Thursday, September 17, 2009
Was it because he made the startling claim that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's Delivering Servant, the Messiah? Hardly.
The synagogue members actually found that initial claim exciting and thoroughly appealing. Potential would-be Messianic figures, of whom there were many, were Jewish red-blooded heroes who prompted hope for Israel's liberation from Roman tyranny. Who wouldn't want the true Messiah to come from his hometown, especially a place like Nazareth.
Look closer. The reason lies elsewhere. The key is in what immediately follows. For what Jesus said next was bound to make any good first-century Jew mad as hell. It was the 'unkind' remarks he offered about the foreigners and the homeboys that got their shorts in a knot.
Unpopular as it might have been to hear, Jesus pointed to the times in Jewish histsory when God favored foreigner enemies, even an enemy general, over Jews. In effect, Jesus was saying 'God is more likely on the side of the enemy (i.e., the Romans) than on yours, so you better not become too proud of me after all.' How abrasive, but Jesus was, if anything, also a prophet, one who spoke unpopular messages. Not likely, he insisted, that they'd accept his messianic credentials now, even in --and especially in-- his hometown. Obviously, he knew the danger he might face. Strangely, he escaped their notice in his leaving them behind.
Jesus' bad behavior would be tantamount to a member of the KKK celebrating the virtues of black people. Or, closer to home for most of us, it would be like standing up at a 'God and country' rally in Red America and reading some old story about divine compassion toward an Iraqi army officer, named Nahiim, in Saddam Hussein's elite guard unit. The result may not stop at a few boos from the crowd; it would likely get you killed.
'Officer, we don't know how this guy ended up at the bottom of that cliff! Looks like he slipped.'
What might God be saying to American Christians through these subversive words of Jesus? I have an idea, but I have little doubt that Jesus is bound to be as offensice now as he was two thousand years ago.
Today, a kind of Islamaphobia (fear of Muslims and their religion) seems to be gripping the church. That's understandable, but such fear and frustration is nothing new. Others have lived under the onslaught of oppression, and even terrorism. For centuries, believers have often endured living in tension with the enemy. How enemies were treated in response is where the crucial lessons lie.
Long ago, the contemporaries of Jonah feared Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and for good reason. The Assyrians had committed unspeakable acts of terrrorism against Israel. They were some of the most fierce and fearsome people in the ancient Near East. Yet, God had compassion on them, sent Jonah to call them to repentence, and ultimately turned from his judgment that they so clearly deserved. The book of Jonah was a reminder, a sign that God is full of surprises. Like people say, 'we are probably going to be surprised at who is in heaven and who is not.'
It was not for nothing that Jesus compared himself to Jonah. His own story was a reminder that God's compassion was remarkably unpredictable.
Jews of the first century hated their Roman occupiers and despised their ancient rivals, the Samaritans. An accurate understanding of the Gospels must reflect these political realities. When Jesus spoke of openly of enemies (echthroi) and how to properly 'resist' their often violent opposition, everyone knew he was referring to. The setting was not simply limited to personal enemies, but had primary reference to political and military enemies. These are not generic, abstract references to any and all enemies, but to the very concrete domination by Roman rule, Roman authorities, and Roman soldiers. These same enemies, Jesus predicted, would lay seige to the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19: 43). To suggest, as Jesus did, that the Jews were to love these enemies and exercise patient generosity toward them, helps us more fully understand the growing antipathy toward his message.
Jesus commaned his followers to love such enemies, turn the other cheek, not seek revenge, and employ strategies of reconciliation and peacemaking. The controlling idea was that unless we do these things, we shall become like them, and forfeit what it means to bear the image of the Father. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God (Matthew 5:9).
What made this especially hard to grasp, no doubt, was that the something different was expected under the Mosaic tradition of handling enemies. That tradition extolled and celebrated the instances of holy war, military resistance, and principles and actions of what has come to be called the lex talionis (i.e. punishment in kind: an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for life).
Jesus' remarkable change of emphasis represents a radically new direction, a complete paradigm shift, a new commandment. Instead of hatred and self-preservation, it embodied enemy love, voluntary suffering, and cross-shaped discipleship.
