Never Pray Again

I have grown up hearing language of “mobilizing” God’s people through prayer, of prayer being like the gas that fills up our spiritual vehicles so that we can run off in service of God.

But what if…

What if prayer isn’t the great mobilizer of God’s people, but the great immobilizer?

What if worship and contemplation aren’t the centrifuges that throw us out into the world, but the centripetal forces that suck us only and ever deeper into ourselves?

Those are the questions we’re asked to entertain in Never Pray Again: Lift Your Head, Unfold Your Hands, and Get To Work by Aric Clark, Doug Hagler, and Nick Larson.

This post is part of a blog tour for the book (for which I was provided with a free electronic copy).NeverPrayAgain

Though the provocative title suggests that leaving behind prayer provides the book with its energy, in reality the gravitas is its insistence that we move into faithful practice. Rather than sleepwalking through life, numbed by our pious practices, they invite us to wake up and engage.

Interestingly, the chapter titles could often be interpreted as postures of prayer.

“Thank”

The chapter entitled “Thank” caught me most strongly. There I found much of the language of “economy,” and a stern warning against living our lives in accordance with the economy of scarcity rather than in accordance with God’s economy of “enough.” (I prefer calling God’s an economy of “abundance,” but perhaps that’s a quarrel for another day.)

“Scarcity” demands that some win, some lose. “Enough” proclaims “abundant life for all.”

They rightly warn about how easy it is to “lazily import” the economies of scarcity in which we find ourselves into our Christian communal life. Taking the Corinthians as a prime example, we discover that an alternative economy demands that we not privilege those who are privileged in the world’s economy, that we invite and honor the outsiders, the unwashed masses, as we sit at our tables and eat together.

In another profoundly insightful word, they warn that the anxiety created by scarcity causes us to grasp and cling.

Eucharist reorients us, and demands of us that we be a thankful people. Thankfulness is the posture of those who have “enough,” know it to be enough, and therefore express the reality of “enough” by sharing on an even playing field.

“Love”

I struggled more with the “Love” chapter than the “Thank” chapter. It started off with the assumption that God calls us to love ourselves.

I’ve never resonated with this claim.

It seems to me, instead, that the biblical writers simply assumed that most people love themselves, and this is the baseline reality (or even problem) that needs to be corrected through our love of others.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t a command to love yourself, it assumes that you pour out most of your energies on loving yourself, and that escaping such self-obsession is the way toward a surprising discovery of true humanness. (See also: “No one ever hated his own flesh but nourishes and cherishes it,” Eph 5:28-29).

We’ll come back to self love in a bit.

The Three Amigos assert that it is neither self love nor neighbor love that makes Christian love unique. Instead, it is enemy love.

In a surprise move, but one that fits what I’ve already engaged, they speak of “Loving the Enemy Within.” That is, they recognize that for many of us our fiercest enemy is the criticism in our heads. The voice of hatred and vitriol that most often accuses us—it’s our own. There is a powerful recognition here, and perhaps one that, in its psychological and theological insight, chastens my objections above.

They then turn to more traditional enemy love. Here they are at the heart of things.

If there is one datum to point to that demonstrates how our insular practices have cut us off from the life to which God calls us in Christ, it is the fact that no one, ever, when hearing that someone is a Christian, first thinks, “Wow, that person must really love her enemies!”

Love. That kind of love, should be our hallmark.

The exposition of enemy love then begins to take a bold turn.

A section entitled, “Our Enemy Who Art In Heaven” talks about loving God when the world around us is going to crap. It asserts that God is our enemy when we beg for healing and find none, when we are left alone in the darkness, betrayed by God, crying out with Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the section entitled, “Jesus is the Enemy,” the turn is more subtle and perhaps more palatable for many readers as well: Jesus identifies himself with the world in need of salvation. Jesus is the one made sin for us. Jesus is the one present in the person of the person in need. Jesus died for our enemy, making our love for enemy nothing less than love for the Christ who gave his life for them—an extension of the love that we have been given.

