Paul’s non-violent Gospel is for all believers

Let me be upfront in this post – any believer who argues that Christians, in particular circumstances, are justified in engaging in war and violence is pushing against the overwhelming ethos of the New Testament and early Church History.

Rather than Christian non-violence being seen as a ‘minority report’ within much of later Western Church history, it should be the other way around – that there should be a default scepticism and ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ around Christian ‘just war’ theory because it is so manifestly out of step with Jesus, Paul and the rest of the NT.

This isn’t just an ‘ethical issue’ – non-violence is integral to the gospel, it should shape the lives, attitudes and words of all Christian disciples.

Below is a review of mine of a book making a convincing case along these lines for Paul. Jesus’ teaching to love enemies and of non-retaliation is not just some idealised unrealistic ethic that can be left safely with the ‘perfect man’ – it was embodied within Paul’s own experience and understanding of the gospel itself.

Have a read and see what you think – comments welcome

Jeremy Gabrielson: gabrielsonPaul’s Non-Violent Gospel: The Theological Politics of Peace in Paul’s Life and Letters (Pickwick Publications: Eugene OR, 2013. Pbk. pp.204. ISBN 978-1-62032-945-0)

This book represents the fruit of a PhD completed at the University of St Andrews under the supervision of Bruce Longenecker. Gabrielson’s theme is that non-violence for Paul was “not simply an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel.” (168)

By this he means that the gospel forms a counter-cultural political body that responds to evil and enmity not with violence or force but with good. The motive for such counter-intuitive enemy-love is not to avoid suffering. Rather, quoting Yoder, it “heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom ‘the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history’.”(169)

A distinctive element of Gabrielson’s articulation of Christian non-violence is his focus on how Paul’s personal biography of violence informs his theology. In other words, Paul’s teaching of peace and non-retaliation are not merely generalised ethical principles drawn from his Jewish context (important though that is) but should be interpreted through the grid of the apostle’s dramatic experience of supporting and subsequently renouncing violence.

This thesis is unpacked in most detail in the longest chapter in the book, ‘Trajectories of Violence and Peace in Galatians’. The ‘pre-Christian’ Paul is a violent persecutor (1:13, 23) who tried to ‘destroy’ the fledgling messianic movement of Jesus-followers. Gabrielson is cautious about filling in the details of Paul’s account via the later writings of Luke; he argues that Paul’s own words (‘destroy’ and ‘persecute’) presuppose physical violence. Based on parallel examples in Philo, he suggests that Paul’s exceptional zeal could have been understood as a virtue whereby perceived transgression of the Torah would rightly have been violently punished. So, while there is no explicit mention in Paul of being involved in killing, his own language, the Jewish context and the documented experience of the first Christians of violent persecution all combine to support such a possibility.

This leads Gabrielson to propose that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ not only causes deep and profound shifts in his understanding of the law, faith and righteousness but also in his understanding of a peaceable life that pleases God. Gone is the notion of ‘righteous violence’. Instead, the humiliating and debasing horror of crucifixion is reimagined to a degree that the apostle can rejoice that he has been ‘crucified with Christ’ and his former self no longer lives (Gal. 2:19-20) now that he is a ‘slave’ (1:10) of Christ. Gabrielson concludes

“The violent Paul died when Christ was apocalypsed in him; now Christ-in-Paul shapes Paul’s life in the flesh in a cruciform existence.” (95)

This stance frames the author’s unpacking of Galatians’ rich understanding of the Christian life. New life in the Spirit will embrace and overcome suffering. It will be a life of love and giving; bearing burdens and enacting forgiveness. It leads to the paradox of Christian freedom, where freedom takes the form of voluntary ‘slavery’ of love and obedience to the risen Lord.

This new life leads to a new political order of ‘doing good’ to all, especially the household of God (6:9). Yet peaceableness does not mean that violence will not come one’s way. This is why Paul warns his communities that the violent world would probably do its violent worst – they should expect suffering and trouble.  But their response was to repay evil with good; to embody a politics of peace in the face of a politics of violence.

