Christ is Risen!

Greetings this Easter Sunday, a day to celebrate the victory of God in Christ, the Risen Lord.

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddAfter our Lenten series, what could be more appropriate than some words from the marvellous writer and theologian, Fleming Rutledge on the theme of Christus Victor.

The Christus Victor theme in the New Testament … speaks with new force and relevance for today because it grants evil its due. The theme emphasizes the infernal intelligence, the annihilating force, the lethal fury of the demonic Powers. In the contemporary world we know too much of this kind of evil. Anyone following the news as the twenty-first century continues to unfold must know the feeling that our globe is inhabited by truly unbearable wickedness, and that this wickedness is out of control. (392)

It is in to this reality that Easter speaks – of the crucifixion and apparent defeat of good by evil, and of the Risen Lord, triumphant over Sin, death and the powers of evil.

Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus

… the Christian life does not go on as if the world had remained unchanged. The church is not a redeemed boat floating in an unredeemed sea. It is not as if the only thing that has changed is that our sins are forgiven and we, person by person, come to believe in Jesus. Rather, there has been a transfer of aeons, an exchange of one kosmos for another. The Powers and the principalities may not know it but their foundations have been undermined and cannot last. The creation itself has been and is being invaded by the new world, the age to come. (393, my emphasis)

Romans 8:20-21

20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

 

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (6) cross and incarnation

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015). In this post we are finishing chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

Marx said that religion was ‘the opiate of the people’ – a drug designed to keep reality, and the political task of reforming the world, at bay.

Along these lines, Rutledge refers to Feuerbach (‘theology is anthropology’ – ultimately it only tells us about ourselves) and Freud (religion is wishful thinking, developed to help make existence tolerable) (57).

If these thinkers are right and the goal of religion is to avoid suffering, then it is no wonder that the cross is repulsive and unnecessary to many people today.

And there are other ways the cross is rejected – Rutledge discusses these:

Islam: has no place for a crucified Christ in the Qur’an.

Buddhism: Rutledge refers to John Stott standing respectfully before a great statue of Buddha, legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, a ghost of a smile on his lips … and turning away contrasting in his mind the image of the crucified Son of God who laid aside his immunity to pain and suffering, embracing it out of love ‘for us’.

Here is the God who suffers.

Modern liberal theology – as exemplified in the Jesus Seminar

The ringing statements of the apostle Paul about the world-transforming significance of the cross/resurrection event are written off by these reconstructionists as theological accretions. Paul is construed as a mythmaker whose theological writings have no truthful relation to Jesus .. (59)

And Jesus himself is reimagined as well. None of the Jesus Seminar’s theories about Jesus ‘ascribe any transcendent significance to his crucifixion.’ (59)

In contrast to all of this, the Christian gospel proclaims the saving significance of the cross – a radical in-breaking of God into the world through the incarnation of his Son.

It is vital, the author argues, not to separate incarnation and crucifixion.

Incarnation without crucifixion will not do the job by itself. The cross can never be merely assumed but must always be interpreted and re-placed at the center. There is a centrifugal force at work in human nature; we want to spin out and away from the offense of the cross. (61)

Embracing the incarnation on its own leaves the world, and ourselves, unchanged. This is a form of ‘creation-only’ theology. But incarnation linked to crucifixion is powerful and speaks of Jesus as a real man who at the cross reveals the very heart of our loving and self-giving God. And so Rutledge can conclude

The uttermost depth of human misery has been plumbed by the incarnate Lord. (63)

How does this encourage you in the midst of worry, illness or suffering? What hope does the crucified incarnate Lord give you in the face of your inevitable death?

And so the job of a preacher today is to hold up Christ crucified as God’s scandalous way of confronting and overcoming the powers of sin, the devil and death. Without a robust preaching of the cross, we will have Christianity-lite, a religion of smugness and self-satisfaction, at ease with ourselves and the world.

This is why, Rutledge argues, the cross must not be set over against the resurrection as if Easter Sunday is all celebration after the lament of Good Friday. This fosters a triumphalist theology where the cross is put behind us.

