Good Friday: Suffering, Redemption, and Love

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

If you’re just joining us now, you are coming in on the end of the movie.  For the past several weeks we have been coming around Wright’s big idea that something happened on Good Friday such that by 6 PM that evening, the world was a completely and totally different place than it had been a few hours later.  What happened on Good Friday was nothing short of the start of a revolution, even though it certainly did not look like it until a few days later, and we who are Christians get to be part of this revolution.  I will not stop to catch you up on this in any greater detail; you can go back and read the prior posts for yourself, they will be there for ever and ever or at least as long as there is an internet.

As we bring the plane in for a landing, I wanted to circle back to one idea that we have cruised past but which is crucial to everything we have looked at up to this point.  It is this:  When God acts to redeem his covenant people, he is doing it out of love.

This is missing in a lot of Western Christianity and evangelicalism in particular.  So much of it is about going to heaven when you die, and thus the “works contract” way of looking at things.  (I won’t stop to catch you up on this; you can go back and look at the prior posts.)  As Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology by substituting the notion of saved souls going to heaven for the new creation which is what the Bible actually offers, we have moralized our anthropology by substituting the notion of a qualifying moral examination for our actual human vocation as laid out in Scripture, with the result that we have paganized our soteriology by making God out to be an angry deity who kills Jesus to satisfy His wrath.

Of course this runs contrary to the deepest themes of the New Testament.  Not that God is not angered by human rebellion or the rebellion of his chosen people–far from it.  But there is a difference.  Pagan religion says that we have to try to pacify God or the gods ourselves.  Christianity according to the “works contract” way of looking at things says essentially the same thing, with the twist that we can’t do this and so Jesus steps in and takes the wrath of God in our place.  But the truth of the matter is that God himself is acting to redeem his people on his own, for his own sake, for the sake of the covenant he made with his people, and out of the unchanging, unshakeable love which he has for his people.  And not only is this divine love for Israel, it is divine love through Israel for the rest of the world.

Here we note how important the Christian idea of the Trinity is to all of this.  With the Trinity, it means that, as Jesus kept on saying to his closest followers, if you had seen him you had seen the Father.  And with the Trinity, when Jesus dies it is as if part of God dies as well.  This is worthy of pondering.

Thus Jesus and God are inextricably linked, so everything Jesus does to redeem humanity God does as well, through Jesus.  Thus when God acts, he acts on his own.  It is his initiative, his accomplishment.  It is his love.

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Lent Week 5: The Revolution Continues

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

For the past few weeks we have been coming around Wright’s big idea that something happened on Good Friday such that by 6 PM that evening, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.

Unfortunately much of Western Christianity, and evangelicalism in particular, does not see it that way.  So much of Western Christianity has made it all about going to heaven when you die.  This is the “works contract” way of looking at things:  the end goal for humanity is heaven, where heaven is defined as a state of disembodied spiritual bliss apart from this corrupt world, and the problem for humanity is sin, where sin is defined as bad behavior which is deserving of punishment.  It all works out something like this:  God gave us a moral test (“Don’t eat that fruit” for Adam and Eve, “Keep the Law” for Israel), we all failed miserably and as a result deserve God’s righteous wrath and hell.  But Jesus stepped up and took the wrath that should have been ours.  His perfect righteousness is now credited to our account and now we get to go to heaven when we die, provided we believe all this and can articulate it with satisfactory theological precision, not to mention that we prayed the prayer at some point along the way.

As a result of all this, Wright says, we have committed a threefold error:  we have Platonized our eschatology by substituting the notion of saved souls going to heaven for the new creation which is what the Bible actually offers, we have moralized our anthropology by substituting the notion of a qualifying moral examination for our actual human vocation as laid out in Scripture, with the result that we have paganized our soteriology by making God out to be an angry deity who kills Jesus to satisfy His wrath–a notion more in line with paganism than anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity.

We have seen that humanity’s vocation was to be God’s image here on earth, representing him to all of creation and presenting the praises of all creation to God.  But this went badly off the rails when humanity refused its vocation and instead worshiped idols, created things.  These created things thus took on a power they were never meant to have and enslaved all of humanity, running amuck and turning our world into a hell on earth.  Israel was intended as the means by which God would rescue humanity, but they too failed to live up to their vocation and wound up in exile.  Jesus entered the picture as the representative of Israel, and with his death he defeated the forces of sin and death in the universe, thereby robbing them of their power, and rescued Israel and humanity–a new Exodus, if you will–and restored them to their proper vocation.  To be a Christian is to enter into this revolution, to step into the role which God intended for humanity and to bring God’s rule to pass here on earth as it is in heaven.

We have looked at Jesus and the cross, in an attempt to understand it all in the same way the first Christians would have.  We saw that the first Christians saw Jesus’s death as the unexpected fulfillment of all that God had promised Israel.  Jesus, as the representative Israel-in-person, fulfilled Israel’s vocation where Israel had failed.  All of evil gathered itself into a single head of steam and came at Jesus on the cross, only to be completely and finally crushed.  The end result was the new Passover and the forgiveness of sins by which Israel was restored to its proper vocation, and with it all humanity.

We have looked at the writings of Paul, with a specific focus on Romans, and how they fit in with all of this.  We have seen that Paul does not simply offer a roundabout way of saying “We sinned, God killed Jesus, it’s all good now”.  What Paul offers instead is more along the lines of “We all committed idolatry and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has given us the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery”.

