I’m not sure who invented this whole advent wreath thing, but we need to have a little conversion. Today, thanks to said Christmas tradition, I was in charge of leading an Advent discussion on love.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What could be easier than talking about love in connection with the Messiah’s birth, right? Well, to be honest, lots of things could be easier–beginning with, say, the topics that the Gospel writers themselves talk about in connection with Jesus’ birth!
Love is a great theme connected with the gospel, especially in the Johannine books. So that’s where I went. John 3:16 was the starting point: God so loved the world, that he gave us his one and only son, so that whoever believes in him might not die but, instead, have everlasting life.
But the “giving” of the son that shows God’s love isn’t merely the birth. The giving in view is the giving up of the son to die on the cross for us. And so, with the advent of love Christmas is tied inextricably to Good Friday. There, the love of the son-giving Father is matched by the love of the self-giving son.
And this, in turn, qualifies the life that Jesus calls us to live in following after him: love one another as I have loved you–greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
At Christmas, we exchange gifts. These are small tokens of self-giving love. The hint at the grand narrative of which divine Christmas love is about. And as we renarrate that story among one another we recognize that God so loves the world that he continues to give it his new-begotten sons and daughters, that whoever believes the lives of love that God is working in them might not perish but have everlasting life.
In The Story of God, The Story of Us there’s a character who starts coming around an early Christian community to hear its story. The man is a merchant, curious about this strange group of friends who act more like family.
As the story goes on, the rumor of his association with the Christians starts to spread. Business at his store begins to slow. The other folks in town are avoiding his shop, persecuting him economically we might say, for his association with the Christians.
Do we as Christians feel the pathos of that story because such economic persecution is wrong? Or do we feel it simply because it was happening to us? Is religious difference a reason to avoid a shop? Put yourself in an open air market, even a farmer’s market if you can visualize that better.
Do you avoid the stall with the Muslim vendor? Or is that a sort of economic persecution that good Christian folk should avoid?
Well, it seems that part of how we’re supposed to use our collective buying power as Christians is to engage in precisely this sort of reciprocated economic persecution. In celebration of those vaunted words of the Bible, “They may persecute us now, but we’ll one day have enough political and economic power to persecute them back,” there is now the official Grinch Alertwebsite, dedicated to helping good Christian folks avoid those who would take Christ out of Christmas by saying “Happy Holidays” and playing only Jingle Bells type music on the PA system (HT: Michelle Van Loon at Her.meneutics Blog).
It makes me wonder: how are we telling our story such that we Christians understand our identity in such a way that we think this type of economic boycott is the calling of those who are commanded to imitate our Father who causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike?
How are we understanding this “Christ” we want to keep in Christmas that we follow the one who forgave his enemies on the cross by making them pay for it at Christmas time?
How are we narrating the Christmas story that we can simultaneously participate in the materialistic gorge fest that we all enjoy each December and yet persecute as insufficiently Christian those who would sell us our idols wares?
When we get to this point, where we are shunning those non-Christian merchants who will not put on a Christian veneer to lure us in on a false-pretense of sharing our religious convictions, we need to step back. Perhaps we should return to one of our favorite Christmas-time hymns and reflect.
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
What if we decided that our calling was to be agents and instruments of that flow? What if we decided that our story demands of us that we bring all our blessings to the lost and hurting world around us, rather than attempting to build a hermetically sealed Christian container to hold it all in?
If you manage to slide out of Baptist circles into Presbyterian, the Lord’s Supper becomes communion. That is, it moves from being something Jesus did that we simply remember into something that creates, recreates, and sustains our union with the crucified and risen Christ and causes us to be bound to one another as well.
Move from Presbyterian to Anglican or Catholic circles and you might find your vocabulary shifting again. Now it’s the Eucharist–the Great Thanksgiving.
When I first heard this, I my thought was, “Fair enough, this is the place at which we give greatest thanks to God for the gift most costly given in the cross of Christ.” But then…
One day reading through the account I realized that the “Thanksgiving” isn’t ours. It’s Jesus’.
