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Faces at a Funeral

Commentary
Today is Good Friday. Or Death Day. Or the day of tragedy. Today we read the story that we do not want to read, but we cannot avoid. Today we go to a horrible funeral for someone we know should not be dying or dead.

There was another time when this came home to me. It was a funeral I did not expect with a family I did not know, the aftermath of a tragedy I could not comprehend. Two men drinking at a party, the younger man dating the older man’s daughter. A friendly scuffle? Or was it pent-up resentment that never before spied from the shadows? A gun. A mock “shooting match.” Scared friends and family. Another shot in the barn out back. A smoking weapon in the older man’s hand; the younger man dead on the ground.

Someone in our congregation took his friend from work to our worship services. For three months he and his common-law wife and children came on Sunday morning. He told me that he needed God. He told me that he found God at our church. He told me that his life was changing.

Now he sat steaming in my office. It was his brother that was murdered last night, and he wanted to kill the murderer! First things first, however. I was the only “priest” he knew. Could I officiate at the funeral?

The spattered blood of death became the splattered ink of chatter in our community, gossiped out of every media newsstand. The shooter was a white male, part of a prominent “old” family in our area, a black sheep lingering at the scandalous end of former glory. The dead man swaggered in on another, newer ethnic wave. Hidden behind his charismatic charm was a long record of drugs, theft, drunkenness, and sexual promiscuity.

Of course, the plot thickened. The man with the gun turned out to be brother-in-law to one of my best friends, a member of our congregation and someone I met with monthly in an accountability group. Their stories differed from that of the young brother who asked me to speak at the funeral. My friend and his family emptied their life savings into a fund to buy the best legal counsel for their “obviously innocent” relative. The angry brother, new Christian and newcomer to our worship services, did not know the unspoken protocol of “assigned seating” in our worship space, and had the audacity to plunk his family right in front of the woman whose brother had shot his brother. Now the newcomer worshipped with great urgency of heart, while the couple behind him and his common-law family fumed disregarding worship altogether.

The funeral was horribly difficult. I knew too much and not enough. Where is God in all of this?

When we gathered around the casket in the cemetery, I spoke a few words of committal, offered prayer, and then encouraged the brother to speak. He wept. He moved from shoulder to shoulder, shuddering grief on every neck. As the casket was lowered into the earth, he jumped down on it and blanketed it spread-eagle with his body. He wailed a litany of loss and sorrow and vengeance that pummeled away any other sound. The world grew chill and still.

Most of the time I am an optimist. I like to think of my outlook as a holy confidence, a trust that God exists and that all things must work together for God’s good designs. But sometimes life is not fun, and the events of those horrible weeks linger with me as a shadow not easily erased. This is what the gospel, the horrible Good News, reminds us of today.

Isaiah 52:13--53:12
Regardless of whether one person, or several from a community that was shaped by a larger-than-life teacher, wrote the various and combined oracles of Isaiah, the message is consistent throughout. Isaiah was overwhelmed by a divine commissioning (6) that took place in the temple during the year that King Uzziah died. He was guided by the theology of the Sinai covenant (2–5), which mandated that Israel was supposed to have a unique lifestyle among the nations, a set of behaviors which would serve as a missional call for others to join this holy community in a global return to the ways of their Creator. He was confident that Yahweh could resolve all political problems (7–11), no matter how daunting they might seem. He believed Israel/Judah needed to repent (12) and recover their original identity and purpose as Yahweh’s covenant partners and witnesses. He was certain that Yahweh was sovereign over all nations (13–35), even if Yahweh’s primary focus was attached to Israel/Judah. He heard the heartbeat of divine love and compassion, wrestling for the soul and destiny of Israel/Judah as a loved companion and partner (36–41). He saw Yahweh transforming Israel’s/Judah’s identity and fortunes through a “suffering servant” leader (42–53).

