The Foolish Wisdom of God

We misperceive the gospel if we miss its paradoxical character.

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The crucifixion of Jesus as depicted by Matthias Grünewald in the Isenheim altarpiece, 15th century

For one brought up from childhood in the church, like myself, it is easy for the fundamental points of the Christian proclamation to become common-place truisms. When that happens, we lose all sense of how extraordinary they really are.

That is especially true for all talk about the crucifixion of Jesus. We talk and sing about the power of the cross and the glory of the cross. We wear the cross around our necks. We hang gilded crosses from the ceilings of our churches. And yet how easy it is to lose consciousness of how extraordinary a thing it is that Christians make an object of gruesome execution the central image of their piety.

I count myself among them. That is, until I was recently reading the opening words of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christians in the church in Corinth. That church is undergoing a serious congregational crisis. Theological factions have broken out in its assembly, factions that seem to be out-shouting each other in their claims to hold the wiser and more eloquent understanding of the principles of their religion.

Paul is scandalized by the situation. In reality, he says, the factions are spiritually immature, not advanced. The proof of this is that they are engaging in such bitter rivalry with each other. The fruit of their rivalries is to counteract the momentum of the gospel.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, he presents his own analysis of what’s happening. He zeroes in on the centrality of the crucifixion to the Christian gospel. He makes the extraordinary statement that the crucified Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24). He then reinforces what he has just said by adding:

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Now these are standard motifs in Christian preaching. But as I was reading them again, I was struck anew about how extraordinary it is for Paul to say this. For we, too, live in an age when facility in persuasive speech and effectiveness in action are highly prized.

We see this especially in the world of politics and corporate business. We want our leaders to inspire us by their speeches. We want them to prove their competency by accomplishing exalted goals. One business manual has expressed these two values in the summary label “big hairy audacious goals.”* And if we cannot deliver on them, we will be consigned to the category of followers, not leaders.

The Lesson of the Crucified Christ

But this is not the lesson Paul draws from the Christian proclamation of a crucified Christ. Instead it is through the pathway of self-effacing service, rejection, defeat, and even death, that God is at work to transform the world.** In this respect the Christian gospel proclaims God’s way as being 180 degrees opposite to our normal expectations of how transformation works.

In another passage (Philippians 2:5-11) Paul will describe the way of Jesus as the way of emptying (Greek: kenosis) himself. It is such an emptying that releases the power of transformation. It also leads paradoxically to his exaltation.

For me, as I reflect on Paul’s statements, I find myself asking: Just how does this way of the cross, this way of emptying ourselves, release the power of transformation? And how does it differ from a pathological self-humiliation?

That is one of the central mysteries that I think that Christian theology is called upon to explore and elucidate, especially in its systems of spirituality. For in the end the gospel, as Paul sees it, is not about abstract intellectual brilliance and sophistication (although certainly some theologies have that), but about pragmatic power, a power to transform both minds and behavior. And if our gospel proclamation does not transform, then either the gospel is a fantasy that needs to be discarded or we misperceive how it works.

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* James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Harper Business, 1994.

** Transform is the import that the word save carries in this passage of Paul as elsewhere in his writings. He is less concerned about the eternal fate of individuals than he is with the fulfillment of God’s purposes and plans for the world.

Just What Was Jesus Preaching?

The Gospel of Mark provides a handy nutshell summary.

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Jesus peaching, a drypoint etching by Rembrandt, 1652.

The Gospel of Mark tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, he launched his preaching ministry in Galilee. Mark also gives a thumbnail summary of that preaching. He summarizes it this way:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1-14-15)

In his ministry, Jesus will say and teach many things. But for Mark the core of Jesus’ preaching is this proclamation. And it should, I believe, remain at the foundation of the Christian proclamation even today.

But just what is Jesus saying? It is easy to misunderstand, especially if we bring our own presuppositions to the words. To better grasp what Jesus is saying, I find it important to return to the original Greek words. Let me try to unpack them.

  • The time is fulfilled

Greek has two words for time. One is chronos. Chronos refers to time as a period of time. The emphasis is on duration or flow. So if we were to talk about the succession of days, months, and years, we would use the word chronos. It is the source word for the English word chronology.

That is not the word Mark uses. He uses instead the other Greek word for time. That word is kairos.  What Mark says is that the kairos is fulfilled.

The focus of kairos is not on a period of time. Rather it designates a point in time. In English, when we say we have an appointment with a doctor, we would talk in Greek about our kairos time with the doctor.

When Jesus is saying that the kairos is fulfilled, he is referring to a specified time, a date that has been fixed in advance. We might take it as the appointment date when something is to happen.