“While they were eating, he took bread. Giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘Take it. This is my body.’”
And similarly with the cup, giving thanks, the gave it to them, the cup of the new covenant in his blood.
On the one hand, of course, this is simply what is done in the course of the meal. Blessings are said. Food and drink are distributed.
But on the other, the Great Thanksgiving begins with Jesus giving thanks, not that he has been given food, but that the has been called to give himself as food and drink. Jesus gives thanks to the Father for the bread that is his body which he gives as the source of new life to his followers.
Jesus gives thanks to the Father for the wine that is the new covenant–the blood given him by the Father not for his own sake but in order that his followers might drink and have life as the New Covenant people of God.
As we celebrate Thanksgiving today, so often we focus on the things we have been given. And that is good and right.
But participation in the Great Thanksgiving begins when we recognize that what is given us is given us so that it might be given away. Participation in the Great Thanksgiving embodies the narrative of self-giving in which even the body given for our life becomes the means by which we pursue the gift of life–for the other.
SBL = Society of Biblical Literature. I’m at the annual meeting in Atlanta. (If blogging gets scarce, you may want to check out my Twitter feed or Facebook status.)
Each hear a number of other societies use the opportunity of having this group gathered to put on their own meetings. Institute for Biblical Research is one of those. And last night its meeting featured N. T. Wright and Michael Bird. Wright lectured on the cross and the kingdom, and Bird responded.
Wright’s talk was nothing you haven’t heard before if you’re a Wright fan, but it was nicely put together.
He discussed opposite errors.
There is the conservative error of a cross without a kingdom. Mike Bird, in responding, told of how he picked up an N. T. Wright book once upon a time and it hammered home to him that he knew why Jesus died, but had no idea why he lived! That was my experience as well.
On the liberal side, there is a kingdom without a cross: a theology of the reign of God in which Jesus the social revolutionary meets an unfortunate end that cut his program short just as it was getting off the ground.
Wright explored some texts in John in a gesture toward holding these together.
As usual, Wright took a couple of shots at the Creedal tradition of the church, which jumps straight from the virgin birth to the suffering under Pontius Pilate. I think his complaint is apt–we do not confess anything about the life of Jesus when we confess our faith together as a church. Others were less amused.
The call to keep cross and kingdom both in view is apt–and not just for holding together Mark 1-13 with the passion narrative in Mark 14-15. When teaching Mark last year, the larger question presented itself: how does Mark 1-8, the depiction of Jesus the wonder-working Son of Man, fit with Mark 9-16, the depiction of Jesus as the cruciform Son of Man?
To ask the question of how cross and kingdom fit together is to set ourselves on a journey of reimagining our atonement theology, our Kingdom of God theology, and our understanding of the Gospels themselves.
A few months ago, if memory serves correctly, my Sunday morning musing reflected on Mark 10 as a possible “only passage you’ll ever need.” There, we hear of Jesus as Messiah; we learn that to be Messiah is to suffer and die, and we also see in vivid colors that to follow the suffering and dying Messiah is to embrace such a path for ourselves.
Today our house church is reading together Mark 14. I think we might be on similar ground. This is the story of Jesus’ anointing by a woman, sandwiched between the leaders’ plotting to have Jesus betrayed into their hands.
After he has had his head anointed by this woman, and fended off the criticisms leveled at her, he declares that what she has done will be told, wherever the gospel is proclaimed, in memory of her.
That, of course, raises the question, “How is this deed, good as it is, sufficiently indicative of the gospel itself that it should be told in tandem with the proclamation of Jesus–forever?”
As I see it, this woman’s actions hold together what the disciples perennially fail to grasp. By anointing his head, we have Jesus pictured as messiah. But Jesus tells us that this anointing is a preparation of his body for burial. These are not mutually exclusive options, but in the case of Jesus the one entails the other. Jesus is the one who suffers and dies, precisely as Messiah.