The four “servant songs” in Isaiah were first identified in a commentary on the prophecy by Bernhard Duhm in 1892:
  • Isaiah 42:1-9 – Yahweh identifies and commissions his special envoy who will bring justice among the nations through quiet ministry to the marginalized and the disenfranchised. His work will be successful because the great Creator has chosen this one to be the agent of divine renewal.
  • Isaiah 49:1-13 – The suffering servant testifies of his unique call and commissioning. His voice and message are then confirmed by successive oracles in which Yahweh speaks, announcing that his servant was ordained for this ministry from before his birth, and that both kings and outcasts will experience divine favor through the work of this one. The outcome will be a restoration of joy to the entire world, which has too long suffered under the consequences of evil.
  • Isaiah 50:4-9 – Now the voice of the chosen one is heard even more clearly. The entire poem is in the first person and is a reflection on both divine anointing for the tasks at hand and also the early backlash of those who do not want Yahweh to disturb their evil machinations. The confrontation thickens between good and evil, and the suffering servant stands at its vortex.
  • Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – The last and longest of the poems personifies the suffering servant most clearly. Here the focus is less on the grand justice that will result from his ministry, and more on the agony that he will endure to accomplish his assigned task. What began as a shout of confidence and joy in the first song has now turned dark and almost defeatist here. Only the final lines of this song serve to remind us that Yahweh is still in control, and that these things do matter for eternal purposes.
Jews have generally believed that it is the people of God themselves who function in the role as the arbiter of God’s justice among the nations, a task which ultimately crushes its vocalizer in the evil machines of human depravity. Christians, on the other hand, quickly found in these passages a kind of messianic blueprint describing the coming, anointing, teaching, ministry, suffering and death of Jesus (see Acts 8:26-35). There is no question but that the hints at divine initiative and personal character and contextual backlash all fit hand-in-glove with the events of Jesus’ career. Both interpretations are likely intertwined.

Among the prophets of ancient Israel, Isaiah was truly a prince, and his writings shaped the language of theological reflection among his peers and on into the age of the New Testament church. He envisioned a future age in which all the world and every society and even the universe itself would be restored to harmony with its Creator and would resonate with magnificent glory (56–66).

Hebrews 10:16-25
While there is a deep and strong theological teaching at the heart of Hebrews, the purpose of the document as a whole is a call to stay true to Jesus during a very challenging time in which these readers were tempted to slink back into the protective shelter of ceremonial Judaism because Christians were being persecuted while Jews were not. We learn a bit more about the background and context of these readers in Hebrews 10:32-34. But first comes a strident admonition, in a kind of “altar call.”

The initial phase is another stern warning (10:26-31), pulling together the stories, ideas and themes that had previously appeared in the two earlier “altar calls.”

Near the beginning of this treatise, in Hebrew 3:7-19, the readers were reminded of their Israelite ancestors who died in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, never setting foot in Canaan. Even though the tribes had together experienced the miraculous deliverance of God from Egypt and trembled before Yahweh in their covenant encounter at Mount Sinai, they lost this trust before receiving the fullness of what God had in store for them. The result was a forty-year wilderness campout which eventually accomplished the deaths of the entire generation of faithless followers. Then later, in Hebrews 5:11-6:3, the author chides his addressees for being dull, and for failing to mature. The comparison is to that of children who are difficult students, or who do not grow up, and therefore always need repetitive teachings. Appended to that admonition is a reminder of the “falling away” of the ancient Israelites (Hebrews 6:4-8), which provides the theme for this section of the current “altar call.”

Part two gets personal. In Hebrews 10:32-34 we learn a lot about those to whom Hebrews was written, through a staccato series of recollections:
  • The process of coming to faith in Jesus, for them, began with an “enlightenment” (32)
  • Early on, after becoming Christians, they “struggled” and “suffered” (33)
  • They were publicly abused and persecuted, along with family and friends (33)
  • Some were imprisoned (34)
  • Many had their property confiscated (34)
  • Through all of this they had been cheerful, strong, and had endured (34)
These descriptors help us understand both the original readers of Hebrews and also something of their times and circumstances. Most illumining is, in fact, the reference to their “enlightenment” in verse 32. This was an expression used by Paul, the master architect of early Christian theology, to indicate the coming-to-faith of Gentiles. In Ephesians 4:17-24 Paul uses the idea of darkness and darkened minds to describe Gentiles apart from salvation in Jesus. It is clear, from the context, that Paul is deliberately applying this metaphor to Gentiles, and not to Jews. In Ephesians 2:11 he addresses these readers as “you Gentiles by birth,” repeating this nomenclature in verses 12, 13 and 19. Immediately following comes Paul’s strong testimony that he has been called to witness to Gentiles. So, when Paul uses darkness and coming to light as the process of Gentiles being drawn into faith, he is employing the same metaphorical move as the writer of Hebrews does in 6:4 and 10:32.

This is incredibly significant. The Gentile Christian Paul addresses in Ephesians were likely brought into Christianity without first becoming participants in the Jewish ceremonial community. They came from the “darkness” of alienation from their Creator into the light of understanding through the teachings, ministry and redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus.

