The Week After Easter

I really didn’t have anything to write this week. This is the week after Easter Sunday, so I feel like I should have something profound to write about. Frankly, I don’t. No Easter reflections formulated to be typed in a coherent manner. At least not yet. We shall see what next week brings.

But not this week. Holy week is a busy week that often leaves me relieved it’s over. Holy week is a emotional rollercoaster that doesn’t stop moving for seven days! Seven days of highs and lows, victory and defeat, life and death and life again! And that’s not including how intentional or disciplined one was about engaging in Lent (confession: I wasn’t).

We start with the joy and seeming triumph of Palm Sunday, then by Thursday we are reluctant and expectant as Jesus is betrayed by his own and arrested. And on Good Friday, if we are fortunate enough to be in a church community that is willing to dwell on and in Good Friday, we sit in mourning as Jesus is tortured and executed under the Empire. Saturday is full of ominous silence, for God may truly be dead. Finally, on Sunday we celebrate ten-fold that Christ is risen (He is risen indeed!) And we eat chocolate bunnies and fellowship with one another.

What. A. Week.

So it’s no wonder many of us, especially clergy, find the passing of Easter to be a relief. I wish it wasn’t that way. Yet here I am.

Although I’m sure the disciples were mighty relieved after Easter too.

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Messiahs… I’ve Followed a Few: What Movie Should You Watch on Good Friday?