“Experiments”

Throughout the book, each chapter ends with suggested experiments: ways to begin moving toward the practices commended. These help put feet on the ideas so that we can begin to catch a glimpse of what they might look like in practice.

The need for practice is reiterated at the end, as the final admonition of the book is summed up as “Go and Do!”

Here, the leaving off of prayer is given one final commendation:

We noticed as we looked at the ancient liturgical structure of worship, and examined each type of prayer usually found there, that if we simply removed the word “prayer” we unleashed something vital and compelling… Prayer itself serves too easily as that thing we do instead of acting more directly and more powerfully.

Of course, this will be seen by many, perhaps most, traditional Christians as precisely the point. We pray to signal that God is in charge and we are not. We pray to confirm that we are incapable of bringing about the movement of the Spirit requisite for the tasks to which we have been called.

But, if we’re honest, do we not often pray in order to commend into the hands of God the very things for which God has placed on us on earth, and for which God has placed God’s own name on us and sent us out into the world?

That’s the question we are rightly haunted by when we leave the pages of this book… even if we choose to keep on praying.

The Problem with Rich

The problem with “rich” is that I know, instinctively, that it doesn’t apply to me.

My dad would sometimes pull the sly smile as he claimed wealth: the love of the family, the rewarding life, you know, the revisionist definition of rich. But I knew all to well that the financial pressures that had our family on a cycle of spending less and less as payday approached, the debt of a mortgage we couldn’t afford, and the disparity between a Navy income and the cost of living in the D.C. area all added up to one thing: we were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we always had electricity and a warm house and food on the table, that we had a clunker that the kids could drive in addition to a nicer car for the grown ups. We were far from rich.

It doesn’t matter that we know in our minds, or sometimes see with our eyes, what real poverty looks like. It doesn’t matter that we know that we have more than 95% of the people in the world. We just know that we are not rich.

And this is why “rich” is a problem.

It is a word that I have learned, deep down, experientially, does not apply to me.

We have all been taught how to look up, to see the people with more, to identify them as rich.

While we are not.

And so, when we come across “the rich,” the warnings to “the rich,” or “the rich man” on the pages of scripture, we dissociate. “Wow, if I were rich, that would be a pretty convicting story.” Or, “Wow, I wonder, if I were rich, would I be able to sell everything, give to the poor, and follow Jesus?” “Wow, it will be hard for those folks to get into the Kingdom of God. I should pray for them.”

That’s why, in my judgment, the Gospel of Mark does us a great favor.

In Mark 10:17, a man runs up to Jesus. We’re not told anything about him, except that he bows and asks about what must be done to inherit life.

Jesus feels for this man. Loves him. And so, Jesus ends up inviting him into the life-giving way: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come! follow me!”

But the man becomes gloomy, and goes way sad. Because he was…

Because he was what?

“Because he was someone who had a lot of stuff.”

Uh oh.

“Has a lot of stuff” (ἔχων κτήματα πολλά).

Now that sounds familiar. Mark’s warning is not here embodied in “the rich” (ὁ πλούσιος) but in “one who has a lot of stuff.”

Now that hits home.

It hits home in garages cluttered with too many bicycles. It hits home in bookshelves with too many books. It hits home in houses loaded up with phones and retired phones and iPads and computers and televisions and multiple sets of serving dishes and overflowing closets and basketfulls of toys.

It is not to “the rich” that Jesus goes on to issue his warning–those ethereal others!–but to us:

“Oh, with how much difficulty with those who have a ton of crap (ok, more literally, “a lot of stuff”) enter the kingdom of God!”

This is not for some mysterious “them.” It is for us.

Jesus will use the word for “rich” a little later, but let’s live with him in the delay. Let’s recognize that none of us is willing to bear that label rich. And let’s recognize that this is perhaps the most important story we could hear and respond to. We are the “stuff havers.”

Let’s leave behind the word “rich.” It is too full of problems for us. Let’s dwell on the challenge for those non-rich who still have too much.

How difficult it will be for those… for us… for me… who have a ton of crap to enter the kingdom of God.

Strike the Shepherd–And God Becomes King

This morning’s musings had me in Zechariah. Zechariah 9-14 depicts a time of failure, punishment, and restoration.