These Christians addressed by the author of Hebrews, however, knew a different path. The whole focus of the letter is on their hesitancy to stay with Jesus, and their tendency to slip into the ritualized religion of Jewish ceremonialism. Yet these early Christians seem to be Jews by affiliation while also, apparently, Gentiles by birth and background! This would likely mean that they were first proselytes to Judaism before coming to appreciate Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. The term προσήλυτος is used is used in the Septuagint as a Greek translation of the Hebrew term for those who were "strangers" (אֶת־הַגֵּרִ֔ים ) in Israel, yet nevertheless participated in the life and culture of God’s people. The Sinai Covenant gave specific regulations regarding admission into Israelite identity and status those who were not born from Abraham’s bloodlines.

During the reign of Solomon, 153,600 of these “strangers” were actually numbered, in a national census, as a meaningful subgroup of Israel. Later, the prophets speak of a time coming in the future when these “strangers” would eventually share fully in all the privileges of Israel. So deeply was this anticipated expansive nature of the witness and people of God engrained in the faith community that by New Testament times, “proselytes” are mentioned regularly as part of the Jewish communities that then experienced conversions to Christianity.

Jewish rabbis distinguished “proselytes” within two types. Based on the explanations regarding cessation of work on the sabbath in the fourth commandment, one form of “alien” was the “stranger of the gate.” These "proselytes” within Israel (and later, Judaism) were not required to be circumcised nor to comply with the Mosaic ceremonial law. If they desired to remain among God’s people as permanent members of the larger community, however, they were required to abide by what were termed the “seven precepts of Noah.” These were commands forbidding idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, uncleanness, the eating of blood, and theft, and the instruction to obey Jewish authorities. Added to these laws, later, were requirements to abstain from work on the sabbath, and to refrain from eating leavened bread during the time of the Passover.

On the other hand, "proselytes of righteousness" were perceived to be full, devout participants within Jewish communities of faith. These Gentiles were completely bound to all the doctrines and practices of the Jewish social and ceremonial systems, and, because of this, were allowed to become members of the synagogue in full communion. In other words, the “proselytes of righteousness” had, in fact, fully become Jews in lifestyle, beliefs, identity and practices, even though they were born outside of the Jewish faith and biological threadings.

The term “proselyte” appears in the New Testament four times (Matthew 23:15; Acts 2:10; 6:5; 13:43), always describing this latter type of Gentile proselyte to Judaism. Although born outside of Jewish genealogies, these Gentiles in ethnic origin had crossed the threshold to become Jews in identity and practices. They are also referred to as "devout men," or men "fearing God" or "worshipping God."

The initial recipients of Hebrews appear to have emerged from this Gentile-cum-Jew-cum-Christian branch of the early church. At one point, from the “darkness” of non-Jewish and non-Christian alienation from God, they had become “enlightened,” and moved, originally, into a pious and practicing Jewish community with a major Roman population center, becoming “proselytes of righteousness.” They gained a strong attachment to Jewish rituals and theology, identifying completely with Israelite history and cultic ceremonial practices.

At some point, however, as the news about Jesus raced through the Jewish communities, these “proselytes” took a next step, and were converted to Christianity. This was doubly challenging, because Jews who did not receive Jesus as their Messiah initiated a new alienation from the very community that originally welcomed, taught and affirmed them. At the same time, the Roman government was becoming aware of this rapidly growing religious group, and a number of emperors began pogroms against it. This, apparently, was when, not that long ago, they “struggled” and “suffered” (33), were publicly abused and persecuted, along with family and friends (33), some were imprisoned (34), and many had their property confiscated (34).

Although, during that time of persecution, these readers had remained strong, fortified by their faith and its commitments in a cheerful expression of endurance (34), things were different now. They were losing heart and hope, with some drifting away from the group. Many were becoming disillusioned, perhaps by Jesus’ delay in returning to take them in the promised land of culmination, recreation, and perfection. And the strength of mutual care through crisis was unraveling. These people were threatened, and many escaped the constant attacks by not mentioning Jesus any longer, easing away from identifiable Christian groups and practices, and remelding into the ancient familiarity of ritualized Jewish ceremonies.

At this point, the author of Hebrews moves into part three of his current “altar call.” He stridently demands that they stay true through the increasing challenges (10:35-39), asserting through the bleakness of these oppressive mists, the rewards asserted by God will shortly emerge.

