Children of the Father: Cruciform Love

There are lots of options available to us when we start to ask the question, “What does it look like to faithfully live a life of following Jesus?”

I keep coming back to the cross.

Love is a huge category, and a good claim can be made for “love” as the defining marker of the Christian person or community.

But love is also a category amenable to all sorts of content. And in the Christian story, love is made known when the Father does not spare his own son but delivers him up for us all.

And, love is made known when the son so loves the world that he gives himself to the humbling of incarnation and the ultimate humiliation of death–so that we might live.

In biblical parlance, to be a son of someone is to be like that person. The son of righteousness is a righteous person. The son of man is a human being.

What does it mean to be a child of God? It is to live a life of sacrificial love that is most concretely displayed on the cross:

Therefore, imitate God like dearly loved children. Live your life with love, following the example of Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. (Ephesians 5:1, CEB)

Imitation of God entails imitation of the Christ who, in love, gave himself so that we might live.

I see an overtone of this even in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. What does it look like to love as God loves? It’s to love even in the face of persecution–to love the enemy and pray for him or her:

I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete. (Matthew 5:44-48)

The love of God is shown in an indiscriminate showering of blessing. But, importantly, that means as well that the love of God overcomes resistance and persecution.

It is a love that turns the other cheek–exposing us to more shame.

It is a love that goes two miles rather than one–giving ourselves over to the enemy who would impress us for his own good.

This is the way of the cross. This is cruciform love.

Binding, Plundering, and Redistributing

In Mark 3, Jesus is confronted by the Jewish leaders.

They see the works Jesus is doing and they ascribe these to the Great Evil One:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. (Mar 3:22-27 NRS)

Yes, there is a world of spiritual realities making itself known in Jesus’ exorcisms. But his is not the presence of the Evil One. Jesus’ mighty acts are a show of power that is binding Beelzebul.

The kingdom of Satan is being plundered. The rule over the earth is passing from the Satan to the Christ.

In Matthew and Luke, this passage is introduced by a healing. The “demon possession” is indicated by a person’s being blind and mute:

Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” (Matt 12:22-23)

The binding of the Strong Man is not only about “spiritual possession,” but about an enslaving power that manifests in sickness and other physical ailments and “abnormalities.”

The people are more precocious than their leaders: they wonder aright if the great spiritual power at work in Jesus indicates that great king David’s greater son is, at last, on the scene.

But a fourth layer is added, however subtly, in Luke’s Gospel.

No only is Jesus exercising power over the demons through exorcism (Mark). And not only is Jesus exercising power over the demons through healing of various physical ailments (Matthew and Luke). And, not only is this seen as binding of Satan so as to take what belongs to the Great Strong Man (all three Gospels).

In Luke, the plundering of what belongs to the strong man is for the purpose of redistribution. Poverty, it seems, is one facet of the Strong Man’s rule, and the plundering of his house is finds its goal in the redistribution of his wealth to the poor.

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are undisturbed. But when someone stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away from him all his armor on which he had relied and distributes his plunder.” (Luke 11:21-22)

The stronger one has come! The house is plundered! And now, it’s time for the redistribution to begin!

Or, if you prefer Mary’s Song:

He has filled up the poor with good things,
but the rich he has sent away empty.

Robin Hood, anyone?

Performing the Truth

“Martyrdom is communicative action.” This is a claim that Kevin Vanhoozer expounds, following the writings of Kierkegaard (First Theology, p. 364).

This claim was brought to the table this morning as we were talking cross, kingdom, and gospel. What kind of reign is this reign of God of which we speak? What kind of power is it that exercises authority to both speak and to exorcise?

I worry about power. I worry about coercion. I worry about what sort of emissaries we are. I worry about what kind of king we think we represent.

Not all power is bad. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” claims the resurrected Jesus. That’s power.

But it’s power that comes, while on earth, in the Spirit who empowers Jesus at baptism–itself a symbol of the coming cross.

It’s an authority that is finally granted when Jesus eschews all worldly means for overthrowing his enemies, going to the cross in order to wage his “war,” receiving from God the enthronement at God’s right hand in return.

