God’s Problem

Good Friday is any number of things. It is death. It is self-giving sacrifice (at least, it is in John). It is the handing over of the Son by the Father for our sakes.

But it is also the epitomization of God’s biggest problem. It is God not doing what God could have done to show Himself to be God. It is God leaving God’s beloved in the hands of persecutors, haters, mockers, and murderers. It is God not hedging up with a wall of protection the one on whom God had set God’s name.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The problem is real.

The abandonment is real.

For the Messiah to hang on the cross is for God to forsake him, to refuse to protect him, while he is handed over to his enemies.

It is an epitomization of the problem of exile. Why will God return Israel to the land? “Not for your sake,” God says, but because God’s own name is blasphemed when those on whom God places God’s name are defeated by their enemies.

When those who claim God are so discomfited, God’s enemies can say, “Where is your God now?”

For God’s Messiah to hang on a cross calls into question the power and love of the God he claims to serve. “He trusted in God that He would deliver him, let Him deliver him, if He delight in him!”

Let’s not celebrate too soon. Yes, Sunday’s coming. But it’s Friday.

The cross is a paradox that cannot be resolved: the full embrace and entrance into every aspect of the problem of evil in order to, somehow, rescue humanity from its clutches and power.

Jesus on the cross represents humanity not only in faithfulness, but first of all in forsakenness.

This abandonment is for the ransom of many. This abandonment is for the many. God’s problem, embodied in the Messiah, as a new covenant where that problem will find ultimate resolution.

The Command of the Foot Washer

The debate about the place of the Law (or not) rages on in the comments of yesterday’s post, whilst my life is flooded with non-cyber-life that has me engaged elsewhere.

But perhaps we might allow Maundy Thursday to direct a contribution to the discussion.

Depending on whom you ask, “maundy” may be derivative of the Latin form of Jesus’ statement, “A new command I give to you…” (mandatum novum do vobis). And that brings us to the heart of things–and the possible meanings we might affix to the later Johannine literature as well. What is the command of Jesus?

Full understanding of the command is unfolded over the course of the narrative.

John has made the footwashing itself an anticipation of Jesus’ coming death on the cross. It is the time when he “lays aside” his mastery and girds himself as a servant, the time when he “takes up again” his garments, laying his self-humility aside. In this, he illustrates the part of the Good Shepherd who lays aside his life for the sheep and then takes it up again.

The footwashing is a cleansing that enables the disciples to have a share in himself–and it is an illustration of the full extent of Jesus’ love.

The footwashing is what Jesus does when he knows that his time has come to depart from the world and return to the Father.

The footwashing opens up the Book of Glory with an enactment of the coming crucifixion.

Returning to his place, Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me master and teacher–and you’re right! For I am! So… If I, the master and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you an example, so that you would do as I have done.”

Footwashing. Or, perhaps, laying down our lives for one another?

Keep reading in the passage, and Jesus predicts his departure, after which he gives his new command:

“I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35, CEB)

John had told us that the footwashing was picturing the full extent of Jesus’ love. Might this, “love one another as I have loved you” be a command to love each other with the self-giving love of Christ?

Jesus closes the loop in John 15:

This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14, CEB)

There is, of course, continuity with what came before: love of neighbor is nothing new.

But what is love? What does love look like? How do we know love when we see it?

On Maundy Thursday Jesus enacts the love that should define his people: a self-giving love, a laying down one’s life so that others might live.

The defining story of our salvation (Jesus died for us) becomes the defining story of Christian community (so ought we to die for one another).

This is why Christian love can be a testimony to all that we are Jesus’ disciples–not because only Christians can love, but because Christian love has a particular definition. And that definition is the cross.

PhD Funding: Paul Among the Philosophers

A great opportunity is available for graduating Masters Degree students interested in pursuing a PhD studying Paul in the context of ancient philosophers:

PhD position “Paul among the Ancient Philosophers”, University of Groningen

PhD position (4 years fulltime) “Paul among the Ancient Philosophers: ‘Pistis’ as Reasonable Trust” at the University of Groningen, under the supervision of Prof. George van Kooten

This position is part of a 700,000 EURO joint research project “Overcoming the Faith-Reason Opposition: Pauline Pistis in Contemporary Philosophy” between the University of Groningen and the Radboud University Nijmegen, funded by the Netherlands Organization
for Scientific Research (NWO).

Deadline: May 15, 2012

Suitable candidates pursue an interest in New Testament Studies, Classics or Ancient Philosophy. They are fluent in English and have, or will soon have completed an MA in a relevant field.

Interviews: June 13-14, 2012

Law, Gentiles, and Decalogue in the NT

I’ve been arguing over the past week that followers of Jesus don’t go to the Decalogue as the starting point for our ethics. We begin with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, we have kept coming back to the Sabbath as a command that is no longer binding on God’s people.