Just as scandalous, were Jesus other teacheings and parables. They emphasized the upside-down nature of God's rule and reign in the world. The long-expected inbreaking kingdom of God would contradict the normal expectations of who's in and who's out. The last, the lost and the least would inherit the kingdom. Pagans would rise up and call their one-time victims blessed. Outsiders would enter the end time banquet while insiders would be banished. Remarkably, Jesus uses a story of a Samaritan as the model of loving neighbor.
Jesus was radically counter-intuitive. The difficult problem is that he has called us who would follow him to a similar 'political' stance. The Christian community is to be a city (polis) set on a hill for the watching world to view. Discipleship in this community trumps lesser loyalties that are grounded in our ethno- and geo-political roots. How then shall we live?
When Christians abide in political fear and promote social xenophobia, they further the climate of distrust and division in the world. They do not resemble the Father above.
On the other hand, building a relationship with the 'enemy' is infinitely more Christlike than spreading religious fear and hate. Being a bridge maker in the present political climate requires our most imaginative and ambitious efforts and prayers. It means self-sacrifice, love of and forgiveness towards our worst enemies. It may mean new tasks for our churches both locally and around the world. How we reach out to our enemies will define who we are.
I remember the true story of how some American missionaries serving in Asia were threatened by some local Muslim radicals. To their great astonishment, several of the caring Muslim neighbors surrounded their house in order to keep them safe. They risked their lives for these Christians.
The stories of Jonah, Jesus, and the Good Samaritan were not about tensions with people who believed and worshiped like they did. It was about people who believed and worshipped completely different than the normal in-group.
Jesus' commands to his followers were to 'love your enemies,' carry the soldier's pack an 'extra mile,' and 'turn the other cheek.' These were issued in the context political conflict, the clash of cultures, torture, and oppression. They cannot easily be watered down to the level of church disputes, family feuds, or falling out with neighbors. The regular practice of doing so is the biggest domestication of Jesus and discipleship ever foisted on the church.
Obviously, Christian discipleship and peacemaking is a risky undertaking. It could get you killed by your 'enemies'----and just as likely by your 'friends.' Jesus was the victim of both.
Monday, January 26, 2009
There certainly isn't anything wrong with the 'fear of the Lord' as a key motivation in life. It is a healty perspective that simply acknowledges that I am accountable to a righteous and loving God. Living in the fear of God means, among other things, respecting the Person who loves and cares for me night and day. It also means realizing as I am prone to live life on my own terms at the expense and to the neglect of others, I know God has the right to correct me. Sometimes that correction may be painful and I fear it. I think that both elements are basically what it means to 'fear God.'
THE PASSION TO CONVERT.
But growing up in a fundamentalist context may include a negative factor that goes beyond a healthy fear of God. There was this incredible fear of hell, a place so terrible and horrid that there is nothing on earth to compare with it. It was this fear of going to hell that plagued me regularly during my early teenage years. It would especially haunt me in quiet moments--like when going to bed at night. That, with the regular pressure to 'walk the aisle,' made those quiet moments intensely oppressive. Partial relief for this anxiety came through my own mother's wise counsel. She took some of the pressure off by telling me that I could make a decision for Christ once I understood it better. That seemed to contradict the 'urgency of the gospel' that the preachers were telling me, but it went a long way to help me feel, knowing very well that I really didn't understand 'how to be saved.'
Like many, I had walked the aisle to answer the alter call, but though I meant well, nothing really happened to me. I was basically scared into it, going up to the preacher, shaking his hand, praying the sinner's prayer, and getting baptized. Nothing much happened after that. I felt no different. I had no 'assurance' that I had spiritually passed from death to life. It merely compounded my guilt. It was crappy.
