Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Who Is Jesus Christ For Us Today? A Sermon

It seems that I do not know what I think until I deliver a sermon. And afterwards I wonder, "Is that really what I think?" But of course the hope is that I am not merely giving a collection of my thoughts (there are enough preachers in the world doing just that), but a faithful exposition of Scripture. Nevertheless, it is an exposition which I take full responsibility for, though I maintain the right to disagree with what I've said!

This was my last sermon in my home church before I left Galway for Aberdeen. The passage is Mark 9:30-37.

“Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”

This was a question asked by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1944, from a prison cell in Nazi Germany. It is a question which Christians down through the ages have asked. It is also a question which has been and continues to be asked outside of the church. Jesus has proved to be a person of interest not only to His own, but to all of humanity across time and space. And so we have ended up with many competing answers to this question, which is to say, many competing Jesuses: Jesus the communist, Jesus the capitalist, Jesus the Buddhist monk, Jesus the white, middle-class Christian, Jesus the warlord, Jesus the pacifist, Jesus the Jew, Jesus the Aryan.

Bonhoeffer’s question regarding the identity of Jesus actually receives its first formulation from the mouth of Jesus Himself. “Who do people say that I am?” He asks His disciples. He follows this up with a more personal question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asks this question of all his followers, not only then and there but here and now. “Who do you say that I am?” There is no more urgent question which we can be asked today. And what makes us the church is that we have been and continue to be taught how to answer it. We are not the church because we are more moral than everyone else – history bears witness to the church’s painfully mixed record when it comes to morality. Rather, first and foremost, we are the church because we know who Jesus is.

Yet the answer which we have given in the past to Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?” cannot be repeated unthinkingly. No doubt that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, but it is precisely his eternal and constant nature which makes our very human knowledge of him so open to distortion. If we learn nothing else from the New Testament we learn that Jesus is just as capable of surprising the church as He is the world, and if we learn nothing else from history we learn that the church is just as capable of bearing false witness to Jesus as is the world.

And so we read and hear this gospel story from Mark this morning not merely to confirm what we already know about Jesus, but to encounter Him again for the first time. We come to this text asking once more: who is Jesus Christ for us today?

Mark, in what should have perhaps come with a spoiler warning, tells us in the first verse of the first chapter of his Gospel who Jesus is: He is the Son of God. Mark might just have left it there. I remember asking Arden Autry – a New Testament scholar who used to teach here in Galway – what is the most important thing we learn in the New Testament. Without thinking twice he said: that Jesus is the Son of God. It could be argued, then, that Mark tells us everything we need to know in his gospel’s first sentence.

However, Mark does not end his Gospel at verse 1. Rather, it turns out that Mark’s spoiler in verse one is a trick of sorts. His statement that Jesus is the Son of God conjures up expectations of power, of royalty, of wealth, of prestige, of invincibility, of leadership. In the Roman world into which Jesus was born the Son of God title referred to the Roman Emperor Augustus. And as Son of God Caesar Augustus was the bearer of divine sovereignty on earth, ruling with an iron fist. Mark’s readers may expect Jesus to be a new Caesar when they read that He is the Son of God. As they read on, however, their expectations begin to be called into question by the reality.

In Jesus we meet not only the Son of God but also the Son of Man. This, indeed, is Jesus’s favourite way of designating Himself. We have heard this title Son of Man in our passage this morning. In Mark 9 verse 31 Jesus takes His disciples aside and tells them that the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and that these human hands will kill Him.

This statement is so irrational and upsetting that when Peter first hears it in Mark chapter 8 he actually takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him! In Peter’s mind Jesus is clearly mistaken about what His identity entails. But Jesus is not the kind of Messiah that Peter thought He had to be, and He is not the kind of God that we think He has to be. For who could imagine a God who would be betrayed and killed at the hands of human beings? What kind of God would allow Himself to be so humiliated? What kind of people would even want to worship such an impotent God?

Yet this is precisely the God revealed in Jesus. This is the God who makes Himself nothing. This is the God who becomes flesh, flesh which withers like the grass, flesh which suffers and dies. Mark tells us that the disciples didn’t understand any of this, and that they were afraid to ask Jesus what He meant. We can perhaps empathise with their confusion. Who can understand how the omnipotent God becomes captive to human power? How the God who cannot suffer endures immeasurable suffering? These are great mysteries which the church still struggles to answer.
But there is one thing which the church has always and must always proclaim: that Christ became captive and suffered for us. 

Judas’s delivering of Jesus into the hands of men in exchange for money is the definitive act of human sin. It symbolises Israel’s and the church’s infidelity to her husband. Judas gives the authorities Jesus, and they give Judas 30 pieces of silver. As many Christians have since discovered, Jesus can be sold for a tidy profit. Judas, we must remember, was a disciple, one of the twelve. He had heard Jesus teach and witnessed Him perform miracles. He had even been sent to do ministry in Jesus’s name. In short, he was no less a disciple than any of the other eleven. He was called by Jesus, and he was obedient to the call. He was, it must be said, a friend of Jesus. After all, it is only a friend who is capable of betrayal.

Yet before and above Judas’s human act of betrayal is a divine act. It is true that Judas handed Jesus over to sinful humanity. But it is even truer that Jesus handed himself over to these same sinful humans. What Judas meant for evil, however, God meant for good.

God’s powerlessness – if I can use such a phrase – was in this very moment of weakness and vulnerability shown to be stronger than any human power. The human act of subduing Jesus, of making him a religious and political prisoner, of putting Him to death, was in its full truth an act willed by God out of His freedom and love, an act through which God brought about liberation to captives and forgiveness to sinners.

And so Jesus can say that the Son of Man must suffer because He has freely and graciously chosen this way to save us. And this choice itself reveals the character of God. God chose not to overwhelm us into submission with a dramatic display of power. Nor did God choose simply to destroy us, as one might expect an all-powerful ruler to deal with his enemies. In the death of Christ God’s omnipotence is revealed to be not the brute power to subdue or destroy but the power to embrace at all costs. Paul calls this the power of the cross. It is the weakness of God which is stronger than human strength. It is the foolishness of God which is wiser than human wisdom. It is the faithfulness of God which overcomes human infidelity.