I want to focus on Paul, but before I get there I want a brief pit stop in Acts.

In Acts 15, the “Jerusalem Council” decides what the Gentile believers must (or must not) do as they come into the family of Israel’s God:

“Therefore, I conclude that we shouldn’t create problems for Gentiles who turn to God. Instead, we should write a letter, telling them to avoid the pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood. After all, Moses has been proclaimed in every city for a long time, and is read aloud every Sabbath in every synagogue. ” (Acts 15:19-21, CEB)

The Decalogue as such is notably absent, as is the Sabbath command in particular. It seems that if there were some requirement that the Gentiles adopt this distinctive Jewish practice this would be the place to tell us.

But to Paul.

In particular, to Paul and the Decaglogue and the Law of Sinai more generally.

When Paul wants to contrast the present epoch of salvation with what came before, it is the Law given at Sinai that serves as his point of differentiation.

In 2 Cor 3:7ff., here’s how it goes, where Paul is contrasting the Law carved in stone with his ministry of the gospel:

  • The Law brings death, though with glory–Paul’s ministry brings the Spirit, with greater glory.
  • The Law brings condemnation; Paul’s ministry brings righteousness

It’s not simply that Paul’s ministry is more glorious than Moses'; it’s that the law on stone–i.e., the Decalogue itself–is the point of contrast between Paul’s ministry of the Spirit and Moses’ ministry of Torah.

Then there’s Galatians. The whole point of Galatians 3 is that the Abrahamic covenant is the point of continuity between God’s people old and new–and therefore the Law is the point of discontinuity. Law is not about the promise or the people of promise–it participates in curse and enslavement that must be overcome (Gal 3:10-18).

Then what’s the Law’s purpose? Funny we should ask…

So why was the Law given? It was added because of offenses, until the descendant would come to whom the promise had been made. It was put in place through angels by the hand of a mediator.

It’s a placeholder. It’s a custodian or guardian, a temporary stand-in from the time between Abraham and Christ. This is specifically the Laws that God gave on Sinai to Moses.

Image: FreeFoto.com

The tradition of angels mediating the Law was common in early Judaism (see also Heb 2:2). That’s what Paul is alluding to here.

None of this is to say that the Law was bad, or that it was experienced as a burden, or any of those stereotyped denigrations of the Law that people have fallen into.

It is to say, however, that what defines us as a people is tied to a different covenant, and therefore what it looks like to be the people of God is fidelity to a different sent of covenant norms.

The Decalogue was Israel’s covenant, and this is why Israel was known for keeping Sabbath among the nations.

The death of Jesus is ours, and this is why we are to be known as those who lay down our lives so that others might live. Our summons is to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Deriving our ethics from the Decalogue is binding ourselves to the shadow rather than Christ who is our life-giving substance. Our ethics begin with the self-giving Christ, not the Exodus; with the new covenant rather than the old.

Naming Kirk Aright

For those who know me only from such online venues as my blog and blog comments, my name poses a bit of a mystery–an enigma wrapped in a Twinkie, if you will. What do these letters mean? What does he go by? Shall we call him “JR”? “JRDK”? “JERK”?

I want to take this opportunity to clear the fog, step by step. Welcome to this “get to know you” episode of Storied Theology.

First, although my name ofttimes appears as “J. R. Daniel Kirk,” the reason for this is not that I go by J. R. To the contrary, the reason is that I go by “Daniel,” and therefore abbreviate my superfluous names.

What others do with their middle initials I must do with my first. It is my cross to bear.

Second, my name begins with a superfluous J for the following reason: My parents loved Pentateuchal source criticism and became enamored of the Jahwist’s understanding of Israel’s relationship to God. Every man in my family has the same first name: James.

And by everyone, I mean: My grandfather (Jim), his two sons (J. Thomas and J. Robert), my brother and I, my son and my nephew. But when one has the same name as everyone else, one cannot very well go by it, can one?

Third, then, I have the superfluous R. My dad’s name (see previous paragraph) is James Robert. I got named after dad. But then, one does not want two persons in the same house fighting over the same name, does one?

Thus, fourth, my parents bestowed upon me the name Daniel, foreseeing in a prescient moment that I would need a perennial and persistent reminder that God is my judge, since I have never seemed capable of listening to anyone else.

Fifth: please note that my name is Daniel. This has two syllables. This mystery is great, but I am speaking about being addressed by both of them. I am not Dan. Nor am I Danny.

Sixth, you might be asking yourself, why do I flout my superfluous letters rather than simply allowing “Daniel Kirk” to stand and clarify all potential misunderstandings?