So now we come to this week’s burning question:  Where do we fit into this story?  If Jesus’s death was in fact the start of a revolution, what does it mean for us to be part of it?

When the first Christians looked back on Jesus’s death they saw that this event in and of itself had been the great victory over the evil powers of this present age.  But as this victory came not at the end of the age, but right smack in the middle of it, with evil and sin and darkness still running rampant all around, this could only mean that it was a two-stage event.  The jailer had been overpowered, now someone had to go and unlock all the prison doors and tell all the prisoners that they were free.  This task had to be accomplished by a new kind of power, the cross-resurrection-Spirit kind of power, the power of suffering love.  The first Christians would struggle to learn what it meant to use this power, to work for the kingdom of God in a world that neither wanted nor cared for any such thing.  This is what we know as “mission”.

But here we note a glaring problem with the enterprise of missions:  Just as modern Western Christianity treats the notion of saved souls going to heaven as the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith, so Christian missions have been made to serve this way of looking at things.  It wasn’t always so:  up until about two centuries ago Christian mission was consumed with the idea of bringing God’s kingdom here on earth.  As Europeans traveled the earth in that era and discovered places heretofore unknown, they had a sense of carrying Christian civilization with them.  The mood of that time was one of great optimism, that as Christian civilization went out to more and more of the world the kingdom of God was truly coming on earth as in heaven.

But towards the end of the eighteenth century there was a shift.  Though there were still a great many concerned with social and cultural reform and advancing the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, there was an ever-increasing number who came to see all this as a distraction from the true work of the Church:  “preaching the Gospel” (read:  “saving souls for heaven”).  As this shift was happening the Enlightenment gained traction in the secular world; the optimism of the earlier Christian era was now harnessed by the forces of an ever-increasing secularism which believed that it could have all the benefits of the kingdom of God while believing that God was either remote or nonexistent.  This split-level world, with God up in heaven and the earth and all the people in it left to their own devices down here, is very widely assumed to be the norm, even to this day.

The prior era’s approach to missions led to a triumphalism which assumed that the Kingdom of God would advance in our world without having to deal with saving people from their sin.  The approach to missions in our day, in which saved souls going to heaven is the end-all, be-all of the Christian faith, brings forgiveness of sins but leaves the evil powers of our world to continue ruling uncontested.  What is needed is an approach to missions that integrates both the Kingdom of God and forgiveness of sins.  The New Testament insists on both and in their proper relation.  This is what the book has been all about.  Get this right, and the Church’s true vocation emerges:  To announce the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross and the forgiveness of sins which had become the new reality in our world by the end of the day on Good Friday.  To announce that the forces of sin and death which had previously ruled the world have been overpowered and all of humanity is now free to resume its vocation as bearers of the image of God to all of creation.

Lent Week 4: Paul and the Cross

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world.  By six o’clock that evening, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.

As we saw earlier, humanity’s vocation was to be God’s image here on earth, representing him to all of creation and presenting the praises of all creation to God.  But this went badly off track when humanity refused its vocation and instead worshiped idols, created things.  These created things thus took on a power they were never meant to have and enslaved all of humanity, running amuck and turning our world into a hell on earth.  Israel was intended as the means by which God would rescue humanity, but they too failed to live up to their vocation and wound up in exile.  Jesus entered the picture as the representative of Israel, and with his death he defeated the forces of sin and death in the universe, thereby robbing them of their power, and rescued Israel and humanity and restored them to their proper vocation.  To be a Christian is to enter into this revolution, to step into the role which God intended for humanity and to bring God’s rule to pass here on earth as it is in heaven.

Last week we looked specifically at Jesus and the cross, in an attempt to understand Jesus’s death in the way the first Christians would have.  We looked at what the Jews of Jesus’s time were hoping for and how Jesus fit into that.  We looked at how the first Christians came to understand Jesus’s death as the unexpected fulfillment of all that God had promised Israel.  We looked at how all this contrasts with the “works contract” way of looking at things which is so prevalent in present-day Western Christianity, in which Jesus sacrificed Himself to pacify the wrath of a God who was rightfully angry because of our sin (read: failure to live up to God’s moral demands) and now we get to go to heaven when we die.  In reality, sin is much bigger than a failure to live up to God’s moral demands, it is a failure of worship.  It is refusing the vocation which God has given us as humans, worshiping all the wrong things so that those things take on a destructive power they were never meant to have and all of humanity becomes enslaved to that power.  It means that God’s plan for humanity and for creation is not moving forward.  Jesus’s death is much bigger than just a sacrifice to appease a rightfully angry God:  it was deliverance for all of humanity and creation from the dark powers ruling over the world, a new Exodus if you will.  It meant that God’s plans for humanity and creation were back on track.  It meant that the original human vocation of being God’s image here on earth was once again a possibility.  It means that God’s will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, and we get to be a part of that.

This week we turn to Paul.  Paul is the first place most people think to look when seeking to understand Jesus.  Paul’s writings contain a bewildering variety of imagery regarding Jesus and the cross, and it is easy to fit Paul into one’s favorite theological framework, such as imputation or penal substitutionary atonement which support the “works contract” way of looking at things.  But that involves softening or else ignoring a lot of what Paul says that doesn’t quite fit the mold.  If we look at Paul straight out, we find that he fits right in with what Wright has been saying all along:  We are not saved for heaven–that is, a state of disembodied spiritual bliss with God–but for the new creation, that is, the new heaven and the new earth that are part of the coming age.  This is accomplished by Jesus’s death, by which the powers of sin and death are defeated.  Representing Israel, and by extension all humanity, Jesus took upon himself the full force of the divine condemnation of sin itself, so that all those “in Him” would not suffer it themselves.

