Fire at Notre Dame

During the holiest week on the Christian calendar, one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world was badly damaged by an accidental fire. Over the years, many church buildings and houses of worship have been damaged and destroyed by fire: sometimes accidental fire, sometimes fire caused by lightning, sometimes arson, and sometimes acts of war. But yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame of Paris will be remembered more than most church fires because of the history of the building, because of its status as a landmark in Paris, and because of its beauty. Citizens of Paris and of France mourn the loss, as do many people around the world. Roman Catholics and other Christians mourn the loss, but so do many people who are not Christians. Already large amounts of money are being promised to rebuild what was lost and to restore what was damaged.

A few people might say that the money would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor or spreading the news of the gospel to all nations. That feeling has always existed within the Church. When a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, his disciples grumbled about the waste, but Jesus responded, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 13:8-9). Jesus accepts the artwork created to honor him as he accepts all sincere worship from his people. The glory of God and the gift of salvation through Christ is proclaimed by cathedrals with statues and stained glass windows as well as by humble preachers in humble surroundings.

But what of the commandment to make no graven images? What of the sin of the golden calf? Idols are works of religious art, but they have a purpose: they are meant to capture the divine and to make the divine serve human purposes. God does not oppose all religious artwork: the same God who banned graven images and despised the golden calf also told Moses how to make the ark of the covenant, including the mercy seat with its two cherubim. The sin is not in the work of art; the sin is in the intent of the people, whether they wish to honor God, or whether they wish to honor themselves and establish control over God.

God designed a tabernacle to travel with the Israelites in the wilderness so his dwelling would be in their midst. King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem based on the pattern of the tabernacle so God would dwell in the midst of his people, even though the entire universe cannot contain the Lord. Imagine the heartache and despair of God’s people when Solomon’s temple was destroyed at the end of a long siege by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But God worked in history so his people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The second temple was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD. Jesus prophesied that the temple would be leveled, with no two stones atop one another, and this was fulfilled when Roman soldiers pried apart the stones of the ruined temple to gather the gold that had melted and flowed between the stones.

Forty years before the destruction of the second temple, Jesus entered that temple and drove out the moneychangers and the merchants of sacrificial animals. When temple authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to do these things, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (John 2:19). “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). For the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), just as he made his dwelling in the tabernacle and in the temple. The human body of Jesus is the ultimate temple, the dwelling of the Lord, the one point of access that people have to the true God.

What happened to that body, that temple? It was arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was slapped, beaten, spit upon, and handed over to the Romans. It was scourged, mocked, tortured, and killed. It was nailed to a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem and left to die in the darkness of Good Friday. Yet, as Jesus promised, on the third day it was raised, restored, healed, and made alive, never to die again.

The fire at Notre Dame reminds Christians of the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. I hope and I expect that Christians will gather in or near the ruined cathedral this Good Friday and will hear again the scriptures that describe the destruction of the true Temple, the body of Christ the Lord. I hope and I expect that the same Christians will return to the cathedral Easter morning and will hear and celebrate the scriptures that describe the resurrection of the true Temple. Wherever Christians gather this Friday and this Sunday, they will speak, not of a beautiful building damaged by fire, but of a beautiful Savior crucified and risen. May the fire at Notre Dame be a witness to the world of the Passion of our Lord and of his victory over all evil. J.

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Busy times

The last couple of weeks have been busy. Most of the busy-ness was unavoidable, but the net effect has felt (at times) overwhelming.

Most important, of course, were Holy Week and Easter. Special services for Good Friday and Easter are to be expected. We observed the anniversary of the Lord’s death in our place, conquering death and granting forgiveness and eternal life. Then we celebrated the anniversary of his resurrection, announcing his victory and establishing the guarantee of our resurrection to live in a new and perfect world.

On the morning of Good Friday, a member of the congregation died. He had been ailing for some time; given his faith, it even seemed appropriate for his to die on such a day. He was seventy-three years old, a lifetime member of the same congregation. One of the other members called him “a pillar of the church.” After the funeral service, one of his sons remarked to me, “Finally Dad got to fill the church.”

On top of that, a historical exhibition that I was assigned to create and assemble opened at my workplace the night of Good Friday. As soon as I realized that the opening date was a holiday, I alerted the other people involved that I would not be present for the opening. For them the date was set—the second Friday of the month is a given for such events, because of other plans involving the place where I work and its neighbors in the community. With help, I put together the elements of the exhibit on Monday afternoon, and a “soft opening” was held Wednesday night prior to the official opening. A “soft opening” is only advertised within the workplace, and there are no refreshments. Four people came into the exhibit during the hour of the “soft opening,” and two of them were casual visitors unaware that there even was a “soft opening.”

I had decided in March that my First Friday Fiction would be a story taken out of a novel which I started writing more than thirty years ago. When I made that decision, I did not realize that I would end up posting the story in six installments, bleeding into Holy Week. Nor did I anticipate that typing and updating the story would inspire me to complete it in two more parts. My draft of the six installments actually ended with discussion questions, intended to gather responses that might shape the rest of the story. Instead, I began answering the questions myself, which led to writing the final parts of the story.

Embedded in these busy times were three landmarks for this Salvageable blog. I passed the second anniversary of the beginning of the blog on April 14. Somewhere in there I published my four hundredth post (one of the story episodes—I haven’t bothered to see which of them was #400). Around the same time, I reached one thousand different visitors who have looked at least once at Salvageable.