Gabrielson’s argument is well made and persuasive. A vast amount of scholarly attention has been, and continues to be, focused on Paul, righteousness and the law. This is perfectly understandable given the weight and breadth of the theological issues at stake. Those debates revolve around questions such as how exactly did the ‘new’ Paul differ from the ‘old’ Paul?; what was Paul ‘converted’ from?; what were the continuities and discontinuities in his understanding of the Torah? It is refreshing to see another, frequently overlooked, angle to these sorts of questions unpacked in this book – that of Paul’s shift from violence to non-violence.

Paul, Gabrielson argues, did not come to such a remarkable and counter-cultural position lightly. In an opening context-setting chapter on ‘The End of Violence in Matthew’, he argues that the Gospel makes plain, on multiple levels, that Jesus was remembered as the Messiah who, despite living in a culture steeped in violence, chose non-violent resistance – and that choice cost him his life.

Paul’s general commitment to non-violence is traced in a subsequent chapter on ‘The Memory of a Non-Violent Jesus in Paul’s Letters’. After careful analysis of Jesus Tradition in Paul, Gabrielson concludes that Paul, ‘like virtually every early Christian author’, included the most memorable and startling elements of Jesus’ teaching. Living peaceably in a violent world was one of the

“most salient features of the teaching and example of the historical Jesus … because it was this Jesus who was recognizable as staying true to the living voice of Apostolic testimony” (78).

A further chapter focuses on supporting evidence for this conclusion drawn from a study of 1 Thessalonians. The case made here is that as early as 50 CE Paul is exhorting Thessalonian Christians to imitate the peaceful response of non-violent perseverance to suffering earlier demonstrated by the Judean churches (1 Thes 2:14-16). If referring to the Judean church’s suffering under Paul’s own persecution in the early 30s CE, this locates Christian non-violence at the earliest possible stage of church history in a non-Pauline church. The implications are significant: the practice of Christian non-violence was demonstrably evident in every geopolitical context (Palestinian, Asian, Greek and Roman Christianity) and under different founding missionaries and leaders.

In other words, non-violence is intrinsic to the gospel of Jesus Christ – who pioneered the non-violent politics of the kingdom of God for his disciples to follow.

A significant hermeneutical question lurks in the background of Gabrielson’s analysis. Namely, is Paul’s biography of violence paradigmatic for all believers?

While not exploring contemporary implications in detail, Gabrielson believes it is. A life of non-violence is not just a personal ethical ‘choice’ for a Christian; it is an intrinsic part of belonging to the new age of the Spirit.

“The sway of the cosmos, the old-age modus operandi, led to Paul’s violence, but Paul’s new modus operandi, his new trajectory involves living into the new creation which has as its gravitational center the cross of Christ” (99-100).

At one point Gabrielson quotes approvingly from Michael Gorman’s excellent book, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (158-9) that

“If the conversion of Paul, grounded in the resurrection of Christ, is paradigmatic, it is paradigmatic in multiple ways, not least of which is his conversion from violence to non-violence.”

Such a conclusion is, of course, highly contested. The biblical and theological case for Christian non-violence has been well mapped out, as have Christian counter arguments. While this book does not offer anything radically new to those discussions, it does add a fresh, coherent and strong strand to the case for Christian non-violence.

There are some weaker points and omissions. It is not clear that Galatians 2:10 is Paul speaking autobiographically of his ‘old’ violent self. The link from righteous violence in Philo to righteous violence in Paul is possible, but theoretical. The conclusions drawn from 1 Thessalonians are implicit rather than explicit. It is surprising that there is no discussion of Romans 13 given its significance in how Paul’s relationship with violence has been interpreted historically.

But overall, if Gabrielson is right, and I believe he is, this work has profound implications for all Christians globally.

It also highlights how, such is the coherence and unified witness of Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, that a Christian argument for a just use of violence is almost inevitably forced to go beyond the biblical texts to try to find other grounds on which to base its case.

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An Advent Reflection: History is not about the Politics of Power

The angel Gabriel’s promise to the virgin Mary in Luke 1 is not the first time in the Bible that a frightened or incredulous woman hears such unlikely words. There is a thread of similar divine announcements throughout the story God’s covenant relationship with Israel.