Kevin Vanhoozer riffs off of Kierkegaard, who, in turn, is riffing off of Jesus and Paul, underscoring the necessity of an act of suffering to make good on our message of a suffering messiah:

Christian witnesses are not only speakers but sufferers too… Neither orthodoxy nor “Christendom” is enough; Christian truth demands passion or inwardness. Yet subjectivity is not the whole story for Kierkegaard either… Being a Christian is recognizable “by the opposition one suffered.” (First Theology, 364)

There’s a practice that demarcates the faithful Christian, practice that is not merely doing the right things generally, but a receiving of the opposition that will inevitably come against the truth.

Placing suffering so close to the heart of the Christian identity (we are the Cross People) undermines other ways of conceiving of faithful Christian practice:

Both the form and the content of the evangelical truth claim work against the notion of “Christendom” and its imperialistic overtones of imposing truth on others. Those who stake theological truth claims, then, should expect not to oppress but rather to suffer oppression. To associate the theological truth claims with expressions of the will to power is effectively to contradict the Christian witness. The power associated with the Christian truth has little to do with force (except the force of testimony and perhaps the force of the better argument) and nothing to do with violence. The power of the cross is the weakness and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:23-25). From the perspective of an epistemology of the cross, truth–even rationality–is vulnerable.

(NB: For those of you scoring at home, Kevin Vanhoozer is a Reformed Theologian, not an Anabaptist. I think that makes what he says just a little more interesting.)

“An epistemology of the cross”: we know truly when we know what is true as that which is formed by and participates in the cross of Christ.

Henry V and the Kingdom of God

We need to understand the Biblical picture of the reign of God or, as Christians, we will enact poor parodies of that reign as we stumble our way toward Christian faithfulness.

I confess, all of the anti-Empire work that’s floating around New Testament scholarship makes me more than a little nervous, as does N. T. Wright’s bold proclamation that we need to reclaim the word “theocracy.”

Yes, to claim that Jesus is the king of king and lord of lords means, also, that Caesar does not have this role, whatever his claims. And Caesar made such a claim even over Jesus, with Rome’s parodic crucifixion: “Ok, ‘king,’ hang on this cross and discover who is the king of all kings upon the earth!”

But let us not forget that the expulsion of Rome is exactly what Jesus never tried to enact, never promised to deliver.

Jesus did come and cast out a legion. But the great irony of the story is that the “Legion” was not Roman but demonic; and it was not expelled from Jerusalem or Judea or Galilee, but from a Gentile man in Gentile territory.

The undoing of the arms of Caesar was not the mission of Jesus.

This week Laura and I took in an outstanding rendition of Henry V at London’s Shakespear’s Globe Theater.

Jamie Parker played the part of Henry to perfection, leaving me wanting to stand and cheer after the St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

Overall, the play struck me as delivering rather a muted celebration of war. But more than that, the play struck me as having a rather lot of talk about God.

Henry demands that the great victory should be celebrated and recounted so as to give glory to God. God’s glory. God’s grace. God’s victory.

One suspects that the French didn’t quite see it this way.

And thus the problem of misidentifying the reign of God, and too closely associating with “not the reign of x king in particular.” There is a practical, nearly unavoidable problem in setting Jesus up over against other, particular earthly kings.

The problem, in short, is that we are too ready to identify ourselves and our kings and our kingdoms with the reign of God, and the other guy over there with the reign Jesus opposes.

Moreover, when we identify worldly kingdoms as the opposition, we too readily employ the means of earthly conquest in our efforts to unseat them.

Any truth worth its salt will be dangerous.

I do not commend dispensing with the idea of the kingdom of God.

But we must understand it well, and cultivate our participation in that reign with caution.

When our enactments look more like blanketing the enemy with paratroopers than an apparent nothing producing incalculable return, we’ve got a problem.

When our enactments look more like driving the nails than receiving the blows, we’ve got a problem.

When we find ourselves asking and pining and pleading, “Lord, is it now that you are going to restore the Kingdom to us?” We should immediately fear that the restoration is already taking place through some great act of self-giving love.

An that we are missing it.