Wright looks at several key passages from throughout the writings of Paul which bear this out.  He eventually gets to Romans and spends a couple of lengthy chapters there.  It is in Romans, the first four chapters of it, that the “works contract” way of looking at things finds much of its support.  Wright unpacks Romans in great detail to show how it supports what he has been saying all along:  Israel had been faithless to its divine vocation of bringing healing to all the nations, but God has dealt with this failure in the proper way, that is, the reality toward which the Day of Atonement had been pointing all along.  Jesus the Messiah had accomplished in his death the purpose for which Israel had been called.  The covenant purposes of God for Israel and for the entire world through Israel were established, with Jesus’s blood as the blood of the new covenant.

Paul’s writings, and Romans in particular, do not simply offer a roundabout way of saying “We sinned, God punished Jesus, it’s all good now”.  Instead what Paul is saying is “We all committed idolatry and sinned; God promised Abraham to save the world through Israel; Israel was faithless to that commission; but God has put forth the faithful Messiah, his own self-revelation, whose death has been our Exodus from slavery”.  If we get away from that, Wright says, we Platonize our eschatology and moralize our anthropology with the result that we paganize our soteriology.

So what would Paul say happened by 6 PM on Good Friday evening?  First, he would say that the age-old covenant plan of God for humanity had been accomplished; the new Passover had taken place, in fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.  Next, he would say that all this had been done by God himself, acting out of his covenant faithfulness or love.  Next he would say that people of all sorts, Jews and Gentiles alike, were now free of past sins and free to come together as part of God’s family.  Next, Paul saw this new Passover as the dealing with sins by which Israel’s state of exile was undone, where Passover and “Day of Atonement” come together.  Finally, Israel’s representative Messiah was “handed over for our trespasses” in the sense intended by Isaiah 53, thus robbing the powers of sin of their power.  This is the key that unlocks all the other doors.

So where do we fit in the story?  If Jesus’s death marked the start of a revolution, what does it mean for us to be part of it?  We will take up these questions next time.

Lent Week 3: The Revolutionary Rescue

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world.  By six o’clock that evening, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.  As we saw last week, humanity’s vocation was to be God’s image here on earth, representing him to all of creation and presenting the praises of all creation to God.  But this went badly off track when humanity refused its vocation and instead worshiped idols, created things.  These created things thus took on a power they were never meant to have and enslaved all of humanity, running amuck and turning our world into a hell on earth.  Israel was intended as the means by which God would rescue humanity, but they too failed to live up to their vocation and wound up in exile.  Jesus entered the picture as the representative of Israel, and with his death he defeated the forces of sin and death in the universe, thereby robbing them of their power, and rescued Israel and humanity and restored them to their proper vocation.  To be a Christian is to enter into this revolution, to step into the role which God intended for humanity and to bring God’s rule to pass here on earth as it is in heaven.

But much of Western Christianity and American evangelicalism in particular does not see it like this.  Instead, the dominant view is that going to heaven when you die is the end-all, be-all of the Christian experience.  Wright refers to this way of looking at things as the “works contract” and it goes something like this:  There is a place called heaven where good people go and a place called hell where bad people go.  Humanity was given a moral task (for Adam and Eve it was “Don’t eat that fruit”, for Israel it was “Keep the Law”) which it failed and failed miserably, so we are all going to hell.  But Jesus stepped up and took the punishment from God that was due for us, so now you too can go to heaven when you die, provided you’ve prayed the prayer and can articulate all this at a satisfactory level of doctrinal/theological precision.

Wright says that Western Christianity has made a three-layered mistake:

We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting “souls going to heaven” for the promised new creation) and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of salvation (substituting the idea of “God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath” for the genuinely biblical notions we are about to explore).

Wright begins this segment with the Emmaus story, with the two disciples walking along the road and Jesus (incognito at that point) walking them through the entire Old Testament to show them what had to happen.  In those days the Jews were actively attempting to work out what it would look like for God to fulfill the ancient promises at last; different groups had different ideas that were all over the place.  Still, no one had the idea that this rescue and redemption of Israel would be to take them out of the world to a disembodied spiritual existence in a place called heaven.  The rescue they were hoping for was not a rescue from the world, but a rescue for the world, with a redeemed humanity at last fulfilling the vocation for which they were created.  But the idea of Jesus fulfilling those promises through his death on the cross was nowhere on the map of first-century Israel.  The Old Testament scriptures pointing to Jesus required a radical redefinition of the ancient Jewish hope, just as in our day it requires a radical redefinition of the vision of saved souls going to heaven when they die.

“Forgiveness of sins” is a key part of the Jewish hope, and a phrase which crops up over and over again in the scriptures that speak to this hope.  But it does not mean what you probably think it means.  In our Western “works contract” way of looking at things, good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell.  But we are all bad, we have all failed to keep the moral code, so if anyone gets into heaven it is because our “sins”, meaning our failure to keep the moral code, have been dealt with, or because someone else’s righteousness has been reckoned to our account, or both.  That is what is commonly meant by “forgiveness of sins” in our day and age.

