it means something huge, even if it just means he’s thirsty. Because if he’s thirsty, he is feeling human pain. He is looking around and feeling the effects of this torment. He is looking for comforters and finding none. And if he is feeling human pain, looking and finding little comfort, then he can be truly with us…not above us or outside of us, but with us, beneath us, in us. That is the miracle of Christ. That is the gift of Son of God: that he is also a son of men.
Early Church theologian, a man named Gregory of Nyssa, put it this way:
“God’s…power is not so much displayed in the vastness of the heavens, or the luster of the stars, or the orderly arrangement of the universe or his perpetual oversight of it, as [it is] in his condescension to our weak nature.  We marvel at the way the sublime entered a state of lowliness and, while actually seen in it, did not leave the heights.”[1]
It’s important that we listen to such words, especially when we’re prone to place our wonder at God in anything other than the cross. It’s important that we listen to Jesus words, even when he’s just telling us he’s thirsty, because when he does, it means God is in human lowliness with us.
And that means, for example, when a cancer patient aches for respite from the chemo and radiation, Jesus aches for that respite, too. Or that when a protester on the street somewhere in the Middle East thirsts for her basic civil rights to be honored, then Jesus is somehow thirsts for human dignity with her, as well. When an abused child craves the love of a parent who will truly care for them, Jesus craves that love alongside of them. When famine strikes an African village, and people hunger for basic necessities, Jesus is present, thirsting and hungering, too.
There was a memorable editorial in The Lutheran magazine a few years ago written by David Miller, then its editor-in-chief . In it he describes a visit to a refugee camp in southern Sudan where people were dying of starvation and disease because the food convoy had not yet showed up. While he was there he crawled into a makeshift hospital, which was little more than a dirt hut with no beds and no medicine—fifteen gaunt people were lying on the floor in some stage of dying.
“I came upon a woman in her twenties,” Miller writes, “sitting by a small lump under a fray, dirty cloth. With one hand she absently fingered a braided string hung around her neck; with the other she held the cloth close around the ‘lump’—a little girl, shrunken by hunger and disease. We sat together helpless, looking at the extinction of her beloved. Then I noticed that she was fingering a cross, crudely fashioned from a piece of twisted wire. Touching her arm, with my other hand I made the sign of the cross full and large across my chest. Her eyes widened, and immediately she pulled at my hands, drawing them to her child. I didn’t know what she was trying to show me. Then I knew: she wanted me to bless her child—as if for dying. I placed my hands on the little girl’s head and commended her to the gentleness of God.
I prayed that in the next life this precious child would find a mercy that had so badly escaped her in this life.” Miller continues, “A power had been released in the bunker’s darkness, and the tears we brushed from our eyes were not only of sorrow, but of joy, hope, and gratitude. We were transported beyond the dismal present to a future where everything was shaped—finally—by the mercy of the One whose pleasure it is to wipe every tear from every eye.”[2]
Miller’s reflection on that experience illuminates perfectly the power of a God who condescends to human weakness. The world needs a savior who forgives from the cross…who offers words of pardon, words of eternal hope and Paradise where, yes, every tear will be wiped away. But, as we know, we thirst for a savior who himself can thirst like us, who can somehow be in that tent with that mother in her pain and sorrow as he can in heaven’s heights. It is a savior who, even as he sips this sour wine—in fact, the worst around—at this final hour is serving up for us what will turn out to be his resurrection finest.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] St. Gregory of Nyssa, “The Address on Religious Instruction,” Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. by E. Hardy, 300-301 in David Yeago’s typescript, vol. 1, The Faith of the Christian Church.
[2] “Even Here, Even Now,” David Miller in The Lutheran, April 2000

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year B - March 18, 2012 (Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21)