They begin at the very beginning of that story. Old age pensioners, Sarah and Abraham, are told they will have a son. Sarah’s reaction is laughter at such impossible nonsense. Yet conceive and give birth she does and she calls her son Isaac (laughter). God’s covenant promise of blessing to Abraham that he will be a father of many nations comes into life with the birth of that baby boy (Gen 17:5).

In Exodus, another baby plays a redeeming role in Israel’s history. While not a miraculous conception, the story of Moses, a child of slaves, being rescued from death is a tale of God keeping his promise of blessing to Israel through a helpless and crying baby (Ex. 2:1-10). That little child would become the deliverer of the people of God from the might of Egyptian empire.

During the period of the Judges, a barren, unnamed woman only known as the wife of Manoah, is told by an angel of God,

‘Behold, you shall conceive and bear a son.’

The Spirit of God would be upon him and he would help deliver Israel from the Philistines. His name was Samson (Judges 13:1-25).

Later comes the story of Hannah, who is heartbroken with grief at her inability to have children by her husband who loves her. She pours out her heart in prayer at the temple and her request is granted by God. She names her son Samuel (heard of God). And so the age of prophets in Israel begins (1 Sam. 1:1-20).

During the darkest period of Israel’s history – exile in Babylon – it is the prophet Isaiah who speaks words of hope. Israel may now be like a barren woman enclosed within the confines of a small tent, but one day that desolation will be transformed. The tent will be enlarged for a growing family. There will be prosperity and life bursting forth in all directions. God’s promise to Abraham is not forgotten.

“Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labour!
For the children of  the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the  Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.  (Isaiah 54:1-3)

Centuries later, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple speaking words about his wife, Elizabeth conceiving and giving birth to a son who will be called John. Despite being too old, what he says happens. Elizabeth speaks to herself, ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said (Luke 1:5-23). John’s exalted task is to ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.

And so, finally, we come to the consummation of that first promise to Abraham. The angel Gabriel appears to a young virgin girl called Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin. She is told

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.

This baby is the child of promise, the deliverer of Israel, her long-hoped for Messiah.

She sees more clearly than anyone else, the significance of the angel’s words. She understands that she stands in line with Sarah, Moses’s mother, the wife of Manoah, Hannah, Isaiah’s prophecies and Elizabeth.

But more than this, she perceives that she is most highly favoured of all these women (Luke 1:28). The Lord is with her. Her son will be Israel’s saviour and king (Luke 1:31-33), the Son of God (1:35). The power of God’s Spirit will make all this possible, ‘For no word from God will ever fail’ (Luke 1:37)

Mary’s great act of faith is to believe the angel’s words

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ (Luke 1:38)

In her song of thanksgiving (the Magnificat of 1:46-55), Mary locates her own experience within the story God’s promise of blessing to Israel. Her rejoicing flows from wonder that she has been chosen by God to play the pivotal role.

‘My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour (46-47)

His being ‘mindful of the humble state of his servant’ (1:48) reveals God’s mercy.

His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones  (50-52a)

God is all powerful. But Mary’s point is not so much political as it is one of worship. The paradox is that God’s limitless power takes the form of gracious kindness to the powerless (Israel, Mary, all the powerless women listed above)

And this choosing of the humble includes Israel herself.

‘He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants for ever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’ (54-55)

As with the story of Moses, even mighty Empires cannot resist the covenant-keeping promises of God.

Things will be no different with the birth of Mary’s boy. His mother is supremely confident that, whatever opposition from proud and arrogant rulers who seem to hold all the power, God’s promise of blessing to the nations will not be thwarted.

Mary’s story tells us that history revolves around the fulfilled promise of a miraculous birth. It is a story of promise and hope.

So as we celebrate this Christmas, Mary’s Magnificat reminds us that our faith is embedded within the story of Israel. The birth of the Messiah is God’s answered promise to Abraham embodied in the fragile form of a baby boy.

It also tells us that history is not about power politics. In a news-cycle dominated daily by Brexit and Trump, it is easy to become obsessed with the latest political drama and, subconsciously, to believe that this is where ultimate meaning lies.

And in doing so we begin to lose hope and trust. Not just because Brexit is a shambles and Trump is, shall we say, erratic and unpredictable. But because all political promises fail, all Empires fall.