And so at the end of Mark’s gospel, as Jesus hangs from the cross, seemingly forsaken by God, the perhaps sarcastic remark of a Roman centurion reveals the deep truth of Mark’s Gospel: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” This man, and not Caesar. This man, the carpenter. This man, the Jewish prophet. This man, a condemned and defeated rebel.  This is why Paul, writing to the Galatians, can describe Christ as “the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Or as others translate it, “the Son of God who loved me by giving Himself for me.” He is the Son of God precisely in His giving of Himself for us.

But the Gospel is not a tragedy. It is, in fact, a divine comedy. Jesus predicts in Mark 9 that He will rise from the dead. His gift of Himself to us was not in vain. This is the proclamation of the early church: you killed Him but God raised Him from the dead. God saw to it that His servant would not see corruption. But this servant did not come to serve Himself. This one who gave Himself for us even to His own death was also raised to life for us. The cross and resurrection of Christ therefore mark the beginning of a new history for humanity. As in Adam all die so in Christ all shall be made alive. The old order of sin and death has been ruptured. It continues to have a present, but it has no future. The time has been fulfilled, the kingdom of God – a kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit - has broken in to all our human kingdoms. God will be all in all. The resurrection is the first fruits of all of this, and we meet here each Sunday in anticipation of its fulfilment.

Now resurrection in and of itself is not good news. For example, if I stood here this morning and told you that just last night the resurrected body of Adolf Hitler was seen walking around the streets of Berlin, there would most likely be panic and dread among us. This would be terrible news. But when we learn who Jesus is, when we see His compassion and mercy, his love and justice, his faithfulness and holiness, his judgment and grace, his being always for us even when we are against Him, his resurrection is good news indeed, for it is a vindication of everything that He is and does.
For this reason the gospel is not the good news about eternal life, or salvation, or moral improvement, or church community. It is, first and last, the good news of Jesus Christ. He Himself is the content of the Gospel.

But what does it mean to know Him? What does it look like to give an answer to the question: who is Jesus Christ for us today? The next part of our passage in Mark gestures toward an answer.
The disciples and Jesus head back to their base in Capernaum, and Jesus asks the twelve, “What were you arguing about on the way?” The disciples remain silent, embarrassed by the content of their argument. As someone who studies theology this little snippet from the Gospels unnerves me. I can imagine Jesus gathering all the theologians together in the age to come and asking us: “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” The church’s theologians are suddenly silenced. The arguments about infant baptism and paedobaptism seem trivial now. The arguments about what actually happens around the communion table lose all their meaning when one is confronted by the risen Christ Himself. The arguments about whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son seem like needless hairsplitting. That is not to say that theological arguments are not worth having. They can and must be had, and other arguments can and must be had also. But the first duty of the church is not to speak; it is to listen.

In the story of Jesus’s transfiguration which comes at the beginning of Mark 9, we hear Peter speaking even though he didn’t know what to say. He says to Jesus: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” The response of God the Father to Peter is emphatic. But it is not only directed at Peter, but at all those who would be disciples: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” We are faithful disciples of Christ to the extent that we listen to Him, and pattern our speech in accordance with His word of grace and truth.
But as we learn throughout Mark’s Gospel, disciples of Jesus are in the habit of getting things badly wrong. In this case, after hearing about the Son of Man’s humiliation at the hands of man, the disciples proceed to argue about which of them is the greatest. They had turned following Jesus into a rat race, a competition for power and prestige. In other words, they had completely misunderstood who Jesus is and what it means to be a part of His community. 

Much like Peter, we may be able to confess the right things about Jesus, we may be able to proclaim Him as the Son of God, but our lives can so easily betray our confession.
The extreme but instructive example of this is the Christian crusaders of the West. As they fought Muslim armies during the middle ages, the crusaders would shout “Christus est Dominus”, “Jesus is Lord” as they cleaved the skull of one of their enemies. While the sentence “Jesus is Lord” is eternally true, we can see in this instance a failure to understand the true nature of Christ’s lordship. Their violent, merciless actions bear false witness to Christ.

To know Jesus as the Son of God, to know Jesus as Lord, is to know Him as the Servant. And to know Him as the Servant is to know ourselves as fellow servants. Not conquerors, not oppressors, not leaders, not those with their hands on the handles of power, but servants. Jesus makes this clear in Mark 9:35: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus had said something to this effect in Mark 8: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Indeed, each time Jesus predicts His suffering and death in Mark 8, 9, and 10, this prediction is accompanied by a teaching on what it means to live as His disciple. 

We can only know Jesus as the Son of God when we stand at the foot of the cross and see Him as the One who was crucified for us, and not only for us but for all. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. 

When we have been taught to see in the death of Christ the event of the world’s reconciliation to God, however, we do not then remain detached from Him, as if we can observe Him and follow Him from a distance. Rather, we are summoned by Him to participate in His mission which is ongoing; we are called and empowered by the Spirit to be witnesses and ministers of this cosmic reconciliation. We bear witness with our words and also with our deeds, embodying a life together that is shaped by the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. What does this life look like?

In order to demonstrate it, Jesus calls over one of the children that had been playing in the house and puts the child among the disciples. Jesus then takes the child into his arms and says one of the most remarkable things in all the Bible: "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me."

In order to understand the full force of this statement, let me read out to you a comment on this passage by Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel:

“In a Greco-Roman milieu, children were the least-valued members of society; they were considered not yet fully human. According to the institution of patria potestas, children had no legal rights. A father had the right brutally to punish, sell, pawn, expose, and even kill his own child. Newborns could be exposed—abandoned in a public place—where they would generally either die or be picked up by strangers and raised for profit as slaves, prostitutes, or beggars.”