Gospel as Cruciform Kingdom

When Jesus was proclaiming the advent of the reign of God, he was proclaiming the good news (the gospel).

The introduction to Mark tells us that his whole story demarcates the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ—and that story culminates in Jesus’ crucifixion and report of his resurrection.

As I prepare for a week of discussions about gospel, kingdom, and cross, I keep circling back around to this:

We repeatedly end up with truncated gospels because we have not yet learned to hold together Jesus’ authoritative proclamation and inauguration of the reign of God (Mark 1-8) with Jesus’ road to Jerusalem and death on the cross as king (Mark 8-16).

Some of us struggle to place much significance in the death of Jesus, given all the powers and signs and wonders and teaching and authority and identity he put on display in his life.

Others of us struggle to place much central significance in the life of Jesus, given our understanding of the all-sufficiency of his death on our behalf.

To the one I would say that any conceptual framework of what Jesus was doing in his life that does not require Jesus to die on the cross is an inadequate and finally mistaken view of Jesus and the gospel.

And to the other I would say that any conceptual framework of what Jesus did for us on the cross that does not require Jesus to live a life of proclaiming and demonstrating the advent of the reign of God is an inadequate and finally mistaken view of Jesus and the gospel.

That’s my story for now, anyway: we need to continue working on the articulation of a cruciform kingdom.

What do you think?

Do the gospel stories as such demand that we read them as mutually-interpreting wholes, to where cross and kingdom each inform the other?

And if so, where does this leave us when we come to Paul, whose gospel-story timeline begins with the cross?

I have some thoughts on the latter. I’ll come back to that in a couple of days.

Easter is Fathers Day

This week I spoke with a friend who, this past Sunday, was able to celebrate fathers day with her husband for the fist time. They had been trying to have a baby for a long time.

For all that our Hallmark holiday is a celebration of the parent, for the parent the day conjures up all the memories of the child–especially the birth.

When I saw my firstborn, I thanked her for being the one who made me a father. She thought I was weird, but got over it.

In Ephesians 3:15 speaks of God as the father from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. God’s own fatherhood is not simply about an eternal begetting of an eternal son. His is a fatherhood that has moments of celebration as new children come into the world.

When God creates humanity, God fashions for Himself his firstborn children upon the earth. That’s part of what “image and likeness” means:

This is the list of the descendants of Adam. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them ‘Humankind’ when they were created.

When Adam had lived for one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. (Gen 5:1-3, NRSV)

Do you see how God’s relationship to Adam & Eve is the same as Adam’s to Seth? The father has a child in his own image and in his own likeness.

Now, for God’s children, that originally meant, as well, that these children should rule for him (Gen 1:26-28). That will be important to bear in mind.

Of course, in the unfolding story, God has other children as well. He says to Pharaoh, “Let Israel, my firstborn son, go!” Israel plays the role of God’s child which is “originally” the job of all humanity.

But the focalizing continues.

Within Israel, God chooses a particular son who will fulfill that primordial vocation of ruling for God. It is the Davidic King:

Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
‘I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.’

I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you. (Psalm 2, NRSV)

When the king is enthroned, the one who was already God’s son because part of Israel, which was already in a sense God’s son because part of ‘Adam, becomes God’s son afresh. It’s a new day of begetting or adopting.

It’s father’s day all over again.

Easter is the consummation of this recurring story of the God who begets children, sons and daughters to rule the world on God’s behalf.

Paul says, “He was appointed son of God, with power, according to the Spirit of Holiness by the resurrection from the dead.”

Jesus becomes the representative, ruling king, the son of God, as he is raised from the dead.

Jesus, at the resurrection, becomes a second Adam embodying within himself a destiny of life, even as the first embodied a destiny of death (1 Cor 15). As the first Adam was created son-ruler, Jesus at the resurrection is re-created son-ruler.

Easter creates a new, eternal Fathers Day–the one that enables God to claim fatherhood over an eternal family of those who will be God’s children forever.

At the resurrection, Jesus becomes firstborn brother of a new, large family, such that we all are conformed to his resurrection-likeness (Rom 8).

