Tag Archives: Jesus

Manna and Christ

As I mentioned on Monday, I’ve been playing with the imagery of Manna for a bit. Manna–that bread from heaven, given to sustain the people in the wilderness, but only as it was received afresh every day.

Such provision can create problems.

It can create the problem of hoarding–attempting to seize the abundance of the kingdom of God for ourselves because we think that God’s kingdom operates on the same economy of scarcity as our own.

Maggots took care of that problem (Exodus 16:21).

Lambert Lombard, Feeding the Five ThousandAnother problem is that it can become an idol. We create idols when we look to the thing itself rather than to God the giver as the source of life. When we fashion dead idols, the living God is set to the margins and we are poised to reject the new thing that God might do to bring us into God’s life.

This was the problem Jesus encountered.

He could feed people in the wilderness, he could reenact the divine display of abundance in a deserted place. But the problem was that people thought the bread was, itself, the point.

Not so!

The great provision in the wilderness, the great feeding of the people on heavenly bread to sustain them after they had been redeemed, was a bread from heaven that found its counterpart in Jesus who is the Bread of Life.

When we are sure we have our hands around what it looks like for God to act, we are immediately in danger of rejecting the acts of the God who lives and is therefore free to surprise us.

When we are sure of what divine provision looks like, we are in greatest danger of rejecting the provision that is made for us in the crucified and risen Christ.

Before breaking the news that bread in the wilderness was only a shadow of the life he had to offer, Jesus warned his interlocutors:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life–yet it is these that testify about me!

When I say that manna, as a picture of divine provision, should stir us up in faith for today rather than creating a disposition to live on yesterday’s grace, I mean this to point us always to Christ.

We, too, have our scripture that we think gives us life–and too often we use it without reference to the life-giving Christ to whom it refers.

Scripture, that great divine provision, can become an idol.

We, too, have faithful articulations of the truth from our rich tradition–and too often we use these as indicators of faith without reference to the life-giving Christ whose fellowship they promise.

Doctrine, that great divine provision, can become an idol.

If the resurrection means anything, it means that the resurrected Christ stands ready to provide for us afresh today–and warns us that holding too tightly to our expectations and knowledge of how God works are likely to make us the last to see when God is, yet again, at work in our world.

Memorial Day

This is Memorial Day in the United States.

It’s a great day to be an American. And a dangerous day to be a Christian.

It’s the sort of national holiday that creates remembrance of freedom, celebration of democracy, a reificiation of our identity as A People–A People willing to die (and to kill) in the name of liberty and justice for all.

Well, at least, liberty and justice as we define it for all whom we deem worthy to receive it (and some, against their will).

Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As Christians in the United States, we should be careful not to take for granted our share in this freedom. None of us worries about being killed on Sunday morning for joining in public worship.

But this gratitude has its own danger.

We might begin to believe that true freedom is gained by the shedding of the blood of our fallen soldiers. We might forget that no, the freedom we enjoy has been gained by us making the other guy shed more of his blood than we have shed of our own.

“No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country.
He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
–General George S. Patton

This is the story of America. This is the story of Memorial Day.

And it is, at heart, the antithesis to the Christian story. And that’s the danger.

This story of making the other bastard die for his country is precisely the story that the disciples wanted Jesus to play out before them. It was the story Peter was demanding of Jesus when he rebuked Jesus for predicting the way of the cross.

And it is precisely the story which Jesus rejects by telling Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Between the American story of freedom through our fallen (simply because they could not make the other person fall first!) and the Christian story of salvation through the self-giving love of Jesus, there could not be a wider gulf.

Our Memorial Day is celebrated every time we take the bread and pass the cup:

Do this in remembrance of me.

When we take the bread together we remember that our freedom was not a death in war, but a true surrender:

This is my body, given for you.

We remember that we are made a people in covenant with God by blood that refused to be spilled on a battlefield, by the blood of one who would not shed the blood of another:

This cup is the new covenant in my blood.

Let’s be careful how we remember today. Let’s be careful what we remember today. There is freedom that is bought with the price of precious blood.

And it could never be gained by the swords, or guns, of war.

Homebrewed Podast

During SBL, I had the honor and privilege of doing a recording with the good folks at Homebrewed Christianity, Mark Scandrette, and Philip Clayton before a live studio audience at chez Scandrette. This was, in actuality, the fulfillment of a dream, as I had long hoped to bring my homebrewed beer with me to record a session of Homebrewed Christianity with Tripp, Chad, and Bo.