The child which Jesus takes into his arms does not symbolise cuteness or cuddliness, but absolute vulnerability and weakness. Moreover, taking a child into one’s arms is a stereotypically feminine act. By doing so Jesus was confounding his male audience. He was showing them a way of discipleship which was best modelled by the nurturers and carers in the community. In other words, he was saying that his most faithful followers were in fact women. The Gospels demonstrate the undeniable truth of this. It is women who supported the work of Jesus financially. It is women who stayed with Jesus to the end, while all the men fled in fear. It is women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection, and the first preachers of the gospel. The church has of course mostly tried to suppress all of this, but Jesus gives women and children a dignity and prestige which runs against the grain of earthly kingdoms but which manifestly runs with the grain of his own kingdom. The stereotypically masculine forms of leadership and service are completely subverted. The welcome of a child becomes the standard by which disciples of Jesus are measured.

Yet Jesus says even more regarding the status of children. I asked at the beginning, who is Jesus Christ for us today? In Matthew 9:37 Jesus hints at one answer: whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Jesus identifies himself with this vulnerable, helpless kid. This is not the only place Jesus makes such an identification. When the risen Christ confronts Saul on the road to Damascus he asks him, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul of course did not know that that’s what he was doing, and we also do not really know that that’s what we’re doing when we either do harm to another or care for another. But Jesus is unequivocal in his insistence that that is what is happening, whether we know it or not. In our daily interactions with our neighbours we are acting for or against Him.
The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 makes this even clearer. There Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger. When did we see you as any of these?, they ask. And Jesus replies: whatever you did or did not do to the least of all my brothers and sisters, you did or did not do it to me.

Who is Jesus Christ for us today? We need not look very far in order to find out. He is among us in veiled form as those we are in the habit of ignoring, as those who we think do not merit a welcome, as those whose needs impinge on our precious time and energy. As we cannot love God without loving our neighbour, neither can we know Christ without knowing these ones. 
Yet it is not only others who display Christ, but we ourselves are also identified with Him. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins tells of this truth beautifully in As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Let me read the final six lines:

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Who is Jesus Christ for us today? Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christ “the man for others”. We here today are a tiny portion of these others who Christ is for, and in whom Christ wills to be formed. He is for us not as a distant, abstract idea or concept, but as the One who dwells among us, if we would only have eyes to see and ears to hear. He will not be who He is apart from us, and we cannot be who we truly are apart from Him. He will not be the Son of God without His brothers and sisters, who are collectively called His body, the physical manifestation of His presence in the world and for the world. This identification is not our own working but a gift of God made actual by the Spirit of God. Christ’s being for us can neither be earned nor grasped but only received in faith as a truth which we have no control over, a truth which is true even when we are false to it. Our faithlessness does not nullify the faithfulness of God. He will be who He is: the God who loved us and gave His only Son for us. And so we can say with Paul:

“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

We as the church are witnesses to this Son of God. And as Christ is for us we are called to be for him. And if we are called to be for Him we are called to be for others. The life we now live in the flesh is a life of openness and attentiveness to those for whom Christ died and rose again. As we live such a life we may be surprised by where we encounter the presence of Christ.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Sermon

Here is the text of a sermon I preached in my home church this past Sunday. The passage for the morning was Ephesians 2:11-22.

Everyone from politicians to beauty pageant contestants claims to desire peace. We may rightly question the sincerity of these claims – if not those of the beauty pageant contestants then certainly those of the politicians – but peace itself is at face value considered to be a universal good, an ideal toward which we are to strive. How to get there and what it might look like when we arrive are hotly contested questions, however; questions which have received different answers across time.

The answers which one gives to these questions – how do we achieve peace and what does genuine peace look like – depend on one’s diagnosis of the problem. One story told today is that scarcity and lack are the problem. If the world can manage to eradicate these through technological and economic progress this will bring about the end of poverty and the satisfaction of all our desires. We in the West are championed as heralds of this peace. We are the so-called cradle of civilisation, the developed world, the first world, even the founders of New Worlds. All our leaders preach this Gospel of Progress, the freedom of men and women to be and do whatever they want provided they do no harm to their neighbour.

This all sounds rather commendable and honourable. One small detail is left out of this optimistic narrative, however: our relentless and remorseless violence and division. Under the powers and principalities of this world the progress towards peace is a competition, and in every competition there are winners and losers. The cost of technological and economic progress is the lives of millions of slaves, of indigenous peoples who resisted colonisation and Christianity, of those who quite literally can’t or don’t buy into this notion of freedom and peace, those who end up on the wrong side of the tracks, which is to say the wrong side of history.

This, as I said, is one contemporary story of peace. Those of us familiar with the biblical story will not be surprised by the self-deception and violence it contains, nor will we be surprised by the wilful falsifications or omissions in the dominant telling of the narrative. Seen from one angle, the Old Testament can be read as a history of violence. In the opening chapters of Genesis we are offered a picture of paradise, yet almost immediately it all goes wrong. But whereas the Modern Man will tell you that the problem with humanity is an ignorance which leads to regression and recession, Scripture offers a different diagnosis: the sin of pride. This is the quest of humanity to become God, which stems from a refusal to be under his gracious command. And with this prideful refusal comes violence.

In Genesis 4 the first murder is committed, a tragic instance of brother killing brother. The blood of Abel, like the blood of countless other victims throughout the ages, cries up to God from the ground. From this point on humanity is characterised by a willingness both to glorify itself and to destroy itself. Our fate within this vicious circle appears to be sealed.

But God calls the idol-worshipper Abram away from his family to a new land, and promises to bless all the families of the earth through this one family. God promises peace in the face of overwhelming violence. It is an impossible promise, one which is reiterated again and again throughout the Old Testament. Yet it is a promise which never quite comes to fruition. Why not?

