It is, without a doubt, the most famous death in all of history.
And yet, when some of us see the cross, we may see an archaic story wrapped around a barbaric torture device that has no bearing on our present reality.
When others of us see the cross, you may literally see your shame. The mere thought of divine, innocent blood being spilled because of your sins fills your heart with overwhelming sadness and regret.
And some of us grew up with the cross, and it feels like an old rerun that has lost the ability to shock and delight.
You may already feel a little overwhelmed.
Jesus’s closest followers – the ones who literally walked, talked, and broke bread with him – didn’t grasp the true purpose of his life and death until after the resurrection.
We need to tell the full story.
Because the full story – with all of its gardens, temples, blood, kingdoms, and empty tombs – is so much more weird, intricate, beautiful, and hopeful than we could possibly imagine.
So, pull a chair up to the table, uncork a bottle of wine, and pour yourself a glass.
All I ask is that you be open to a little bit of divine mystery.
A Tale of Two Kingdoms
In the Bible, Heaven isn’t a destination. It’s a separate reality – a different dimension, so to speak – that was created by God and is fully ruled by God.
Heaven isn’t “above us” in a spatial sense – but in the same way a King is above his subjects. In the New Testament, “Kingdom of Heaven/God” is shorthand for “the sovereign rule of God.”
Heaven and Earth were once two separate realities designed to overlap and interact with one another. This is what the Garden of Eden is all about.
But, mankind’s pride and arrogance drove these two realities apart. And thus, like a garden devoid of sunlight, man’s dimension began to experience the consequence of separation from God’s dimension:
Entropy. Decay. Death.
And this not only affected nature, it infected our human nature
And thus, God chose a tribe a continuously oppressed people – The Israelites – and began to weave Himself back into our reality through their story, all the while laying the groundwork for something much, much bigger.
This is what the Old Testament is all about.
In fact, the (re)union of Heaven and Earth is what the story of the Bible is all about.
And God launched the first phase of the Kingdom mission on Earth through the crucifixion of Jesus.
In the New Testament, no one decided to follow Jesus because he told them he would take them up to Heaven when they died. They followed Jesus because they recognized and acknowledged him as King.
The overarching narrative of the Bible is not about people going up to heaven when they die, but the Kingdom of Heaven coming down to Earth.
Adopting this truth will not only transform your perception of the afterlife, it also breathes fresh life and purpose into the mission of the Church.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
God’s Love Is Bigger Than You
The most famous and oft-repeated verse in the Bible is John 3:16.
For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
In Sunday School, I was often given a piece of paper with John 3:16 printed on it. Except it was missing a word.
For God so loved ______ that He gave his one and only son.
In that blank, we were told to fill in our name.
For God so loved Joe that He gave his one and only son.
Afterwards, we colored it. And if we were lucky, our parents would pin this piece of art to the fridge.
It’s a sweet sentiment. But a personalized Gospel message is a limited Gospel message.
And, let’s be honest, a lot of us probably still think of that verse as it applies to our personal relationship with Jesus Christ (a phrase that doesn’t appear in Scripture).
In John 3:16, the word for ‘world’ that is used is the Greek word ‘Kosmos.’
As you can probably guess, it’s where we get our word ‘cosmos.’
In Greek, ‘kosmos’ is a very general term. It is best understood to mean “the created order of things.”
In the Genesis story, God brought order out of chaos. He declared his creation to be “very good.” And He created man (adam in Hebrew) and woman (chavvah/Eve, or life-giver) to reflect his glory back to himself and to creation.
What was the job given to the first man? A gardener.
What did Mary mistake Jesus for at the tomb on Sunday morning? A gardener.
See, the story of the Bible is story about
and, of course, Resurrection.
It is not a story about an evacuation.
It is not a story about pious souls departing to Heaven while the world below burns in judgment.
It is not a story about the physical world giving way to a spiritual realm.
The story of Jesus is a story of a God who won’t give up on his creation.
Home Is Wherever I’m With You
When Paul says “We are citizens of Heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we return to Heaven when we die, but that we “eagerly await a Savior from there.”
The message of the early church wasn’t about life after death.
It was about life after life after death.
Jesus’s resurrection wasn’t just a show of God’s power. It was a literal picture of what God plans to do with the entire cosmos when the Kingdom of Heaven merges completely with Earth.
Paul says “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
It is rooted in the belief that what God did for Jesus, He will one day also do for us.
But it had special properties, as well.
Therefore, the hope of the Christian is not a transformed, spiritual body after death, but a transformed, physical body in the coming Kingdom from which the resurrected body of Jesus is a prototype.
When Paul talks about the differences between the “natural body” and the “spiritual body” in his first letter to Corinthians, he’s not saying an immaterial, spiritual life is preferred to a physical body like our modern translations appear to suggest.
