Perfect love casts out fear...
- 1 John 4:18
Darkness falls. Drawing his final breaths through suffocating lungs, soul overwhelmed to the point of death, Jesus laments again like the Psalmist.
“Eli, Eli, Lema sabachthani?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
It is a red letter moment and it catches our breath. Matthew gives us the Hebrew for Jesus’ final words so that we can hear him calling too, “Eli, Eli”... It is no wonder that those standing around thought Jesus was appealing to Elijah to come and save him.
But Jesus was not crying out for help. He was crying out for God.
An onlooker offered him another drink of sour wine. The Psalmist almost anticipated this moment:
I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face...scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless...they put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst...
The Psalmist laments. Jesus laments. T.S. Eliot wrote that the world would end, “not with a bang but a whimper.” And in a way, it did.
So the onlookers take a step back and with bated breath, they wait to see what will happen. Will Jesus be rescued? Will Elijah come?
How myopic their vision was sometimes, and ours.
Jesus cries out one last time in defeat and gives his life at last, the light of the world, extinguished like a puff of smoke. For the first and only time in all of history, he disconnected from the Father he loved, from the One who had been so delighted with him, from the One with whom he had conspired to create and redeem the world. And to the grave, he dragged with him brokenness and sorrow and sin, mourning and death and crying and pain, like Gandalf dying with the Balrog.
“Eli, Eli, Lema sabachthani?”
It was the furthest cry possible from Eden.
Let’s remember Eden for a moment. The creation poem in Genesis starts in darkness too, presiding over the surface of the deep. Next God creates light. Then sky and land and stars. Then creepy things that creepeth, swarmy things that swarmeth, and finally, God’s masterpiece, humankind. And all was good. But it was not good, God had said, for humans to be alone, and so he made them for one another. He created them partners so they could know and be intimately known, loved, connected. They were made for it. We were made for it.
It is an old story. The man and the woman were naked and they felt no shame, hiding nothing, witholding nothing. And it was good, it was good, it was very good. One might even say it had been perfect.
We use that word perfect in a particular way in our world. We generally use the word perfection to describe something unblemished, unmarked, free of mistakes, all or nothing, the ideal as we imagine it to be. But the Hebrews and Greeks thought of perfect in a different way.
For Greeks, perfection looked forward. Perfection was final state, end goal, maturity, growth, completeness, gold refined by fire, a baby girl grown up into a woman. To be perfect meant you’d finished, you’d arrived, you’d become, you’d been transformed into the thing you were created to be. It was about leaving behind your old ways and becoming someone better.
For Hebrews, perfection looked backward. Hebrews thought of perfection as original state, first design, a baby’s skin before it’s been weathered, a peach before it’s been baked into pie. To be perfect meant you’d been reclaimed, you’d returned, you’d been restored into the thing you were created to be, naked and not ashamed, imperfections stripped away until you're you again. It’s not about becoming someone better; it’s about restoring what you’ve always been.
Both imagery is used in Scripture, but let’s think in the Hebrew way for a moment, like Matthew did.
In the Hebrew mindset, Adam and Eve would have been created perfect, original, a people declared worthy and whole as God intended them to be. They were fulfilling their best purposes, achieving full closeness, confident as they were with nothing added - naked and they felt no shame. They were not perfect because they were flawless ideals but because they were whole people, undivided in loyalty and love to God, to each other, and to the whole world. In fact, the Greek word that most often gets translated into perfect in the New Testament - teleios - is closely connected with the Hebrew word shalom in the Old Testament, which means peace, wholeness, connectedness, completeness. It means the world as it was meant to be, delightfully meant to be. It means Eden.
And yet, even in the beauty of that design, Adam and Eve chose to go the other way, to grasp at the fruit, to grasp at control. They thought equality with God was something to be grasped, like a fruit off a tree they were told not to eat. And through all their grasping to help themselves, they became disconnected from God and from each other, shedding their innate perfection, their innate wholeness and connection, at the base of the tree. And as the story goes, “they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness.” For the first time, they felt shame in who they were and so they disconnected from God and each other.
Cultural anthropologists who study the Honor and Shame culture that Jesus lived in, describe shame as the feeling of being considered less valuable or worthy in the eyes of the community. It was about public opinion, unworthiness to the point of rejection, the disconnection they were all afraid of. In that world, shame was the a fear of ending up profoundly forsaken, profoundly alone because we're unworthy and the community says so.
21st century shame researcher, Brené Brown defines shame in our day this way: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” In our world, shame is the a fear of ending up profoundly forsaken, profoundly alone because we're unworthy and the community says so.
Apparently not much has changed, but perhaps we've learned to cover it better. Shame is one of our oldest diseases, an after-shock of the Fall that reverberates still. Throughout time and history, shame is the universal feeling that something in you is not Enough to be really loved, not...Good Enough. Funny Enough. Thin Enough. Pretty Enough. Powerful Enough. Successful Enough. Smart Enough. Safe Enough. Interesting Enough. Worthy Enough. And when everyone else finds out you’re not Enough, you’ll end up profoundly alone.