The chosen people of God, what Paul in Ephesians calls “the community of Israel,” are no different to the people around them. The same pride and the same violence is to be found within their ranks. Even one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, King David, was forbidden from building the temple because he was a man of war. Indeed David’s last act on earth was to give his son Solomon a hit list, imploring his son and successor to kill his father’s enemies. And Solomon himself, the king of Israel during its most peaceful and prosperous period as a nation, maintained this peace and prosperity at least in part through a harsh policy of forced labour. When this policy is mentioned in 1 Kings 9, our imaginations are being sent back to the opening chapters of Exodus, with Solomon cast in the role of Pharaoh.

And yet…these people of God are different. They are the people of the covenant, whose sign is circumcision and law and Sabbath. For Jews this was all the difference in the world. They were and are, after all, God’s people, chosen by him from among all the other people of the earth, related to him as a son to a father, called to be a royal priesthood. No other nation could boast such credentials.
For Gentiles, too, the Jews were different. They were a peculiar race with peculiar habits and morals, a people who worshipped a peculiar God. We cannot appreciate the force of our passage in Ephesians if we do not first appreciate the radical difference between Jew and Gentile. Yet we must distinguish between the actual difference and the perceived difference. By that I mean the true difference and the false difference.

God’s calling of Abraham seemed to divide humanity in two. On the one hand the chosen, on the other the reprobate, the unchosen. On the one hand the holy, on the other hand the unholy. On the one hand the friends of God, on the other his enemies. On the one hand the blessed, on the other the cursed.

But was and is humanity as neatly divided as this? Was God’s choice of Israel really his rejection of all those outside of Israel? What about our own categories into which we like to divide people? I don’t have to list them now, but we can run through these divisions in our own minds. What comes of these divisions when they are exposed to the light of the Gospel?

What Ephesians teaches us is that the Gospel explodes these divisions. Or rather, it brings together what we have torn apart.

What does this mean for the Jews? Primarily, it means that the reason for the distinction of Jew from Gentile is not to be found within Jews themselves. God’s particular love for his chosen people is a sign of his love for all of humanity. “For God so loved the world” is not an empty cliché, but a startling declaration that none are excluded from God’s covenantal promises. It is precisely because Abraham and his descendants were just as tainted as everyone that they can be a sign of God’s unconditional grace, a grace given and received before circumcision, as Paul reminds us in Romans 4. And as Paul argues in Romans 9-11, God’s mercy to his chosen people was done in anticipation of his mercy to those who are unchosen. For the Jew, therefore, there can be no boasting, no pride, no animosity toward the Gentile. The message of both Old and New Testament alike is that salvation is by grace.

Yet the question remains: how can God’s promise of peace be fulfilled? How can the Jews complete their vocation to be a blessing to the nations? Here we can only affirm what Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians: In Christ all the promises of God are Yes and Amen.
In Ephesians, Paul says that Christ is our peace. To the two questions I posed at the beginning – how is peace to be achieved and what does it look like? – we receive one answer: Jesus Christ. Christ is our peace with God. Christ is our peace with our neighbours. Christ is our peace even with our enemies. To understand how Christ is our peace we must follow Paul’s lead in Ephesians and speak of Christ crucified.

Crucifixion, for the Romans, was an instrument of the Roman peace. It was the threat which awaited those who rebelled against the established order, and a sign to onlookers of what would befall them if they too stepped out of line. Seen from the Roman perspective, then, the execution of Jesus was a sacrifice offered by the Romans to their gods as a way of keeping the peace of the city. Jesus was perceived to be a threat to the empire, a threat to a very worldly form of peace whose basis was fear.
The Romans, it turns out, were right: Jesus was and is a threat to this peace. When Paul writes in Ephesians 2:17 that Jesus came and proclaimed the good news of peace, this proclamation had a two-fold purpose. The first purpose was to cut through the false notions of peace to which we attach ourselves. Christ calls into question our own versions of the Roman peace, our desire to live and act as if Jesus is not the Lord he claims to be and was proved to be by virtue of his resurrection. In this sense, then, Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword.

Yet even this sword which Christ brings is good news. It is good news first of all to the victims of false peace, the ones whose sufferings are the price of comfort and security for others. Yet it is good news also for the perpetrators, for Christ chose to fall on his own sword, so to speak. Even when we say No to Him he has already said a Yes to us which echoes throughout eternity. Even in our following after other gods He continues to pursue us. Even in our capitulation to the Roman peace He is and always will be the one who has overcome the powers and principalities on our behalf, and who invites us to participate in his triumph.

This overcoming, as Paul writes in Ephesians, is the achievement of the cross of Christ. Our hatred of God and our neighbour is forgiven at Calvary. Our hostility, past, present, and future, is put to death. Our captivity to that which opposes God is broken by an act of love which liberates us to love God and neighbour. As I said earlier, seen from the perspective of the Romans the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth was a way of maintaining the peace of the city. Christ was a sacrificial victim offered by the people for their own safety. Lest we think this a barbaric practice we moderns have left behind, we should remember that this practice continues in our own day, as the powerful rulers of our age send their poor citizens away to die or kill on behalf of the nation’s interests.

Seen from a divine perspective, however, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth represents an entirely different kind of sacrifice which achieves an entirely different kind of peace. It is a sacrifice of self-giving love, a pouring out of himself not for the sake of maintaining the status quo but as a revolutionary act whose goal is the reconciliation of enemies and the establishment of a new kind of kingdom which usurps the old.  Theologian Karl Barth – I am contractually obliged to quote him at least once every time I speak – is therefore apt to call the event of the cross a “coup d’état,” a change of power within the world.

This brings us to the second purpose of Christ’s proclamation of peace. Not only does it expose and defeat false notions of peace. It also invites us and empowers us to share in true peace, however partially and provisionally. This is symbolised in Matthew’s Gospel by the tearing of the veil in the temple. It is symbolised in Ephesians by the language of twoness and oneness.