It is precisely this sort of triumphalist theology that Paul is so concerned to combat in 1 Corinthians. Easter is both cross and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is both cross and resurrection.

Rutledge’s point – an exclusively celebratory message in the Eucharist or at Easter Sunday promotes an unreal ‘already achieved immortality of the faithful’ (68). So we meet the Risen Lord at the Eucharist, ‘but the resurrection did not occur independently of the crucifixion’ (69) – and so believers have the task of ‘proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11:26).

The New Testament writers see no competition between the incarnation and the cross. Vigilance is needed by the church, however, to see that the ready appeal of the incarnation is not allowed to take over from the wrenching difficulties of preaching and living the offense (skandalon) of the crucifixion (70).

So what do you think it means in practice to live under the cross today? To participate in the death of Christ in light of his resurrection?

Where does contemporary Christianity tend to drift into an unreal triumphalism that, in unspoken ways, move the cross to the periphery of teaching, preaching and experience?

Next, we begin chapter 2 and ‘The Godlessness of the Cross’

Lent 2019: Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion (4) theologia crucis

Rutledge_Understanding the Death of JC_wrk03_c.inddWe continue our Lenten series on Fleming Rutledge’s outstanding book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (2015). We are in chapter 1, ‘The Primacy of the Cross’.

To be clear, I am not attempting to re-tell the author’s argument in every detail but am giving a sketch of the content of each chapter – probably two or three posts per chapter during Lent should just about bring us to the end of the book for Easter. Along the way I will try to make clear what are my comments and what are the author’s.

Chapter 1 makes an eloquent case for how the cross is the test of whether any Christian theology, or indeed any expression of Christianity, is authentically Christian or not. Without the cross at the centre there is a gaping empty hole.

Maintaining focus on the theologia crucis (theology of the cross) is extremely difficult, particularly in a Western culture of comfort and affirmation.

After reminding us of how all four gospels are structured around the cross as the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry, Rutledge concludes

The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance. (44)

What then is the relationship between the crucifixion and the resurrection? This is a key question for Rutledge.

Since the resurrection is God’s mighty transhistorical Yes to the historically crucified Son, we can assert that the crucifixion is the most important historical event that has ever happened. The resurrection, being a transhistorical event planted in history, does not cancel out the contradiction and shame of the cross in this present life; rather, the resurrection ratifies the cross as the way “until he comes”. (44).

A substantial part of this chapter then explores theologies which DO attempt to cancel out, side-line or bypass the crucifixion. Where the cross may not be so much denied, but it is not at the centre and the focus Christian life and experience is elsewhere.

Can you think of modern examples of such ‘cross-less Christianity-lite’ in your own experience? What would some symptoms of such a theology in preaching and worship?

Rutledge particularly focuses on Gnosticism – both ancient and modern as by far the most pervasive and popular rival to Christianity. We’ll come back to this in the next post.

What do you hope for?: why Christianity is eschatology and why it matters

If one scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri raises questions of what it means to die well, another asks a profoundly important question.

It comes in one of the very rare tender moments when Mildred, planting tubs of flowers under the billboards looks up to see a deer standing quietly in front of her.

3 billboards deer

Normally guarded and combative, Mildred softens and shares her heart with the deer. She wonders aloud ..

Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not.

In one sentence we have:

  • the reality of evil (the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter)
  • the posited non-existence of God
  • the meaninglessness of existence if God is a fictional idea
  • a consequential absence of justice where evil goes unpunished

This little soliloquy faces head on a problem all of us face in one way or another – whether Christian or not. How to make sense of the reality of the world we live in?

A world about which, in these days of global communication, we know too much. The suffering of the planet fills our screens on a daily basis. This is a world where, as NT scholar Richard Hays puts it,

history continues its grinding litany of human atrocities, and we see no compelling evidence that God is answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).