To this there are two answers.

First, from my early love of J.R.R. Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, yes, J. I. Packer, and my later respect for N. T. Wright (time would fail me to speak of F. F. Bruce or E. P. Sanders)–I simply realized from the world around me that superfluous letters are absolutely sine qua non for an enduring legacy in the world of theological writing.

Second, well, let’s just say that it helps minimize the number of thank-you notes I get from grateful parents. Honestly, I’ve only gotten one, and it made me somewhat horrified for the poor lad who had done his fifth grade book report on my book.

Redemptive Acts and the Decalogue

In my first post on why I own up to the fact that I, like almost every other Christian, do not keep Sabbath, I began with what is perhaps the hardest obstacle of all for most Christians to surmount when wrestling with this issue: it is part of the Decalogue. The Ten Words. The Top Ten List.

Isn’t this, in some sense, conclusive?

Yes, of course it is. Now all we have to do is figure out what sense that is!

Last week, I argued that the identification of God with the Exodus event was one reason to approach the Decalogue with caution: the indicative of our salvation, from which our commands flow, is no longer being brought out of Egypt, but having been ransomed by Christ.

More needs to be said here.

First, the giving of the Law at Sinai, of which the Decalogue is the heart, is the covenant ceremony that creates the particular relationship that YHWH would have with Israel from that time forward.

Yes, they were in relationship before. Yes, there were other covenants to which YHWH was committed.

But this is the forming of a new national constitution, delineating what it would look like for YHWH to be Israel’s God and Israel to be YHWH’s people.

Second, the prophet Jeremiah anticipates that this very covenant that God made when he brought the people out of Egypt is going to be the point at which God’s greater act of deliverance supersedes what came before.

Jeremiah 31:31 says, “I will make a new covenant.”

The subsequent verse clarifies that this stands in direct contradistinction to the Sinai covenant: “It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand and lead them out of the land of Egypt” (Jer 31:32, CEB).

The point of difference? Where the commandments are written:

No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. (31:33, CEB)

This is part and parcel with Jeremiah’s earlier claim:

So the time is coming, declares the LORD, when no one will say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the Israelites from the land of Egypt.” Instead they will say, “As the LORD lives who brought up the descendents of the people of Israel from the land of the north and from all the lands where he has banished them…

The preface to the Decalogue is overshadowed. The covenant of the Decalogue is overshadowed. And the Law on the heart replaces the Law written on tablets of stone.

The point in all this is to see two things: (1) the Decalogue is associated with the Exodus and holds its place as the defining covenant document of the people; (2) the OT expected that with a greater act of salvation, a new covenant would come, and this new act would transform the nature of God’s Instruction among God’s people.

It is in light of both of these dynamics that we make sense of what Paul will say about the place of the Law among the people of God. We’ll work that out a bit more, perhaps on Thursday, but here’s the summary:

The Decalogue, as the central component of the covenant identity of Israel, is precisely the point at which Paul insists that there is radical discontinuity in the story of God’s people because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Atonement Begins… When?

Tony Jones is hosting a series of guest posts on the atonement in the lead-up to Good Friday and Easter.

Mine is there today:

“Jesus died for our sins.” Often, the problem with this core piece of our common Christian confession is that we think we know what it means. And so we limit our understanding of the fullness of the atonement…

Forgiveness is not merely about having guilt forgiven. Forgiveness becomes the means by which we are freed from an enslaving tyrant…
(read the rest at Theoblogy)

Words of Wisdom

It’s not often that an interview leaves deep and lasting impressions.

Especially when it is someone else’s interview. And even more especially when this person did not take the job for which he was on the hot seat.

But such is the case for one series of conversations I got to be part of as a graduate student at Duke. The person being interviewed was Luke Timothy Johnson.

Johnson left me with three enduring impressions from those conversations almost a dozen years ago.

First, he spoke about the things he could do that anyone else could do just as well, but he gets to do them because he’s a seminary professor. He spoke of a reading group he was leading: Methodist pastors gathering and reading the Bible together.

For most of these pastors, Johnson asserted, this was the only chance they had to read the Bible with other strong readers of scripture. The enduring impression left by this comment was both negative and positive.

Negatively: most pastors never have the opportunity to read scripture in a context where everyone else isn’t expecting them to have the answers.

Positively: seminary is a tremendous gift inasmuch as seminary students are experiencing what may be their last opportunity to sit in a room with other strong readers of scripture to read together, question together, and learn from each other.

Each quarter I try to instill in my students a sense of grateful awareness about the preciousness and uniqueness of what they’re getting to do in the classroom and with their friends.

Second, in that same context, Johnson talked about how, as a professor, he is poised to serve the church. He put it like this:

“I fend off the academy with my right hand so that I can serve the church with my left.”