Previously humanity was divided in two, Jew and Gentile. The achievement of the cross is to create one new human out of these two. Former identities are reconfigured as the walls which we have built up between each other are broken down. Few embody this new creation more than Paul himself. We read in Philippians how he has laid aside his former identity as a law-abiding Jew; indeed he tells us in rather explicit language that he counts his former identity markers as refuse, as dung, as crap. And in First Corinthians he tells us that he has become all things to all people, to the weak he became weak, to the Jews a Jew, to the Gentiles a Gentile. Paul didn’t transcend these identities because of an identity complex, nor was he sneakily pretending to be like his audience as a missionary tactic. Rather, Paul was embodying the truth that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. He was enacting the very salvation to which Christ had invited him.

And as we are taught in Ephesians 2:8, this is a salvation that has its beginning and end in grace. What, then, is the relationship between peace and grace? The first thing, and perhaps the only thing, we can say is that grace comes before peace, and peace necessarily follows grace. The two go hand in hand in this order, as they do at the very beginning of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We cannot have peace with God without the grace of God. Our friendship with God is only possible because of His grace. Paul ends chapter 2 of Ephesians by talking about all the things that the church and its members are: citizens and holy ones, those who belong to God’s family, a holy sanctuary, a place in which God indwells by his Spirit. We are these only by grace, which is to say, we are these things insofar as we are in Christ. For it is Christ who is first of all the true citizen of the kingdom, the holy one, the one who belongs to the family of God as the Son of God, the holy sanctuary in whom the fullness of God dwells. And by the grace of God what is true of Christ becomes true of us; or at least is becoming true of us as we continue to grow together in Christ though the power of the Spirit.

And not only is this grace the cornerstone of our friendship with God. It also makes possible our friendship with our neighbours. No longer do we have to see those around us as competitors, as rivals for the scare goods which we long to possess and which end up possessing us. Nor must we see our neighbours as irredeemable, as beyond the pale. Christ is not only my Lord or our Lord; He is the head over all things, the firstborn of all creation, the one in whom and through whom and for whom all things have been created. And the Fatherhood of God is not a narrow idea, but it reaches out to all the families of the earth.

This brings us to one of the central tensions of the New Testament: the desire of some to restrict the grace of God to a select group of holy persons, and the desire of Christ and his followers to see the grace of God gather up all things on heaven and on earth into a cosmic peace.

Nevertheless, the New Testament is not reluctant to highlight the failings of Christ’s followers on exactly this point. Think of Peter. His record in the Gospels is a mix of triumph and tragedy. It is tempting to conclude that by the time of Pentecost he finally cleaned up his act. We read in the book of Acts of his powerful preaching, his acts of healing, and his courageous leadership within the church. We also read a story of his encounter with a Gentile, Cornelius. Peter, we must remember, was a Jew, and as a Jew he held to certain dietary laws. How disturbing and confusing for him, then, when God tells him in a vision that the food which Peter had previously called unclean (on the basis of the very law of God!) has now been declared clean by God. Likewise, then, the Gentiles who previously were excluded from the covenant have now been included. The salvation of Cornelius was not a hoax. Peter could have fellowship with this Gentile; he could eat a meal with him as a brother. This is truly radical stuff, an example of the oneness of which Ephesians speaks.

Yet this was too radical, in fact, for Peter himself. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he recounts another incident involving Peter and Gentiles which occurred some time after Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. As Paul tells it, when Peter came to Antioch he was able to enjoy peaceful meals together with Gentiles. But all this changed when a group of Jews rode into town who had been sent by James. Fearing their reproach, Peter distanced himself from the Gentiles he had been eating with and slipped back into the circle of his own kind. Barnabas followed suit. This may sound like mere canteen politics, the kind of seemingly petty thing that happens in schoolyards or workplaces or college campuses or church events. And that is precisely what it is. Yet Paul calls this behaviour an assault on the truth of the gospel. The gospel, it so happens, has everything to do with meal time. Our peace with God and neighbour is embodied in our fellowship around a table. The table of communion, first of all, but following this the dinner table in our homes.

We cannot read about the life of Jesus in the Gospels, after all, without remarking just how often he spent his time eating with people. And not just with his circle of friends and family, but with Pharisees, prostitutes, and everyone in between. And how often does he picture salvation as a banquet, a meal to which the most unlikely people are invited? It will strike some of you here as good news indeed, then, when I say that eating dinner is central to our salvation. A meal together can be an outworking of God’s grace and peace.

This, then, is the peace which Christ proclaimed to all he encountered, those who were far off and those who were near. In fact, it was often the case that those who appeared most far off –tax collectors, prostitutes, the poor, Samaritans, Gentiles, women – were in fact the most near, whereas the so-called near – the wealthy, the biblical scholars and theologians, political and religious leaders, men - were actually the farthest away. It would be a mistake to think that the same is not true today. We are reminded in Ephesians that we who were once far from Christ have been brought near. Yet how often throughout history and even today can the Church be so far from the peace of Christ? How often is the faith which Christ seeks to be found in the most unlikely places? In light of this we must always remain humble.

Humility, indeed, is a defining mark of Christ’s peace. Without humility peace is impossible. We can recognise the truth of this from the human side, since so much of our conflicts are caused by pride. Yet this is also true from the divine side. St Augustine said that we do not understand God until we understand that He is humble. Christ’s proclamation of peace was therefore at the same time a proclamation of his own humility, and therefore the humility of God. Right after He invites us to come to Him to find rest, he says “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest.” Peace can only be enjoyed by the humble, just as grace and only be enjoyed by the humble. And we learn humility from Christ. This is another reason why the cross of Christ achieves peace: in the cross of Christ we see manifested the humility of God and thus the form which peace takes in the world. As Paul declares in Philippians 2:

“though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

What could be more humiliating than for the Creator of the world to allow himself to be tortured and hung as a man on a Roman cross? What a strange God we Christians worship. What a strange saviour we follow. We must never lose sight of this strangeness. The humility of God must forever keep us humble. In this way and only in this way can we be what Paul urges us to be in Ephesians 5: “imitators of God.”