Later on in life, I would come to question, and even despise, this type of pressure filled evangelism. I view it largely as human pressure added by preachers to convert people. Some call this 'man-centered evangelism,' the idea that conversion can be manipulated by strong emotional pressure. Very often, this kind of conversion seems to wear off. There is a good possibility that it turns some permanently away from God. Who wants to go through such humiliation and defeat. Could it be that many find religion a goofy thing for this very reason? Emotionalism insults our basic intelligence. Could it be that some are atheists now who had to endure such experiences? I'm convinced it could.
WHAT IS EVANGELISM?
Just as important to consider is this: Was this the way the Gospel was originally designed to operate? Did Jesus, Paul, and the early church preach the gospel in this manner--with alter calls, sentimental music, and the threat of going to hell at any minute? And exactly what is hell, anyway? Did the preacher have it right? Who was I to question at such a young age? I simply went along with it and made the best of it, painful at it all was. Ironically, later on, evangelism and mission would become major interests of my life. But as I would journey through in theological studies, evangelism and missions would take on a different meaning---one that I was sure was more biblical and meaningful.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
This feature of the service was called 'the invitation.' Gospel songs were sung in the background, reinforcing the preacher's urging the congregation to 'surrender to God' in the form of 'first time salvation' or 'rededication' and consecration to God. The most favorite and most appropriate hymn was 'Just AS I Am.' To resist such powerful calls to conversion took a lot of willpower ('hard heartedness'). To spurn God's invitation through the preacher was to resist the call of the Spirit and court disaster. 'My Spirit will not always strive with man' was frequently quoted as proof that we had been sufficiently warned. This kind of revivalism with its heavy doses of fiery pressure sent many of us down the aisle more than once. It must have been the same drama that we read about in school when in the 18th century the famous New England preacher, Jonathan Edwards, would move congregations to faint and cry, desparately calling out to God for mercy. I would later learn that my church heritage had descended in part from the spiritual movement called 'revivalism.'
There is a certain power and fascination about revivalism that is unique and perhaps useful. It certainly has the advantage of making people realize that God and the gospel are serious issues. Down the road, I would learn that there were other ways and traditions to communicate the gospel. Nevertheless, this was my church tradition--my family tree, if you will. God uses different means to accomplish his own ends. "The Spirit blows where it wills' and apparently 'how he wills.'
Saturday, January 24, 2009
This may seem strange to say, but I don't really know if I was truly raised a Fundamentalist Christian. I mean, our family went to church and all. And the church was quite fundamentalistic, but I still don't know if I was raised to be a fundamentalist. Certainly, our Southern Baptist (Grapevine Missionary Baptist!) church was very conservative and the central social and theological concern was 'getting saved." You had to get saved, you had to get other people saved. This persuasion was expressed in the most emotional way. Our pastor was, by any measure, a kind of Elmer Gantry-like preacher. He could move about the front of the church---raising his voice, preaching on the afterlife, and, in general, scaring the hell out of us. As I will explain later, this eventually took a toll on me emotionally, but I think one of the things that tempered this impact and made it somewhat bearable was the kind of family I had. Also, there were plenty of other distractions along the way. Church was a regular part of my life, but it wasn't the only part, it certainly wasn't the main part. My friends and I were busy doing other things. Going to school, playing hard, getting into mischief, watching Westerns on television, and participating in sports. Church was what we attended on Sunday mornings, or it was the youth programs I was involved in. But mostly, church stopped there. It wasn't something we took home with us much. We had church friends, but we didn't disect sermons and discuss the Bible. Church and Bible were kind of mysterious stuff--stuff about 'getting saved'--whatever that was.
But since I decided to 'give my life to Jesus' at age 16, the church experience started to become more meaningful. I started going to church more often, even attending Wednesday evening prayer meetings. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was becoming a fairly serious Christian. I even tried to get a couple of other people 'saved.' Yet, it was probably after I left home for college that I truly became a Fundamentalist Christian. Up to then, Christianity was about my church, my friends, and some good times.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Biblical Texts summarize for us.
First, it is important to realize that the Old Testament was written over a very long time. Who wrote it and when are vexed questions that puzzle the best of scholars. But again, I want to take a shortcut and look at the typical way that the Old Testament summarizes itself---and it does! ('ll add some texts later when I find some time.) Yes, there are texts which summarize what's up. Most of these are found in the Psalms. These Psalms contain confessions of faith in Israel's God, YHWH (usually pronounced as Yahweh) and are telling us what this God is like. How do they do that?
