Power and Service

Jesus’ counter-cultural paradigm of power.

In 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted an exhibition on Hatshepsut, the ancient Egyptian queen. My wife bought a catalogue for me as a gift. I had not read it until a couple of weeks ago.

S_F-E-CAMERON_2006-10-EGYPT-WESTBANK-0153

Colossal images of Hatshepsut in the guise of the god Osiris at her mortuary temple. Photo: S.F.E. Cameron

Hatshepsut is a rare figure in Egyptian history. She is the most prominent woman who occupied the throne as a sovereign Pharaoh in the over 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian civilization, a position she held for some 20 years. During her rule, Egypt flourished. She seems to have sparked some new directions in art, as is demonstrated by the many wonderful artistic creations in the exhibition. They include several sculptures of Hatshepsut (often dressed in the regalia of a male king).

As I turned the catalogue pages I was fascinated to watch Pharaonic propaganda at work. Egyptian kings, including Hatshepsut, made sure they were the chief subject of royal art, especially the art in public locations. Pharaohs often added new structures to old temples or built brand new temples. They covered these temple walls with images and hieroglyphics proclaiming their exploits. They magnified the gods by magnifying themselves.

When they built new gateways into temples, they adorned them with colossal sculptures of themselves seated on thrones or striding forward. So large were these statues that a person of normal height might only come up to the statue’s ankle or calf when he or she stood beside it. Any person entering the temple must have been intimidated by these displays of royal power, or at least reminded of how insignificant he or she was beside such  power.

Hatshepsut was a great builder in this time-honored tradition. Her greatest construction was her mortuary temple (Deir al Bahri). It sat on the west bank of the Nile, directly in alignment with the great temple of Karnak on the other side of the river. It is one of the highlights of Egyptian architecture, with beautiful terraces advancing up to the inner sanctuary.

Il_tempio_di_Hatshepsut

Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir al Bahri reconstructed. Photo: Andrea Piroddi

Across the façade of these terraces Hatshepsut erected a series of colossal statues of herself in the garb of a king or in the garb of Osiris, god of the afterlife. It marked a formidable entrance into the structure. Statues in the exhibition were smaller, but very formal in pose presenting images of sober majesty.

I am sure Pharaohs chose to sponsor such art because they believed it proclaimed their superior power and divine status (Pharaohs were considered living gods.) Such art legitimated their rule, but also must have been designed to make sure their subjects never questioned who was truly in control.

Such propaganda has been common in other cultures as well. Many a strongman has resorted to it. One only needs to remember the colossal statue of Nero which he erected in ancient Rome or the colossal statues of Lenin and Stalin erected in the Soviet Union.

Jesus’ Paradigm

As I turned the pages of the catalogue, however, I found myself thinking how totally opposite is this mindset of power to the mindset we see exhibited in Jesus in the New Testament. I am drawn in particular to the famous Christ hymn that the apostle Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11:

[Christ], though he was in the form of God,

            did not regard equality with God

            as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

            taking the form of a slave,

            being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

            he humbled himself

            and became obedient to the point of death—

            even death on a cross.

  Therefore God also highly exalted him

            and gave him the name

            that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus

            every knee should bend,

            in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

            that Jesus Christ is Lord,

            to the glory of God the Father.

This hymn is a remarkable reflection on Jesus’ mindset concerning power. It states, for example, that Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not grab at equality with God. Instead Jesus freely chose to empty himself and take on the form of a servant.

The word servant in Greek is actually the word slave. One can hardly think of a more powerless person than a slave who has virtually no control over his or her life. Yet Jesus freely accepts such humiliation, even when it ends in death.

Yet paradoxically this choice leads in the end to the highest of power as God exalts him by giving him the name which exceeds all names, namely the name of God himself. It is in humble service that Jesus comes into the fulness of power. The apostle Paul holds up Jesus’ example as the one Jesus’ disciples are to follow.