The movement, the hopes, and the casting of the roles have the power to shape our imaginations about what God’s promised salvation looks like.

First, the hope of the people is thoroughly messianic. They will be given a king. This is the source of the people’s hope and joy. The king will bring peace. The king will reign over the whole earth.

It is from these hopes of a coming, Davidic messiah that Matthew draws his interpretation of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “He is humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the offspring of a donkey” (Zech 9:9, CEB).

Second, this is a time when the people are exalted. When YHWH protects Jerusalem, “anyone who stumbles will become like David, and David’s house will become like God, like YHWH’s messenger in front of them” (Zech 12:8).

This time of exaltation is one where people “play up”: they are assigned roles that do not fit them by nature, but to which they are exalted because of God’s great act of salvation.

Everyone is like a king.

David is like God.

Third, the great act of Israel’s salvation is the time when God becomes king.

This is the genius in the title of N. T. Wright’s book, How God Became King. It recognizes that for God to actualize God’s kingship over the earth, certain earthly realities have to be in place.

YHWH will become king over all the land. (Zech 14:9)

The people all come to Jerusalem to honor the king–who is YHWH (Zech 14:16).

Now, I’m sure my friends who are scholars of the Hebrew Bible will tell me that the varied visions of Zech 9-14 represent different theological strands and corresponding expectations for the future. O.k.

But in the book of Zechariah they all sit there next to each other: God becomes king precisely when the Davidic kingship is restored and the faithful king on earth becomes like God, leading the people in peace and righteousness.

We need to have our minds shaped by this fusion of heaven and earth: the claims scripture invites us to make about earthly events such as the coronation of a messiah are woven together with claims about God.

This is because, from the beginning, the role of people is to play the role of God upon the earth (Gen 1:26-28). To play roles typically assigned to God, or to say that God is at work, is not to say that a person is divine, but to say that God is present precisely in the way that God has always intended to be–through a faithful humanity.

In order to rediscover how it is that Jesus brings the biblical story to its fulfillment, we have to recognize that an absolute narratological necessity is this: a human king must be the agent of God’s salvation, so that God may be king through the reign of a faithful messiah.

On Being Son of God

There once was a person who received the Spirit of God.

With the reception of this Spirit, the man became something he was not before: God’s own son.

Knowing that God was father, and protector, and deliverer, he implored God for deliverance in the face of suffering: Abba! Father!

But deliverance, and entry into glory, would only come after suffering.

This person, of course, is any person who has been united to Christ. This biography of adoption, hope, importunity, suffering, and glory, is Paul’s description of people who have received the Spirit (Rom 8:12-17).

Every Christian.

But perhaps you heard another story?

Perhaps you heard the story of Jesus?

Perhaps you heard the story of Jesus at his baptism being given the Spirit, and the voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son?”

Perhaps you got annoyed that I said this was a becoming, rather than an affirmation of what Jesus had been all along?

Perhaps you knew that Abba! Father! was Jesus’ prayer?

Perhaps you recognized that it is Jesus’ suffering that resolves in glory, first of all?

Perhaps we need to be so confused on a more regular basis. Perhaps we have gotten so in the habit of recognizing the bits of Jesus that we imagine to be unrepeatable, utterly unique, that we have missed the opportunities we’re given to recognize that Jesus’ life in relationship to God is a picture of a human life perfectly in step with the Creator.

We receive the Spirit of sonship, because Jesus first was appointed son (cf. Rom 1:4). We are led by the Spirit that led, indeed drove, Jesus into the wilderness and empowered him in a life of kingdom-bringing, death-defeating power. We cry abba, father because we are sons bearing the likeness of the firstborn son. We are heirs of this father because we share our elder brother’s inheritance.

The God who only said “very good” over the creation after the creation of people to mediate God’s own presence to it, did not give up on that plan. It is renewed in “the human, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).

How God Became Jesus: Part 3 in Review of the Evangelical Response to Bart Ehrman

This third installment of my review of How God Became Jesus moves to Simon Gathercole’s argument for preexistence Christology, and divine Christology more specifically, throughout the NT.