The fall was the destruction of the original peace between God and humanity, and consequently between one human and another. There have been many attempts on the side of humanity to restore this peace, but more often than not these attempts end in the increasing of bloodshed and further division. How many men, women, and children have been killed in the name of peace? How many lives have been sacrificed? There is one sacrifice, however, which has achieved what humanity by itself could not achieve. The broken body and the shed blood of Christ which was poured out for all has reconciled God with humanity and humans with each other. The Church is the community which recognises the truth of this strange peace, and which witnesses to the truth of this peace in word and deed. It is the community which gathers around the Lord’s table to receive the peace of Christ, and which gathers around the dinner table to give this peace to others. Around these tables there is no cause for boasting, for pride, for pretence, for we remember that everything we are and have has been received as a gift, and in so remembering we thank God for his grace and peace, and we give freely of what he has given us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Deadwood: A Recommendation

He wants me to tell him something pretty. 
- Al Swearengen

I read somewhere that if The Wire is there to tell us why institutions fail, Deadwood is there to tell us why they spring up in the first place.

For those unfamiliar with this almost ten year-old show, Deadwood is a Western of sorts, set in the Dakota territory in the 1870s. It follows the life of a nascent camp bereft of law and order, and shows how the chaos of lawlessness gradually morphs into what we proudly call "civilization."

If all this sounds too abstract then fear not, because Deadwood tells the above story by paying painstakingly close attention to the characters which make up the town (many of whom are historical persons). Indeed, so close is the attention paid to characterisation that it's often difficult to know what exactly is happening in any given episode. That may sound like a problem but it it's not, because Deadwood is defined not by what it is about but who it is about.

The writers of the show introduce us to lawmen, politicians, saloon owners, prostitutes, gamblers, drunks, actors, prospectors, capitalists, teachers, all of whom fit together as part of some strange machine called a town. And though it is rarely (if ever?) seen, the character which lurks in the background of this drama is gold, with all its promise and its potency. Gold makes all this possible, yet we are left asking ourselves if the price is worth paying.

Which brings me back to the quote at the top of this post. A sacrificial murder has just taken place to appease the wrath of the venture capitalist. One of Swearengen's employees wants to be reassured that the murder was done humanely. In one of the many Shakespearian soliloquies featured during the shows three-year run, Ian McShane's utterly captivating Al Swearengen says to himself, as he wipes the fresh blood from his office floor, "He wants me to tell him something pretty."

With this line Deadwood exposes our desire for a lie instead of the truth. We want to think our civilization is built on the back of hard work and creativity and honest dealings, and we would like for a show like Deadwood to convey as much. We want the writers to tell us something pretty about how all this came to be. But the blood on the floor from a sacrificial victim speaks a truth we would rather not hear. The history of which we are a part is violent, unmerciful, greedy, though it is by no means entirely without virtue, as Deadwood  attests (particularly in the form of the town doctor).

Deadwood is slow going, and filled to the brim with record-breaking vulgarity. This is another way of saying that it will not be to everyone's taste. But if you appreciate intricate characterisation, thoughtful dialogue, and anti-capitalist sentiments then Deadwood may just be the perfect show for you.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Open Veins

In 2009 the late president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, presented president of the U.S. Barack Obama with a copy of Eduardo Galeano's The Open Veins of Latin America. There is a picture of this event on my own copy of the book, which I bought on account of my own personal encounter with a Venezuelan national.

Chavez's gesture was more subversive than charitable, a kind of cynical joke made at the expense of the new American president. How so? Because Galeano's book is a lyrical and prophetic account of U.S. political and economic relations with Latin America. More specifically, it chronicles the repeated exploitation which North America (and Europe) has engaged in for centuries throughout the continent of South America, with the regions natural resources being greedily pillaged for the sake of Western progress and at the cost of human and non-human life.

Whatever you think of Chavez, you have to admire his cojones. Chavez has been dead a couple of years now. Galeano died today.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Sympathy for the Devil

I've been reading quite a bit of early church history of late, particularly that history which surrounds Marcion. For those unfamiliar with him, sources tell us he was a Christian who made considerable money in the shipping industry (he lived on the coast of the Black Sea), and decided to give that up for some kind of career in missions. He moved to Rome and made a sizeable donation to the church there, before gaining an audience with some of the church leaders, during which he shared his opinions on matters theological.

Here is where it all went wrong for Marcion. His opinions (a word which comes close to the meaning of "heresy") were not well received. His donation was returned to him, and he left the church in Rome in order to forge his own path; indeed, his own church. From what we can gather, the Marcionite church was a serious rival to the proto-orthodox Church, and there is evidence to suggest it lasted right up until the tenth century.

I must confess, I have sympathy for Marcion. I have done for quite some time. That is not to say I agree with his opinions, or with his methods. Marcion was convinced that the Old Testament God was different to the God revealed by Jesus. The Old Testament God, so his story went, was a God of pure righteousness. He was not an evil God. He was simply legalistic to a fault. The Father to whom Jesus referred, however, was a God of love, of forgiveness, of peace. He was the unknown God who suddenly became known through the Christian gospel. For Marcion, then, the Old Testament was not a foreshadowing of Christ but the antithesis to Christ.

In fact, Marcion's major work (which is lost to us) was titled Antithesis. In it he contrasted the Old with the New. For example, in the Old, the sun is stopped so that Joshua could slay his enemies; in the New, Christ tells us not to let the sun go down on our anger. And, in the Old, the prophet Moses stretches out his hand so that many will be killed in war; in the New, the prophet Christ's hands are stretched out on the cross so that many will be saved.

As I said, the church rejected Marcion's notion of there being two Gods, and continued to believe that the Scriptures of the Jews belonged also to Christianity; in many cases, in fact, that the Scriptures of the Jews belonged exclusively to Christianity, since by their rejection of Jesus as Messiah the Jews forfeited their claim on the Scriptures.

There were (and are) good reasons for the Church to affirm the continuity between Old and New. Marcion could only avoid these reasons by writing off three of our four gospels as corrupt and heavily editing the gospel of Luke, ridding it of what he deemed Jewish interpolations. Along with Luke's gospel Marcion included ten of Paul's letters in his canon of Scripture. For Marcion, Paul was the only faithful apostle, since the apostle to the Gentiles was the only one who discerned the radical newness of Christianity, a newness which made a clean break with the past.