Hatshepsut and her fellow monarchs would have found such advise incomprehensible. Also do many people today, Christian and non-Christian. Yet this is the seemingly crazy message that the Christian gospel proclaims. It is a message that goes against every natural instinct we have. It has been, therefore, a hard message to live, as Christian history shows.

 

Advertisements

Was Jesus Born Again?

Does Jesus experience himself that spiritual awakening that he describes in John 3?

In his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), Jesus talks about the necessity of a new spiritual birth if we are to see and enter into the kingdom of God. Is Jesus speaking from personal experience? A close reading of the opening chapters of the Gospel of John might suggest he is.

When Jesus describes this spiritual birth to Nicodemus, he says:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’(John 3:5-7)

Jesus mysteriously talks about this spiritual birth coming from water and Spirit. There has been much debate about what Jesus is talking about? Some read water as referring to our natural birth as creatures of flesh. Other read water as referring to baptism. Which is it?

N-0655-00-000080

The Baptism of Jesus, by Piero della Fancesca, 15th century.

I find myself wondering if we should not read these words of Jesus in the context of John, chapter 1. Chapter 1 contains John’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist.

Jesus’ Baptism

What all the accounts of Jesus’ baptism bear witness to* is that it was at the moment when John baptized Jesus in the River Jordan that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus as a dove. Notice in these accounts the close link between baptism in water and the gift of the Spirit. One seems to trigger the other.

In my last posting (Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?), I interpret the spiritual birth that Jesus describes in his conversation with Nicodemus as a kind of spiritual awakening or transformation of consciousness that allows a person to perceive and live within the kingship of God. If this is the proper understanding of the new birth Jesus is describing to Nicodemus, then I would ask: Is this not exactly what Jesus experienced in his own baptism?

The accounts of Jesus’ baptism emphasize that this was the moment when Jesus received the gift of the Holy Spirit. His baptism also marked the moment when Jesus launched his public ministry. It was a ministry characterized by powerful acts in the Spirit.

The synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) also note that Jesus’ message was one that proclaimed that the kingdom of God had drawn near. It was on the doorstep. This implies that Jesus had a discerning insight into the movements of God in history. He perceived something that others did not.

The gospel accounts therefore suggest that his baptism marked a momentous transition in Jesus’ life. Luke’s account of the 12-year-old boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41-51) suggests that Jesus had an acute spiritual sensitivity even in his childhood. He already acknowledged God as his father. But he, like any human being, awaited a moment of spiritual transformation in order to see the nearness of the kingship of God and to work powerfully in harmony with that kingship.

If the born-again experience is a transformation in consciousness (as I contend in my previous posting), then the gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism suggest that that was exactly what happened to him. They talk of his seeing the heavens opened, of seeing the Spirit visibly descend upon him, and hearing the direct voice of God. In that respect what Jesus experienced calls to mind what the apostle Paul experienced in his Damascus road experience (see Acts 9:1-9).**

Born Again: A Necessary Transformation Because of Our Humanity

If this is a correct understanding of Jesus’ baptism, then it suggests that the born-again experience is not so much a remedy for sin, but a necessary transition for human beings as creatures of nature to rise to a higher level of existence where they as creatures of nature are also creatures infused with the divine life and power of God in the form of the Holy Spirit.

This has always been an idea embedded in much Eastern Orthodox theology in its doctrine of divinization. Salvation in this doctrine has always been about more than redemption from sin. It has been about human beings being raised to share in the divine life. All this is summarized in the Orthodox proclamation that God became human (in the incarnation of Jesus) so that human beings can become divine.

It is standard Christian proclamation that Jesus was sinless. So Jesus would not need to be born again as a remedy for sin. But if Jesus was truly human (as orthodox belief has always asserted), then he too would need to experience that birth from above–that spiritual awakening–that raises humans from a purely natural and material existence to that unity with the divine that has always been God’s salvific purpose.