One response is to agree with Mildred’s question and face the implications head-on. So what if the universe is bleak, cold and empty? So what if there is no transcendent and good God? So what if notions of fairness and justice are fantasies? So what if nothing we do, for good or ill, has any enduring consequence beyond this life? Just get on with life as best you can. Find meaning where you can – whether in hedonism, materialism, relationships, power, experiences etc

Mildred’s question is a very 21st Century one. The 20th did a very good job of destroying centuries of Enlightenment optimism about human progress and the power of reason.  World wars, the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the Cold War and an exploding world population competing for scarce resources sort of does that to utopian progressivism.

Add to that developments in the 21st Century of a mounting ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, neo-liberal fueled economic crashes, and the development of artificial intelligence where robots may soon threaten millions of jobs – and you have the seeds of a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-progressivism that does not hope for the future to be better than the present.

As with Mildred’s first sentence – we are on our own and making a mess of things. And that is not a very comforting thought.

All this makes her second sentence all the more interesting.

‘I hope not’.

Now those three words are perhaps vague wish-fulfillment, but they express a longing for hope beyond the injustices and pain of this world.

What might a pastor have said to Mildred if sitting beside her, surrounded by the flowers planted in memory of her daughter? (and what follows is not a suggested counselling conversation!)

First, perhaps that she is exactly right. Dale Allison, a NT scholar, puts it this way,

… Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying … If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Second, here is exactly where Christianity says ‘Yes, there is hope’. And this hope speaks into the realities of suffering and death. It is not a vague hope that things will get better. It is grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Richard Hays, says this

The church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about suffering and death. The New Testament’s vision of a final resurrection of the dead enables us to tell the truth about the present, including its tragedies and injustices, without sentimental sugar-coating, without cynicism or despair. It allows us to name suffering and death as real and evil, but not final.

Christian hope is not ‘going to heaven when I die’, but a realistic hope that faces death head-on. Hays again – this time about Paul in Thessalonians

The striking thing is that Paul does not seek to comfort the grieving bereaved Thessalonians by telling them that their loved ones are already in heaven with Jesus. He acknowledges that the dead are dead and buried. The apocalyptic hope is that in the resurrection they will be reunited with the living in the new world brought into being at Christ’s return. These are the words with which Christians are to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18). These same considerations apply on a larger scale to Christian theology’s reflection about the terrible tragedies that violent human cultures bring upon the world. In the face of mass murders, non-apocalyptic theology is singularly trivial and helpless.

In other words, Christianity is eschatology. It is nothing without the future hope of resurrection, of God’s justice being done and that one day death, pain and grief will be swallowed up in a glorious new creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-4).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] The Allison and Hays quotes are taken from Richard Hays, ‘”Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” New Testament Eschatology at the turn of the Millennium.’ Modern Theology 16:1 January 2000

Faith, hope and love in South Tipperary

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a profoundly Christian funeral.

The beautiful church was packed with all sorts of people – including family, friends, colleagues, carers from the local hospice, local people whose lives had been touched by the remarkable woman whose life we were remembering and celebrating.

There were tears, there was fond laughter, there were songs, there were prayers, there were wonderfully well-spoken words.

Framing all of this, for me anyway, was a deeply tangible sense of St Paul’s great triumvirate of the Christian life: faith, hope and love.

Faith

In focus was the faith in Jesus and subsequent life of the lady whose earthly life had drawn to a close earlier this week: a vibrant, active, transforming faith that motivated her life.

As someone said, “she walked the walk” right to the end. Everyone who spoke, from young to old, talked of the impact she had had on their lives – nurturing, encouraging, caring, daring and challenging. A faith that trusted God, took risks, lived boldly and fearlessly fought injustice wherever she saw it.

Linking to the last post, here was faith made manifest in a life of good works. There was even a standing ovation by the congregation. And while she would have been horrified at the thought, it seemed perfectly right and fitting to applaud such a life.

Hope

Yet this was a funeral with a coffin and a grieving husband and children. Hearts were heavy with the damage that death does to those closest. There had been weeks and months of suffering and caring culminating in a final parting.