Holy Week is upon us! Tomorrow, those of us who identify with the Christian tradition will contemplate the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by crucifixion, at the hands of the Roman Empire.
In 2017, we are quite removed from the world of first century Palestine. While many of us church goers are confident we know what the Roman world was like in Jesus’ day, there are some important political and social details that are often neglect in the average Sunday sermon. After all, it was 2000 years ago and half a world away.
But Fear not, friends! There exists a film that captures all you need to know about the history surrounding Jesus’ ministry, arrest, and execution. And no I am not talking about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Forget that violence-and-gore glorifying movie with all of its historical inaccuracies and Anglo-looking first century Jews. Oh no, the film I suggest you all watch is so much closer to the realities of first century Palestine… with a slight flair of dry British humor.
Friends, before you attend that Good Friday service, I suggest you all watch…
The Life of Brian.
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian is a rich satire that follows the life of… well, Brian. Brian, born on the same night as a baby named Jesus, is a young man growing up in first century Palestine in the shadow of Roman occupation. Upon finding out that he is the result of his Jewish mother’s romantic entanglement with a Roman centurion, Brian retaliates by joining “The People’s Front of Judea,” which is not to be confused with the “Judean People’s Front.” Through various flukes and misadventures, Brian is mistaken for the Messiah, and a movement grows around him.
The film is full of the irreverent humor that is to be expected from Monty Python and I for one think it walks a very a delicate line. But the brilliance of The Life of Brian is rooted in the historicity of Brian’s mistaken messianic title. At one moment in the film, Brian is surrounded by his crowd of would-be disciples and protests vehemently that he is not the messiah. In response, character played by John Cleese responds “I say you are, Lord. And I should know, I’ve followed a few.” The line reflects Monty Python’s thorough knowledge of first century Palestine, which I suspect can be attributed to most of the troupe having received a classical education at Oxford and Cambridge. But for the rest of us, let’s get caught up to speed with Eric Idle and the gang.
During the first century, the Jews lived under Roman occupation. Romans were only the most recent in what had played out as six centuries of a rotating door of empires conquering and oppressing the Jewish people. The clearest representation of this oppression was that the Romans built Antonia Fortress immediately adjacent to the Temple. Not only that, but the walls of the fortress were such that Roman soldiers could observe what was taking place within the temple grounds. The Temple was the center of Jewish life, and three times throughout the Jewish year the Jews were supposed to make a pilgrimage to the Temple. With such a multitude of oppressed and disgruntled people all gathering at their holiest of locations on their holiest of festivals thrice a year, the position of Antonia Fortress was both tactical as well as symbolic. The towering walls seemed to proclaim “Remember who is really watching you, and it ain’t your god.”
As the Jews were conquered and re-conquered by the Babylonians, Persian, Greeks, and finally the Romans, there developed a notion amongst the Jews that God would send God’s people a divinely empowered leader; God would send them a Messiah (I should write on this development in later post!). While in the twenty first century, we instinctively attribute the “Messiah” with the Incarnation of God, the Jews during the Second Temple period (beginning in 530BCE with the reconstruction of the Temple) made no such association. For the Jewish people, the Messianic expectation meant looking forward to a powerful monarch and military leader that would rise up and rally God’s people, then kick the Romans out of Judea. This same Messiah would re-establish Israel to its glory days as an economic and military super power under Kings David and Solomon.
As this was the case, by Jesus’ day, there had been many self-proclaimed messiahs. These individuals were freedom fighters who sought to liberate their people from oppression. In Acts 5:33:-39, while advocating for letting the Apostles live, the Pharisee Gamaliel describes two such leaders who were executed and their movements scattered. Gamaliel says “If this plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”
Self-proclaimed Messiahs were not uncommon, which is why I laughed until I hurt at Cleese’s remark “I’ve followed a few.”
Is it any wonder then why Jesus counted one Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15) as a disciple? When the Jews heard Jesus of Nazareth proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, they had a very concrete idea of what that kingdom was going to look like and how it would be brought about. There would be a revolution, and the Romans would get clobbered out of Judea! How glorious it would be!
Only it wasn’t.
Only, Jesus spoke of loving enemies.
Only, when this Messiah was arrested and one of his own drew a sword and cut the ear from one of Jesus’ captors, this Messiah rebuked his disciple and healed the wounded one who would arrest him. This Messiah was not the
On the first Good Friday, the Jews bring Jesus before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and insist he be charged with treason for calling himself King of the Jews. “He stirs up the people all throughout Judea” (Luke 23:5). Jesus, they imply, is another messiah that is dangerous to Roman power.
Pilate gives them a choice: free Jesus or free Barabbas. According to Luke’s gospel, Barabbas has been thrown in prison for two things: starting an insurrection in the city, and murder. Insurrection? Could Barabbas be a freedom fighter, a patriot of Israel? Is he another Messiah? Could it be that on the first Good Friday, God’s own people were choosing which Messiah they wanted to lead them?
I think so.
It seems to me that when given a choice between a Messiah who insisted on loving and praying for His enemies, and a Messiah that would swing the sword in bloody revolution, God’s people chose a violent Messiah.
How often do we desire the same? How often do we want to forget that Jesus did not wage war as other revolutionaries waged war? How often do we want Jesus to be more like this messiah Barabbas?
Tomorrow, on Good Friday, I want to reflect Christ’s crucifixion. And I’m sure with many others across the Church, I’ll sing the words of that famous hymn “It was my sin that held him there/ until it was accomplished.”
While those lyrics are all well and good, I do not want to forget that 2000 years ago at a Roman trial, the specific sin that sent Christ to a Roman crucifixion was that God’s people chose violence. The people that were blessed to bless other nations chose a revolutionary carrying a sword and raising clenched fist over a servant carrying a washing basin and offering a healing hand.
Messiahs… I’ve followed a few. But only one told me to drop my sword.

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The More I Go to Cons… The Less I Like Church

The more I go to comic-book conventions, the less I like church. And it is not just because the best conventions conflict with Sunday morning services. No, I’m afraid it is much more essential than that. I like church less because these and similar cons seem to excel where many church communities in the U.S. miss the mark: they create a space where a wide variety of people feel at home in their own bodies.

Two weekends ago, I was one of 25,000 folks who attended Anime Boston 2017! And it was an absolute blast. This particular convention usually occurs on Easter weekend. Thus, it has never seemed prudent for an aspiring pastor like myself to skip Easter Sunday, which is arguably the most important day in the Christian calendar, to go to an anime convention. Since Easter is coming later in the spring this year, I jumped at the chance. For three days, thousands of otaku (anime watchers) like myself gathered over a shared love for this medium of story telling. It was quite special.