I recognize that what I am proposing is a bold reinterpretation of Jesus’ baptism. I am fully prepared to admit that I might be very wrong. But I also contend there is much more depth to John 1 and John 3 than we have customarily seen.

____________

* For the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, see Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, and John 1:29-34.

** It is also important to note in the account of Paul’s experience the close link between baptism and his spiritual transformation. This is one further reason why I think we must interpret the word water in the phrase of water and Spirit in John 3:5 as referring to baptism, not to natural birth. In Christian sacramental theology baptism does confer a new spiritual birth. Baptism marks the initiation into life lived under the kingship of God, but it does not confer spiritual maturity. One must grow into that maturity through a life lived as a spiritual journey into greater and greater spiritual wholeness.

Born Again: What Does Jesus Mean?

Close reading Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus challenges a customary interpretation.

No New Testament text has held a more prominent place in my childhood religious upbringing than John 3:1-21. It recounts a conversation Jesus holds with a Jewish religious leader named Nicodemus.

IMG_4163

A high Celtic cross at Iona Abbey, Scotland.

What my childhood churches latched onto in this dialogue was what Jesus says in verse 3. (It was always read in the King James Version.)

Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

Jesus then repeats what he says in an expanded way in verse 5:

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

 These two verses became the proof texts for the constantly repeated claim that unless a person was born again, no one could hope to enter into heaven when one died. This conviction gave punch to many an evangelistic appeal.

Furthermore, the born-again experience was understood as denoting a conversion experience where one confessed one’s sins and accepted Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior. Only if one had undergone such a conversion could one be assured that one would be saved at the Last Judgment.

It was generally assumed that this conversion experience would also be dramatically emotional. It would provide an intense sense of relief from guilt followed by a deep assurance of peace. The words of hymnody often described the experience best: Once I was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.

This kind of preaching troubled me as a youth. I had not experienced any such dramatic conversion. Did that mean I was not born again? Such questioning triggered many fears.

As a result, I have long wrestled with this text. Did my religious upbrining understand John 3:1-21 correctly? There is an element of mystery about the words Jesus speak. Could Jesus mean something different from the customary interpretation I was taught as a child?

From my wrestling with this text, I have come to believe that the customary interpretation is a shallow understanding of Jesus’ message. There is much, much more to what he is saying.

Paying Close Attention to the Words

A close reading of the text demands that we give acute attention to the exact words Jesus uses. For example, his comments concern seeing or entering the kingdom of God.* The customary interpretation assumes this phrase means heaven, the place where God, the angels, and saints live.

But that is not the primary meaning of kingdom of God in the New Testament. The English phrase translates the Greek words basileia tou theou. Basileia does not denote the land or state ruled over by a king. Rather it refers to the king’s authority or power as king. A more correct translation would be kingship. That is why many modern English translations render it reign of God.

In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) kingdom of God is linked to God’s will being done on earth as in heaven. This parallelism is important to understanding the terminology. God’s kingdom is the reality of living harmoniously within God’s will. Certainly God’s will is fully realized in heaven. But Jesus’ message** is that the time has arrived when that will is going to be fully realized on earth as well.

The import of Jesus’ words is not about the prospect of going to heaven when one dies, but the prospect of living under God’s kingship here and now.

The next two words I note is that Jesus talks about seeing and entering the kingdom of God. Seeing is about perceiving. How can we perceive the kingship of God at work in the world and in our own lives here and now?

The general assumption of humanity is that as we look at the affairs (the often chaotic affairs) of the world in which we live, we see no evidence of God being present or at work. Rather everything usually looks out of control. How can Jesus say otherwise?

When Jesus talks about entering the kingship of God, he is talking about how we can truly experience that we are living under the beneficent rule and providence of God. How can we come to live in submissive harmony with the will of God?