That discussion is now posted
over at Homebrewed Christianity (which you should be subscribed to through iTunes anyway).

Take a listen, relax, and have a homebrew.

Jesus or God?

In yesterday’ stop along the Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? blog tour, Jim West demurred over my articulation of the ministry of Jesus. This seemed like a good, old-fashioned substantive disagreement, or at least, a place where sounding the note with the right emphasis might be important.

On p. 100 of JHILBP, I say, “Jesus came… to form that family of God around himself.” To which Jim replies:

Jesus doesn’t seek to form anything around himself- he seeks to form a people of God around God, the Father. Kirk’s (apparently Barthian) Christocentrism has led him astray. Jesus was theocentric to the core. His will was to do the will of the Father. Nothing less, and nothing more. For Jesus, it wasn’t about Jesus. It was about the Father.

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way first: Jim is the third person ever, and the third person in the past week, to call me a Barthian and/or Neo-Orthodox. You will forever be on the top three list in applying the label to me! Well done!

The difficulty in responding to the paragraph is that I don’t want to say that Jim’s wrong, that it’s not about God but rather about Jesus. However, what I want to say is that the way in which Jesus’ ministry is about God is by being about Jesus.

Jesus is the one in and through whom God’s kingdom is dawning in the world. Jesus is the King of God’s coming Kingdom (at least as that story is told in the Gospels).

Let’s bring this down to the ground level of the Biblical stories.

Jim rightly says that Jesus comes to do the will of the Father (John 6:38; cf. 4:34). But Jesus then turns, in chapter 6 of John, and immediately says, “This is the will of my Father: that everyone who looks to the son and believes in him will have eternal life” (6:40). The way in which people on earth faithfully respond to God is by faithfully responding to Jesus.

This is what I mean by Jesus coming to form a community around himself–to reject Jesus is to reject the Father, to accept Jesus is to accept the Father. This, in contrast to either everyone already being part of the people of God, in contrast to people being delineated the people of God simply by keeping Torah and faithfully worshiping according to the OT prescriptions, and in contrast to Jesus simply saying that the previously given covenant is sufficient to delineate God’s people.

Similarly, in a passage I discuss more than once in my book, Jesus says, in a statement that would seem to be to Jim’s point, “whoever does God’s will is my mother, sister, and brother” (Mark 3:34, CEB).

But how are these people worthy of the approval as those who “do God’s will”?

“Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, ‘Look, here are my mother and my brothers'” (Mark 3:34, CEB).

Sitting at Jesus’ feet, following Jesus, puts one within the will of God. Jesus does form a community around himself. Following him becomes the defining marker of the people of God. Yes, it is the people of God, the Father, who are formed; yes, it is the will of God, the Father, that is done. But it is done by following Jesus.

It wasn’t about Jesus?

No, this we cannot say. Jesus places himself in the middle of everything–“Whoever hears these words of mine and does them…” (Matt 7); “Whoever is ashamed of me in this wicked and perverse generation…” (Mk 8); “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” (Lk 4); “He came to his own… To all who received him, to all who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (Jn 4).

Though each Gospel tells its own story of Jesus, each agrees on this: Jesus is the way to the Father, the one in and through whom the people of God is being reformed. It is, of course, about God, because “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” says Jesus in John. Or, “Jesus was a man, testified to by God,” says Peter in Acts.

So while I don’t want to disagree with Jim that this mission is about the Father, I can’t see how the Gospel narratives allow for this mission to be about the Father without it being also about the son.

Wright on Jesus

Yesterday’s second N. T. Wright event at Fuller Northern California entailed a talk about Jesus and the Kingdom in front of a packed house of well over 700 attendees.

He reflected on the problem that was the driving force behind Scot McKnight’s recent King Jesus Gospel: what is the gospel of the Gospels? Why do we have these stories about Jesus’ life?

Wright set up the problem like this:

For many Christians, Jesus could be born of a virgin and die for our sins, and that would be enough.

What, then, do we discover in the Gospels?