Gathercole begins with a summary of the argument he made at length in The Preexistent Son, that the “I have come” sayings signal that Jesus came from somewhere; to wit, from heaven to earth. He does not weigh the possibility that Jesus is speaking to his role (“I am here as son of man”) rather than his ultimate origins (“I am here from heaven”). Nor does he address the fact that Jesus puts John the Baptist in parallel with the son of man when he says, “John came neither eating nor drinking… the son of man came eating and drinking…”

Gathercole says that those who follow his lead in “carefully” so reading the Gospels will find preexistence throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Four pages later Gathercole concedes that most NT scholars “underestimate” the significance of preexistence in the texts (p. 102).

He next turns to Jesus’ baptism, and claims that Ehrman merely asserts, doesn’t argue, that Jesus is adopted son of God at his baptism in Mark. In response, Gathercole says that since the divine voice calls Jesus son once again at the Transfiguration, that it is “hard to see” how the first declaration is causative of Jesus’ sonship in any sense.

Of course, scholars have argued extensively about the baptism. In particular, many, if not most, scholars see an allusion there to Ps 2 which is an enthronement Psalm. The idea that Jesus is somehow anointed (he does receive the Spirit at the baptism!) as Son-King is in keeping with both the OT precedent and Mark’s narrative. Moreover, if one reads Mark as a story and not a static set of Christological statements, it is not difficult at all to imagine that the second time God speaks the same title is used to different effect (this time, telling the disciples that Jesus understands what his kingship entails).

In a series of other indications of Jesus’ divine identity, Gathercole mentions the episode where Jesus forgives sins (Mark 2 and parallels). This is, to be sure, a divine prerogative. But the whole point of being God’s agent on the earth is to exercise divine prerogatives. In interpreting Mark 2, we should look not to the scribes’ interpretation of Jesus’ action (“Who can forgive sins but God alone?”), but to his own: “the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

Gathercole then goes into a puzzling series of interpretations of early Christian material contained in the NT, all of which indicates an exaltation Christology.

Romans 1:3-4 says that Jesus was appointed son of God at the resurrection. Ehrman rightly sees this as an “adoption” type text. We know that is correct, in part, because Paul uses the same notion of appointment, Spirit, and Jesus’s sonship, to talk about how people are adopted as God’s “sons” in Romans 8.

This is one reason I’m so worried about putting everything in the “divinity” box: it eviscerates the internal connections between the human Jesus and the salvation of humanity.

In delving into a similar exaltation formula in Acts 13:32-33, Gathercole says that we are simply to assume that the words, “You are my son, today I have become your father” do not actually say what the early church, or the writer of Acts, means. They are instead part of an OT passage that is suggestive on other grounds.

Similarly, in looking at Acts 2:36, Gathercole’s move is to say that when Peter says, “God has made him Lord and Christ,” something that happens at the resurrection, he does not mean that God made him Lord and Christ. Yes, Gathercole is right to point out that for Luke Jesus was both Lord and Christ prior to his crucifixion.

What, then, does it mean to say here that the resurrection effects these things? Gathercole says that Jesus occupies a new position vis-à-vis the world. Surely this is true. It is the position of messiah exalted to God’s right hand—otherwise known as being appointed son of God.

I do worry that Gathercole’s overall argument leaves no room for a transformation in the life of the human Jesus and thereby denies not only the basis of our hope as humans, but also the orthodox faith he seems keen to preserve. Here is an example of what I mean.

When talking about Jesus’ glorified body, Gathercole claims, “in being freed from physical weakness, suffering, and death, he is really returning to his preexistent condition rather than being elevated to a brand new physical state” (p. 114).

So not only was Jesus divine before his incarnation, he was incarnate before his incarnation? This resurrection “body” he has, with all its physicality (yes, this is what Gathercole is talking about, a state “material and physical” (p. 112), is nothing other than the condition Christ had before becoming human?

This is incompatible with every NT description of Jesus’ resurrection, with every Jewish depiction of the non-physicality of God, and dare I say, it is virtually Gnostic in its denial of the ongoing significance of the human, embodied life of Jesus.