Ambiguous Word

The answer Jesus gives to both questions is that we must be born anothen. Anothen is a Greek adverb that can mean both 1) again, and 2) from above. Because it can have both meanings, it is an ambiguous word. Jesus may use it because he intends both meanings. There must be a new beginning to life, but it is a new beginning coming from divine rather than human initiative.

That becomes clear from the context. Nicodemus assumes anothen means again. So he asks how a grown man can enter his mother’s womb and be born again. He assumes anothen has one and only meaning.

But verse 5 demonstrates that Jesus understands anothenprimarily as meaning from above. He does this by saying a man must be born of water and the Spirit. We are clearly dealing with a kind of spiritual birth or beginning. That becomes even clearer as Jesus then goes on to talk about the invisible wind blowing where it will. The Greek word for wind (pneuma) is also the Greek word for spirit. The critical term anothen has a dual meaning, but the spiritual meaning is primary in this discourse.

So to summarize Jesus’ statements, if one is to perceive the kingship of God in the world and to live harmoniously within it, one must undergo a spiritual initiation analogous to a natural birth.

New Birth as Spiritual Awakening

What is this new birth? I have come to believe it is a form of spiritual awakening by which a person gains the capability of perceiving God’s kingship in the world and living within it. This awakening involves a transformation in consciousness. It places within a person a kind of spiritual sense organ that allows one to perceive and enter into the world of the divine spirit.

What am I talking about? Let me turn to another analogy to explain. We now know that radio waves fill the atmosphere. They did so even before human beings came to discover them. But human beings could not tap into those radio waves and use them for communication until we developed the instruments to transmit and receive radio waves.

God’s kingship is a reality in the universe. But we do not perceive it and we do not come to live harmoniously within it until we receive the spiritual sense organ for such perception. That sense organ is the Holy Spirit dwelling within us.

The Spirit is a gift, a gift from God, not our achievement. Entering into the realm of God’s kingship is always a gift. That is the significance of using anothen with the meaning from above.

Jesus’ words also suggest that that gift has a beginning point. It is analogous to a birth. But Jesus’ words do not imply how that initiation happens, except for the ambiguous phrase of water and the Spirit(more on that in my next blog posting). Nor does the initiation confer spiritual maturity. The initiation launches us on the spiritual journey, but we must go deep into that journey to attain spiritual maturity.

So what do I end up with as I read this passage? I hear Jesus saying that in order to enter into life under the kingship of God we must be lifted up into a spiritual plane. That lifting up does not abolish our life in the flesh, but adds a more profound spiritual reality to our life. The gospel writer John will call that spiritual life eternal life.

Does what I have written mean that I’ve plumbed the mystery of this text? No. It remains a mysterious text. But that mystery also cautions me to be careful in how I read it. It will always evade a simple understanding.

_________

* Interestingly, these two verses are the only two places in the Gospel of John that the gospel writer uses the phrase kingdom of God. This phrase is used profusely in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but except for these two verses, it is found nowhere else on the lips of Jesus in John.

** Mark 1:15summarizes Jesus’ preaching as: The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the gospe

New Directions in Evangelism

What might chocolate chip cookies have to do with the Christian message?

Evangelism today is challenging. In our mean world of controversy and polarization, Christians have adapted well to the surrounding culture. We are now best known for our mean words and actions.

Galleta_con_trozos_de_chocolate

Photo credit: Procsitas Moscas

Both undermine our efforts to share the gospel. We call our message good news. But many outside the church hear it as bad news. Our words come across as hollow and inauthentic. Instead of enticing people into our fellowship, we drive them away.

How do we change that dynamic? By acting out kindness, says Andrew Ponder Williams, a campus minister in southern California, in a blog posting titled Kindness is the New Evangelism. He describes the power of simple kind acts such as handing out free cookies to people passing by on the street. The unexpected free gift puzzles people, opening an opportunity for conversation.

I found it a very thoughtful essay. It sent my thinking into new directions. I think it might do so for you, too. I would encourage you to click on the link above and read it for yourself.