In the original Greek, he’s saying a life raised up with the resurrected Jesus is a life “animated or motivated by the Spirit” rather than a life “motived by our natural desires.”
The resurrected body of Christ is a glimpse of our future, transported to our past in order to transform our present.
Life in (the Kingdom of) Heaven doesn’t begin after you die.
It starts now.
Raise your glass if this Jesus story is starting to make a little bit more sense now.
And becoming a little bit more exciting.
It’s All About The Temple
A few weeks after Jesus’s death and resurrection, his followers were gathered together in Jerusalem celebrating the Jewish Festival of Weeks (Shavuot, or Pentecost).
While the disciples were with a large crowd, a violent wind rushed in and tongues of fire descended upon their heads. And then they start speaking in foreign languages they had never spoken before.
In order to fully comprehend this pivotal moment in history, we’re going to have to talk about temples.
But it’s okay. Temples are fascinating.
In the Old Testament, the temple was a special place where God’s Kingdom intersected with our reality on Earth.
There is absolutely no way you can overstate the importance the Temple played in the lives of ancient Hebrew people and the Israelites.
It was the place where the Israelites performed the sacrifice system established in the Torah. The shedding of animal blood temporarily blotted out (or atoned) for the sins of the people, and the priests would sprinkle the blood around the temple so God’s Shekinah Glory (or dwelling presence) could reside within it.
Whenever God’s Shekinah glory showed up it always arrived in the form of a cloud that crackled with power and energy.
So when tongues of fire started descending upon the disciples’ heads during Pentecost, the Jewish audience knew exactly what was happening.
God’s Shekinah glory was colliding with Earth and finding a new dwelling place,
a new temple.
If you follow Jesus, you are a temple.
A temple cleansed now and forever through the atoning blood of Jesus.
A place where Heaven meets Earth.
A sacred amalgamation of dignified flesh, redeemed blood, and holy spirit.
Divine star dust vitalized by the Shekinah Glory of God with the expressed purpose of ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Kingdom is Here
The Gospel of Mark, our earliest written account of the life of Jesus, begins with these words:
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”
The phrase “good news” comes from the Greek word “euangelion.”
From this word, we get our noun “Gospel” and the verb “evangelize,” or “to spread the good news.”
In the first century, anytime the Roman Empire conquered a new territory or crowned a new Caesar a messenger (evangelist) was sent to proclaim the euangelion to the four corners of the Empire.
The phrase “Son of God” is also not exclusive to the Christian tradition. It was a title given to the current Caesar. Roman coins were printed with the name of the Caesar and the words “theos huios,” or “son of god.”
With this opening sentence, Mark is not only pointing out the divine nature of Jesus, he is also making a bold, political statement that would have been immediately recognized by his first-century audience.
It would have been an
stunning opening line
that would have landed as subtly
as a sledgehammer.
Mark was making a statement.
And it’s just as earth-shattering now as it was back then.
The beautiful truth of the Gospel is that it is not just a story of our future, but instead the reality that the Kingdom of Heaven is in the process of merging with Earth at this very moment, and it was launched through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The Gospel isn’t really about going to Heaven when you die.
The Gospel is so much bigger than that.
The Gospel has everything to do with the redemption of the entire cosmos through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So what does this mean, practically, for us today?
Caught up in between phase one and phase two of God’s redemptive plan for the cosmos, we are granted a most glorious task.
We are messengers of the new euangelion.
The King has ascended his throne. But he is a different sort of King. And he is a King for the oppressed, abused, poor, forgotten, sick, weak, lonely, brokenhearted, marginalized and lost.
As a nexus of Heaven and Earth, we are to advance the Kingdom through our vocal proclamation of the Gospel, the creation of new human temples among every tongue, tribe, and nation from which God will remake the world.
And we are participants in the heavening of Earth, blotting out despair, injustice, and inequality through sacrificial acts of peace, justice, mercy, creativity, and love.
We are the vessels through which God is punching holes through the fabric of the cosmos, allowing light from the Kingdom of Heaven to spill into the inky darkness of the present age.
This is a story that can shock and delight us.
This is a story that can energize us.
This is a story that wakes us up from our slumber and compels us to action.
This is the moment “Thy Kingdom Come, On Earth, As It Is In Heaven” transforms from prayer to divine calling.
Addendum: Last Words
According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s final words on the cross were
Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?
“My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
But it was not a lament.
Jesus was quoting from a Psalm 22.
A Psalm that begins with Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani, but ends in a great feast and future generations proclaiming “He has done it!”
It is a song that begins drenched in darkness, but ends illuminated in triumphant hope.
Go in peace, my friends.