Did Jesus escape human physicality in order to “return to his preexistent condition”? This is heresy.

Did Jesus not enter a brand new physical state? Then all the hope Paul hinges on just such a transformation in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8 is lost to us. Our faith is worthless. We are still in our sins. There is no new creation.

I don’t think Gathercole things any of these things, actually. But I do think that the chapter unwittingly bears witness to the problem of having our eyes so screwed to the goal of defending every facet of the early Christian witness as bearing testimony to Jesus’ divinity. It pushes our Christology off the one side of the horse, landing it on the ground on the God side, with nothing of any significance left on the human side.

In all, I simply disagree with Gathercole about any number of exegetical moves. In these disagreements, I find that the notion of a Christ, a human being empowered to act for God in the world, is muted in Gathercole’s rendering, in a way that fails to do justice to the stories that contain it.

How God Became Jesus: Review of the Evangelical Response to Ehrman (part 2)

In the first part of my review of How God Became Jesus, I engaged the contributions of the book’s editor, Michael Bird. Today I turn to the piece by Craig Evans, “Getting the Burial Traditions and Evidences Right.”

Craig Evans’ chapter responds to Bart Ehrman’s claim that the body of Jesus was mostly likely not buried but left for scavengers to devour. Ehrman’s argument, earlier popularized by John Dominic Crossan, draws on a number of indications from Roman writers that the lack of burial was one of the horrors of crucifixion.

Evans chapter is strong in that it puts a great deal of data from a variety of types of sources on the table for further consideration. In particular, Evans looks at literary evidence for burial of executed criminals, and looks at archaeological evidence including buried bodies.

Evans finds some evidence that Roman law encouraged the handing over of bodies to be buried, except in cases of high treason (Digesta 48.24).

Perhaps more to the point, Josephus provides some indications that Romans honored the Jewish sensibilities regarding the purity of the land, including not leaving corpses unburied. That the Romans did not bury crucified rebels during the War of the late 60s and early 70s, this was “the exception that proves the rule”: an egregious offense against Jewish sensibilities was intended and perpetrated due to Israel’s revolt.

Turning to Jewish law, Evans cites Mishnaic indications that executed criminals would be buried and receive as well the customary secondary burial.

I find this evidence of mixed usefulness. The Digesta was compiled in the sixth century. It indicates that some much later Roman jurists thought that burial of executed criminals was the norm. It is possible that some first century jurists thought the same. That such a law was not standard across the empire, for both citizens and non-citizens, seems to be reflected in the indications that many times crucified bodies were, in fact, left for the animals to consume.

Similarly, the evidence from the Mishnah is compiled late, and is difficult to date with any certainty. It demonstrates possibilities, but cannot tell us what was normal.

The passages from Josephus are perhaps the most helpful. But there we have to be careful that his apologetic tendencies might be shading his presentation of this evidence.

The literary evidence is not a slam dunk, but it does problematize well what Ehrman presents as clear evidence on the other side.

The archaeological evidence includes an ossuary (bone box) from the year 20 CE that includes a heel bone that still contains an iron spike in it, likely from having been crucified. In addition to another cave that may hold the bones of a crucified man, numerous nails have been discovered in and around ossuaries that contain human calcium deposits. Perhaps these are further indications that burial was administered to victims of crucifixion.

Perhaps the best rhetorical coup of the piece comes toward the end. Evans cites Jodi Magness, a Jewish archaeologist who is a colleague of Ehrman’s at UNC Chapel Hill, saying,

Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial are largely consistent with the archaeological evidence. Although archaeology does not prove there was a follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea or that Pontius Pilate granted his request for Jesus’ body, the Gospel accounts describing Jesus’ removal from the cross and burial are consistent with archaeological evidence and with Jewish law.

Resurrection and Transformation

Resurrection is the consummate display of the power of God. In the resurrection of Jesus, God’s power, through the Spirit, reaches down and undoes the greatest power in all creation–the power of death.