But in reality, the notion of “forgiveness of sins” is much bigger than that.  The reality is what Wright keeps coming back to over and over again:  Something happened in our world of space, time, and matter, and the end result is that everything is different now.  By 6 PM on the evening of Good Friday, the world had changed, and changed radically.  Heaven and earth had been brought together, thereby creating a cosmic “new temple”.  Or as Paul would say it:  “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  Or “[bringing] all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).  In Romans 8 we see the new creation being birthed out of the old, with powerful allusions to Exodus along the way.  Creation will have its own “Exodus” moment, being led out of bondage to decay and corruption and sharing in the freedom that comes when a redeemed humanity at last fulfills the vocation for which God created it.  All of this is what Israel was hoping for and what was unexpectedly fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and it is all encapsulated in the phrase “forgiveness of sins”.

Here we see that the Church’s mission lies in direct continuity with the ancient hopes of Israel and how those hopes were transformed in Jesus.  When these hopes were fulfilled, the Jews believed, three things would happen:  First, Israel would be set free from the domination of pagan overlords.  Second, God, perhaps through the agency of the Messiah, would rule over all creation, inaugurating a new reign of justice and peace.  Third, God’s presence would return to dwell with His people, enabling them to worship truly and completely.

When Jesus ascended to heaven a piece of earth (namely his earthly body) was joined to heaven, becoming fully and completely at home there.  When the Spirit came upon the first disciples, a part of heaven was joined to earth and became completely at home here.  This scene, as well as the scene of all the disciples speaking in tongues at Pentecost, are the New Testament equivalent of God’s Presence indwelling the tabernacle in Solomon’s temple with cloud and fire.  The early Church saw themselves and their communities as the new Temple.  Through the new life of worship depicted throughout Acts, the early believers found themselves standing, priestlike, at the uncomfortable intersection of heaven and earth via worship and ministry.

Out of worship and prayer grows witness.  This is not just people saying “I’ve had such-and-such an experience, perhaps you might like it too” but instead announcing that a completely new and different order has come into being.  This started at Pentecost with the first disciples announcing to the startled crowds that everything they were hoping for had been fulfilled in Jesus who had died and was raised from the dead.  It continued with Peter at Cornelius’s house, Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and ultimately with the missionary career of Paul.  Through all this, and through the Church’s continued witness down to this day, the worldwide rule of God is slowly but surely coming to pass.

Finally, the hope of Israel’s rescue from pagan rule was fulfilled when Jesus, the Israel-in-person, was raised from the dead, thereby being set free from death itself, the ultimate weapon of every tyrant and the ultimate exile imposed by every Babylon.  Many Jews, including many of the chief priests, became part of the new Jesus community, and the early Christians saw this community as the fulfillment of the promise of liberation from pagan overlords.

It is only by keeping all three of these strands of the Jewish hope as well as the new vocation of humanity as God’s royal priesthood in view that we can properly understand Jesus’s death in the same way the early Christians did.  So how did the early Christians interpret Jesus’s death?  They believed that, as Wright keeps coming back to over and over again, something happened on the cross as a result of which the world had become a completely different place.  In short, a revolution had begun.  But what had changed and how?  Now we can begin to address these questions.

To do this, Wright turns to the Gospels.  For starters, it is important to note that the crucifixion of Jesus had no meaning in and of itself.  As crucifixions go, this was just one more instance of brutal Roman justice doing what it did best:  liquidating and making a shameful spectacle of any and all opposition.  No one who saw Jesus being crucified that day would have seen it any differently.  None of Jesus’s followers were expecting this, despite Jesus’s warnings repeated throughout the Gospels that he was going up to Jerusalem and it would not end well.

Indeed, no one would have seen it any differently until three days later, when reports of the empty tomb, and later, of Jesus himself being seen very much alive, began to trickle back to the disciples in Jerusalem.  For as unexpected as Jesus’s death was, this was even more unexpected.  It meant no less than that Jesus had gone through death and come out the other side, just as much alive as ever before.  The cross meant what it meant, not in itself, but in light of what happened afterward.

So why did Jesus choose Passover?  Note that it was during the feast of the Jewish Passover that all this went down.  Why?  Because the Passover was all about the Jews’ deliverance from slavery at the hands of Egypt, the Exodus story.  The Jews at that point were awaiting a new Exodus in which God himself would return and lead his people out of slavery to the pagan powers of the day.  Jesus had come to announce that the long-promised return of God was at hand and the new Exodus was about to get underway.  Just as Moses had defeated the power of Pharaoh and of the myth-laden Red Sea to deliver the Jews from Egypt, so Jesus would face down the dark powers of the world, and the dark powers of sin and death which lay behind them, and through his death would win the victory that would deliver not just Israel but all humanity from bondage to the dark powers of the world.  Thus the Passover timing made perfect sense.

Looking at what the Gospel writers had to say, we see the picture of Jesus coming to announce the coming kingdom and new Exodus.  Jesus is part and parcel of the larger story of Israel, linked to the prophetic traditions (Mark 1, Luke 1-2), Abraham (Matthew 1), Adam (Luke 1), and even to creation itself (John 1).  But Jesus’s announcement of God’s coming kingdom did not fit with anyone’s expectations of what it would look like.  He faced intense opposition from day one, as the Gospel writers were clear to point out:  Herod attempting to kill him as a baby (Matthew), the people of Nazareth attempting to push him off a cliff (Luke), Pharisees and Herodians plotting against him from early on (Mark).  John has him as a marked man from the Temple incident in chapter 2 and the Sabbath healing in chapter 5.  This opposition intensified and came to a head at the cross:  All the evil in the world came together and drew itself up to its very height and there was crushed by Jesus in his decisive victory at the cross.