Easter initiates an eternal Fathers Day as Jesus becomes the eternal king, inheriting the throne of David:

And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm,
“You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.”
As to his raising him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way,
“I will give you the holy promises made to David.” (Acts 13, NRSV)

As long as the church must say, “Jesus is Lord,” it must also say “Jesus is Messiah, the son of God.” And this means that it is still Easter.

And, as long as it is Easter it is the Day on which God became father of Jesus, and of the eternal humanity that is joined to him.

Jesus Christ v. Eternal Principles

At the beginning of Unlocking Romans, I reflected on how Christians have, at times, defined God. Scrolling through Augustine, Anselm, and the Westminster Confession, I summarized thus:

Not only do these Christian definitions, like their Greek philosophical counterparts, all focus on a g/God who is wholly other, they also define God in universal terms without reference to the story of Israel.

In the Scriptures of Israel, however, God’s identity is inseparable from a particular people and from certain actions performed on behalf of that people. God is not known in universal abstract qualities but in limiting and particular actions.

Little did I know at the time that this insistence that God be understood from with the particulars of the outworking of the story of Israel would be the heart of Karl Barth’s call for a massive overhaul of the doctrine of election.

When Barth talks about the “Foundation of the Doctrine of Election” in Church Dogmatics §32.2, he means to call us back to Jesus Christ as the foundation.

Where the history of doctrine points to the church going awry in its articulation of what it means to say “God elects” is at the point when it says, “God elects [full stop].”

If it is going to be the church’s doctrine of election, Barth calls us to say instead, “God elects in Jesus Christ.”

In step with Barth’s overall theological program, for something to be known as true in Christian theology, it can only be known because God has made it known in Jesus Christ.

When it come to election, this means placing front and center Paul’s claim in Ephesians 1: God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.

The problems with the church’s talk of election have risen, in Barth’s estimation, from principles such as power or majesty or omnipotence or sovereignty becoming the determining factors in the confession that God elects. This puts the whole idea within the realm of a God hidden behind the God who is known in Christ, and makes election a secretive eternal act that is not disclosed, as such, in Christ.

Such a doctrine can never be gospel, because the good news is revealed in Jesus Christ.

When we first started talking about Barth and election last week, someone commented on my FB Wall that Barth’s position puts him out of step with all the great theologians of the church, Augustine and Aquinas no less than Luther and Calvin.

Barth acknowledges this. He does it with some trepidation. But he parts company with them as he pinpoints the place where they leave “in Christ” behind, seeking an electing God hidden behind. For Barth, this simply will not do.

Get Low: Story-Telling and Forgiveness

It styles itself as a film about an eccentric old man, planning his own funeral party so that he can participate. But the funeral is just an excuse.

In “Get Low,” the point is not the party. And the point is not the funeral. The point is the story. Not the story of the movie itself, but the story of the old man’s life. Well, the story of the old man’s past.

Robert Duvall plays Felix Bush, a hermit who has been holed up in his cabin in the woods for forty years.

When we first see him go to town, there’s an air of mystery about him–the hermit whom no one has seen, but whom everyone seems to know.

At first it seems that this is a point of umbrage for Bush, everyone thinking they know him. The people he meets allude to the “stories everyone’s heard,” and he keeps asking what stories those might be.

But as the film develops we realize that this is not a taunt, it’s his driving desire. He has a story, a dark and terrible story, that needs to be told. Funerals are places where stories of the dead are told. The funeral party is the invitation to come and tell–in hopes that someone else will reveal the truth.

Because Bush feels that he can’t do it himself. The pain is too much. The shame is too much. And he’s not all that sure that he could live with the forgiveness that might come if the truth were disclosed.

Recently I’ve been in several story-telling venues. In whatever context these occur, the telling of stories is powerful for both the speakers and the hearers. There is often a freedom that comes in the telling and in the hearing.

I wonder how much of a therapist’s, or a pastor’s, job might be framed as getting people to tell their stories and, perhaps, to reframe them in a way that enables them to continue participating in that narrative with a more healthful engagement?

Bush had to discover that no one else would tell his story for him. He needed to say to the others who were wounded on the terrible night in question what had really happened.

To his own surprise, it seems, he found peace.