 

Nerd culture has come a long way in the last decade and a half. Thanks to Disney’s juggernaut marketing and an unfathomable budget, comic book movies are all the rage. Iron Man has ceased to be a lesser known, alcoholic Batman. The pervasiveness of video game consoles and mobile devices has turned nearly everyone into a gamer with slightly addictive tendencies. Even the popularity of Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones has made sword-and-sorcery fantasy fairly mainstream. It is a great time to be a nerd! The vast majority of U.S. Americans are wading in the shallows of comic book fandom and itching to visit the Wizarding World at Universal. The stigma that crammed many a geek into a locker, or made him or her miserable at the thought of crossing the threshold of a high school, has mostly been washed away. (Now teens have found new reasons to make their peers unbearably miserable. But I digress!).

Yet, even today, otaku have remained largely on the fringes of the nerd world. Anime remains a subject with its own stereotypes and stigmas, even in the medium’s native Japan. Somehow, in the heart of Boston, 25,000 anime fans gathered. Cosplayers, artists, YouTubers, bloggers (yours truly), and other Japanophiles sat in on screenings, met voice actors, or simply sat and chitchatted with new acquaintances. Wonderful.

It was a convention that insisted on perpetuating an environment of respect and safety. Signs such as “Ask before you take pictures!” and “Cosplay is NOT consent!” were prominently displayed. Here was a space where everyone was encouraged to be comfortable in their own skin, and to be comfortable that others were doing the same. Many cosplayers dressed as their favorite characters with varying amounts of exposed skin, both male and female. When I considered how many cosplayers did not fit the stereotypical body type of these characters, I found I was immersed in the most body positive environment I have ever witnessed.

For my readers who are protesting my condoning of cosplay and want to discuss modesty at cons, let’s please have that conversation. But in that conversation, let us to agree to refuse to body shame young women who have developed according to their biology, and instead tell young men not to ogle. Convincing a 15 year old girl that she is responsible for the leering eyes of her hormonal male peer who can’t bring himself to look at the floor or ceiling is unjust and nothing short of body shaming.

As I embarked on my 6-hour drive home after spending three days knee-deep in Japanese cartoons, colorful costumes, and J-Pop, I found myself frustrated with one thought: I have never been present in a church community that was as safe or as welcoming as this anime convention. I had never felt as relaxed and vulnerable in a church as I did for those three days. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that experience.

For those of us who grew up in the Church (and I for one had a largely positive experience) telling someone in our faith community that we avidly viewed anime was often met with fear and concern. The assumption that we must have been watching animated pornography was also not uncommon. If you want expose the ethnocentrism of your fellow church members, I know from experience that sharing your interest in Japanese culture and media will do it. “Well if they had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture based on honor and shame!” Well if U.S. Americans had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture that thrives on the myth of redemptive violence. 1-1, game is tied.

I am not writing this post to advocate for an outreach ministry to an otaku subculture. Rather, what I am trying to illustrate is this: A community that has gathered over a shared love for a format of film and television may very well be a safer environment for people to be themselves than a community that professes to have gathered over a shared love for Christ. This is the same Christ who did nothing short of creating safe spaces for prostitutes and lepers, and such a disparity should convict us. We who believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit and the role of Christ’s Church should actively pursue the nurturing of such an environment.

But if my brothers and sisters in the faith decide, through their actions and their fear of the strange and unfamiliar, that the community of faith is not about creating places of safety and vulnerability, then our churches will continue to decline and die. And rightfully so. If churches, whether evangelical or progressive, continue to tell the communities they inhabit that they are not concerned with fostering spaces that allow individuals to feel at home in their own skins, then they will find other communities that are. How do we expect people outside of the Church to be open to the transformation and mystery that only the Spirit can bring when we are not open to them? Honestly, I would rather spend my time at conventions praying to find other Christ-followers who, like me, have found more comfort surrounded by costumes and cartoons than choir robes or worship teams.

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