Lent Week 2: “In Accordance with the Bible”

This year during the Lenten season, we are working our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world.  By six o’clock on that day, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.  In the section we will look at this week, Wright looks at the statement “Christ died for our sins in accordance with Scripture”, a well-known summary statement from the writings of Paul, and unpacks what it would have meant in the context of the Old Testament story.

Unfortunately, most of Christianity and evangelicalism in particular has got the wrong idea.  So much of what you hear in modern Christianity is all about individuals going to heaven when they die, provided they are in a right relationship with Jesus.  Wright likens this to three Boy Scouts helping an old lady across the street (it took three of them because she did not want to go), and also to a teenage girl who was suffering from a bewildering variety of strange symptoms that her doctor couldn’t figure out, but when she went to a different clinic and they ran some different tests, they found the true condition and were able to begin appropriate treatment.

Like the three Boy Scouts trying to help the old lady across the street, modern Christianity insists that humanity needs help getting to “heaven” when they die when all along the New Testament insists that the divine plan is to bring everything together in a new heaven and a new earth.  Like the doctor who couldn’t diagnose the girl’s condition, modern Christianity insists on a particular diagnosis of the human plight and on treating that instead of the actual disease.

These two errors coexist and reinforce each other:  in modern Christianity “heaven” is seen as the goal (along with fellowship with God in the present) and “sin” as the problem, where “sin” is defined as misbehavior which deserves punishment.  Thus, as Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology (making “heaven” the goal) and we have moralized our anthropology (making “sin” the problem), with the end result that we have paganized our soteriology with the picture of an angry deity who is pacified by human sacrifice (in our case, the sacrifice of Jesus).

At this point Wright introduces the idea of the “works contract”:  God gave his creatures a moral code to live by; failure to keep it perfectly meant expulsion from the garden of Eden and death.  This moral code was sharpened and expanded when Israel came along, with a similar result.  Thus all humanity was bound for hell rather than heaven.  But Jesus came along; he obeyed the moral code perfectly and, in his death, paid the penalty for the rest of the human race.  Those who avail themselves of this achievement by believing in him and benefiting from his accomplishment will go to heaven; those who don’t, will not.  The works contract remains fully intact throughout.

But this insists on taking humanity to a goal very different from what is offered in Scripture.  It ignores the story of Israel’s Scriptures, both in themselves and as understood by the early Christians.  And it insists on a diagnosis of the human plight which is trivial compared to our actual plight.

What the Bible offers is not a “works contract” but a covenant of vocation, where our vocation is to be genuine human beings with genuinely human tasks to perform, chief among which is being God’s image bearers and reflecting His image into all of creation and reflecting the praises of all creation back to God.  Those who do this are a “royal priesthood”; they get to stand at that dangerous yet exhilarating place where heaven and earth meet.  This is a far cry from keeping a moral code in order to enjoy fellowship with God here and in the hereafter.  Our actual plight is much worse than the “works contract” view lets on:  We have turned our vocation upside down by giving worship to things in the world which we ought to be ruling over.  The name for this is idolatry, and the result is slavery and death, not as an arbitrary punishment but as a natural and inevitable consequence.  The created things which we worship are more than happy to usurp the power which we ought to have been using; these powers are then let loose to run amuck in the world and turn it into a hell from which it is understandable that people would want to escape.

With the death of Jesus, the original human vocation was reestablished; redeemed humans are now a “royal priesthood” or a “kingdom of priests”.  When the early Christians said this they meant that at last the original project of creation is back on track.  Also, the purpose for which God called Israel is back on track.

The Old Testament–what we know as the Old Testament but what the Jews knew as their Scripture–is actually a single story.  It is a story shot through and through with the theme of exile, with several instances of exile along the way that lead the eye directly to the big one: the exile in Babylon.  The exile in Babylon continued long after the Jews returned to their homeland; though they were home they were still oppressed by pagan superpowers and except for a few brief snatches they never caught even a whiff of independence.  Moreover there was the sense that though the exiles had returned to the land God had not.  The prophets of that postexilic period (Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi), gave the sense that all was not well.  The grand prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel about the Lord returning remained unfulfilled.  The people realized that a fresh act of deliverance would be needed to undo the present state of slavery.  And that is where the Old Testament ends.

The story of Adam and Eve in Genesis and the story of Israel follow parallel tracks, explaining and amplifying each other.  The story of Adam and Eve is the story of Israel in microcosm:  failure to live up to their vocation and consequent exile from God’s land.  The story of Israel is the story of Adam and Eve and the plight of the human condition worked out in great and tragic detail.  But it was not intended simply as a parallel and an illustration; instead the call of Abraham which led up to the nation of Israel was intended to be the means by which God would get humanity and creation back on track after the failure of Adam and Eve to live out their vocation.  That is, Israel would be the means by which the plight of humanity is resolved.  The Promised Land would take the place of Eden, becoming the place of life, the place of God’s presence, and the base from which God’s presence would extend out into all of creation, restoring all things and bringing them all together under His rule.  All that went off the rails when Israel failed to live up to its much amplified vocation and wound up in exile.  But surely that was not the end of the story, or else chaos would have returned for good.  Surely, just as God chose the covenant people of Israel to be the means of rescuing humanity, He would choose a remnant from within Israel as the means of rescuing Israel.  But what that would look like, no one in postexilic Israel had any idea.