Yes, faith is worked out within the context of Empire (just read Luke 1-2), but that Empire is irrelevant and powerless in the face of God’s promise.

Ben Myers, whose words have stirred this reflection, says this,

‘Pregnancy and childbirth are the means by which God’s promise makes its way through the crooked course of history’ (p. 53) …

‘The meaning of history is not power and empire, but promise and trust. The secret of history is revealed when a woman, insignificant to the eyes of the world, responds in joy to God’s promise and bears that promise into the world in her own body’ (p. 54, The Apostle’s Creed).

Musings on beauty, Barth, buildings and blessed hope

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Had a wonderful hike up Slieve Donard over the bank holiday weekend. Can’t say it was easy (getting on you know) – after rather a lot of huffing and puffing there were fantastic views to enjoy – including the best golf course in the world (last photo).

When have you last heard a sermon on beauty? Or read something on the relationship of beauty and theology? There were a lot of people on pilgrimage up Donard – all doings something physically demanding in order to experience beauty. There is something compelling about beauty – humans are drawn to it and go to literally great lengths to see a beautiful place.

Within the evangelical Christian tradition in which I grew up, live and work, beauty has tended to be neglected. There are probably a few reasons for this. Four come to mind, and these are simply musings, feel free to add your own reasons.

And if it is the case that beauty is marginalised within our lives, our theology, our churches – what might be some ways to recover an appreciation and experience of beauty? Beauty can be found in many places, not just a mountain top experience. Where do you find, and take time to appreciate and perhaps create, God-given beauty?

1) The Revealed Word versus Natural Theology

Christianity is a religion of the Book. Christians believe God has revealed himself in his written Word which therefore has authority above any other source of revelation.

No-one was a fiercer opponent of any form of natural theology (the idea that God can be in some way known outside his self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Word of God) than Karl Barth. His great ‘NO!’ to natural theology insisted that there could be no such thing as ‘theology from below’. Its fatal weakness is to open the door for human hubris to reinvent God in our own image.

Barth was in the midst of a fight against classic liberalism and its utter failure to speak out against the rise of national socialism. I am no Barth scholar but he may have softened his views towards the end of his life. But the point is Barth was essentially right. No natural theology can ‘reach God’. Without revelation we end up turning ‘God made beauty’ into ‘beauty is God’.

The Christian gospel is essentially mysterious, surprising, scandalous and apocalyptic. It can only be revealed by God in his Word and through his Spirit, never discovered in and through human reason – whether through the physical creation or beauty of mathematics (I’m told maths is beautiful and wondrous but have to take others’ word for it!) or whatever other forms of natural theology.

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2) Suspicion of beauty: musings on church architecture

But, I wonder, has the flip side of the supreme authority of the revealed Word been an overly suspicious attitude to beauty within much post-Reformation Protestantism?

As if beauty is, at best, a secondary distraction and, at worst, a pathway to idolatry and worship of the created world rather than its creator?

Take the Reformed Tradition of which I am also a part (Presbyterian). The theology of the Word is reflected in the architecture of its churches. The early Presbyterian churches in Ireland were stark ‘meeting houses’ – and most churches today remain plain and simple. The pulpit and the Word is what matters. There is, I think it fair to say, deliberately not much a tradition of the beautiful in the design of Irish Presbyterian churches.

Or take another strand within evangelicalism – that of culturally adaptable communities who deliberately eschew ‘churchy’ buildings, imagery and symbolism in favour of modern pragmatic facilities which, with the best will in the world, are hardly ever beautiful.  Beauty, within such pragmatic utilitarian theology, is simply not ‘useful’ and therefore effectively unimportant.

As I’ve gone on as a Christian I find I desire and appreciate beauty more than I used to. Beauty has the power to draw us into the presence of God beyond the world which we can control and manipulate. Dismissing beauty, or seeing it as an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters, seems to me to deny something essential about God, the creator of beauty. And, as a result, such spaces fail to inspire or draw our hearts towards him in wonder and praise. Rather, they can merely echo the narrative of our pragmatic, utilitarian and relentlessly ‘this worldly’ capitalist culture.