God was understood through history.
In a nutshell, they tell us what God is like by rehearsing what he has done for his people, Israel. They aren't lectures in systematic theology with big words that begin with omni-. They are simple words that lay out the amazing story of God's love expressed in his historic deeds among the people. Sometimes they mention his original creation of the world, but always they tell of something that was strategically important to the nation as a whole. These will variously include references to God's covenant with Abraham, Moses and David, his deliverance from Egyptian bondage, his gift of law (Torah), his gift of land, his deliverances from the enemy, etc. In other words, Israel confessed her faith by telling the interconnected story from exodus to exile and beyond.
History is at the heart of the Bible.
If we want to understand the Old Testament, we have to be in touch with its national history. Its a bit like our own need to understand America in terms of European migration, entering the new land, encountering its original inhabitants, its gradual settlement and expansion, the fight for independence from Great Britian, the establishment of an independent political body, etc. Only by learning those historical details and the order in which they happened is an immigrant going to understand the country they are making their own. Likewise, only when we grasp something of the history of Israel as recounted in the Old Testament are we in any position to make Old Testament faith our own. As we shall see later on, Israel's history is the very early part of Jesus' history and our history too.
A Nation is promised.
So let's briefly review the direction and details of that history. First, there was the need for the nation Israel (Genesis 1-11 basically says the world is a mess) to shine God's ultimate blessing of restoration back into a dark world. Israel is called to redirect the world from going its own way to going the way of God. That begins with the call of Abraham, the father of the nation. He was promised an innumerable offspring (seed) and he was promised a land to provide a home base for them to live. This plan of seed and land is basic to Old Testament theology.
A Nation is born.
Second, God allowed this growing nation to become enslaved in Egypt. They were like a child that was ready to be born through birthpains. God was giving birth to a son. That nation is born when it is abruptly removed from her womb down in Egypt. There, under the power and afflicting hand of Pharoah, Israel cried out for rescue and deliverance. Of course, here is where YHWH revealed himself so deeply by being the God of the Exodus--literally the God of their salvation. Israel was delivered from the impossible through the mighty acts of God. They were set free under the leadership of Moses.
A Nation is bound to God by a covenant.
After the deliverance from Egypt, Isreal wanders in the wilderness for forty years before she is ready to enter the promised land (a great tract of land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea), 'a land flowing with milk and honey.' But in advance of entering the land, they were led by Moses to the foot of Mount Sinai where God gave Moses his covenant law. Here is where Israel must pledge allegience to be loyal to YHWH throughout all generations. If they obeyed the voice and law of God, they would experience prosperity and wellbeing. If they disobeyed, they would experience God's chastening hand. The ultimate chastening would be exile, violent removal from the land of promise. God's law was a codified instructional wisdom that told them how to live in love with God and each other. If they as a society followed that wisdom, all would to well. If they forgot the principles of love and respect for all members of their society, disaster would come. If disaster would come---and indeed it would---they would only be restored to their promised land through repentance and renewal of heart.
A nation is punished.
The first few years in the land were difficult and challenging, but they were years were they were preserved through God's faithfulness. Enemies often attacked them. Often they lapsed in their faithfulness. There were cycles of obedience, followed by disobedience, followed by repentance, followed by deliverance. There was even the choice to move to a dynastic governance where a king and his royal family would lead, guide, and protect Israel. Often, this kingship was a mixed blessing. The royal family had their own problems. Eventually Israel split apart and rival thrones and separate governments were erected. But ultimately each nation continued to crumble internally as social injustice and idolatry increased. Both nations were carried into exile--a reminder of infidelity to God.
A nation waiting for the future.