All that came to a head in Jesus Christ and his death on the cross.  Surely God would not just leave Israel to its fate; He had made a covenant with Israel and He would surely keep it.  The early Christians believed that this is exactly what happened when Jesus died on the cross.

But what about the forgiveness of sins?  Recall that sin is not just failure to keep the moral code, bad behavior deserving of punishment.  Sin is much bigger than that.  Humans were made for a purpose, Israel was made for a purpose, and both have turned aside and abandoned their vocation.  Underlying that is a failure of worship.  We were intended to worship God but instead have turned aside and worshiped created things in the world.  In the process we have given them the power and authority which we ought to have exercised.  Nondivine forces have taken on a power and authority they were never supposed to have.  This is why sins have to be dealt with as part and parcel of any plan God might have to rescue creation with humans as His active agents.  When sins are dealt with, these nondivine forces will be deprived of their power and put back into their proper place.  Israel’s sins must be dealt with so that the project of global reconciliation, including dealing with the sins of all humanity, can go forward.  Israel’s sins were responsible for their exile, so the end of exile and the forgiveness of sins would be one and the same thing.  This end of exile would be a great and final Exodus, with the victory over Babylon recapitulating the victory over Egypt.  And when it comes, it will come through the personal and powerful work of God Himself.

Though the Jews had a very limited framework for the notion of heroes taking the divine wrath upon themselves by their own suffering and death, they saw the whole thing through the lens of love:  the powerful and unchangeable love of God for His people.  This was the driving force for everything, the new Exodus, the forgiveness of sins, and the return of God to be with His people.  This all came to a head in Jesus Christ:  By the end of the day on Good Friday, sins had been dealt with and the powers defeated in accordance with all that God had promised Israel.  Christ had died for our sins in accordance with the Bible.

Lent Week 1: Why The Cross?

lent07This year during the Lenten season, we will work our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest from N. T. Wright.  I believe this is especially timely, given where we currently are in America and in American evangelicalism.

Wright’s big idea is that something happened on the afternoon of Good Friday which changed the world.  By six o’clock on that day, the world was a completely different place than it had been just a few hours earlier.

Of course, nobody who was living through the events of that day would have seen it that way.  They would have seen it as just another crucifixion.  This was what Rome did best.  Yet another so-called revolutionary had been brutally liquidated.  His movement, which had never been anything more than a small, ragtag band of followers anyway, was over.  Caesar was still on the throne; death had had the last word.

wrightExcept that it hadn’t.  As Jesus’s followers would reflect back on the events of that day, in light of other events which were soon to follow, they came up with what must have seemed nonsensical to anyone living at the time, and even to us today:  That this was the beginning of a revolution.  More than that, it was the climactic moment not just in human history but in the story of God and the world.  Indeed it had opened up a shocking window on the very notion of God himself.  With this event, God had launched his plan for the rescue of humanity and the entire created world.  You see, it wasn’t just that Jesus had been raised from the dead, important though that was.  It was that the resurrection was the first visible sign that the revolution launched on Good Friday was already underway.  More signs would follow.

But most Christians today, and evangelicals in particular, don’t see it like that.  As a result, most people outside the Church don’t see it like that either.  Instead, the prevailing view is that Jesus’s death saves us from our “sins” so that we can “go to heaven”, whatever that means.  Though that can be revolutionary for someone who has never thought of it before, it is not even remotely close to the revolution envisioned by Jesus’s first followers.  What they had in mind was something much bigger, much more far-reaching, much more explosive, though it does include the idea that we are saved from our sins.  But when we make that the end-all, be-all, we significantly distort what they had in mind, thereby losing much of the world-transforming power that Christianity once possessed.

Think about it:  If the Christian message were nothing more than individuals being saved from their sins and going to heaven when they die, do you think for a moment that Christianity would have transformed the world the way it has?  Do you think for a moment that it would have even made it out of first-century Jerusalem?  Rome back in those days was an incredibly dangerous place to be a Christian.  Do you think for a moment that a faith solely comprised of individuals going to heaven when they die would have had enough power to compel believers to give up their very lives, frequently in excruciatingly horrific fashion?

Yet that is where we are in contemporary evangelicalism.  “This world is not our home”, they say.  “We’re just a-passin thru.”  Whiling away our years here on earth in the hope of being taken away to a disembodied heaven to dwell with Jesus in a state of disembodied spiritual bliss in the sweet by and by.  It’s all over the place in our hymnody.  It’s all over the place in our sermons.  It’s all over the place in CCM.

In light of this, it is not surprising that 81 percent of evangelicals can support a racist, bigoted dictator, the most spectacularly unqualified candidate ever to seek public office let alone the office of president, a man who is the complete opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus, without even batting an eyelash,, and even claim that their Christian convictions compel them to do so.

This is a problem.  As Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology (by making a disembodied, spiritual heaven the end goal of the Christian story), we have moralized our anthropology (by making a failed “works contract” the root of the human problem), and we have paganized our soteriology (by replacing the revolutionary Kingdom of God with a non-biblical vision of heaven and hell).