Finally, there is the bit about the cost of the anointing oil. They grumble about the waste, about the money simply poured over Jesus’ head. And even here, it seems to me, we are on parallel ground with Mark 10. Not only is Jesus the self-giving Messiah, he calls us to lives of costly sacrifice–something this woman was willing to do for Jesus’ sake when no one else in the room thought it appropriate.
Who is Jesus? How is he Messiah? And how, then, are we called to live?
Here’s another picture–and this time, someone in the story besides Jesus gets it right.
A few weeks ago I was raising some cautions about how Christian leaders use / abuse power. In conversation that ensued, a reader pursued the line that clearing out a seminary of its theological rabble rousers was no more an abuse of power than assigning grades in a seminary class.
That struck me as a particularly odd argument to make, and it got me thinking about the nature of power and, in particular, how we might think about the difference between using/abusing power and exercising authority. How might we qualify and/or quantify the difference between being like the masters of the world who lord their power over others and the leadership that comes to be last and servant of all?
The first thing that comes to mind is that despite some predilections to the contrary among some of my friends, I believe that authority is a good thing. Humans having authority and being entrusted with charges is a good thing. In fact, this is the one thing, despite millions of pages of theologizing about other angles, that “image of God” actually means: occupying the place of one who rules the world on God’s behalf.
The question, then, is what Christian authority looks like, and how we know counterfeits when we see it.
And here is where I keep coming back to the cross, with great trepidation that it far too infrequently determines the narrative of leadership we aspire to live into.
If the cross is our model for godly leadership (cf. 2 Corinthians), what might it look like to exercise power Christianly? I have a certain level of authority as a seminary professor and a father. What are some questions or parameters for faithfully exercising these charges?
Am I embodying cruciformity myself, not taking from my students, readers, and children to prop up my own ego or empire, but using the life I have been given to help steer them toward the way of life?
As a person inhabiting a narrative of forgiveness, to I ask for and extend forgiveness to those under my authority?
In fact, I have started to wonder if this isn’t the single most important thing we do in our parenting and in scholarly activity and friendship: modeling the knowledge that I am a person who has been and will continue to be wrong–not in a general sense where I say I need forgiveness for everything but then refuse to acknowledge it in anything. But naming our failures and asking for forgiveness from those we’ve wronged.
Embracing within the communities I lead the manifestation of what I believe to be true: God gifts people differently, and shapes their personalities differently, and that difference is a good thing. As hard as it is for us, I think that Christian leadership entails leading a community where people not only come to the same answers in different ways, but come to genuinely different conclusions, deeply and passionately held.
Those are actually just some starter thoughts. I have it on good authority that many of you are more godly parents, profs, administrators, pastors, mentors, etc., than I.
So what about you? How do you think through whether the way you’re leading and/or exercising the authority of your various roles is sufficiently emblematic of your Christian identity?
I have a general take on the Lord’s/Last Supper: the Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus predicting his death as the pathway to his Messianic enthronement. This cross-shaped life is also the call to Jesus’ followers: take up the cross and follow.
In addition, you might start probing the significance of rewriting the Passover ceremony around Jesus, such that the “ransom saying,” (the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many) is illustrated in the meal. The body of Jesus is given in order that we might be set free and might become the New Covenant people of God. Taking and eating is our participation in [the people of] this deliverance.
All this from some combination of Matthew and Mark, perhaps with a little Paul thrown in if I’m honest.
But what’s going on in Luke?
One thing, at least, is definitely different in this telling of the story of the supper itself. A cup is passed before the bread.
Another interesting choice Luke makes is to put the disciples’ dispute about greatness here. Whereas in Mark this happens on the way to Jerusalem, after a passion prediction, Luke locates the fight in the upper room after they’ve taken the Supper.
This is even more interesting in that Jesus’ response to the disciples here is part of the talk he gives them that culminates in the ransom saying. But Luke eliminates the ransom saying. He substitutes a more generalized call to imitate him, who is in their midst as a servant.
Finally, this is followed by another lesson from Jesus: the disciples are the ones who remain with him in suffering, and therefore receive from Jesus the same kingdom that Jesus receives from the father–its food, its drink, and its rule (you will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel).
What are we to make of all this?
