Monday, March 17, 2014

Caiaphas and Me

Yesterday I saw “Son of God,” the newest Gospel movie, produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.  I know there is much discussion of its merit as an accurate depiction of the Gospel of John being had by the Church and Christians, and while that can be healthy to a point, I’d rather not get into that in this post.

What I would like to discuss, or rather share, is my experience while watching it.  As with each time I hear the Gospel or stories of Jesus I found myself easily identifying with each of the characters surrounding Jesus.  The film did an excellent job facilitating this by the way it showed each character holistically.  I am Peter who talks a big game but so easily denies Jesus when it’s inconvenient to own Him. I am Thomas who needs everything laid out in front of me before I can truly believe and trust Him.  I am even Judas who, after I betray Jesus (and we all betray Jesus), turns to despair rather than to the hope I have in Him to save me from myself.  This time, however, I saw myself in a new character: Caiaphas, the High Priest.

I suppose I’ve always viewed Caiaphas as pure evil.  Threatened by Jesus’ following, he wanted to get rid of him.  And that is certainly part of it.  But this film showed another side to Caiaphas.  As the High Priest he was obsessed with following the Law, obeying God at all costs, and protecting his people and his faith.  He was a Jewish leader living under Roman rule struggling to keep his people together and he just KNEW that if he followed the law meticulously and removed all distractions that God would bless him and his people, preserve them, and deliver them through this captivity. Yet this obsession and devotion to the law (spurred on by fear) caused him to miss what was right in front of him.  It blinded him to the fulfillment of the law.  The rescue from the law.  The answer to his prayers and the prayers of his people for so many years.  In short, Caiaphas was so busy worrying about what he should do and must do as High Priest to get it all right that he missed the Great High Priest who had come to set all to right.

I saw this movie with my boyfriend.  That feels like a weird detail to put in the post, but it’s relevant to my later point, so go with it.  Anyways, as we sat down and the movie began I made a conscious decision, as I had 7 years earlier with “Passion of the Christ,” that I wasn't going to close my eyes or turn away from any of the hard parts of the film.  There are so few times (perhaps once a year on Good Friday) that I let myself really think about and dwell on the physical pain and agony Jesus endured on my behalf that I wanted to allow myself to feel all of it as I watched.  So, I did.  And as the scenes unfolded and I watched my Lord tortured and beaten on my behalf, I found myself having two very normal human reactions:  I cried, and needing comfort and just a human touch, I reached for the hand of the person watching with me. 

But even as I did this my mind began racing towards how I was supposed to act while watching this scene.  There I was watching Jesus being killed on a huge screen.  Being reminded of His sacrifice for me and all I’m thinking is “Is it okay to hold hands during this part? Should I be watching this alone, in the zone with God so that I can just focus on myself and all my sin?  Should I even allow myself to be comforted right now? And by this person I’m dating?”  On and on went my thoughts.  All the while on and on went Jesus’ torture on screen.  For me.  He’s dying, and I’m sitting there asking “am I watching Him die for me in the right way?  Am I doing what I’m supposed to do while I’m watching Him die?” You see where I’m going with this, perhaps.  These seem like silly questions when voiced aloud. 

But, I am Caiaphas.  Even as I watch the very actions that make God’s grace possible for me, I am so focused on “doing it right” or “getting it right” that I lose track of the very grace for which Jesus died.  I am so focused on experiencing God “correctly” that I totally check out of the main point—His grace.  And that IS the main point isn't it?  That hard as we try, we just cannot do it.  We cannot get it together.  We cannot earn it.  This is the message of Lent and it is the message of the Gospel as a whole.

I remember watching the “Passion of the Christ” in college and thinking in my head “I’m so sorry, Lord.  I’m so sorry. I made you have to go through this. It was my sins.”  I remember having those thoughts lead me to conviction and almost despair over what I did to my Lord and how I would improve.  As if my sinning less could have kept Jesus from the cross.   I was Caiaphas, and I still am.  Only now, 7 years later, though I find myself still convicted and saying “I’m sorry"; still mourning my sin, something has changed  There's been a paradigm shift.  No longer is it “oh if only I could do this right.”  It is now “I can’t do it right. So, Jesus, I need you to go through this and to rise again for me.  Because I can’t do it.”  And that is the most humbling part.  It had to be that way.  He had to die, because even at our best, even with good intentions, we are sinful.  It had to be Him so that it wouldn’t be us.  Amen. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Paradox of Ash Wednesday...and Beer

Yesterday was the beginning of Lent 2014.  As has happened every Ash Wednesday for the past several years, I opened a Henri Nouwen Lenten devotional sent to me from a dear friend three states away.  The Ash Wednesday devotional was on gratitude and the fact that we are indeed God's "beloved."  It didn't seem very Ash Wednesday-ish to me.  I was kind of hoping to be reminded of my sinful nature and innate depravity.

However, as I read on, it began to make sense.  Nouwen's point was that knowledge of who we are and who God is creates a spirit of gratitude within us that grows the more we reflect on the Truth of these two identities. I have two identities.  I am a sinner who can offer nothing to God that he doesn't already have and deserves nothing from Him.  However I am also His beloved whom He has saved and called His own.  Despite my sin, I am His now and am washed clean, not because of anything I did, but because of what Jesus did on the cross.  We'll get back to this.

Tuesday night (Mardi Gras, I suppose), I had dinner with three people for whom I care very much.  It was one of those meals that fulfilled me both culinarily (Thai food!) and spiritually.  We talked, laughed, ate, drank, and told stories to and on one another.  At this meal, one friend ordered a particularly interesting drink.  A "black and blue."  This, I learned, is a Guinness poured on top of a Blue Moon.  Like a "black and tan" but with a bit more contrast.  As we waited for our drinks we had a perfect view of the bar and watched the bartender try (and fail) at making this drink at least 5 times before bringing out a sad version of my friend's order.  Apparently, the Blue Moon is supposed to be poured into the glass first, then the Guinness on top.  When done correctly the two should fill the glass but not mix, creating a light half and a dark half of the glass.  But, alas, this was not to be for my friend that evening.  His glass looked like a pint of off-colored Guinness with some sand at the bottom.

As I read and prayed through Nouwen's devotion yesterday, I thought of my friend's ill-fated "black and blue."  The paradox of Ash Wednesday is much like my friend's drink.  I am sinful.  And yet I am beloved.  I would like to keep the "light half" and the "dark half" separate.  I would like them not to mix and run into each other and affect one another.  I'd like to keep the good from the bad and the bad, well...away.  But that's not how it works.  My identity and my relationship with the Lord look a lot more like the drink my friend received than what he ordered.  My sinful nature always comes crashing into my identity as God's beloved, lying to me, telling me I'm less than I am, tempting me with things far less satisfying than Jesus.  And God's love for me fights back and often overtakes my sinful nature, if not completely this side of heaven, then as closely as possible.  He uses relationships, the beauty of creation, art, music, literature, and so many other things to remind me of the Truth of who I am and who He is.  And though it is often-times messy, I can indeed sense a spirit of gratitude for not only the gifts He gives now, but also for the foretaste of what is to come.