Marcion, it should be noted, was not necessarily anti-Semitic; or, at least, he was no more anti-Semitic than his orthodox opponents, and perhaps a good deal less. His issue was that he was unable to reconcile the gospel of Christ with the Old Testament. As the title of his work indicates, he could only see contradiction between the two. Here is where my sympathies with Marcion lie. I think the Old Testament is far more a problem for Christians than is generally acknowledged. One only has to go through the lectionary and notice what is not included in order to discover the unacknowledged problems that the Old Testament throws up for the Church. Our canon includes the Old Testament (though even here, this is no agreement regarding the books which comprise the OT), but I do not think we use it as a measure. Rather, our use of the Old Testament reveals that something else is measuring the Old Testament, something which dictates that certain portions of it are ignored. At this point the Church is more or less Marcionite in its practice, without fully subscribing to all that Marcion believed.

There is a good reason why the Church has adopted a subtle form of Marcion's techniques. Marcion, like most interpreters today, found no use for allegory. He read the Old Testament at face value, and in much of it he could find nothing of edification. One of the reasons the early Church was able to adopt the Old Testament as its Scripture was precisely because the Church's interpreters had the method of allegory in their hermeneutical arsenal. The early Church was not oblivious to the problems which Marcion raised. Rather, through the method of allegory, the Church was able to find use for those passages which Marcion rejected. Nowadays, however, this option is more or less unavailable to us (though there have been recent attempts to revive allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament - for example, Douglas Earl's work on Joshua). 

I may be overstating the case, but it is not wholly unreasonable to claim that the early Church was Marcionite when the Old Testament was approached literally. Only when the text could be approached using a different sense was the Church able to avoid Marcion's ideas. But where does that leave us today, we who are the heirs of literalists?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Remembering Rightly, or The Legacy of Chavez

During his account of Hugo Chavez's presidency, journalist Rory O'Carroll describes a personal encounter of his with el comandante. The location was a coastal village, the occasion a taping of Alo Presidente, Chavez's weekly show which seemed to last about a week.

O'Carroll was permitted to ask a question of Chavez. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, his question was as pointed as it could be: Are you not concerned that you are turning into a caudillo (an old-school military dictator), given that you are changing the constitution so that the president can serve as many terms as he likes (provided he receives the majority of votes, of course)?

Unsurprisingly, Chavez did not take kindly to the question. His answer, however, was really quite brilliant. He focussed on the fact that Carroll was working for The Guardian, a British newspaper. Which is to say, he focussed on who was asking the question rather than the question itself. This, he repeatedly stated, is a question asked in ignorance: in ignorance of both European history and Latin American history.

I won't go into the nitty gritty, but Chavez's main argument was that Britain is still under a monarchy! Nobody even elects its kings and queens! Talk about your caudillismo! He went on to list all the countries in Europe where the political leader has no restrictions on terms (there are quite a few). Indeed, the prime minster of Britain is one example.

O'Carroll paints Chavez as a ranting lunatic during this episode, but when you watch the video on YouTube (with the help of an expert translator) you see that O'Carroll is being disingenuous.

One thing that struck me about the whole thing was Chavez's desire to describe an alternative history to the dominant versions found in the West. In the West we are taught that Columbus "discovered" America. Chavez scoffs at our arrogance. In the United States of America Columbus Day is celebrated, with seemingly little conciousness of the greed and violence which marked his life (made all the worse on account of the Christian faith which he professed). Even a superficial glance at the history should be enough to judge Columbus a tyrant, a hypocrite, and instigator of one of the darkest moments in European history. That he and Martin Luther King both have days named after them tells you something of the confusion which besets American society.

For all of Chavez's faults (and he had many, it seems), his version of history at least approaches the truth. Rather than celebrate Columbus Day, Venezuelans, at the behest of Chavez, celebrate Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Day of Indigenous Resistance). In 2004, a statue of Columbus which stood in Caracas was toppled. What for Europeans might be a statue symbolising our enterprising, adventurous spirit, was for the people of Latin America a symbol of oppression and tyranny.

An Irish person should be especially sympathetic which this aspect of Chavez's project. Could you imagine if we had a statue of Cromwell looking down on us in Dublin city, with our close neighbours celebrating Cromwell Day?

Friday, March 6, 2015

Theology and Evolution Part 2

Van Den Brink begins his article "Are We Special? Evolution and Human Dignity" with a brief anecdote. A few years ago he was invited to exchange letters with a creationist, with the back-and-forth correspondence published in a Christian newspaper. Many letters were sent to the editor in response to this correspondence, with the overwhelming majority of them being critical of van den Brink's side of the story. Van den Brink mentions one critic in particular, a farmer from a rural area to whom van den Brink made a personal phone call. Van den Brink found his letter-to-the-editor so harsh that he was "curious to know what was behind his rage." When van den Brink got around to asking the farmer to satisfy his curiosity, the farmer replied:

"I just don’t want to stem from the apes!"

As van den Brink correctly points out, this is far from the only concern which Christians have with evolution. The issues of biblical authority and salvation history also weigh heavily on the minds of those who cannot accept evolution, to the point where its scientific credentials become irrelevant. Yet can den Brink is also correct in claiming that the issue of human dignity is a major factor in Christian rejection of evolution, one which must be addressed by those who seek to reconcile evolution with the Christian doctrine of imago dei (image of God).

Indeed, it is the precise meaning of imago dei that occupies most of van den Brink's thought in this essay. He rejects two Christian interpretations of this concept. The first is the classical interpretation, which locates the imago dei in humans in their rational capabilities. For most Christian theologians up until quite recently, these rational capabilities signify the soul, and so it is the human soul that is primarily the image of God within us. What of the body? For Gregory of Nyssa, for example, it is the "image of the image." That is to say, it is the image of the soul, which is the image of God.