Anyone who has seen Disney’s The Lion King—either the movie or the musical—is very familiar with that iconic scene that comes right at the beginning. All the animals of the African savannah have assembled around the base of the lion’s home on Pride Rock, an imposing rock formation which juts out over the surrounding Pridelands like the bow of a ship. They’ve come from miles around to witness the birth and anointing of their new lion king, upon whom no animal has yet laid its eyes. At the critical moment, just as the opening music reaches its stirring crescendo, they lower their heads in respect and adoration as the young cub is taken from the lion family by a priest-like ape and thrust into the air, lifted high so that all can see him. Not a word has yet been spoken in the movie. No mention of good or evil—or light or dark—has been made. And yet this gesture of lifting up is so clear in its symbolism, so unmistakable in its message. At that point we know a new king has arrived. It is a judgment upon the state of things: a new day has begun and all may rest peacefully and secure in the great circle of life, as Disney calls it. Of course, this circle of life aspect is driven home once more at the end of the movie as the exact same scene is repeated with a new generation’s lion king.

On a somewhat of a side note, there was a priest in the Roman Catholic parish in the part of Pittsburgh where I served who basically re-enacted this type of pose with every baby at a baptism. It was even colloquially referred to as the “Lion King” pose, and I saw it with my own eyes once as he took one of our friend’s daughters—four months old and very squirmy at the time—and bravely lifted her up seven feet or more over the hard marble floor after he poured the water on her head. He was a sturdy man, but most parents found the symbolism a little too breathtaking at that point.

Lifting up: it’s what we do to things that need attention. It the universal gesture for ‘this is important.’ For ancient Israel, especially in the story to which Jesus refers in this morning’s gospel lesson as he speaks with Nicodemus, it is also the gesture for ‘this is life.’ Moses once lifted up a serpent in the wilderness so that people could look at it and live.

Visit of Nicodemus to Christ (La Farge, 1980)
Nicodemus is a Pharisee who has come under the cover of night to see Jesus and get to the bottom of Jesus’ teachings, if such a thing can be done. We don’t know specifically why Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus. Perhaps Nicodemus is feeling a stirring of new faith because of the signs Jesus has performed. Perhaps Nicodemus wants to nail down the essence of Jesus’ relationship with God and clarify how the Pharisees’ understandings of God differ from Jesus’ so that he can better describe and define the coeternal nature of the second person of the Trinity, whether he is begotten or made…OK, maybe that’s not what Nicodemus is thinking…but whatever Nicodemus’ motivations, the conversation reaches a point where Jesus compares the Son of Man to this otherwise obscure story about the snakes in the wilderness.

In that occurrence, which is recorded in the book of Numbers, the people of Israel had been complaining about what they had to eat in the wilderness. They complained about this several times, in fact, but this time God is provoked to send venomous snakes in their midst. As the snakes bite the Israelites they begin to die. Interestingly, historians have often wondered whether the “fiery serpents” in this account might not have been snakes at all but perhaps an outbreak of guinea worm, a debilitating but preventable parasite that lives in unclean water that still afflicts people in some remote parts of Africa.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Bourdon, 1653-54)
Whatever the case, in order to save them God instructs Moses, their leader, to make a serpent out of bronze and hoist it up on pole so that everyone could look at it. And there you have it: lifting up the bronze serpent means life. All the Israelites who are gathered out on the plain of the savannah can look at it and be saved. Life can go on.

As a Pharisee, someone familiar with the Law and the history of his people, Nicodemus would have known that story well. What would have seemed strange was to hear Jesus, this new and confusing rabbi, compare himself to that story. Jesus, you see, would not just come to teach something new about life in God, or to impart some novel understanding through signs and wonders, like changing water into wine (Pharisees lap up that kind of stuff, you know). Rather, Jesus would come as the Son of Man to be lifted up. Jesus would come to be lifted up as important, to be lifted up as life. Furthermore, what Nicodemus could never predict is that here Jesus really means “lifted up”…that he, too, would be attached to a crude pole and lifted high for all to see.