3) Dualism

A third reason for the marginalisation of beauty is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Descartes’ dictum, ‘I think therefore I am’, unfolded historically, the elevation of reason promoted a type of dualism between the ‘higher’ mind (reason) and the created order. This sort of Cartesian dichotomy impacted Christian theology in spirituality that neglected the physical world – including the body and the affections.

To be fair, such dualism has a much longer legacy than the Enlightenment – one of Augustine’s negative legacies is still felt in his neo-platonic linking together of sex and sin for example.

Regardless of how exactly these influences developed, my point is that Christianity has a long and an ongoing struggle with dualism. Deliberate focus on and integration of beauty within Christian theology and practice can act to overcome such dualism. God has created us with minds, hearts and bodies and calls us to worship him holistically using all our God-given senses.

4) Sin and the Fall

A fourth possible reason for Christian ambivalence towards beauty is the doctrine of the fall. This world is broken. Sin, death and injustice stalk creation, which itself, Paul tells us, groans for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Wrongly understood, the brokenness of creation can lead to an anti-worldly theology of escapism – where there is little of value to be redeemed here. Our main task is to ‘get the hell out of here’ and not get too entangled with temporary marginal distractions like pleasure, beauty and the joys offered by the material world.

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Towards a Christian integration of Word and Beauty

God is an artist.

The fact that we live in a wondrously beautiful world tells us that beauty is a creation of God. All beauty derives from him. The universal human desire for beauty points us to how we are created with a sense of wonder to appreciate, enjoy and create beauty. The Psalms are full of this link between appreciating the beauty of creation and the worship of God.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

Psalm 19:1-6

Yet the next verse of the Psalm continues

The law of the  Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The beautiful world is never detached from the beautiful Word.

As someone who ‘deals with’ the Bible every day, the more I study it the more I am struck by its beauty. It is a magnificent work of art as well as God’s inspired Word. Each book is a remarkable literary work in its own right. Overall, at heart it is a story that overflows with images, symbols and themes that draws readers into a magnificent drama of divine goodness, beauty and love versus all that would corrupt and destroy.

In the New Testament we are even told that it is in and through Jesus Christ that ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is this beautiful creation that is in the process of being redeemed by its triune creator.

The new creation will be a place of unimaginable beauty (Rev 21-22). What is the image of the new Jerusalem but a vision of perfect beauty in which God dwells with his people? The future outcome of this drama is a restored creation in which love, beauty, worship and goodness flourish in all their all fullness.

All this means, I suggest, is that Christians should be people above all others who love and appreciate beauty.  A Christian theology of beauty integrates Word and world, creator and created with hope. Beauty points us to God himself in thankfulness and praise.

Not saying you have to climb a mountain to experience beauty! But why not take time out to search out, experience, create, appreciate and share beauty wherever you are.

Thus endeth the sermon

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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St Patrick on love and obedience

On this St Patrick’s day a quote from Patrick’s Confession:

I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.

It is hard not to read Patrick and think of Paul. His passion for the people he was called to serve. His single-minded focus on mission. His Christ-centered preaching. His self-distrust – in terms of a deep awareness of God’s grace and his unworthiness.

In this quote some of those themes emerge. He faces both internal and external opposition.

The internal is both physical and spiritual. Physically he is mortal and faces death. He is weak and finite. He faces temptations to act in ways that likely pursue short-term ‘this worldly’ pleasures that will lead him astray.

He also faces external opposition of some sort – those who attempt to destroy his faith – in the next paragraph he talks of those who laugh and insult him.

He knows he is far from perfect. He has failed. Others lead more Christ-like lives. But his understanding of grace means that this is not a cause for shame or pretence – he comes honestly before God without blushes, dependent on his mercy and forgiveness. He knows he needs the Lord’s help.

And, like Paul, he sees that the heart of living a life pleasing to God is not merit, or pay back or external behaviour motivated by fear or a pursuit of self-righteousness.

No.

Rather the heart of being a Christian is love. If is from love that obedience flows. It is out of love that he is willing to suffer. It is love which orientates his heart towards God and away from that which would lead him astray.

