The Single Truth I Live For

This time of the year is especially meaningful for me because it was on Ash Wednesday in 2004 that I was invited to join a large youth group to see The Passion of the Christ, the controversial film about Jesus’s arrest, trial, flogging, and crucifixion. I wrote about this in fuller detail last year, so I’ll just say here that as a result I had a profound, perhaps even miraculous experience of Jesus and a subsequent acceptance of his claim on my life.

This is how I would like to focus the question about my experience on this Good Friday, the day that we deal with the death of Jesus:

I was surprised, even confounded, that not everyone, and in fact, no one else I know personally, has had the same experience I had in watching the movie. 

I thought everybody would have the same experience I did! All they had to do was see it, and they would finally get that something is wrong with the world and something was so totally right about Jesus! But that’s not what happened.

So what me? Could my experience be explained by the horrific violence? Maybe it sparked great sympathy on my behalf for the main character. While I remember being repulsed at the violence like anyone would, what stuck with me was not the beating and the lacerations and the nails. The Cross

What I remember about that experience is that somehow I met the Jesus whose character and personality is revealed in the New Testament, having not grown up to that point reading the Bible or going to church all that much at all. And it wasn’t that I was moved that such a person was offered as a sacrifice for my sins — I don’t think my theological or biblical understanding was nearly that advanced at the time. It was rather that somehow I understand that this was the ideal human. This is what humanity was meant to be and should be–but this perfect human faced rejection by his own fellow humanity and death at the hands of those he came to serve.

It was disappointing to me that others didn’t get this as easily as I did. But on the other hand, if I was only shocked by the violence, or moved by the realism, more people I know should’ve had the same experience. I think that what this shows is that I didn’t just have a theatrical experience. In the way God would have it, he used a film to reveal to someone, who actually was an aspiring filmmaker at the time, what needed to be revealed.

Yes, somehow in watching film projected on a screen, and watching Jim Caviezel put on the costume and read the lines, and in despite of some of the legitimate criticisms of the movie’s artistic choices and marketing gimmicks, I met the Jesus of the New Testament, the one whose equality with God didn’t keep him from taking on this world only to face Roman execution, but who humbled himself to receive the rejection of people who just simply didn’t understand what they were doing.

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It’s pretty notable that for the several days after the movie when I lost sleep and appetite and couldn’t get my mind off of anything but Jesus’s death, I don’t remember feeling like my biggest problem was the need for forgiveness of my sins. As sick as I was over my own brokenness, I don’t remember thinking what really needed to happen was that my sins be taken care of so I could go to heaven.

Now forgiveness is crucial, and that would come. But I don’t remember being consumed by the question of where I was going to go when I died, although that’s how so many preachers articulate what it means to become a Christian. Heaven and hell and forgiveness — that would’ve been all about me, me, me. The real problem was that I couldn’t help thinking that there was something I was supposed to do in genuine response to Jesus because of who he was and what he had done, not simply how I could benefit from it.

And so, though the resurrection of Jesus forms the happy ending of the movie, I was sad and confused from Wednesday night to Sunday morning. I didn’t feel that resurrection, yet. It was as if the movie had ended for me with a dark, cold tomb with a body on the inside.

Sunday came, and I went to the church that had taken the bus loads of people to see the movie. I don’t remember what the sermon was about. But I remember the invitation at the end, which was that I could give my life to Jesus. And I knew that was exactly what I needed to do.

Not knowing anything about how that invitation was something they did every Sunday, not knowing anything at all about how some people supposedly hesitate to go forward for those invitations, I got up and marched straight to the pastor because he said I could give my life to God.

It is at that point in time that my life divides in two. It all goes back to the moment that I decided to give my life to the one who claimed it and could do something with it. It goes back to the point that that I understood the happy ending of the movie when Jesus rises again, and I was able to live in it. And the past nine years have been nothing short of unbelievable. Both in regards to how difficult they have been, and in regards to how glorious they have been.

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Here’s what I’m thinking on this Good Friday as someone who has been on this journey for a little while now, in light of how it all began for me. How many people have not grasped the real substance of Christianity because they thought it was about saying a prayer for salvation to go to heaven when they die? Though I wouldn’t realize it for years after I became a Christian, the main point of it all is who Jesus is, not what I get for asking him to forgive my sins.

The very nature of the gospel, or good news, is not a plan of salvation, after all. The good news is not that all of life, much less all of church and all of Christianity, is about me and my salvation. The good news is that the perfect human Jesus though crucified is raised as Lord. And that’s Lord over all, including not only what happens to me after I die, but also, and I would say more importantly and urgently, the life that I live now.

