Retelling Scripture: Pär Lagerkvist’s Barabbas

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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.
—God’s 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.

When God Became Our Neighbor

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This weekend at Eastbrook, we began a new 4-week series entitled “Will You Be My Neighbor?” This series is an extended reflection on how Jesus’ call to love God and love our neighbor works its way out into the ordinary context of our neighborhoods.

I began the series this weekend by looking at the call to love our neighbor through the lens of Jesus’ arrival as our neighbor and Messiah. This message was centered in John 1:14:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Of course, Eugene Peterson’s rendering of this text in The Message really drives the point home memorably:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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Peter: God’s restoration in failure

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This past weekend in my message, “The Good News of New Beginnings,” I didn’t make my way into all the detail I had planned in the new beginning of Peter from his failure. Here are my sermon notes from that section, exploring Jesus’ restoration of Peter from the failure of his denials. I hope this encourages you in the midst of your own failures.


 

Now turn with me to one final story of new beginning, found in the next chapter of John’s Gospel. Here, we find the disciples have returned to their home area in Galilee to fish, but haven’t caught anything. Are they trying to de-stress after all that happened to them in Jerusalem? Are they forsaking all they learned from Jesus and just returning to their old lives?

We don’t know for sure, but something dramatic happens when Jesus Himself appears on the lakeshore to give them fishing advice. Jesus’ advice to throw their nets over the other side leads to a miraculously huge haul of fish, which makes them realize they are dealing with Jesus.

Peter, in His excitement, jumps into the water and swims all the way to shore ahead of the others. Jesus makes them breakfast, and they all know it is Him. In the midst of that breakfast, Jesus has a direct conversation with Peter in four parts.

Part 1 – Peter’s failed boldness (John 21:15)
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (21:15)

This first question brings us back to Peter’s failure, when He denied Jesus three times.
Earlier in John’s Gospel before Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus had warned His disciples about the challenges about to come.

Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”
Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!

Which is exactly what Peter did. Jesus is resurrecting Peter’s failure so that He can directly deal with it. Suppressing our failures does not bring life; instead it eats away at us from the inside out.

Part 2 – Peter’s failed love (John 21:16)
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter’s painful response: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

But earlier in the upper room, Jesus had addressed all the disciples, showing them what real love looks like, when he said: “If you love me, keep my commands” (14:15).

Peter had a failure of nerve, but also a failure of love. Jesus draws this out into the light so that Peter might not be trapped within his failure but move into a new beginning.

Part 3 – Peter’s pain revealed (John 21:17)
But Jesus is not done yet.

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (21:17)

Just notice this phrase: “the third time.” Jesus is intentionally paralleling Peter’s three denials with three questions.

Peter’s pained response is “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Again, Jesus is calling all of the failure out into the light so that it might not be hidden or suppressed, but release, healed, and turned into a new beginning. What is that new beginning?

Part 4 – Peter’s calling (John 21:18-22)
After the three-fold “Feed my sheep” (21:17) Jesus speaks the ultimate: “Follow me!” (21:19). This echoes Jesus’ first invitation for Peter to follow Him. He is returned to a new beginning of discipleship that will lead him into a new beginning of ministry.

Jesus does not leave Peter to linger in failure, whether hiding it or brooding over it. Instead, Jesus addresses Peter’s failure by bringing it into the light, then healing it, and finally restoring him to a meaningful calling.

For us, too, failure can box us in. We hold it in the back room of our lives, afraid for anyone to know about it. We brood over it when no one is around, like it is something we cannot stand but something we cannot live without. This is not life, but less than living. Jesus comes to us, in the power of the resurrection, to say that what seems like the end in our failure does not have to be the end.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, our failures can be the doorways to a new beginning of restoration in Him.

The Good News of New Beginnings [The Good News of Jesus]

Jesus Series GFX_App SquareAs we continued our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection at Eastbrook Church, I continued the themes of our series “The Good News of Jesus.” This second weekend, we explored four post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to Mary, the disciples as a group, Thomas, and Peter in John 20:11-21:25. Each of these stories gives us insight into the ways that the resurrection of Jesus intersects with our ordinary lives, in such things as grief, fear, doubt, and failure.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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A Prayer of Catherine of Siena

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Eternal Father, you said, “Let us make humankind to our own image and likeness.” Thus you were willing to share with us your own greatness. You gave us the intellect to share your truth. You gave us the wisdom to share your goodness. And you gave us the free will to love that which is true and just.

Why did you so dignify us? It was because you looked upon us, and fell in love with us. It was love which first prompted you to create us; and it was love which caused you to share with us your truth and goodness.

Yet your heart must break when you see us turn against you. You must weep when you see us abusing our intellect in pursuit of that which is false. You must cry with pain when we distort our wisdom in order to justify evil.

But you never desert us. Out of the same love that caused you to create us, you have now sent your only Son to save us. He is your perfect image and likeness, and so through him we can be restored to your image and likeness.

By St. Catherine of Siena, mystic and Dominican tertiary.