He suggested that there are four “speakers” that need to be properly adjusted in volume so that we can get the full, stereoscopic effect of the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus:

  1. The Gospels show Jesus as the climax to the story of Israel–not merely isolated prooftexts, but the whole grand narrative. This speaker, Wright suggests, has been on mute for too much of the church’s history–and still today.
  2. The Gospels depicts Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God. This speaker, Wright argues, has been turned up far too loud–and perhaps played with no little distortion as well. The point should be less Jesus as second person of the Trinity and more Jesus as the God who renews covenant (Isa 54) and redeems the whole world (Isa 55) by carrying our sins and bearing our sorrows (Isa 53).
  3. Jesus is the start of the movement that became the church. Again, Wright sees this one as turned up too loud inasmuch as it causes us to look past Jesus’ actions on earth far too quickly. The forward-looking reading can make us, too, look forward and thereby forget that Jesus is inaugurating the kingdom in his life and death.
  4. The kingdom of God calls the kingdoms of this world to account. This speaker, too, Wright thinks has been too low–perhaps disconnected and stuck in a corner. Wright looks at Jesus and Pilate debating kingship and truth, at Paul proclaiming Jesus is Lord in Caesar’s own city, and sees the gospel calling the kingdoms of this world to account, to a better way of rule.

At the end, Wright strove to connect this four-fold reading of the Gospels to both life and death of Jesus. Perhaps my mind was wondering after a long day. I didn’t find this part to be as clearly laid out. Perhaps my problem was that I couldn’t quite see how there was an inherent connection, how cross drove the kingdom vision or enabled it to come about.

After a day with Wright, and seeing how he can pack out a house, even in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, I was poised to have N. T. Wright thoughts in mind when I read this morning’s blog post by Seth Godin.

The blog post talked about being “the best”–essentially, it says, being the best is a distraction that keeps us from taking our “better than most” and becoming well known for our unique contribution.

As I’m about to go to the Society of Biblical Literature conference, I think about N. T. Wright and think that there are probably any number of people who could rightly claim to be “better” New Testament scholars than Wright. They are more careful exegetes, know their history a bit better, or some such.

But what Wright has done is to take his “better than most” and parlay it into “most influential,” such that his overall project ends up being one of, if not the, most important biblical theology projects because people actually listen to what he is doing.

That’s where Wright has been able to become great: he has made the effort, and succeeded, in speaking to the masses. And the church’s and academy’s readings of the Bible are becoming, and will continue to be, better for it.

The Jesus You’re Looking For

Getting to John is always such a relief for my NT students.

At long last, they are in the presence of a Jesus who clearly knows everything that is happening and will happen–and not only knows, but is in total control of it.

Here, at last, is the Jesus in the garden who doesn’t need to put on a show for the rest of us like he’s really troubled to the point of death. “What shall I say? Take me from this hour? I don’t think so!” “Peter, how about you put that sword away? I have a cup from the Father to drink here!” “So, you guys have come out for me, huh? Well then, behold! These are not the droids… er… disciples you’re looking for!” ["These are not the droids we're looking for."] “They can move along.” ["Move along."]

Here is the Jesus who kindly leaves that confusing business of the Kingdom of God out of it.

Here at last is the Jesus who gets killed because everyone is so jealous that he’s really cool and has so many followers.

Oh, wait. What I mean is: here is the Jesus who isn’t even really killed, but gives up his own spirit when he realizes he has done everything that needed doing.

Here at last is the Jesus whose whole point is to get you to believe that all this stuff he’s doing shows you that he is son of God come from God. Here at last the conclusion is “Look! Only God can do that!”

Today, for one day, let us celebrate John’s Jesus. Our Jesus.

Because tomorrow we shall be examined on the other one, too…

Shoes on Other Feet

I confess. (I really need to stop doing that here–note to self, add “blogsphere confessionals” to “List of things to talk to therapist about.” Where was I? Oh yes…)

I confess, I cheer for winners. If I’m watching a game and don’t have a huge stake in one of the teams, I find myself drawn inexorably toward the one that seems to be destined to win at any given moment. When I’m watching a movie with some modicum of mystery about a perpetrator of a crime, I withhold judgment so that I can pretend I hated the right person all along.

When I read the NT, I cheer for Jesus. I boo for the Pharisees. I cheer for Paul. I boo for the Judaizers.

In these NT cases, I think that there’s something about the literature itself that expects such a reaction. By siding with Jesus or Paul I place myself into the mindset of the ideal reader of the text–one for whom Jesus and Paul are the good guys.