In other words, we might say that the core of discipleship, according to Patrick, is a deep love for God that issues in a faithful life of joy and gratitude.

Or, to put it in reverse, unfaithfulness, a pursuit of ‘worldly pleasures’ (money, sex, power), a lack of thankfulness, an arrogant self-defensiveness coupled with a lack of passion to share the good news of the Gospel are all merely symptoms of a life where love for God has either evaporated or never existed.

So a good question to ask ourselves this St Patrick’s Day – is ‘how is my love life?’

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The Gospel and Capitalism – Daniel Bell

What do you think of this quote from Daniel Bell, Divinations: theo-politics in an age of terror (Eugene, Or: Cascade Books, 2017) on how the gospel confronts and overcomes capitalism?

 

Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.

This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.

An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.

A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

A Christmas 2017 reflection: four stories

The Gospels are richly theological accounts of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Messiah. They are, in other words, not only telling us ‘what happened’ but also why it happened.

Think of it this way:

The Gospels tell us all about ‘the story of Jesus’. That story, of course, begins with the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas.

But the story of Jesus only makes sense if set within 3 other broader stories that, together, frame the story of the Bible.

The story of Jesus is the innermost or climatic story of the 4.  We need to appreciate how it fits within the wider framework if we are to understand the ‘why’ of the incarnation.

  1. THE STORY OF GOD

At the broadest level, there is the ‘Story of God’ himself. This story encompasses all the others for the Bible is, in effect, the story of God ‘s redemptive action in the world in response to sin, death and rebellion.

That response is trinitarian: Father, Son and Spirit, working in love to bring life, forgiveness, restoration – to form a covenant people bearing his image and to redeem all of creation.

2. THE STORY OF THE WORLD 

The second story is of the world we live in – a world of beauty and of ugliness; of hope and despair; of love and of hate. A wonderful, awe-inspiring creation disfigured by sin, death, grief and injustice. It is God’s love for this world that is the divine motive for the incarnation.

3. THE STORY OF ISRAEL

But before the incarnation of the Son, we must not skip the third story – the story of God’s elect people through whom salvation comes. So much Christian theology tends to do this – to jump from creation and fall to the coming of the Christ. The Old Testament takes up most of the story for a purpose! The story of Christmas only makes sense within the story of Israel. Jesus is first Israel’s Messiah – who is also the saviour of the world.

4. THE STORY OF JESUS

This is the story that, in effect, is the focus of the entire New Testament. The Gospels and the rest of the NT is a theological explanation of the story of Jesus (Christology) in light of the story of Israel, the story of the world gone wrong and the story of God. Pretty well every page of the NT is this sort of dialogue being worked out in hundreds of different ways. Jesus fulfils the Story of Israel. Father, Son and Spirit together work to effect salvation.

It is the story of Jesus and the Spirit that broadens the story of Israel to welcome in the Gentiles. It is in Jesus’ death that victory is won over all forces that oppose God’s good purposes – sin, death, the Devil and the powers.

THIS CHRISTMAS

But, most relevantly for this Christmas week, it is in the story of Jesus that we see who God is most clearly revealed. See how the four stories are interwoven in Colossians 1. 1-15 and especially its focus on the unique identity and authority of the Son.

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

So, this Christmas we celebrate the Lord of creation, in whom dwells all the fullness of God himself, come to earth as a real man who can shed real blood. No greater act of self-giving love is possible to conceive.

And in doing so, we look forward to Easter, for it is this God-man who dies on the cruel wood of a Roman cross to bring reconciliation and peace to this world and all of creation.

So, whatever your circumstances this Christmas, may these four inter-connected stories give you joy, thankfulness and hope. For being a Christian, is to join our own story in with the story of God (by God’s grace), the story of the world gone wrong (owning our own sin), the story of Israel (a Christian becomes a member of the new covenant people of God) and the story of Jesus (by turning to him in faith and repentance).

Best wishes for a joyful and peaceful Christmas!

 

 

Have we lost touch with the foolishness of Christianity?

Last weekend I had the privilege of being the speaker at a Christian Universities of Ireland (CUI) weekend down in Castledaly Manor, near Athlone. A great bunch to work with – thanks Louise, Peter, Helen, Neus and Grace and the rest of the team – and students!