The act of lifting Jesus up, as it turns out, is one of the chief themes in the gospel of John. Like the recurring imagery that serves to anchor the story in The Lion King, this action is referred to and repeated at various key times in the gospel story. This conversation with Nicodemus is one of those occasions, and as we read on, we learn that “lifting up” is the word that Jesus uses for his death on the cross. Where in the other gospels, Jesus speaks about his death in terms of humiliation and suffering, here Jesus repeatedly mentions it in positive terms. When Jesus is lifted on the cross, God is saying “This man is important, this event is significant.” And more than that: God is saying, “This man is life. Look at him and live.” By being lifted up on the cross to die, Jesus is later able to be lifted up in the resurrection in victory over death and then, again, lifted up in his ascension to the Father. Being lifted up: for Jesus, it’s all one continuous motion that is directed at you and me, and we may live as a result of it.

It all seems a little intellectual and heady, doesn’t it? Much of John’s gospel comes across that way—at least, it does to me. What it all comes down to is this: when Jesus is lifted on the cross, we see the effect of what is truly killing us. We see in Jesus’ crucified body the result of our sin, that fiery serpent that will not leave us alone. We see in Jesus’ crucified body the incredible pain our brokenness causes, both to ourselves and to God. In this sense, the cross is also God’s judgment. We see and understand that, left to ourselves, we are doomed people, wandering aimlessly towards certain death. An essential part of Christian faith is a realization of how much help we need, how dead we really are, how hopeless our situation is until God does something to save us. I dare say that is not a popular point of view these days—that is, the admission of the failures and utter helplessness of humanity and of the fact we can’t save ourselves. Yet this is what we see when Jesus is lifted up.

Crucifix (Michelangelo, 1492)
However, we also see in Jesus’ cross that which brings us life. And what brings us life, true life? The love of God brings us life—a love so great that we see God will give his only Son to have us back on the journey toward home, and that everyone gathered on the savannah of this planet may see him lifted up and, believing in him, have eternal life. Indeed, a new day has arrived. Life may continue in the presence of God, now and forevermore.

At the center of Lutheridge, a Lutheran camp and conference center just south of Asheville, North Carolina, there is a small lake (or large pond, depending on your frame of reference). At one end of the lake a large, white cross has been lifted up and placed at the point where shorelines come together by the feeder creek. Even if you’ve never been there before, you can imagine what it looks like: I suppose it looks similar to any other cross that’s been placed at any other water’s edge. At night it’s particularly beautiful because a bright floodlight placed in front of it helps the cross form a reflection on the water below.

One summer as I was working as a counselor there, a pastor who had brought his confirmation students for a week at camp led some staff devotions before we all turned in for the evening. Normally these devotions would take place in a room or on the balcony of some lodge or cabin, but that night this pastor decided to take us all down to the lake to look at the cross.  And rather than lead us to a nice spot across the lake, this pastor traipsed us through the woods to the back of that cross. Standing there in the stark shadow that was formed by the floodlight hitting the cross at such close range, he asked us to look up at the cross and tell us what we saw. In the presence of a pastor, we all spouted out our best theological answers: “Forgiveness.”  “Love.” Someone I’m sure mentioned that old Lutheran standby answer, “Grace.” None seemed to be the exact answer he was looking for. He let us go on for a few seconds before he said, “Sure.  That all sounds good. What I see is simply God, on the other side, looking back at us. Remember this: whenever God looks at us, he is viewing us through the cross of his own Son, Jesus.”

What that pastor was saying is that, in Jesus, God judges us dead in sin and, at the same time, loves us…loves us for all time, even through death. Like much of John’s gospel, the meaning of the cross can difficult to summarize, difficult to grasp, and like Nicodemus, we may be totally puzzled by the ways of a God who would lift up his Son in this humiliating way. We, too, may ponder it more often than we understand it, and fade away from his conversation in the same way Nicodemus does, only to arrive at a deeper faith later in our story.

No matter what—whether we’re by a lake at a church camp or maybe here, on Sunday, receiving his body and blood in the shadow of this wooden replica—my prayer for each of us is that on the journey through this wilderness we may eventually find our place not, as Disney hopes, in the circle of life, but rather at the foot of the One who has been lifted up for us, in the graciously bright light at the cross of life.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.