But there’s a down side as well; namely, that by siding with the good guys we miss how the story might confront us with a word of judgment.

cbenjasuwan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
We might miss, in fact, that we are those to whom the hero’s words might be spoken afresh.

In fact, it might be that the best place at which to enter the story is not as the doppelganger of the hero, but as the opposition force.

When we read the NT, we too often forget that we who sit in the established Christianity of the 20th century are more like the Jews than anyone else on the page.

We are sitting within the people who have had a firm confidence for thousands of years that we are uniquely living within the great revelation of God that determines all other things.

We are sitting as insiders with a clear sense of who is in and who is out.

We have have the authoritative voice of scripture to back our religious mores and scruples.

In what ways might the shoe be on the other foot? Might it be the case that now, quite often, the church sits not on the side of the radical in-breaking of the Kingdom of God under the reign of King Jesus, but that we sit on the side of the status quo that sets itself against this prophetic advent?

Might the “weak” now be those whose identities are so tied to Christian mores or worship styles or theological traditions that, despite being good smokers and drinkers, we are in fact the “weaker brothers” now? Might we be the ones who cannot part with what we know and still believe we’re serving Jesus?

Might we be the ones who oppose the Jesus-centered mission and identity of the people of God, demanding that any true Messiah serve the standards of the “law” as we’ve understood it? Do we grumble when people spend too much time, become too close friends, with those outside the community?

Yes, Jesus is the Messiah. So yes, there is something “right” about our identification of him and with him as we read. But are there ways that we need to recognize that this very confession unmakes the lives we have constructed in, as we understood it, service of him?

The Church’s Jesus Interprets Everything

Last week I posted a bit on “the church’s Jesus,” in part to throw my lot in with those who see Jesus as God’s agent rather than with those who see Jesus as an interesting historical phenomenon.

The first thing I said was that the church’s Jesus is the agent of Israel’s God. And this has some ramifications that we need to get more comfortable with.

In particular, to say that Jesus is the consummate act of Israel’s God on earth, that Jesus is the revelation of God, that “however many promises God has made they are yes in him”–to say these things is to claim (whether we know it or not) that Jesus is the hermeneutical key for making sense of the entire Biblical story.

Let me say that in a bit more accessible manner: if we really think Jesus is the Messiah, we should be reading the Old Testament in the same creative ways that the New Testament writers do.

Really, this creeps people out.

In Luke 24 we hear of what it means that the OT anticipates a coming Messiah: that the Christ must suffer, die, be raised, and repentance for forgiveness of sins be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

If this is true, it means that other story lines in the OT (like the ones where an earthly king conquers all the nations, like the ones where the Messiah is glorified by the subjugation of the nations, like the ones where the physical land of Israel takes pride of place as the possession of God’s people) are dead-ends. Or, perhaps better, swept up into a story that transforms them.

Knowing that the identity marker of the people of God is union with Christ, we eschew the identity markers of circumcision and food laws–i.e., of ethnic Israel.

Knowing that the defining moment in the story is the crucifixion and resurrection, we structure our lives and ethics to publicly placard to the world that we are the cross people, living in hope of resurrection. That means, of course, that we do not structure our lives by such things as avoidance of icons or sabbath keeping–which would be aimed to show the world that we are the first Exodus people. No, we’re the second Exodus people.

Knowing that Jesus is the defining moment of the story, we reread the psalms, incorporating ourselves into the story of the singers, and Jesus into the Lord whose name is praised.

Jesus becomes our hermeneutic. Luther was half right when he said that the “canon within the canon” is what places Christ front and center (paraphrase). The other half is this: where Christ is not front and center we have both the freedom and obligation to put him there.

That means reinterpreting the scriptures of Israel in light of the Christ event; and it might even mean reinterpreting parts of the NT (James, anyone?) in light of the same.

If It Makes You a Jerk, It’s Not Good Theology

It happened again.

Another story of Presbyterians going Presbyterian on one of their own.

The story is old. It goes something like this: Inerrantist, complementarian, Presbyterian, covenant theologian, willing to sign off on the 80+ pages of the Westminster Confession of Faith, has his ordination stymied by a theological debate.

Seriously.

I’ve pretty much come to the point where I’d think that if anyone is willing to sign off on your 80+ pages of theology that you should grab them and never let them go.