While I would not say that “Get Low” itself does a great job with story-telling (I wasn’t happy with the characters, by and large), it does do a great job with telling us about stories. For that display, it’s worth the slot in your Netflix queue.

Forsaken on Easter?

It’s still Easter.

As long as Christians confess that God showed Himself faithful in raising up the Christ who faithfully went to death on the cross, it’s still Easter.

When God raises Jesus from the dead, God declares that divine fidelity will be the end of the story. When God raises Jesus from the dead, God demonstrates a commitment to finally do what is right–even for those who in this life would seem to be wronged by a God who claims to delight in justice.

When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he was interpreting truly the event by which he was afflicted.

This is no mere spiritual abandonment.

For the Messiah of Israel to be crucified, handed over to that King’s enemies, and put to death is, itself, the very epitome of Israel’s king being abandoned by God.

When faithful, God’s people were to be protected. They were to put their enemies to flight. They were to triumph.

But he abandoned Jesus into the hands of his enemies.

And yet, it’s Easter.

Because it is Easter, we know that this abandonment, this “why have you forsaken me?” is not the last word. It is overcome by the return of God to deliver.

Because it is Easter, we need do not need to squirm or explain away when confronted with, “Why have you forsaken me?”–either on the lips of Jesus, or on our own.

God has staked a part for Himself in the story: the part of the faithful deliverer. When we are not delivered, we can join our voice to Jesus’.

God has staked a part for Himself in the story: the part of the one who will be with us always. When we are abandoned, we can and must join our voice to Jesus’.

Easter tells us that the end of the Story must be faithfulness and deliverance. It therefore tells us that being forsaken is a failure of the story to manifest the final, eschatological fulness that lies ahead.

Easter thus summons us to call out to God. It demands that we not make excuses for a God who has not yet made this world what it will someday be. Instead of making excuses, we must join our voice to that of Jesus and thereby summon God to be who God Himself has claimed to be in raising Jesus from the dead.

In the on-going drama of our salvation, God claims the role of the one who is faithful and sets all things to rights. But there is also a role to be played between crucifixion and resurrection, the role of the faithful righteous summoning God, reminding God, demanding of God a saving presence.

Because it’s Easter, we can name our forsakenness. And we can have hope that it is not the last word.

Cambridge in Late June

Next week I’ll be heading to Cambridge (the U.K. version, not the Massachusetts version). In addition to a couple days in London beforehand for Laura, here’s what’s going on.

Cut and pasted from the newsletter of the Institute for Biblical Research:

*New Program for Beginning IBR Scholars. The Board of IBR is excited to announce a new initiative in partnership with the International Reference Library for Biblical Research Board (hereafter IRLBR). IRLBR had funds to propose an annual meeting to help nurture “junior scholars” to further their careers in research and writing. They suggested an annual meeting where beginning scholars under the leadership of a senior scholar would discuss a controversial topic of relevance to the academy, and very importantly, to the church. The hope then is to have the work of these scholars published for public benefit. IBR’s role is to help chose the topic and also provide names from our membership for senior scholar and participants.

Plans have recently been completed for what we are calling the Summer Summit this sum-mer. This first meeting will provide the basis for both boards to decide whether to make this partnership more permanent and the meeting an annual one. The Summer Summit for this year will be held on June 22-29 in Cambridge at Tyndale House. The focus will be “What is the Gospel: Cross or Kingdom?”

This year Lynn Cohick (Wheaton College and Secretary, IBR) will be the Senior Scholar (the IRLBR has requested that initially the senior scholar be an IBR Board member), and the three scholars will be Daniel Kirk (Fuller Theological Seminary), Joel Willits (North Park University), and Paul Hoskins (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary). This group of scholars represents work in the Synoptics, Pauline and Johannine areas. Dan Fredericks (Belhaven University), from the board of IRLBR is directing the Summit. In late September the IBR Board will report on this meeting to the membership.

Needless to say, I’m excited about this opportunity–not least because Joel W. claims to have the inside scoop on all the awesome pubs in Cambridge! I regret, however, that my presence at the summit may impede my blogging. Stay tuned.

And steel yourselves.

Telling the story of the story-bound God