Most of the time, when we speak of the cross in Western Christianity, what we mean goes something like this:  All humans have sinned, causing God to be angry and want to burn them forever in a place called hell.  But Jesus stepped up and got in the way and took the punishment instead (it helped that he was innocent and sinless, it helped even more that he was the Son of God).  As a result, we are in the clear, headed for heaven instead of the hell that we deserve (provided of course that we believe it and can articulate it properly).  Most teachers and scholars would not put it so bluntly, but that is the takeaway.  That is what people expect to hear.  And in many churches, if you don’t say it like this people will say you aren’t “preaching the Gospel”.

This is a problem.  It paints a picture of God as an angry, bloodthirsty tyrant.  Some people and some strains of Christianity, particularly the uber-Reformed strains of Calvinism, are all over this.  But many people cannot accept this picture of God and they hope and pray that if there really is a God then he/she/it is nothing like this.  They react in a variety of predictable ways:  Some chuck the whole thing as irrelevant and walk away altogether.  Some go back to their Bibles and the writings of the great early teachers of the Church and find all sorts of things being said about the cross, for instance that it is how God’s love won the victory over the forces of sin and darkness.  Still others find early writers urging us to imitate the example of Jesus’s self-giving love and seize upon that as the answer:  The cross isn’t about God punishing sin but about Jesus providing us with the ultimate example of love which we are called to imitate.  Thus a tremendous confusion has arisen as to what the cross is all about.

Not surprisingly, this causes people to lose sight of the main thing:  that when Jesus died on the cross, something happened which changed the world into a completely different place.  And when you get caught up in the true meaning of the cross, you become part of this difference.  The day of Jesus’s crucifixion was the day the revolution began.  More than that, Jesus’s crucifixion is part and parcel of a much bigger story than whether people go to heaven or hell when they die.  It is part of the story of God’s kingdom coming here on earth as it is in heaven.

In order to understand the cross more fully, we must look at it in its first-century setting.  There are three distinct first-century contexts within which the cross finds meaning:  the Greco-Roman world, the Jewish world, and the world of the early Christians.  In the Greco-Roman world, crucifixion was a horrible thing.  You see, the Romans didn’t invent crucifixion, they perfected it.  They figured out how to extend the process of dying on a cross to last for several hours and even for days on end.  Once you had seen a crucifixion, you could not unsee it for as long as you lived.  The Romans reserved crucifixion for two specific types of undesirables:  slaves, rebels, and especially slaves who were also rebels or leaders of rebellions.  Crucifixions were held in the most public places:  on frequently traveled roads and at the entrances of cities.  The message was clear:  Rome is in charge here.  Just try to rebel and see if you don’t end up like this.  There was also an element of mockery here, parodying the ambitions of uppity rebels:  “So you see yourself as high and lifted up?  There’s your “high and lifted up”.  You want to move up in society?  Fine, you can move up–literally, on a cross.”

In the Jewish world, life was organized around the great religious festivals, of which the greatest was Passover.  Passover commemorates the events depicted in the book of Exodus when God acted mightily to lead the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt.  The story is rehashed in detail at every Passover.  Jesus chose the Passover as the time when he would do what he had to do.  But more than just remembering the deliverance that happened in the past, the first-century Jews were awaiting and expecting a fresh act of deliverance.  The exile of Babylon continued long after the Jews returned home, in the form of continuing pagan oppression.  All the prophets insisted that this exile was due to the sin of Israel in failing to keep the Law.  If this long-awaited deliverance was to come, then, it had to consist of a divine action of “forgiveness of sins”.  But there was no conception in Jewish thought that if such a deliverer were to come, that he would suffer.

In the world of the New Testament Christians, there was a tremendous diversity of thought concerning the cross and what it meant.  But it converges in some pretty specific directions:  Once we replace the idea of going to heaven when we die as our ultimate destiny with the biblical idea of a new heavens and a new earth, there will be direct consequences for how we understand both the human problem and the divine solution.  In the view that is prevalent in present-day Christianity, the human problem is sin which stops us from going to heaven; this was dealt with (somehow) on the cross.  But in the biblical way of looking at things, what stops us from being genuine humans, living out our vocation as priests bearing the image of God, is not only sin but the idolatry which underlies it:  the idols have gained the power that humans ought to be exercising because humans have handed it over to them, and sin keeps humans in the thrall of these idols.  Dealing with sin therefore has much more profound consequences than just releasing humans to go to heaven, it also means releasing humans from bondage to the idols of this world so that they may worship the one true God and fulfill the vocation he intended for them.

God’s plan to deal with sin and idolatry is focused on his people Israel.  But in the New Testament the focus narrows to Israel’s representative, the Messiah Jesus Christ.  He stands in for Israel, thereby fulfilling the divine plan to rescue humanity and ultimately all of creation.  This is the short version; Wright will unpack it in greater detail over the remainder of the book.

Ash Wednesday: The Day The Revolution Began

lent07Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season.

Lent is the forty days before Easter.  Start at Easter, back up six Sundays, then back up a few more days to the Wednesday before, and you get to Ash Wednesday.  That’s actually forty-six days.  Back out the six Sundays, which are treated as “free days” and not counted as part of the Lenten season (they are and they aren’t–it’s complicated), and you get to forty days.

Lent is a season of preparation for Easter.  We prepare by focusing on Christ and his journey to the Cross, which lies squarely across our path and looms ever larger the deeper we get into the Lenten season.  The 40 days of Lent tie in directly with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness prior to the start of his public ministry, and indirectly with the 40 years Israel spent in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land.  Not all of us can go out into the wilderness for 40 days, but we can all place ourselves in a posture of humility and choose practices consistent with a lifestyle of repentance.

