LeBron Sunday

I drafted this earlier in the week but didn’t bring it in for a landing. So consider this a rough draft:

The author of life you put to death, but God raised him from the dead; of this we are witnesses.

  • Acts 3:15

The second Sunday of Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday, but I don’t think the third Sunday has a formal name, so let me nominate “LeBron Sunday.” Let me explain.

Some years ago, when LeBron James was in his NBA ascendancy (and his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers), Nike ran building-sized billboards of LeBron’s images with the tagline “We are all witnesses.” The allusion, lost on many, was that watching LeBron (whose nickname is “the King”) was akin to the experience of disciples of Jesus taking in the experience of Christ. The few who caught the allusion, almost entirely evangelical Christians, took offense. Most everyone else just thought it was a cool turn of phrase. Which, like many Biblical allusions, it was.

Side note: had more Clevelanders recognized that the Greek root of the word translated “witnesses” is the same as “martyr,” this campaign might have hit differently. Because Cleveland sports fans have known something of sports-fan martyrdom, and would again when the King took his talents to South Beach. But I digress.

The “witnesses” theme runs through both the first reading from Acts and the Gospel reading from Luke (which, lest you think that is amazing, may reflect the fact that they were written by the same author as companion pieces). But of what are we witnesses, exactly?

There is a common optical illusion in which a figure or scene looks like one thing, then when pivoted takes on a completely different form and meaning. That’s what we have going on here.

One way to look at the testimony of Jesus’ followers is that they turn the Jewish expectation of the Messiah 90 degrees to reveal a different reality. In today’s Gospel, Luke 24:35-48, there’s a sentence that deserves more scrutiny. The passage as a whole seems like a watered down version of last week’s appearance by Jesus in the locked upper room, minus the pointed confrontation with Thomas and adding in a snack. But in the midst of this, the author says “Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” To which my knee-jerk response is, “Why now? What took you so long?”

The disciples spend most of the Gospels clueless as to Jesus’ point, and Luke, seemingly aware that he needs to get this motley lot in line before he makes them the centerpiece of the Church, uses this appearance as the point at which they “figure it all out.” To which I say, things might have gone a lot easier if Jesus had done this part earlier in the story.

Except the “it” they figured out probably required them to experience the suffering and death of their Messiah. The testimony to which the disciples are witnesses in the Acts passage, is that Jesus was put to death and was risen. This aligns to the Luke passage, in which Jesus opens their minds to understand that the Messiah had to suffer.

I’m not sure they – or we – would get it without first experiencing the suffering of Jesus. Just as an optical illusion only works if your mind buys into the first image. As did their culture, the first disciples expected a kick-ass victorious Messiah, a military and political figure making Israel great again. And the reorientation that exposes the optical illusion of that mirage is the cross and resurrection. The Messiah suffers and dies. And yet still wins.

I sometimes wonder if we need another reorientation of that scene in the Church. We have come to focus on one way of understanding this paradox of a suffering Messiah – an Atonement formula in which Jesus is a sacrifice on behalf of our sins – that sometimes I think we miss the real point. Maybe another shift, another “opening of our minds” might help us realize that the miracle of Easter is not that Jesus subs in for us in suffering, but that God reasserts that Love is always stronger than Death, that no matter how much we reject God, God chooses us.

I’d like to make Easter less formulaic that way. Crossing conventional wisdom is challenging though; it is in essence what led Jesus to the cross.

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