First, Bart Ehrman has famously argued that the interpretation of the bread (“which is given for you”) and the “second cup” are not original to Luke, but later insertions to bring the passage into conformity with the other Synoptic Gospels.
Although the manuscript evidence for this is weak, it works really well with the passage as a whole.
With the removal of the ransom saying in particular, the idea of Jesus dying “for you” is muted, and the notion that Jesus dies as an example and in order to bring about a surprising sort of divine reign is drawn to the forefront.
By placing here the saying about Jesus as servant to be imitated, without ransom, participation in the supper is drawn more in the direction of finding our own lives drawn to self-giving service.
By following that with the definition of the twelve as “those who remain with Jesus in his sufferings,” and thereby receive the kingdom, the imitative note is struck even more forcefully.
Why take the cup? Why drink the bread?
Here, the most clear reason is to remember that Jesus received the kingdom through suffering, and that self-giving life in service of others is the call of discipleship.
It’s far too easy at times, and usually better for the blog stats, to track controversies and jump into the middle of the fray. But this evening I want to take the daring step of saying that a couple of people are getting it right and to celebrate the way that two people are living the gospel story.
First, Kirsten Vogel posted on her blog today about having to come to terms with her husband’s desire to donate his kidney to a good friend. This is an inspiring story of a family that is willing to enact a gospel story in which life is found by losing it.
Then, there was a post on the CNN Belief Blog by Warren Throckmorton calling for a genuinely Christian response to the issue of gay bullying–not a passive ignoring of the problem, but an active pursuit of a world in which we love our neighbors as ourselves. And he does it all without having to advocate for any particular stance on the issue of homosexuality itself.
And that’s precisely the point. We love our neighbor as ourselves. And if we have to ask who our neighbor is, we realize then that we are the Priest and the Levite, leaving the man on the side of the road for someone else to love as God would have him loved.
Today I got an e-mail informing me that I could now access the latest edition of Christianity Today online in a cool, magazine-layout format. I confess to opening the ezine with some trepidation, inasmuch as the cover story was “Reformer”, and the subject was Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary.
I grew up Southern Baptist. As I was coming through elementary school and into high school I heard of how things were going at the annual Southern Baptist Convention–complete with rumors about bussing people in to stack the key votes.
I lived in North Carolina and so got to hear tales of “the revival at Southeastern Seminary”, which was the winning side’s way of talking about “the fundamentalist takeover” that the losers mourned in retrospect.
So I was worried about whether this article, bearing a title that struck me as positive, might be unduly adulatory.
But it wasn’t.
Nor was it unduly condemnatory.
It struck me as striking just the right tone, in fact. It highlights Mohler’s reformed commitments (hence “Reformer”), speaks to how these are crucial in his theology, and allows for other voices to distance themselves from that as a baptist commitment.
The article talks about Mohler’s early seminary years in which he had been willing for a time to embrace an egalitarian position on gender–until he got caught not being able to give a biblical defense of it. It outlines how this and other interpretive decisions are wedded to his commitment to inerrancy.
The article also speaks of Mohler’s commitment to reading and learning and offering a thoughtful, articulate response to the challenges our culture is facing.
I know that you are all going to find this hard to believe, but I do get worked up about some things pretty easily. One of those things is when Christians engage in power-grabbing. This ruffles my feathers to the right and to the left.
Although the article did not major on the dynamics of the Mohler-led house-cleaning at Southern or the precedent conservative takeover of the SBC, both of those rankle me. (And yes, I know that folks on the left do and/or attempt the same things in various ecclessial contexts and that ruffles my feathers just as much–but this article was about Mohler within the SBC!)
And this is where the questions about our commitment to the gospel get deadly serious for me.
When Jesus predicted his death, the next thing his disciples would do, inevitably, would be to shove that aside and start working out other paths to glory. “Which is going to be greatest?” they argued. “Can we sit at your right and left?” they asked. “Never Lord, you can’t die–God rebuke you!” Peter protested.
And, each time, Jesus said to them, “The cross is not just about me, it’s also about my followers.”