In John 11 we are told that ‘Jesus wept’ at the grave of his friend Lazarus. Verses 33 and 38 tell us that Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. The Greek has a sense of his indignation, outrage or anger at death – that bringer of grief and loss.

This, I think, carries with it a profound and deep hope. Jesus has just told the grieving Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. Yet a moment later he is in tears. This Lord of Life is not some dispassionate force or distant Deist God. He is with his friends in their grief and sadness. Paul talks about death as the last enemy; it is not a thing to be welcomed and embraced.

The whole Bible can be read as the story of God conquering death and its root cause, sin. The good news of the gospel is that the one who is the Resurrection and the Life undoes the power of death once and for all. At the cross he atones for sin and dies in our place. And at the resurrection he is shown to have defeated sin and death decisively and completely.

All this means that at the very core of the Christian faith is a deep and sure hope – the hope of resurrection life to come. Yes, Christians, like anyone else, cry out in lament and pain when death comes calling. But they can also look forward to, and pray for, the ultimate healing and restoration of a broken painful world. For such ultimate restoration is precisely God’s agenda.

It was this specific Christian hope that pervaded the service. Death did not have the last word.

Love

The third thing so powerfully evident during the funeral was an overwhelming testimony of love.

Moving words of love from a dying woman to her husband; words of love from husband to wife; a deep and tenacious mother’s love that so obviously sustained, formed, empowered and liberated three children to be who they had been created to be; love of grandchildren for their grandmother; love of a pastor for a friend; love of a woman for those in need whoever they were; love of colleagues for a nurse who needed care herself after a lifetime of care for others; tender and sacrificial love of hospice carers for a mortally ill patient; self-giving love of a daughter nursing her mother to the end.

It is for good reason Paul says love is greater than faith and hope. I like to call him the apostle of love. Love pervades his teaching and ministry, but that is only in keeping with the whole witness of Scripture. Love is lifeblood of the Christian faith. God himself, John tells us, is love. Love fulfils the law. Without love, all the good works in the world done in God’s name are a waste of time. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence is love. The call of God’s people, OT and NT, is to love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbours as themselves. Love alone is eternal – it is the language of the new creation to come.

Christians are taught by their Lord to pray ‘May thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’ What I witnessed just a little bit of yesterday was a slice of kingdom-come life here on earth.

There were also stories of her sheer love of life, including love of the natural beauty of South Tipperary in particular. After the funeral, on the way home, I was passing the lovely mountain of Slievenamon. It was a sunny warm afternoon and, unplanned, I stopped and took a couple of hours out to climb the mountain and soak in the familiar scenery of a place that I used to know well.

Here are a couple of pictures of that walk.

Near the top someone had etched a simple prayer on a rock in the path – I can’t think of a better tribute to a truly Christ-like life.

 

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Ultimate purpose of being a Christian (3): Life

How then does it ‘work’ that someone is transformed into the image of God’s son? – if that is the ultimate goal of the Christian life.

Yes, the new life begins with death – and is sustained by a continuing ‘putting to death’ of the old. But how? How can the old be done away with? How is the Christian life more positively understood than death, if ‘death’ = not living a certain way?

The answer for Paul (and other NT writers in different ways) is the Spirit of God.

One of the most inspiring and significant verses (I think) in Romans is this one:

 ‘the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to all of us’ (Rom.5.5)

Notice how Paul reminds the Roman Christians of the decisive moment of their conversion. He points them to the role played by the Spirit and includes himself along with his readers – see the ‘our’ and the ‘us’.

In other words, this experience is something normative for every believer, whether Paul or the Romans or you or me.

We are very familiar with the idea that by faith alone, only through the grace of God, believers are justified.

But are we as keen to insist that by faith alone, only through the grace of God, believers receive the gift of the Spirit, who brings them into a dynamically transformed experience of God’s love? An experience captured by the image of a generous overflow of love into the heart, which is the core of human identity.

It is impossible to know God apart from the Spirit. This is why Paul insists again and again that it is the Spirit alone who can give life.