As Israel's political place in the land evaporated, there were various prophets sent by YHWH to create a new vision for the future. The themes of those visions were various, but centered on the hope of 'return from exile.' Though, there would continue to be ups and downs, ultimately God would again deliver Israel from her bondage to the pagan nations. Israel was in exile, but her there were various signposts placed alongside them, prophets who pointed the way forward. There was still the need for Israel to be the light to the nation. Yet, now they too were part of the dark problem of the world. They had become just like the other nations. God would have to do what only he could do. He must once again, act like the God of the exodus. He must defeat their enemies, restore them to the land. Only then, could the rest of the rest of the world benefit from her original vocation to restore the nations to God. Only when Israel was like a faithful Son could God use them. Only when they were resurrected to a new life in the world, would they become the means of salvation to all mankind.
The history of Israel is shaped by a pattern of death and resurrection.
In a nutshell, this is the Old Testament story. Promise, exodus, covenant, disobedience, and hope for future release from exile. These are the historical themes that unite the narrative. Pressed upon the story of Israel are the dual themes of exile and restoration, or as the prophets stated it, death and resurrection. The Old Testament is an incomplete story. It awaited a final chapter. It ends in exile, it looks forward to deliverance and salvation. It ends in a curse, it looks forward to a blessing.
N. T. Wright, renowned New Testament scholar and Christian theologian,
is challenging Christians around the world to think deeply about the Bible. Wright is not your typical heavy dude locked away in some academic classroom, but is, in addition to his many duties as an Anglican pastor and church leader, constantly preaching and lecturing around the world. Very recently, he lectured before the national meeting of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Many of his lectures and sermons end up being published as best-selling books.
Rethinking our destiny.
One area where Wright has challenged conventional thinking is in the matter of what happens to humans after death. He would have us look more closely at the actual teaching of Scripture, and not simply rely upon traditional impressions we might have of heaven and hell.
Overcoming stale thinking.
For example, Wright explains that many of our images of hell are drawn from long-standing popular writings and paintings from the past or from overly literal interpretations of the biblical text. These impressions are deeply ingrained in the Christian imagination. The same is true of the subjects of heaven and purgatory. What Christians need is a fresh start with Scripture, one that takes the subjects seriously, but managed with carefully interpreted study. Many of us are convinced that Wright is an excellent guide through the Bible on such matters. His massive book (600+ pages) on the Resurrection of the Son of God is already a classic Christian text that is bound to be the standard for a long time.
Surprised by Hope.
However, one need not worry or feel guilty if such reading seems too time-consuming and difficult. Wright is an excellent communicator who can break things down so that almost anyone can understand. He has written small articles and manageable popular books that are widely appreciated. One book that has really made an impact is entitled Surpised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008). In this book, Wright is not only keen to explain the nature of our future in God's new world, but also to show how absolutely meaningful that is to our present mission and work as Christians. If God is going to redeem our world and make all things new, then we should be living, praying, witnessing, and laboring for a new world in the present. The present and the future are vitally joined together by the Spirit and the inbreaking of the kingdom of God. Our works do matter and they matter in ways that are bound to surprise and excite us. Read this book and most likely you will never think the same about the future of our world and what you should be doing with your world.
Resurrected into God's new world.
Central to Wright's thinking is what is also central in the New Testament: the resurrection of Jesus physically from the dead. But Jesus is raised as the beginning of a new creation. His body is both the same and yet different. It is still physical as before, but with new resources and possibilities. It is the model and prototype of the same kind of resurrection in which we too shall participate. That body will be our new 'home' in the newly transformed world of the future. Floating around on clouds and singing choruses forever and ever doesn't quite cut it. That is an example of poorly reading symbolic texts and walking all over texts that are often crushed beneath our exegetical feet. Mankind was created to be stewards of the earth and in those great texts that speak to those issues, he/she will be fully restored to his rightful vocation.
And what about heaven and hell? What happened to those cherished ideas? Didn't Jesus speak over and over about hell? Didn't he issue stern warnings about what was going to happen to people who don't accept him as their personal Savior? Well those are important questions as well and Wright does a bang-up job of working through them one by one. And though, he is only scratching the surface, here are a series of video interviews that you can watch where he gives brief answers. Each video is only a minute to three minutes long.