The theme was ‘Fools Talk’ and there were 4 talks:

  1. God’s Foolish Choices
  2. God’s Foolish Method
  3. The foolishness of the Christian Life
  4. The foolishness of Christian Hope.

Preparing and delivering these talks was hugely enjoyable – and in doing so it hit afresh just how ‘other’ and unexpectedly strange the story of the Christian faith is.

Put another way, the shift from OT to NT, from old covenant to new covenant, from John the Baptist and the preceding OT prophetic tradition to Jesus the crucified Messiah represents a profound and radical disruption within the biblical narrative.

Or yet another way – there are a variety of helpful diagrams that outline the entire biblical narrative. Take this one, adapted from Tim Chester’s little book Creation to New Creation:

story

I developed my own diagram of Paul’s narrative thought in a chapter within The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life. It tried to capture both continuity and discontinuity between Saul and Paul, between Judaism and Christianity.

Such diagrams are great at showing how there is one unfolding, coherent narrative – and how crucial it is for any authentically Christian theology and Christian ethics to work out from that overarching narrative.

But here’s the thing that struck me with new force last weekend. They make it appear that the narrative is ‘easy’ and obvious, flowing in one smooth direction – the story unfolding in a logical sequence that participants would have recognised.

Far from it.

At just about EVERY point, the disruption or ‘plot twist’ caused by Jesus is so unexpected and radical, that the story takes an almost unrecognizable new direction. It is only with a lot of re-reading of the original narrative (OT) that you can begin to see the links. They are there, but it took extraordinary events for the first Christians to have their eyes opened to those links (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2 for example).

In saying this, I am shifting from a strong emphasis on ‘one unfolding narrative’ to at least somewhat towards a more apocalyptic reading of the NT as a shocking divine incursion into human history.

For example, just consider the depth of the disjunctures below:

Picture2However, you understand the reconfiguring of ISRAEL, the inclusion of Gentile sinners is no small plot development in the story; it is a paradigm shift of mind-numbing proportions.

So too is the relativisation of the TEMPLE in the NT to where Jew & Gentile believers form the Temple where God’s Spirit dwells.

As is the fulfilment of the TORAH through life in the Spirit and the irrelevance of covenant markers like circumcision.

All this even before we begin considering the deepest disjunctures in the story so far – a theology of atonement centered on a CRUCIFIED MESSIAH.

And, most remarkable of all, the story now brings into focus a new understanding of GOD himself – the eternal Son of God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the risen Lord who takes on YHWH’s titles and roles; and the Spirit of God now given as a gift to all who have faith in the Son.

What other major disjunctures would you add?

Here are some more.

LAND – the story of the promised land hits another radical disjuncture in the NT. Most Christians see the narrative trajectory of land coming to an end with the global constitution of the people of God by the Spirit.

Then there is the small matter of the RESURRECTION of the Messiah – an utterly unexpected event, on top of his utterly unexpected crucifixion.

And to this we could add ESCHATOLOGY – the surprise new ending to the narrative of the parousia of the Messiah and Lord, who will act as judge and dwell with God in the new creation (Rev 21-22).

And then you have completely foolish stuff like loving your enemies and following Jesus AND Paul’s gospel of non-violence.

It is no wonder, is it not, that one of Paul’s favourite words for what God had done in Christ was MYSTERY that had been hidden from everyone?  Consider these verses:

… we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. (1 Cor 2: 7)

All this raises a challenge for being Christian today does it not?:

– if Christianity is pervasively and shockingly ‘Other’

– if the gospel is a Mystery that was completely hidden from view

– if God is the author of that mystery who does things no-one sees coming

Then how is it that so much of our Western Christianity seems well – so unmysterious? Unsurprising? Un-shocking? 

Where much church life is pretty conventional, predictable, ‘normal’ and fairly easily adapted to 21st Western culture?

Where ‘being Christian’ tends not to involve that radical a disjuncture with the dominant values of the Western world?

And does ‘renewal’ then involve recapturing something of the ‘Otherness’ and surprising power of the Christian story in a way that disrupts comfortable assumptions?

Any suggestions or resources for going about this welcome!