The Spirit is called the life-giver 11 times in the NT, 10 of those references are linked to soteriological new life. Take Romans:

Romans 8:2 – The Spirit of life in Christ Jesus will set you free

Romans 8:6 The flesh’s way of thinking is death but the Spirit’s is life

Romans 8:13 living according to flesh is death but if by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Romans 8:11 ‘Spirit of him who raised Christ – will give life to your mortal bodies’

Take Corinthians

1 Cor 15:45: the last Adam is a life-giving Spirit

2 Cor 3:6 it is the Spirit who gives life (letter of law kills)

1 Cor 12:23 all believers are given ‘one Spirit to drink’

The image of drinking water is one of dynamic life within the body of Christ.

Take Galatians

Gal 5:15 ‘If we live by the Spirit’

Gal 6:8 sow to the Spirit shall reap eternal life

The basis for this transforming life is the is the death and resurrection of the Son. What is his (life over death, victory over sin) now becomes ‘ours’.

Put another way, pneumatology and eschatology are inseparable. Life in the Spirit now is a present experience of life in the new age to come. The future has been brought right into the here and now. Christian hope isn’t merely that one day things will be better. It is a sure and certain experience that God’s future age is already here, witnessed in the outpouring of the Spirit into believers hearts and lives.

The Nicene Creed gets it right

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life

 

Resurrection changes everything

 

If you believe in the resurrection of the Messiah, it changes everything. There is no middle ground.

Take some implications for Paul, who came to believe on the Damascus Road that Jesus was indeed God’s promised Messiah who had  been raised from the dead.

1) His view of God is transformed:

The mystery of the gospel (which had NOT been revealed before the resurrection) is that God has chosen to effect salvation in and through the death and resurrection of his Son by the power of the Spirit. The cross is the supreme act of love by the Triune God.   Paul’s Christology is as exalted as can be imagined. The saving purposes of God are centered in and through Jesus. Jesus is revealed to be the reigning Lord who alone is worthy of worship, love, and wholehearted obedience.

2) His view of God’s people is transformed.

Since Jesus the Christ is raised from the dead and is Lord of all, the saving significance of his death is relevant to ALL people. The entire story of Israel has reached its climax and fulfillment in Jesus, but he is not a Messiah only of the Jews but for the whole world. God’s people are now made up of all who believe in and follow Jesus – whether they are Jews who follow the Law or Gentiles who do not.

3) His view of the future is transformed

Since Jesus is raised from the dead, his resurrection proves God’s victory over sin and death. All who are ‘in Christ’ are guaranteed to follow the same path of resurrection to new life. Christian hope is of resurrection life in a new resurrection body within a renewed creation.

4) His view of his own life and identity is transformed

No longer does Paul the Pharisee seek to persecute the fledgling Christian movement but becomes its champion to the Gentiles.  Whatever was dearest to him – his religious identity within Judaism – becomes of relatively zero importance in light of the resurrection. His life is changed forever, shaped around proclaiming, persuading, talking and writing about the glorious good news of the victory of God in Christ – whatever the cost to himself personally. Nothing is more important than sharing the gospel of the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.

5) His view of a life pleasing to God is transformed

Rather than a life under Torah being the goal of a holy life, now, in light of the resurrection, the goal of life is to be conformed to the image of Jesus. The Torah can’t achieve this, only the Spirit of God can bring new resurrection life. It is through faith in Christ that sins are forgiven and new life entered into by the Spirit. It is life in the Spirit that fulfills the Law, pleases God and leads to a transformed life of love and joy, lived out of thankfulness and response to God’s redeeming love.

That’s a lot of transformation. Nothing for Paul was ever the same again. Nothing for any of the first disciples was ever the same again. The world changed on that first Easter Sunday.

It continues to call you and me to deeper worship of God, a transformed community of fellow believers, a transformed hope, a transformed identity and purpose, and  a transformed life in the power of the Spirit ….

Best wishes for a joyful Easter Sunday!