I preached this past weekend at Eastbrook about “Prayer as Living within the Power and Love of God” from Ephesians 3:14-20. Thinking about the love of God is something I never tire of. Although it didn’t make it into the sermon, I was reminded of this quotation from from C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves:
God is love….[and] This…love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give….God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing…the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath’s sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and ‘take advantage of’ Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves.
In the gospel telling of Jesus’ journey to the cross, one small character catches our attention for an instant and then disappears from the rest of the biblical account. We read about him in Matthew 27:15-26:
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him….
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
In his novel, Barabbas (1950), Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Pär Lagerqvist grabs ahold of that brief mention of an infamous character and builds it into a powerful retelling of Barabbas’ life. Tracing Barabbas’ story from the moment of the exchange, and then working both backward to his earlier life and forward through his unfolding years, Lagerkvist offers a compelling picture of how Barabbas’ life was affected by his literal replacement by Jesus in crucifixion. Characters, some biblical and some not, weave in and out of Barabbas’ life as he lives in Jerusalem and beyond as a man haunted by the life he has received back as a gift, yet which at times feels like a curse.
In one particularly poignant scene, Lagerqvist opens wide Barabbas’ grappling with the story of Jesus, in a heated exchange with one of the early Christ-followers. Barabbas begins the exchange:
—The Son of Man?
—Yes. That’s what he called himself.
—The Son of Man . . . ?
—Yes. So he said. But some believe . . . No, I can’t say it.
Barabbas moved closer to him.
—What do they believe?
—They believe . . . that he is God’s own son.
—Yes . . . But surely that can’t be true, it’s almost enough to make on afraid. I would really much rather he came back as he was.
Barabbas was quite worked up.
—How can they talk like that! he burst out. The son of God! The son of God crucified! Don’t you see that’s impossible!
—I said that it can’t be true. And I’ll gladly say it again if you like.
—What sort of lunatics are they who believe that? Barabbas went on, and the scar under his eye turned dark red, as it always did when there was anything the matter. The son of God Of course he wasn’t! Do you imagine the son of God comes down into the earth? And starts going around preaching in your native countryside!
—Oh . . . why not? It’s possible. As likely there as anywhere else. Its’ a humble part of the world, to be sure, but he had to begin somewhere.
Some retellings of biblical stories fall dramatically flat, turning the characters we know well into two-dimensional plaster saints. However, Lagerqvist’s rendering of Barabbas’ life opens the biblical story in a way that breathes life into hidden passageways of the Bible. He leads us into deeper reflection on the significance of Jesus’ journey to the cross and what it might have been like within the earliest Christian community, as they wrestled with who Jesus was and what He accomplished. All the while, Lagerkvist forces us as the readers to grapple with the nature of God and what God might mean for us as human beings journeying through life upon this earth.
Here is my message, “The Painful Gift of Forgiveness,” from this past Good Friday at Eastbrook Church. The message is an extended reflection on the depths of Jesus’ words from the Cross:
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)
“The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.
“Glorious Humility” – About three weeks ago, I read Wesley Hill’s beautiful reflection on the humble glory of Jesus the Messiah. Weaving in some thoughts on Jane Williams’ The Merciful Humility of God, he writes at one point: “We look to Jesus—above all, to his self-giving in life and death—and find our notions of ‘glory’ and ‘power’ transformed completely.” Hill’s essay is worth reading, particularly as we celebrate the Paschal Triduum.
Notre Dame Cathedral Fire – The historic Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire this week and billions of Euros have already been pledged to rebuild it. There have been photo tributes to the beauty of Notre Dame, as well as photo summaries of the damage wreaked upon it by the fire. Some journalists have addressed why it is so significant to Roman Catholics worldwide, and to France as a country. Matthew Milliner offers a marvelous reflection on this in light of Good Friday in his essay, “At Notre Dame, Good Friday Came Early.”
“Crucifixion is horribly violent – we must confront its reality head on” – “One reason people before modern times wanted their crucifixions gory and their churches full of images of death was that mortality and its horrors haunted their real lives. Death was everywhere, from the sick beds of people struck down by all the diseases medicine had yet to conquer to public executions whose victims were left to rot on gibbets or, as Bruegel paints them, on open platforms at the tops of wooden poles. In other words, when artists 500 years ago depicted the crucifixion they were not showing a totally unfamiliar sight. People were still executed and left to rot in public, just as they had been in ancient Roman times. Death was ever present.”
“Hardship-Birthed Hymns: What Can We Learn From the Negro Spiritual?” – At The Witness, DeAron Washington reflects on how hymnody shapes us and the power of the Negro Spirituals: “We must pay attention to the songs we sing. If we are not careful, we will sing lies that exalt ourselves. We will sing about an idol and disguise it as Jesus. If we are not careful, we will sing songs that call people to trust in themselves. The spirituals are oozing with pungent biblical truths. They are not perfect, but we can learn much from their content. Beloved, read and sing them. Drink from the well of spirituals that is overflowing with sapid theology.”
“Let He Who Is Without Yeezys Cast the First Stone” – And now for something completely different, mainly the firestorm of interest in the preachers’ sneakers, and how much they paid for them. “Carl Lentz, the pastor who baptized Justin Bieber in a professional basketball player’s bath tub, appeared wearing a pair of Nike Air Fear of God sneakers that were selling online for about $500. Then John Gray, a pastor from South Carolina, was shown in blood-red Air Yeezy 2s, the sneakers made in collaboration with Kanye West, that were going for upward of $5,000. And in another photo, Chad Veach, who preaches in Los Angeles, had a $1,900 Gucci bag and wore $795 pants….the photos have led to soul-searching over what some see as an undercurrent of materialism that has been getting uncomfortable attention. The exchange has grown beyond simply criticizing the pastors, as many young Christians were nudged to wrestle over how they present themselves to the world and how it squares with the faith’s teachings.”
“How Disconnection Boosts Your Creativity” – From Austin Kleon: “Creativity is about connection—you must be connected to others in order to be inspired and share your own work—but it is also about disconnection. You must retreat from the world long enough to think, practice your art, and bring forth something worth sharing with others. You must play a little hide-and-seek in order to produce something worth being found.”
“The birth of the book: on Christians, Romans and the codex” – “A codex is just the Roman name for a book, made of pages, and usually bound on the left. Its predecessor was the scroll or book roll, which was unrolled as you read. The codex is manifestly superior: one can hold many volumes (from the Latin for book roll, volumen); codices have a built-in cover for protection; and pages that can be numbered for reference, from which arose a cornucopia of tables of contents and indices. The codex didn’t catch on until surprisingly late in the ancient world. The early Christians, however, took to the codex with singular enthusiasm.”
Music: Johann Sebastian Bach, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded,” King’s College Cambridge (2011).
[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]