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this journey.  Many churches have Ash Wednesday services where you receive ashes on your forehead.  Ashes symbolize repentance from sin; to go around in sackcloth and ashes was a classic Old Testament expression of grief and repentance.  Ashes also symbolize mortality; we are but dust and unto dust we shall return.  We die to ourselves and all that we are in this world in order that we may rise to life in Christ.

wrightThis year during the Lenten season we will work our way through The Day The Revolution Began, the latest book from N. T. Wright.  This is especially timely, given the moment that America and American evangelicalism currently find themselves in.

Christianity, and evangelical Christianity in particular, is now on America’s shit list, largely because 81 percent of American evangelicals supported the most spectacularly unqualified candidate ever to run for political office and his message of hatred, fear, wrath, and unbridled lust for power.  In short, a massive failure to represent Christ to a watching world.

So how did we get here?  By forgetting our story.  By allowing Scripture to be reduced to a mere collection of proof texts to support our most cherished doctrines while completely ignoring the larger story that gives rise to said texts.  We jump straight from the sin of Adam to the cross of Christ, treating everything in between as if it doesn’t count for anything except for a few proof texts to support our stand against evolution or homosexuality or whatever.

God set us an impossibly hard moral test, which we have all failed.  As a result, God is ravenously angry and wants us all to burn in hell.  Fortunately, Jesus stepped up, God decided to vent his anger on Jesus, and now the rest of us get to exchange our just desserts in hell for an eternity with God in heaven.  Just pray a prayer, or give your assent to a certain theological way of looking at things, and the deal is done.  Of course, very few if any pastors and/or theologians would dare to put it that bluntly, but for a lot of the rank-and-file believers out there, that is essentially the takeaway.

This is a problem.  As Wright would say, we have Platonized our eschatology (by making a disembodied, spiritual heaven the end goal of the Christian story), we have moralized our anthropology (by making a failed “works contract” the root of the human problem), and we have paganized our soteriology (by replacing the revolutionary Kingdom of God with a non-biblical vision of heaven and hell).

Wright’s big idea is that we as Christians have lost our way because we have forgotten the story of Scripture.  The cross is not an isolated event in and of itself with a few proof texts here and there to support it.  Instead it is the surprising climax of a grand narrative stretching from the beginning of Scripture all the way through to the end.

Our problem is not that we have failed some arbitrary moral test which God had set for us (Wright refers to this way of looking at things as the “works contract”).  Our problem is that we were created by God for a specific vocation–to be his representatives on earth and to extend his kingdom throughout the world.  Through Adam and Eve’s sin, we have rejected that vocation and become enslaved to the powers of the world–things like money, sex, and power–things which we were intended to rule over.  Consequently, God’s design for creation is not going forward as intended.

Genesis begins in the Garden of Eden (which ancient readers would recognize as a sacred garden, part of any ancient temple), where heaven and earth intersected freely.  Adam and Eve deserted their vocation and quickly became enslaved to the powers of this world.  The next few chapters describe the rapid unraveling of God’s design for humanity, all the way up to the tower of Babel.

But God is not content to leave humanity to its sad fate.  Instead he launches a rescue mission by calling Abraham and building him up into a great nation, which we know as Israel.  This process continues as God calls Israel out of Egypt, builds a tabernacle in the desert, and leads Israel into the Promised Land.  Through fits and starts the people of Israel grow up into a great nation, the wilderness tabernacle evolves into a full-on temple in Jerusalem, and a connection between heaven and earth, albeit a fragile one, is reestablished.

Israel was God’s rescue mission for humanity.  But along the way, the ambulance veered off the road and went over a cliff.  The nation devolves over the course of its history and ultimately runs smack into the wall of Babylonian exile and never recovers.  Though the Jews returned from Babylon and even rebuilt the temple, they were under no illusions that things were as they had been before.  Politically, the nation would not catch even a whiff of independence during this time period.  Spiritually, they were haunted by the notion that the glory of God which departed the temple prior to the Babylonian exile (that’s what that crazy thing with the whirling wheels at the beginning of Ezekiel is about) had not returned and would not return until a way could be found to deal with the sin of Israel–their idolatry, their rejection of their God-given vocation and consequent enslavement to the powers of the world.

Jesus’s teaching and healing ministry unfolded against the backdrop of this story.  Everything he did was a sign that the kingdom of God had come to earth.  It all came to a head during Passover week.  Jesus’s cleansing of the temple was more than a rebuke of the religious-commercial establishment of that time, it was a message that the marriage of heaven and earth and the forgiveness of sins were no longer happening in the temple but in a life-and-death drama that would soon culminate in his own death and resurrection.  One greater than the temple–the one to whom the very temple itself pointed–was here.  Through the resurrection, God placed his stamp of approval upon Jesus and upon the narrative of which he was a part.  Through Jesus, his resurrection, and the events surrounding the birth of the Church, the curse of Babylonian exile is broken, the long-departed glory of God has returned, and all that the prophets promised has come to pass.  Thus what we call the Old and New Testaments fit together into a single, seamless narrative.

The cross was the beginning of a revolution.  As Wright would say, the world was a different place on the evening of Good Friday than it was in the morning.  What exactly does that mean?  How did the first disciples and the early church come to understand the events surrounding Jesus’s death in this way?  And what does that mean for us?  We shall look at these and other questions in the weeks to come.