More than any theological system might uphold or implicitly deny the gospel, I worry that our pursuit of power by means other than the self-sacrifice–the kind of cruciform life that even allows our enemies to think that they have won–corrodes the faith, indicating that, in fact, the faith which we are living is not the following of Jesus to which we’re called.
While Mohler’s colleagues voice concerns about his Calvinism and its effects on evangelism, and while Mohler worries about their non-Calvinism and the intellectual integrity with which they can consistently articulate the gospel, I worry that the actions of pursuing power by the means of the world blows over the whole house.
This is not to question Mohler’s salvation, or that of the other architects of the SBC transtion over the past 30 years, but to suggest that we in America have certain ways of getting our gospel story wrong. And Jesus-backed power grabbing seems to be one of our collective, besetting sins.
I’ve been hanging around 1 Corinthians a bit lately. The Corinthian correspondence is a tremendous resource for the church in my part of the world. Divisions? We got some of that. People rallying to some teachers over against others? We got that. People venerating folks who have “arrived” according to the standards of our society? We got that. Separating ourselves from folks who are on the lower rungs of the social pecking order? Alas, we got that as well.
Now the question that I hope haunts us as we reflect on all this: why does Paul keep turning to the cross in 1 Corinthians to address parallel realities in the first century? How does “the word of the cross” give him leverage to address the same types of issues that characterize our own contexts (sometimes on a much larger scale)?
In 1 Corinthians 1 the issue is division.
Paul here brings out the “word of the cross” as what is preached–and what should unite the Corinthian factions. Because there is one message, there should also be only one group of people proclaiming Christ together. No one should identify based on a teacher. To self-identify based on a teacher is to wrongly tell the story of the gospel itself.
“Each one says ‘I am of Paul,’ ‘I am of Apollos,’… Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?”
The story that we tell is the story of Christ crucified, and to tell our particular story as the story of a great teacher is to get that story wrong.
The story that we tell is the story of Christ crucified. Entry into this story is through baptism that unites us to the crucified Christ. We are not baptized into the name of our great teachers, into the name of our particular theological traditions.
The only way to get our story straight is to continually tell our story as the story of Christ crucified, not as the story of our particular branch’s history or theology. While there is wisdom in learning our traditions, while there is wisdom in learning the history of the church, and while we will all identify more closely with some branches of the church than others, I see in these words of Paul a call for a holy circumvention of our histories.
To be transformed by the renewing of our minds is to have our identities cast, first and foremost, by the affinity we all have with one another as those who have been baptized into Christ. This requires an active work of reconfiguration of our identities: I am not first Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist or liberal or conservative or evangelical or fundamentalist or progressive or big tent or small ghetto.
The saving story is not the story of my branch of the church, the saving story is the story of the crucified messiah. My salvation is not the story of being scripted into the post-conservative evangelical world of post-modern American Christianity. It is being cast into the Christian drama by being united to the crucified Christ through baptism, Spirit, and faith.
In case you didn’t notice, this is really, really hard.
As someone whose theology is moving from right to left over the past 15 years, I struggle to look to the more conservative expressions of Christianity and embrace those movements as brothers and sisters. I don’t want to be identified with them. And yet, that is part of my “in Christ” family.
The cross should be putting us all together–because it is our story.
We often make the mistake of thinking that we need to get our story straight, and then we need to learn how to apply that story in various ways. But what I learn from 1 Corinthians is that the way we live out our communal Christian identity is, itself, a reading of the story that is to some degree faithful, and probably to some degree faithless to our story.
In the sermonette I linked here last week, I talked about one thing I believe God is doing in the world. It went something like this: in the era of Christendom, we had the luxury to assume Christianity and therefore draw people to ourselves by showing that we are more right, that we have better theology.
In the post-Christendom world, our bluff is called. There is no persuasiveness in the claim to have a better theology if that better theology is not making us better, more loving and unified people. In fact, if we are not loving, if we are not coming together in greater unity, we are not getting our story straight at all.
What? Was Al Mohler crucified for you? Or were you baptized into the name of Tony Jones?…