I can’t make that one any more tangible, but I’ll say that I have from time to time experienced the reality he’s referring to–and the [felt] need to beat back the academic beast in order to serve the church.

Third, Johnson spoke of different ways to envision a scholarly career.

If your goal is to finish your dissertation, you’ll never get done. If your goal is to get a job, you’ll finish your dissertation. If your goal is to get tenure, you’ll land a job. If your goal is to change the world? Ah–then you’ll get tenure.

What I have freely received, I hereby freely pass on to you.


Forgiveness is powerful.

It is powerful when we long for it and do not receive it. It is powerful when we receive it and thereby receive newness of life.

This is the sermon I heard last night. The preachers? Despereaux and The Doctor.

The Tale of Despereaux is about a rat and a mouse, a king and a princess (or two).

When the rat causes the Queen to die from fright, the King becomes sullen and banishes rats from the kingdom. In a concurrent storyline, a jailer is racked with guilt for giving his daughter to be raised by relatives.

The rat needs forgiveness. The jailer needs to receive forgiveness.

And as much as they are imprisoned by their pasts, the king and to a lesser extent the princess are imprisoned by their grudge.

The story turns, we are told, when grief is overpowered by forgiveness. Forgiveness is more powerful than grief–and it becomes the source of new life for all involved.

Thus far, the children’s sermon.

After the children were dismissed to bed, the adults’ sermon turned to the same theme. The Doctor was preaching, and his story was entitled “The Doctor’s Wife” (season 6, ep. 4).

The Doctor finds himself drawn irresistably toward the voices of other Time Lords. He knows there are no more Time Lords. But he is compulsively drawn toward the voices he has heard. He knows there are no more because he had to destroy them.

Why is he drawn, irrationally, to what he knows can not exist?

Doctor: “…there are Time Lords here. I heard them and they need me.”
Amy: “You told me about your people, and you told me what you did.”
Doctor: “Yes, yes. But if they’re like the Corsair they’re good ones and I can save them.”
Amy: “And then tell them you destroyed all the others?”
Doctor: “I can explain… tell them why I had to.”
Amy: “You want to be forgiven.”
Doctor: “Don’t we all?”

“You want to be forgiven.” “Don’t we all?”

Forgiveness is powerful. And lack of forgiveness is powerful. For both parties, forgiveness is a source of freedom. We need forgiveness. We yearn to be free.

Bringing the Sabbath to Bear On Today

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m not a Sabbath keeper. True confessions: I used to be hard core. But then the mental gymnastics to justify doing something completely different from the Fourth Commandment got to be too much.

I don’t keep the Sabbath and neither does any other Christian I know.

Also, I don’t go for abstracting “principles” to live by. They don’t work for me. I live in the world of particulars.

And stories.

And here’s the rub with that last bit: the story we live in, as Heb 4 tells us, is one whose ending is the Sabbath rest that awaits God’s people.

Earlier this week, I quoted the wisdom of Frank Kermode, channeled by Sam Sacks, about the importance of a powerful ending awaiting our story:

For life to have meaning, to amount to more than just a sequence of events, that meaning must be projected backwards from an ending that provides the key to interpreting everything that preceded it.

The ending of our story, the one that reaches back into our present and intrudes upon it, disrupting our present by its very present, is the future of Sabbath rest. It is the future that Christ has already entered into.

The Sabbath rest of God is therefore the future into which we have already entered as those who are “in Christ.”

In keeping with my (*ahem*) iconoclastic post from yesterday, this means that Sabbath for us is not one day in seven, but an eternal reality ahead of us that therefore intrudes upon every minute of our present.

I will sometimes say that part of our calling as Christians is to take hold of our future and bring it to bear on the present. So also here.

We are to be each day, as the people of Israel were to be on Saturday, a people ever mindful that we are a redeemed, delivered, set-free people. We are to remember that we are saved by God’s grace, and therefore to accept rest rather than working at our jobs as though our very souls depended on it.

We are a people whose salvation was won by an overturning of the economy of the world, and so we are to live as though the economics of seven days of work produces lesser returns than the economics of less–less offered in trust of the God who “supplies seed to the sower and bread for food.”

We are a people who are liberated, with a full liberation ahead, and so we are to use the day-by-day moments of our lives to make freedom and justice a reality for the other people we meet.

Most of all, our eyes should be fixed forward as we rest: knowing and believing that a day of rest lies ahead. Physical and mental rest, participating in the sacraments, working for the abolition of slavery, feeding the hungry–each of these might be a faithful anticipation of the sabbath yet to come.

So I won’t raise my eyebrows if you don’t take a day off. And I’ll try not to raise them if you do.

Telling the story of the story-bound God