God’s own identity is shaped by this moment. Not only is God the God who created all things, calling the things that are not so that they come to be, God is now the God who gives life to the dead (Rom 4:17; 2 Cor 1:9).

The power of God, the power of the Spirit, the power of new creation, the power of the arrival of new humanity–this is all the resurrecting power of God. And it is all the power in which God envelops God’s people when the gospel comes with “the power of God for salvation.”

The power of God for salvation is power for eschatological salvation, and new, resurrected bodies. But that eschatological future impinges on our present: God gives us the Spirit, God calls us beloved daughters and sons.

God, in other words, opens up to us the resurrection life of Christ, so that we might now start becoming conformed to the new image of God. God extends to us the power to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to walk in newness of life.

In Romans 6, Paul digs deep into his union-with-Christ theology: we are baptized into Jesus’ death. His death becomes our death–the death of our old humanity that is enslaved to sin and death.

But this does not leave us on neutral ground. He summons us to make real in the present the identity that is coming to us in the resurrected Christ: “Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead and your bodily members as weapons of righteousness to God.”

We are those who are, at root, “dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

The resurrection life of Jesus becomes our resurrection life. And it is the life in which we have the power to walk in a manner worthy of the God who embraces us into God’s family.

When Ephesians 4 or Colossians 3 talks about laying aside the “old self,” and putting on the “new self,” the Greek is actually saying, “the old humanity” and “the new humanity.” The reality that those texts invite us into is a full participation in the new creation of which we are a part as we are joined to Christ, the firstborn of the new creation.

What does all this mean?

In short, we should never undersell the notion that sanctification is really possible. We should never allow the realities of our day-by-day failings to overwhelm our deep conviction that God is making all things new, beginning with the humanity that has been united to the Human One in his conquest of sin and death.

Resurrection means transformation–both the transformation of our bodies that we look forward to, and the transformation of our lives day by day.

Resurrection means we always have hope: hope that God is greater and stronger than our looming death, hope that God is greater and stronger than our besetting sins, hope that God is greater and stronger than our besetting sorrows.

Every tear wiped away.

No more sin.

No more death.

Resurrection means transformation.

Resurrection and Sending

I’ve been reflecting on the resurrection of Jesus over the past week or so.

It tells us about God’s cosmic action, to renew the whole world and humanity upon it. And so it tells us about our destiny as humans.

And the resurrection narratives show us how much it takes to begin to understand who Jesus is and what he was up to. No one, it seems, got it before Jesus was raised. Except, maybe, the woman who anointed him in Mark 14.

But then the most ridiculous thing of all happens.

The resurrected Jesus seems darn-near incapable of appearing to someone without commissioning that person, immediately, to go bear witness to what she or he has seen.

In Matthew, the women are sent to proclaim the promise of Jesus’ appearance to Jesus’ brothers. The eleven do go to Galilee. Jesus appears, and despite some doubting, he sends them to all the ethne of the world.

The two people on the Road to Emmaus took it on themselves to make known what they had seen, and then Jesus appears to them and the rest of the disciples and commissions them all as “witnesses of these things.” They will bear witness after they receive the Spirit.

In John, Mary receives the commission to make Jesus’ glorification known to the boys. And when Jesus appears to them, as they are in hiding, he sends: “As the father sent me, so do I send you.”

Finally, there is the case of Saul, perhaps the most dramatic appearance-become-sending story of them all. With the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, Paul is sent to not only proclaim but embody the message of the crucified Christ.

When the church in Acts “witnessed,” it did not simply say some things that were true about God, or recount the story of Jesus. It bore witness to the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead–because they had seen it.

Resurrection is the hinge on which the Christian story turns.

Not only is it the hinge of the ages, as the new creation dawns. Not only is it the hinge in the life of Jesus, as he takes on an eternal, heavenly version of the authority he exercised on earth. Not only is it the hinge in the disciple’s understanding, as they have their minds opened to finally comprehend what kind of Messiah Jesus was to be.

It is all these things. And it is also the turning point in the story of the church, because now the doubters are sent to bear witness to the Messiah whom God has raised from the dead.

Telling the story of the story-bound God