We’re two-thirds of the way through Lent, and it’s just about time to buckle our seat belts and make a steep descent with Jesus into the mess of Holy Week. Even though Jesus is technically going up to Jerusalem, he’s really going down.
After three years of preaching kingdom values that turned his world upside down, Jesus is getting in his last licks. He cleanses the temple, launches into an attack on the religious leaders with his “Woe to you” admonitions, mediates a fight with the disciples about who is the greatest, washes their feet and then gives them a new commandment to love one another. In a final act of passive (same root word as passion) resistance, Jesus allows himself to be arrested, mocked, tortured and crucified.
We ask, along with the disciples, “What were you thinking, Jesus? You brought it on yourself.” Ultimately, the only way Jesus could bring about the change he taught was to live it. Up or down? Ascent or descent? Me or others? Master or servant? First or last? Rich or poor? Power or selflessness? Privilege or poverty? Jesus chose to go down, to let go, to become the sacrificial lamb by offering his very self for you and me.
After more than thirty years in ministry, I am realistic enough to acknowledge that most Christians will choose to skip right from Palm Sunday to Easter. I’ve concluded that the reason many people avoid Maundy Thursday and Good Friday is not because they don’t want to take the time to worship. It’s because they don’t want to see Jesus go down. It’s very painful to watch Jesus fail because it implies we also will fail at some point. Furthermore, seeing Jesus go down means that the very building blocks upon which we so often live our lives – power, wealth, status, and prestige – are destined to crumble.
Descending into the depths of despair and hopelessness is a necessary part of the maturation of our faith and is the only way to fullness of life. Religious headlines in the past few months convince me more than ever that our insistence on ascending to greatness rather than choosing to go down results in even grander falls that change our lives forever.
“The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” (Matthew 23:2-3)
Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory recently built a $2.2 million 6,400 square foot mansion for himself. The construction was made possible by a large donation from the estate of Joseph Mitchell, nephew of Margaret Mitchell, author of the Civil War epic, Gone with the Wind. When Mitchell died in 2011, he left an estate worth more than $15 million to the archdiocese on the condition that it be used for “general religious and charitable purposes.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis continues to make extravagant and wasteful spending a focus of his early papacy. He calls for “a poor church for the poor” and models a “going down” theology by living simply in a modest guest apartment, driving around Rome in a Ford Focus, and criticizing bishops for “living like princes.”
In a decisive move to signal his seriousness on the matter, Pope Francis suspended the bishop of Limburg, Germany, last October for spending $42 million to renovate his residence and other church buildings. The German press dubbed the free-spending cleric the “Bishop of Bling.” Pope Francis removed Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his position on March 27 and said in a recent interview, “The gospel condemns the cult of wellbeing.” The pope also said that when you and I are judged in death, “our closeness to poverty will be counted.”
After receiving criticism over the spending in letters, emails, and telephone messages, and coming on the heels of the Bishop of Limburg’s removal, Archbishop Gregory apologized a week ago. In a column posted on the website of the archdiocesan newspaper, he said, “I am disappointed that, while my advisors (sic) and I were able to justify this project fiscally, logistically and practically, I personally failed to project the cost in terms of my own integrity and pastoral credibility with the people of God of north and central Georgia.
“I failed to consider the impact on the families throughout the Archdiocese who, though struggling to pay their mortgages, utilities, tuition and other bills, faithfully respond year after year to my pleas to assist with funding our ministries and services,” he added. Gregory said that he will sell the house and move elsewhere if church leaders wish him to.
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“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cummin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” (Matthew 23:23)
Trinity Church, a historic Episcopal congregation in the heart of downtown Boston, recently purchased a $3.6 million condo in Beacon Hill for its rector Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III. The 3,200 square foot condo has a wine cellar, two-car garage, courtyard and guesthouse and is within walking distance of the church. Church leaders are convinced that the purchase of the condo is a wise and practical investment that will not take away from the operating budget because much of the cost is covered by the church’s $30 million endowment.
According to the February 3 Boston Globe: “Louise Burnham Packard, executive director of the Trinity Boston Foundation (an affiliate of the church), said the rectory purchase made ‘perfect economic sense’ to her, and because it required no cuts in programs or shifts in spending priorities, on balance she understood the vestry’s decision. ‘It’s problematic, because it looks like we’re just buying into the materialistic culture,’ she said. ‘I think that’s probably why the vestry wrestled with the decision.’”
Church members have engaged in profound spiritual conversation about how the church is perceived at the same time as they engage in numerous ministries in the city and are committed to standing with the poor and marginalized. The president of a local brokerage firm not connected with the purchase said about the property, it’s “an absolutely coveted address and location.”
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The scribes and Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the places of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogue.” (Matthew 23:5-6)
$210,000. That’s the reported amount that Seattle evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll paid to ResultSource Inc., a marketing firm that helps authors get their books on the New York Times Best Seller List. Driscoll’s book, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, written with his wife Grace, led the NYT Best Seller List for hardcover advice for a week at the end of January. The next week, however, it was gone. Not only was the ethics of using artificial means to create a bestseller suspect, but Driscoll allegedly used church funds to create this one week boost. Even a brief appearance can add to an author’s reputation and create lucrative speaking engagements.
After great criticism, Driscoll apologized to the church in a March 15 letter and said that he would never use this marketing strategy again. “I understand that people who saw or experienced my sin during this season are hurt and in some cases have not yet come to a place of peace or resolution,” he wrote. “I have been burdened by this for the past year and have had private meetings one at a time to learn from, apologize to, and reconcile with people.”
Driscoll also said that he will not accept as many speaking engagements in the future. “I don’t see how I can be both a celebrity and a pastor, and so I am happy to give up the former so that I can focus on the latter.”
I have great sympathy for Archbishop Gregory, Trinity Episcopal Church, and Mark Driscoll because the fallout from their decisions has played out in the public arena. Going down is never pretty. In fact, no one wants to do it, even Jesus (“Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me”). Yet going down is not only a major theme in the Bible, it’s the heart of our faith, the truth of our story, and the hope of our salvation.
If we choose to be saved by an economy of merit or privilege rather than God’s economy of grace, we’ll end up going down kicking and screaming rather than falling gently into the arms of selfless love. Either way, we are invited to crawl our way back up into the arms of our Savior – until we descend steeply again. Jesus is going down next week. Which direction are you going?