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).

Wives, submit to your husbands (2)

A couple of posts back there was a promise to come back to Ephesians 5:21-33 and look at it from a different interpretative angle – that of Cynthia Long Westfall.

I invite you to read this and compare to the earlier post on John Stott’s interpretation. Which do you find most convincing and why?

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Her book has been out a couple of years. You can listen to an interview with her here at the excellent OnScript website – a sort of biblical research podcast treasure trove.

Her big argument is that Paul is subverting male privilege in home and church. The focus of the text is clearly on husbands. Paul is teaching them what life within God’s economy looks like within a Greco-Roman culture of male patronage, power and superiority.

In the context of Paul’s day, the basic patronage relationship was reflected within the marital relationship. The husband is superior in power, status, honour and value. The wife receives the benefits of his standing and in return offers him respect, chastity, obedience and loyalty.

It is this patronage relationship that is being reimagined (subverted) by Paul in light of Christ. A radically new way of relating between husbands and wives is in view. It, of course, still operates within the given culture of his recipients – Paul famously does not directly confront slavery, nor does he advocate social revolution in terms of marriage.

Interpretations that focus on wives’ submission and the analogy of the husband to Christ (verse 23) without proper regard to the grammar and syntax of Paul’s thought act to distort his message and propagate a false view of (male) authority. (p. 93).

To summarise from various places that Westfall discusses the Ephesians text:

  • The passage as a whole is an example of what it is to be filled with the Spirit (v.18 -23 is one long sentence in Greek). [I would argue that the even bigger context is to ‘walk in love’ (5:2) that frames much of Ephesians as a whole].
  • This is the way of life for all Christians – male or female. Jew or Gentile.
  • ALL believers are to be in mutual submission v. 21
  • This is then applied to the Household Codes and husbands / wives, parents / children and masters / slaves. The radical implication is that in Christ there are new relationships now formed, cutting across existing authority and power structures. Each ‘weaker’ group are now, together with the powerful group, ‘all members of one body’ – the body of Christ (v. 30).
  • Each weaker group are addressed personally, recognising their agency. Normally they would not be addressed at all. Their obligation is primarily to the Lord in how they relate to those in power over them.
  • Paul places particular obligations and restrictions on the groups in power.
  • With husbands, Christ’s treatment of his bride, the Church, informs the husband’s function as head of his wife (p. 93)
  • The remarkable ‘twist’ is how the husband takes the role of Christ’s bride and ‘is therefore charged with treating his wife as he has been treated by his own head.’ (p. 93).
  • As Christ is saviour (23) who gave himself up for her (25, the church), so the husband is instructed to lay down his life for his wife. And love her as Christ loved the church (25)
  • Christ’s love is illustrated by his sanctification of the church (5:26-27)

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

  • These are images of domestic chores performed by women:
    • giving a bath
    • providing clothing
    • doing laundry
  • So the husband is being told to do women’s work in how he cares for his wife. The point is fully with the teaching of Paul elsewhere and, more importantly, of Jesus himself. Those in power are to become humble servants of others

He promotes a model of servanthood and low status, consistent with the humility of Christ’s incarnation, precisely for men, who have power and position in the Greco-Roman social system. (p. 23).

  • There is little new being said to wives – they are to submit as expected within the culture. But this submission is drastically relativised by mutual submission of verse 21. It consists of honouring and respecting her husband.
  • But her identity and status is transformed by the commands given to husbands. Those commands are the core of the text and they are anything but what was expected within the culture – they are revolutionary (p. 102)
  • So Paul is placing new and challenging obligations on those who have power (husbands), NOT to defend their own status and authority, but to give up privilege and status and serve the other in love.

[My comment – This is where interpretations that end up defending male ‘headship = leadership’ and insisting on female submission to that ‘authority’ tragically actually reverse the thrust of Paul’s upside-down kingdom ethic].

  • The wonderful irony of this passage is how men are being told to act like women – in terms of ‘low status’ service of the weaker other.
  • This is a profoundly ‘Christian’ calling.
  • She is now honoured just as if she were his body – he is to treat her exactly as if she were a man (his body) – in terms of honouring her, loving her and serving her.

So what of ‘headship’?  Does the Genesis account that Paul references, somehow root female submission in a creation ordinance (as John Stott says and complementarians in general claim)?

  • Genesis 2:18-22 is the basis for the instructions to wives – the woman is created from the man. She receives life from him
  • The instructions to men are based on Genesis 2:23-25 – where the husband and wife are declared to be ‘one flesh’
  • Both ‘head’ and ‘body’ are metaphors [to press ‘head’ to mean ‘leadership’ is unwarranted and distorts Paul’s argument]
  • ‘Head’ – the wife receives life from her head. The metaphor works perfectly. The woman in Ephesians draws her life from man, and the Church draws its life from Christ. This is not an image of authority but of life.  ‘She reciprocates in gratitude and honour expressed in submission.’ (p. 102)

The primary focus in the Ephesian household code is on the husband’s role. The language both reflects the model of Jesus’s servanthood and exploits the metaphor of ‘head’ to create a similar effect as in the episode where Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. (p. 165)

And this to finish.