Why does van den Brink reject this interpretation of the imago dei? He rejects it first of all because it is an inadequate interpretation of the biblical text, and reflects more the philosophical climate of antiquity than anything else. Second, he cites recent studies which demonstrate the humans are not as biologically unique as we once thought. Humans do not have an exclusive claim on rationality, language, morality, or emotions. Our substantial properties therefore do not set us apart from all else in creation. To look for the image of God in our unique capabilities is for this reason to look in the wrong place, for we are far less unique in this way than we would like to think.

The second interpretation of the imago dei is a reaction to the classical interpretation. Rather than limiting the image of God to "unique" humans, this interpretation breaks the boundaries between humanity and the rest of creation by attributing the image of God to all animals. One proponent of this view, David Cunningham, says that the Bible never denies the imago dei to animals, so there is room for such an interpretation. This is especially the case, argues Cunningham, when passages such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1 are considered: creation proclaims and demonstrates the glory and power of the divine.

Van den Brink, while affirming some of what this interpretation of the imago dei has to offer, ultimately rejects it. Scripture, he claims, does in fact use the concept of imago dei was a way to distinguish human beings from other animals. That being said, he does not think that denying animals the imago dei belittles them.

Having rejected these two interpretations of the image of God, van den Brink is back to his original problem: how can we think about human beings as images of God alongside the evolutionary theory?

Rather than set aside human uniqueness, van den Brink locates it elsewhere. Since it is not found in "superficial appeals to empirical characteristics", then, where is it to be found? Van den brink uses a combination of modern biblical scholarship and systematic theology to locate the imago dei in the human's God-given functions and relationships. "Understood in this way," van den Brink claims, "the image of God is not a substantial quality, but an ethical challenge; it doesn’t lie somewhere behind us, but is rather situated ahead of us." No other animal has been given such an enormous challenge, therefore human uniqueness is located within the responsibility which has been placed on human beings by God.

The relational element in the imago dei derives from our being addressed by God and from our prayer to God. (Though van den Brink doesn't mention it here, the incarnation surely plays a crucial role in defining human uniqueness: God, after all, became a human being, not a crocodile or an elephant.)

I am left with one main question after reading van den Brink's proposal: why humans? Why were human beings given the enormous ethical challenge which he invokes? Why were human beings addressed by God and established in a covenant relationship with him? It is this "why?" which makes the classical concept of the imago dei intelligible. For the ancients, there must have been some natural property belonging to humans which made them fit for the functions and relationships which van den Brink mentions. While I remain hesitant to dispense with a couple of thousand years of Christian theological tradition, I can nevertheless see the hubris which quietly lurks behind the "why humans?" question. We want to somehow merit God's election of us as his partners. Such hubris, however, was something which Israel was explicitly warned against. Why Israel? God reminds them that it was not because of any natural properties which they possessed, but because of his love alone. I cannot help but think that the "why humans?" question receives a similar answer. Indeed van den Brink closes his argument with something to that effect:

...we do not need some other, empirically based unique-making faculty or attribute to warrant human dignity - not even, I would suggest, the faculty of having a soul which was supernaturally implanted in us by God, since who we are as human beings is not circumscribed by how we emerged. If we were only special in God’s eyes and because of our God-given tasks and relationships we would still be special, and special enough to have inviolable rights.

I am aware that this article does not address all the concerns which a Christian might have in the face of evolutionary theory. But at the very least it demonstrates Christians need not fear evolution. God uses all sorts of people and things to lead us into a more faithful understanding of his character and purposes. There is no a priori reason, therefore, that he cannot so use Darwin. 

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Theology and Evolution Part 1

During my theological studies in Belfast I was part of a "fellowship group" in the college. This was a group of about 10 or 12 people who met up every week for one hour. We took turns leading the group. You could basically do what you like, with the only stated stipulation being that it had to be either "social" or "devotional".

For one of my "devotional" slots, I decided to go for a slightly risky option and showed the group a video chat between Thomas O'Loughlin and Conor Cunningham. This wasn't a risky option because they are both from the Republic of Ireland, but because they were discussing the relationship between theology and evolution. (Or maybe it was a bit of both.)

Reactions to the video were mixed. Some thought that the two theologians gave a good account of the compatibility between "science" and "religion." Others thought that their embrace of evolutionary theory was incompatible with fundamental theological convictions derived from scripture. Others thought that the whole discussion was a bit pointless and simply kept silent.

From my own interactions with Christians, I would guess that the majority think that evolution is antithetical to the Christian account of creation. But of this majority, I would say that many have not seriously engaged with Christians who think otherwise. For the majority of the majority, that evolution is contradictory to the gospel is axiomatic, therefore there is no perceived need to delve deeper into the matter. When the topic comes up, you state your position matter-of-factly, point out that evolution is "just a theory" and that you've "never seen a monkey give birth to a human," and with that a potentially interesting conversation is killed before it can even get started.

I must confess, however, that I have not read too much on the matter. My only firm "conviction" at the moment is that evolution (like predestination) is not something which the creeds pronounce upon (though it is something which the "anti-rational, anti-science" Roman Catholic Church has addressed, and in a positive manner at that). If evolution is perceived to be incompatible with Christian theological convictions, then, this perception is an interpretation of what Christian theology does and does not permit one to think; in other words, it is not a first principle, and ought not to be treated as such.

With this conviction in place, then, I will discuss in another post a recent article by Gijsbert van den Brink titled "Are We Still Special? Evolution and Human Dignity", which is an attempt by a Christian theologian to think of humans as images of God post-Darwin.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Christian Boards

I have recently read through the blurbs on board members in a couple of Christian organisations. Small sample-size I know, but it is quite remarkable how eager the writers of these things are to point out the success which the board members have enjoyed in their professional lives. The hidden message appears to be: these people are clearly not poor, therefore they can be trusted to be on a board.

For Christians, while the poor will always be among us, it seems that they will have a difficult time getting onto our boards.

What a great reversal of the gospel's great reversal.