John 18:1--19:34
The gospel of John is unlike any other biblical or extra-biblical writing. Since it has most literary kinship with the synoptic gospels, in that it rehearses elements from the life and teachings of Jesus, it forms part of the “gospel quartet” of the New Testament. We might summarize Mark’s portrait of Jesus as the Son of God who arrives with great authority to overcome all other powers that demean, demoralize, demonize, dehumanize, and diminish us. Matthew tracks closely with Mark’s movements but adds many more “kingdom” teachings that show Jesus as the Messiah King who fulfills Old Testament prophecy, relives the life of Israel, teaches the life of discipleship, and rises to rule over all nations. It is clear that Luke also makes use of Mark’s gospel but angles it in such a way that we see Jesus as the wise teacher and healer who cares for the sick and marginalized, and brings the world to worship through the witness of the church.

But even a quick read of John’s gospel will show significant differences from these other uniquely Christian writings. First, the fourth gospel has a global philosophic introduction that places the story of Jesus in a comprehensive cosmological frame of reference. Second, it is often more cryptic in its conversational narratives than are the other gospels, making it harder to understand how or why some of these dialogues could have taken place. Third, while it acknowledges that Jesus did many miracles, the gospel of John actually reports only seven (during his public ministry), and then elevates the significance of these few by calling them “miraculous signs,” and attaching to them deeper and more complex secondary meanings. Fourth, in these pages there are extended monologues by Jesus which are both mystical and doctrinal, and that have no clear parallel to the manner of Jesus’ teachings or conversations as recorded by the synoptics. In short, the fourth gospel is a wild ride in a theme park of its own.

Although its development is markedly different from that of the synoptic gospels, there is a very clear pattern to John’s portrayal of Jesus’ activities and teachings in this gospel. When reading straight through the document, one notices several significant literary points of change. For instance, John 1:1-18 is a kind of philosophic reflection on time and space and the incarnation. Then, suddenly, at 1:19, we are brought directly into the daily life of first century Palestine, walking among crowds who are dialoguing with John the Baptizer about his identity. Clearly a shift of some kind takes place between 1:18 and 1:19.

The flow of life in real time continues through the next several pages, as John the baptizer points to Jesus and then steps out of the way (1:19-36), Jesus gains a following through his miracles and teachings (1:37-12:50), and then predicts his impending death (13:1-38). What transpires next seems to move into another kind of literature once again. From chapter 14 through chapter 17, Jesus is almost lost in a last reverie, a kind of mystical intimate moment with his disciples. The monologue weaves back and forth on itself until it shoots upward toward heaven in a prayer that surrounds Jesus and his disciples in a divine blanket of engulfing holiness (17). Abruptly the light dissolves, and with a kind of staccato journalistic pedantry, the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection are recorded (18-20). Chapter 20 ends with a brief but sufficient conclusion to the book as a whole. Yet suddenly another story appears, and the finality of the wrap-up in chapter 20 is broken and ignored (21). The disciples are listless and almost devoid of the power revealed when they earlier had realized that Jesus was come back to life. They now decide to go off fishing, for lack of anything better to do. But then Jesus appears, and their lives are quickly refocused so that they will be his followers to the end of their days. With that said, a second brief conclusion is offered, and the gospel is finished.

Stepping back from the whole of this narrative and reviewing the obvious literary disjunctures or sudden stylistic shifts in gospel, it becomes apparent that a significant transition happens between chapters 12 and 13 (related to the coming of “the hour” for Jesus; note 2:4, 4:23, 7:6, 12:23, 13:1, 17:1). This pivotal point is further accentuated by the grouping of all of Jesus’ “miraculous signs,” as John calls them, into chapters 1-12. This is why the first part of John’s gospel is often called “The Book of Signs,” while the last part wears well the name “The Book of Glory” because Jesus terms it so (12:23).

The second half of this “Book of Glory” shows Jesus as he moves through his Passion into the resurrection. While the details of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion are virtually identical with those given in the synoptic gospels, there are a number of little incidents reported that could only have been written by an eyewitness—the name of the servant of the high priest who is wounded by Peter’s sword (18:10); the reason for Peter’s access into the area where Jesus was being tried (18:15); the words of the conversation between Annas and Jesus (18:19–24); the transfer of Mary’s care from Jesus to the beloved disciple (19:27). These are reminders again that the fourth gospel was authored by someone who was with Jesus at every turn and remained Jesus’ deep friend right through the end.

Application
This is the story that changes everything. It is the longest single episode of Jesus’ life that is told by all the gospel writers. While the preaching of the early Christians will focus on the amazing event of Jesus’ resurrection, no historical event in Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage will be more accurately documented than the final night and morning before his crucifixion.