In effect, Paul flips the patron metaphor of being the wife’s head (protector and source of life) … He has given an explicit application of Jesus’s summary of the law: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt 7:12 NRSV). Paul applies Jesus’s teaching literally to the men: “Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:28 NRSV). Paul’s caveat is that she is his body. The intertextuality between Ephesians 5:28 and the Jesus tradition is transparent. (p. 166).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

Good Friday: what does it mean to follow a crucified Messiah?

A reflection on Mark 10:32-45 this Good Friday

Monasterboice High Cross

As the disciples follow Jesus towards Jerusalem, he takes them aside once more to prepare them for what is ahead. The language and imagery is brutal.

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.”

Condemned by Jewish authorities. Handed over to ruthless pagans. Public shame, humiliation and undeserved violent death. This is what lies ahead.

Yes, these images are followed with a promise of resurrection from the dead, but the flow of the story suggests that pretty well none of this entire sequence was understood by the disciples. This is illustrated by James’ and John’s request “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

I have considerable sympathy for James and John! What Jesus predicts is inconceivable. If he is the anointed Messiah of God, shame, death and humiliation cannot be his fate. Rather, it should be glory and exaltation – hence the brothers’ request.

The other disciples’ indignation is not at James and John’s utter misunderstanding of Jesus’ imminent fate, but at their grab at glory for themselves. Like James and John, they have little idea what Jesus’ promise that You will drink the cup I drink and be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with would mean in practice.

So Jesus seeks to clarify, again, what it means to follow the Son of Man. He calls them together and says

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Discipleship within the kingdom of God means following Jesus. On the surface that sounds simple, but he leads his followers to take on a new and strange identity:

– Slave (doulos): become a slave of others rather than seeking a position of power, status or respect

– Servant (diakonos): become a servant of others, rather than be served by others.

This an uncompromising call to a difficult and demanding way of life. Jesus, as is his style as a terrible salesman, offers no possible evasions for his followers. There are no soft options. The norm for discipleship is the cross. Death is what it means to be a disciple – regardless of who we are.

The pattern for this other-focused service is Jesus’ willingness to give up his very life for others. A ransom liberates captives. His is a self-giving death so that many are set free. It is life lived for others, not the self.

Following Jesus is absolutely not the path by which to achieve glory, honour, respect and status. So if we hope to achieve those things in Christian life and ministry, like James and John we have completely missed what following Jesus is all about.

Among the Gentiles in the ancient world (the Roman Empire is probably in view here) the world worked according to strict hierarchies of status, prestige, position, wealth and political patronage. Those in power lorded it over their inferiors. This simply is the way reality was constructed. No other world could be imagined,

Until now.

Jesus’ death on a cross opens up a new way to imagine the world we live in. It calls Christians to belong to a different reality, a different kingdom, to follow a king like no other. A king who freely and courageously gives his life for others; who surrenders power without resorting to violence; who refuses to defend himself or his own rights before his enemies.

Good Friday is a day to reflect on the wonder and beauty of this king. And then to reflect on our lives.

How we are living them and who we are living them for?

If we are honest and realistic (or, to put it another way, if you are anything like me!) we will be reminded that we continually fail to live self-giving lives of service to others. We don’t want to be servants and slaves. At the very least it is inconvenient; at the very most it means suffering and death. Most of the time it is somewhere inbetween – a daily calling to an other-focused way of life.

And then, in our weakness, failure and sin, to come to the foot of that cross and to give our lives afresh to our crucified Lord.

Always remembering in hope his words, “Three days later he will rise.”

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!

 

 

Some things Jesus was terrible at

Incipit to Luke
Incipit to Luke, Book of Kells

I’m doing some reading and writing on Luke 6 and particularly Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (6:17-49). A couple of excerpts from Luke:

Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man. (6:20-22)

And

But to you who are listening I say: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  (6:27-36)

What might you call the theology behind Jesus’ call to discipleship in the Sermon on the Plain?

An anti-success theology?

You are going to be poor, hungry, weeping and hated. This in contrast to being rich, comfortable, well-fed and well-respected (vv. 24-26). This is just slightly incompatible with the capitalist pursuit of wealth and happiness in the here and now.

A guarantee of suffering theology?

Enemies may, and probably will, do their very worst to you. Be ready for it.

A very-delayed gratification theology?

Blessings are promised now but are guaranteed only in the next life. ‘Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.‘ (vs. 23) In the meantime in your suffering continue to have faith and trust in a future day of justice for you ain’t going to see it in this life.

A blessing of opposition theology?

To be persecuted for the name of the Son of Man is a privilege not a disaster. Don’t complain, embrace it.

A willingness to be hated and taken-advantage theology?

Love enemies in a way the boggles the mind of them and anyone else watching. It is going to be personally extremely costly – emotionally and financially.

A self-sacrifical costly love theology?

There is zero self-interest in this life to Jesus’ calls to love enemies. Love for the sake of it. Love because God is like that. Love as God loves whatever the cost.

Jesus the terrible salesman

Jesus is simply a terrible salesman.

Nothing about material comfort, security, the right to happiness, social standing. Not a  word about how much we are loved by God. Not a mention of unconditional grace.

But instead a whole bunch of well-on-nigh impossible exhortations that are guaranteed to seriously inconvenience disciples’ lives.

Surely this sermon needs to be sent back to the marketing department for a serious re-write.

I wonder what the re-draft would look like?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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!