As I have gone through growing pains and shrinking pains and been stretched and torn in so many parts of my theological belief system, it is the character of Jesus who I met first in the theater and who I meet in the New Testament and who I meet in others that remains the same. And in meeting the character of Jesus, and not just a sacrifice on a cross, I realized that though I am reeling over my sin, I’m not supposed to end there. Too many Christians end there. They start and stop with a Jesus that dies for their sin, so what does it matter who he was, much less who he is?

It’s not about me; it’s about what God would do through me, for us, and for this world. And so we don’t need only a man hanging on a cross, or even one who rises out of the tomb. We need a living, reigning, present Lord. This is the truth that I strive to make more real in my life every day.

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Maundy Thursday and the Mandate to Love

Maundy Thursday as it falls directly before Good Friday’s observance of Jesus on the cross gives us a day to reflect on what Jesus thought was especially important for him to do before he gave his life. “Maundy” is related to our word “mandate,” and it refers to Jesus’s instruction that he leaves with his disciples when he has supper with them toward the end of the Gospel according to John:

A new commandment I give to you, that you may love one another, just as I have loved you, so you may love one another. By this all shall know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Maundy ThursdayIt’s pretty common for people to think of Christianity or religion in general about merely commandments. We Christians haven’t helped that misconception by insisting that the Ten Commandments be posted in every public place we can get our hands on. And we don’t foster a genuine understanding of the meaning of Jesus when we rail on and on about the particulars of wrong and right, placing much more misplaced concern on the former than the latter.

It isn’t any wonder to me that so many people who want nothing to do with Christianity think of it as a broken and inadequate moral system, and that they even explain away its existence in the first place by asserting that some ancient people just needed a system of do’s and don’ts to get people to act good. It’s a terrible argument against Christianity, but with the way the church acts sometimes it’s hard to come down too hard with the blame on those who make it.

I said at the beginning of this post that on that Thursday two millennia ago, Jesus decided to share what he thought was the most important thing it was for him to do, not to say, even though “Maundy” Thursday is all about the commandment that he says to them, right? I differentiate between the doing and the saying here because Jesus–the one who is when Abraham was, the way, the truth, and the life–has just washed his own disciples feet prior to telling them that they are to now love one another as they have loved him.

And this act of love, the sharing of it and the demonstration of it, is really the closest that we can come to a “commandment” to love. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus said “a new commandment” somewhat tongue-in-cheek, knowing that love cannot be commanded or forced in any way, and would the next day show the world that what life and law is all about is loving the Lord your God with all your heart, being, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.

There may be nothing more valuable to remember these days than that this is how Jesus–like the prophet he was (cf. Micah 6:8), and like a number of fellow Jews did during his time–summed up what the Lord expects of us. Which is not, for example, making sure I am going to heaven. And it’s not living by the rulebook. And it’s certainly not making sure others are living by the rulebook (Matthew 7:3-5).

It is taking up the cross and living through his death into his resurrection. Loving others because we are loved, putting others first as Jesus put others before himself (Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:3-8).

Palm Sunday

One week from now will be the most important day of the Christian year. Resurrection Sunday, the first day of the glorious season of Easter, is rightfully observed by the church as the central holiday on its entire calendar. The resurrection of Jesus results in our salvation, that our coming resurrection is as sure as 2 comes after 1, that the apparent defeat of Jesus on the cross was actually a divine victory and a rescue of frail humanity.Palm Sunday

But the resurrection also means Jesus’ vindication after suffering a horrible, and otherwise disgraceful, death. This vindication of Jesus entails that Jesus really is the king of Israel, and as God would have it, the Lord of the world.

Palm Sunday fits perfectly a week before Easter. We so often forget, or hardly ever understand, that the cross and the empty tomb don’t simply mean our salvation. They show us who Jesus is as king. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey among the palm fronds and the cries of “Hosanna” by the ones who recognize him as the Messiah, the rightful king of Israel, and though he does it for you, it’s not about what you get. It’s rather about Jesus getting his due. And he has no problem making this clear, and exalting himself among the praises of the people as he rides to meet the cross, the greatest act of humble service that the world has ever known.

I know many people would think about this reminder, “Of course, Jesus is king. We know this.” But I think so often we have it backward, as if Jesus comes to save us and we get to praise him in return by hailing him as king. But Jesus’ kingship is not the reward that he gets for saving us–our salvation is the reward that is graciously passed on to us because of his kingship.

The cross and the empty tomb are drained of any meaning apart from the reality that Christ is King. This is what I remember on Palm Sunday.