That mark of one thousand different visitors might not seem impressive, but I am happy about it. After all, writing anonymously, I have not promoted the blog on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media. In the past two years I have made many good friends, even though we know each other only through WordPress. I am grateful for all my readers, and I also enjoy reading your writings.

Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come! J.

Cleansing the Temple

Some years ago I was watching the movie Jesus Christ, Superstar on television after the children had gone to bed. One young daughter left her bedroom for some reason and happened to see a scene from the movie through the doorway—it was the scene in which Jesus violently disrupts the buying and selling that is taking place in the Temple. My daughter recognized that the actor in the movie was representing Jesus, but she was not familiar with this event as described in the Bible. The anger and violence with which Jesus confronted the misuse of God’s Temple puzzled and frightened her.

According to Mark, this cleansing of the Temple happened on Monday of Holy Week, the day after Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew and Luke both describe the two events without transition, but neither of them says they took place on the same day; John does not mention this cleansing of the Temple, but he includes a similar event near the beginning of his account of the Gospel. Jesus was passionate about the Temple. It provided God’s people a place to have access to God. Animals were sacrificed there as an offering to atone for sin, though they were only pictures of the ultimate Offering that would atone for sin. Prayers were said in and around the Temple. As Jesus pointed out on that Monday, God’s house was intended to be a house of prayer.

Jesus then added that the buyers and sellers had made the Temple a den of thieves. I have not been able to verify this account, but I have read that when people brought their animals to the Temple for the sacrifice, they were told that their animals were flawed and unacceptable for sacrifice to the Lord. The buyers offered to purchase the flawed lamb or goat or bull from the worshipers and sell them a proper animal for sacrifice (at a higher price, of course). After the sale, the flawed animal was taken to a pen elsewhere on Temple property until it was sold to another worshiper in a similar way.

In the same way, the money-changers were cheating the people. The priests of the Temple said that Roman money was no good in God’s house. The money-changers offered to exchange the temple shekel for Roman coins. The exchange rate was not favorable for the worshipers. Of course the money-changers and even the priests had no difficulty spending Roman coins in the marketplace. When they asked Jesus, during Holy Week, about paying taxes to Rome and he asked them to show him a Roman coin, they had no trouble finding one to show him, even though that money was supposedly no good in God’s house.

Even today enemies of the Church accuse Christians of hypocrisy and greed. Unfortunately, they often find enough examples to prove their point. Jesus does not want his people to be known for their sins. He has paid a great price to take away their sins. Jesus still wants his house to be a house of prayer and a place where people may approach the Lord to receive his grace, his forgiveness, and his love. Therefore Jesus still fumes when he sees his Temple distracted by worldly things to the point that they no longer proclaim the message God has given them to share.

The wrath of God is real, as I had the opportunity to explain to my daughter that night years ago. God’s wrath at sin is not confined to the Old Testament; Jesus himself strikes out at sinful injustice and the way some people take advantage of others in the name of the Lord. If we are like Jesus, we will oppose evil wherever we find it. We will seek to make God’s house a house of prayer, not a den of thieves. But we will also make God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ the center of our message to a sinful and needy world. J.

Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Most weeks consist of seven days, but Holy Week—the most important time in the Christian calendar—is eight days long. The first day of Holy Week is Palm Sunday, and the eighth day of Holy Week is Easter Sunday. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each devote at least one-third of their volume to these eight days.

As he was approaching Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday called Passover, Jesus sent two of his disciples into the suburbs to get a young donkey that had never been ridden. The donkey was so young that, according to Matthew and Mark, the disciples also brought its mother to Jesus. A donkey is a simple beast of burden, hardly fit for a king, but the privilege of being first to ride an animal is indeed the prerogative of kings. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that Jesus would enter Jerusalem in this way. He wrote, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Thousands of other people had come from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover. Some of these people had heard Jesus preach and had seen some of the miracles he performed. Maybe the Galilean crowd included some who had eaten bread and fish when one boy provided his lunch and Jesus used the food to feed five thousand people. Maybe some of these Galileans had been healed by Jesus and others had friends or relatives who had been healed by Jesus.

The crowd gave Jesus a red-carpet treatment. They lined the road with their cloaks so the donkey would not get its feet dirty. Others cut branches from the trees to line the road, and still others waved branches in the air. John reports that some of the people waved palm branches, which is why the commemoration is called Palm Sunday. Palms do not grow in the hills of Jerusalem, but their branches can be obtained in the Jordan River valley near Jericho, and many of these travelers had passed through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. The palm branch is a symbol of Israel, so waving a palm branch is like waving a flag at a parade today for the people of Israel.

The crowd also sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem in their midst. They sang “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means “Save us.” It had become a word of praise, since only the mighty can save others. The people sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a quote from Psalm 118 that their teachers said refers to the Messiah. They sang about the King, the Son of David, other labels given to the Messiah. They openly declared their belief that Jesus was going to keep the promises God had made to Moses and the prophets, that he was going to redeem and rule the people of God. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd objected to the parade and the words the people were singing, but when the citizens of Jerusalem asked who was causing all this fuss, the Galileans told them, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Jesus chose to enter the city of the Lord on a special day. He entered on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, a day of preparation for the coming Passover celebration. On this day, every family among God’s people was to take a lamb into their household and treat it as a pet for half a week. Then they would kill, cook, and eat this lamb. The death of this lamb would remind these families of the cost of their sins, but it would also remind them how God rescued his people from slavery and death in Egypt at the time of the first Passover. Jesus now began to fulfill the promise John the Baptist made when John pointed to Jesus and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what Jesus came to Jerusalem to accomplish that week. J.