But that’s not how the conservative Presbyterian world works. That’s not the fruit of traditional Reformed Theology.

And what I say to them I say to all of us: If the fruit of our theology is that it makes people jerks, it is not good theology.

At some point, we have to step back and say that it’s not merely that people take the theology in a wrong direction, or that people with good theology nevertheless behave badly. There is something in the culture of the places that cling to Reformed or Neo-Reformed theology that makes them rabid about theology.

And these worlds aren’t alone. Lots of us move in or through ecclesiastical circles where there is a viciousness to the theological conversation, or a viciousness in the pursuit of holiness.

I am thankful for the Reformation. It opened up the doors for much-needed reform to come to the church. And that good reform did come both to the Roman Catholic church and through the newly birthed Protestant churches.

But one of its most unfortunate legacies was its providing us a theological justification for separating our theology and teaching from our ethics and behavior. Faith is one thing. Works is something else. The faith we profess is crucial. The works we perform will all need to be forgiven.

And with that, we surrendered our calling to judge by fruit. We are not to believe every prophet. We are not to believe every teacher. And while many of us have strong standards of judgment, ours are not the ones Jesus erected.

For us, the standard of judgment has to do with theological correctness, with correspondence to our system of doctrine. False teachers are run out of town when they say the wrong thing about the Bible or what God was thinking about before creation, or sex.

But Jesus tells us that the reason to run someone out of town is not their theological system but their fruit.

And what we too often, too willfully, forget, is that contentiousness and divisions are the very fruit of the flesh that demonstrate a person’s walking by the flesh and not by the Spirit.

In other words, if the fruit of your theology is that it creates a community of jerks, your teaching has gone awry.

Contentiousness should be a wake up call for us. When we find ourselves in worlds where fights recur, something has gone amiss–we should examine how we’re defining the gospel and thus ourselves as God’s people, and figure out what went wrong.

The Church’s Jesus: On Not Overdoing It

Over the next few days I will likely be saying a bit more about the church’s Jesus, as I began doing yesterday.

But before I get deeper into this, I want to speak a word of balance. Yesterday I made some claims about the church’s Jesus being a Jesus that in some ways the academy could never affirm. The church must always stand in the place of rehearsing Jesus not merely as a historical figure but as one who demands that we follow.

And so, in this sense, what the church does with and says about Jesus will always bear a similarity to the Gospels’ original purpose that the “purely academic” study of the Bible cannot, and does not with to, incur.

But…

Where the church’s readings can start to lose their moorings is precisely the place where academic study not only camps out, but even excels and thereby often surpassed the church’s readings.

In a couple of the proposals for theological interpretation I have read, the church’s ideal stance of “obedience” has been held forth as something that places the church closer to the posture of an “ideal reader” of the text than the historical academic readings. But to my mind this concedes too much to the potential response and too little to the historical context.

The first readers of the Bible were not merely worshipers of YHWH or followers of Jesus. They were not merely people who, ideally, would respond to the exhortations or shape their lives in accordance with the narratives.

They were all these things of course.

But they were also Jews living in exile under Babylonian rule. They were also Jews restored to their land in the Persian period and attempting to eke out a living there. They were also caught up in the currents of Roman rule of the Mediterranean world.

To reconstruct the hearing and response of an ideal reader of the text, taking into consideration that such a reader wishes to faithfully respond to God is a necessary component. But it is insufficient. The ideal reader of the text is also situated in a particular historical and cultural context within which the cues, clues, and commands means certain things, carry particular connotations, and aim for faithful response in that historical and cultural context.

The church needs an academy because the academy is always asking what we too often take for granted: “What was this text really trying to say, what response was it truly attempting to elicit?”

For this, we need more than faith. We need history. And for history, we often discover that those without the constraints of prior answers (i.e., an academy that, as such, has no constraint based on an agreed upon a priori right answer) often provide greater illumination than than those for whom history is not the main thing.

So for all that I said, and meant, yesterday about the church needing to say what the academy (as such) cannot, I will not say that people who do not share the church’s faith cannot read the Bible aright. Often, the academy does better with one of the necessary components (a historically viable reading of the text), even while the church’s posture of obedience allows it to affirm another necessary component.

While we in the church say, “God was at work in this history,” we often have to listen to those outside the church to learn better what “this history” is.