At some point or another, we’ve all heard mocking voices flinging shame in our direction. And it doesn't take too long before we hear our own mocking voices call out among the scoffers, sometimes in the deepest recesses of our own hearts: Unworthy. Rejected. Not Enough. Shame lurks around in the shadows, waiting to accuse us, to remind us of long-forgotten deeds, childhood wounds, fears of rejection that still cut us deep. And when it hits, we are left feeling small and weak and profoundly alone, broken into a million different pieces and living that way.
Wherever you’ve felt it - and to an extent, we all do - that’s shame. Sure, Jesus loves us, this we know - we know, we know, we know. But sometimes we still end up believing that he’ll love us when we’re good Enough just a little bit more. So we work and we work and we try to hide the rest. Robert Hilliker described what so many of us feel: “Shame started as a two-person experience, but as I got older. I learned how to do shame all by myself.”
So what did Adam and Eve do when they felt shame?
“They felt shame at their nakedness so they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves.”
They’d always been naked, but for the first time, Adam and Eve felt they had something to hide. So they took the reigns and stitched fig leaves together and put on clothes to cover it up. They were afraid of being seen naked and ending up profoundly alone.
We’ve all made clothes like that, haven’t we, fashioned in our own styles? We’ve tried to cover up our imperfections, our sins, and our shame behind fig leaves. Some of us sew fig leaves of perfectionism or legalism or busyness or addictions. Some of us cover up by people-pleasing or judging others to distract or outsource our shame. Some of us wear fig leaves of cynicism or criticism or blame. We don't know what else to do when we're not Enough.
And you know, it’s true. When we feel that we aren’t Enough, it’s because now after Eden, we aren’t. Fear of being alone is a valid fear, because it's always dependant on others' opinions of us. And in the ways we have mistreated God and the world, we have become unworthy of the connections we were made for. There is nothing in ourselves that can remake connections we've unmade, nothing we can do to secure our own worthiness in the eyes of others. As a people, we’ve left our innate perfection at the base of the tree and put on fig leaf coverings instead. And so we find ourselves in a cycle of grasping to get it back on our own - sin and shame and disconnection and fig leaves and sin and shame and disconnection and fig leaves, in an effort to prove to ourselves and others that we are, in fact, Enough. It is an epidemic.
And so Jesus, the new Adam, the embodiment of perfect love and connection, the very essence of innate Enough, dies naked on a cross, experiencing the ultimate disconnection from the Father and humanity that only a sin cycle could cause, shamed to the utmost without a fig leaf in sight.
Cyril of Jerusalem described early baptism rites in which candidates were baptized naked, symbolically restored through Christ to the people they were made to be:
In this also imitating Christ, who was stripped naked on the Cross, and by His nakedness...openly triumphed on the tree. For since the adverse powers made their lair in you, you may no longer wear that old garment. O wondrous thing! You were naked in the sight of all, and were not ashamed; for truly ye bore the likeness of the first-formed Adam, who was naked in the garden, and was not ashamed. May the soul which has once put it off, never again put it on.
O wondrous thing! Christ took on our unworthiness, all the disconnection we earned in Eden, and remade us for worthiness and connection instead. There is no more cause to be ashamed when we are honest about who we really are, when we lay open our actual need, when we stand naked before God and each other, because all our sin and all our shame hangs bare on the cross for all to see, and then with Jesus, breathes its last. There in Golgotha, everything that’s bent and worth shaming in us died with him too. May we never again put it on, for said the writer of Hebrews, "by one sacrifice, he has forever made us perfect."
He loves us not because we are innately Enough but because, praise God, he is. And on the cross, he shared his Enough with us, saying My grace is Enough...My power is made perfect in weakness...You can finally be free of the fig leaves. Christ has peeled them away so you can be you again.
In the truest sense, God himself died profoundly forsaken, profoundly alone so we would never have to:
“Eli, Eli, Lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
We don't always get answers when we ask God "why," but I think that Jesus did. He got us.
Pastor Brynn Harrington
Have you ever wondered if God had forsaken you? Have you felt isolated? Cut off from the land of the living because of some secret sin or deeply ingrained shame? Will you honor our Executed Lord by letting these things die with Him? Christ died for you. Christ died for you. Christ died for you. Amen.
The Agnus Dei
“O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us. O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace. Amen.”
Today is a day of total fasting. It’s the Yom Kippur of the Christian calendar. If possible and responsible, you are invited to a total fast for the day. Drink water and water alone until after this evening’s Good Friday service. Join us tonight at 7pm as we reflect further on this question Jesus asks on the cross, and on the other last statements of Christ.
Pastor Aaron Engler
- Ps. 22:1.
- Ps. 69:7-17.
- Murray, Andrew. Be Perfect.
- Hartin, P.J. The Spirituality of Perfection.
- deSilva, David. Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity.
- Brown, Brene, Daring Greatly.
- 2 Cor. 12:9.
Cyril of Jerusalem, "On the Mysteries of Baptism", 4th c.
- Eliot, T.S. “The Hollow Men.”