But what happened? What was the impact of these events? How did this one execution become so much more significant than all of the others that crowded the Roman judicial calendar in those months?

For Jerusalem’s religious leaders, this was a final breakthrough in the escalating problem of the northern rabbi who was attracting far too much attention. Here was a commoner, a village boy, causing the uneasy civic peace to be disturbed to a point that threatened rebellion and counter-crackdown. Jesus had to be put out of the way, so that normal life, compromised as it was in this Roman occupation, could go on.

For Jesus’ own disciples, this day was the beginning of a nightmare. They had traveled with their Master long and far, and they were not ready to fall into this painful pit, abruptly halting the movement that seemed destined for so much more. Suddenly purposeless, they cowered in hidden rooms, challenged at the very thought of appearing in public where their hero had been demonized.

Judas, however, sensed it differently. Had he pushed the envelope and forced Jesus’ hand into an armed confrontation with the governing authorities, hoping this would goad Jesus into action and allow them to get on with the business of stirring a popular uprising against the Romans? We can never be sure. But whatever satisfaction he found in bringing his devious plans to fruition, the aftermath turned sour. Rather than lighting a fuse of liberation, the arrest of Jesus had only sunk to a social tragedy. Now Jesus was dying, and that’s exactly where Judas wanted to be as well. After all, the camaraderie of the disciples would never be open to him again. He had been fingered as the traitor, and his name would go down in history as infamy.

The Roman soldiers, however, saw nothing more in this crucifixion than another pay day. A shekel a head, or whatever the going rate was, and a little more money to gamble or drink with. The profits of war. The benefits of law enforcement.

Pilate wondered, during this day. He had been troubled when he was forced to get involved in this catastrophe in the making. The High Priest should never have sent Jesus his way. There was no good option to this case; every way out was a dishonorable discharge. Even after he publicly washed his hands of the affair, showing his distaste for what was taking place, the matter would not die. Pilate went home to his wife, who then compounded his anxiety when she complained of nightmares about the man he just condemned. Pilate brooded in his chambers. He could not help but think that this haunting was only the beginning of a very deep darkness to come.

But what of the demons and angels? What of God in heaven? What did this event mean to all of them? In the big picture of things, this Friday slipped away almost too quietly, anticlimactically.

In essence, nothing happened. The sun came back from hiding, children played in the streets, mothers fed babies, Sabbath prayers were chanted, and all fell asleep that night. What had been billed as the showdown of the ages, the ultimate gunfight at OK Corral, the decisive contest at Milvian Bridge, the do-or-die resolution of Marathon, evaporated like a speck of dust flicked from the cuff of trousers. And everyone went home to catch the 6 o’clock news.

But perhaps that is precisely the point. Life went on. Amazingly so. Life went on. Neither the death squads from hell nor the curse of God from heaven managed to quell life on planet earth. Because Jesus, heaven’s own emissary, laid himself like a copper wire across the poles of the seething battery where opposite forces were sparking for battle. And he drained all their energy.

We became the bystander winners in a conflict focused on us but resolved by others. Jesus died and the lights went back on in heaven. Jesus died and the lights went out in hell. Jesus died, and “It is finished!” declared the ultimate victory that kept the planets on track in the universe and love still coursing in the veins of women and men made in the image of their Creator. Jesus absorbed, in his death, both the vengefulness of evil and the wrath of heaven, and the outcome was pretty much that life as God intended it went on.

We still live with death and go to our funerals. But they have changed.

Alternative Application (John 18:1--19:34)
Nicholas Wolterstorff reflected on the death of his son with these words: “There’s a hole in the world now. In the place where he was, there’s now just nothing… There’s nobody now who saw just what he saw, knows what he knew, remembers what he remembered, loves what he loved… The world is emptier” (Lament for a Son). That’s true, as well, of a host of good people whose gravestone legacies weather to indecipherable under time’s polishing.

And it won’t be long before I join them, erased from life’s hard drive by the reprogrammers of a new generation. Some years ago, we were comparing ages in our family and one of my daughters remarked to another, “Dad has probably lived more than half his life already.” The words shivered through me and robbed me of the fun of the moment. It’s true—I have probably lived half my life already.

But Jesus will remember me! Like the thief on the cross, like his mother at his feet, like the disciples cowering in the shadows, Jesus will remember us. Because of Good Friday, he will never leave us. He will never forsake us. He will never forget us.

We are the faces at his funeral. And when it comes time for our own funerals, his face will truly be the only one that matters. For now. For eternity.
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