The question is: What is to happen on that appointment date that Jesus has in mind?

A hint to the answer is the word translated fulfilled. The Greek word is the verb plēroō, used in this sentence in the perfect passive tense. In Greek this verb conveys the meaning of something that becomes full. From that we get the extended meaning of bringing a completion or finish to something. Also it could have the association of something that has become fully mature.

Plēroō is the word New Testament writers use to refer to the fulfillment of God’s promises given in the Old Testament, especially through the prophets. When Jesus says the kairos is fulfilled, then he is looking back to the Old Testament promises and saying that the appointed time for their fulfillment has come.

  • …the kingdom of God has come near.

What specific Old Testament promises does Jesus seem to have in mind? That is suggested by the next sentence, when Jesus says the kingdom of God has come near. The promises Jesus has in mind are those in the Old Testament that look forward to a time when God is fully established as king over the earth.

Notice I place the emphasis on God’s kingship. That’s because the word we translate kingdom is the Greek word basileia. The prime focus of basileia is not the land over which a king rules. That tends to be the primary focus of the English word kingdom. Rather basileia focuses more on the king being king, exercising his powers as king. We would be more accurate to translate it by the English word kingship or royal rule.

What Jesus is saying is that the kairos when God becomes the unchallenged king over all the earth has come very near. And if we look at how the Old Testament describes kingship, we understand that that means the time is coming when God completely establishes God’s order over the earth, when God sets all things right that have become disordered, corrupt, and broken. God will establish the condition of shalom (Hebrew for peace) in the earth.

An important part of that task of setting things right is God championing the rights and dignities of the poor, the oppressed in society, the marginalized. That will involve establishing equity in society. The privileges of the rich and powerful will be abolished. All will share equally in the participation in and in the rewards of society.

We see this understanding of the duties of kings expressed in Psalm 72, a psalm that pictures the ideal king. Foremost among the king’s concerns must be his championing of the rights of the poor and marginalized. He is to establish justice in the land.

So what has drawn so close, according to Jesus? It is that appointed time, that time that the faithful have been longing for and praying for for a very long time. It is the time when God sets things completely right in the world.

For Jesus that time has come near. These two English words translate the Greek word engizo.  This Greek verb refers to the action of approaching or come near. So Jesus is saying that that time when God will set things completely right, that time so longed for in the Old Testament promises, has come very close. You might say it is right on the doorstep, just before the knock on the door is made.

This message–that the kairos has been fulfilled, the time when the kingship of God will be fully established on earth has drawn near–is the news Jesus is proclaiming. For anyone who has longed for a better world, a more just order for society and life, this will come as good news.

  • Repent

How should people react to this good news? Jesus offers two responses.

The first response: He calls on his audience to repent.

Now here is where it is very easy to misunderstand Jesus’ call. The reason is that the English word repent has the primary meaning of feeling sorry about something one has done in the past and resolving to do better. The emphasis is on the emotional feeling of contrition or regret about something one has done. Here the English word carries a wealth of associations that come from medieval Catholic practices of penitence.

But the Greek word that the translators translate as repent has a different meaning. The Greek word is metanoia. And metanoia does not refer primarily to an emotional feeling. Rather it means more precisely a change of mind.

Jesus is calling his audience to change the way they think. His concern is not the floating ideas that pass continuously through our mind as the day goes on. His concern is with the fundamental beliefs or convictions that determine the way we look at the world, at other people, at ourselves, and at God. A more accurate word might be the word mindset.

Our mindset governs how we behave and operate as we live our lives. It often has its roots in our childhood experiences. Its ideas are often firmly settled in our consciousness and not easily dislodged.

Our mindset determines:

  • whether we look upon the world as a dangerous place or a place of great opportunities,
  • whether our first reaction with strangers is a stance of hospitable welcome or a stance of suspicion,
  • whether we approach life with great self-confidence or with great self-doubt,
  • whether we regard God as a capricious tyrant or as a gracious lover.

Jesus calls us to change the operating system in our minds on which we approach our life. He calls us to change it in the light of this good news that he brings that the long-awaited time has come and the kingship of God is about to be established. The whole world will be soon changing radically.

  • …and believe in the good news.

What we are to change in our mindset is our fundamental operating belief. We are now to operate our lives on the conviction that the good news Jesus is announcing is true. This is the focus of the word believe, which translates the Greek verb pisteuo. It is the second response Jesus calls from his audience.

Here is a sense of intellectual conviction, but much more. It implies a confidence and trust in the truth proclaimed so that that conviction starts to govern the way we live.

The message we are to believe is a message Jesus calls good news. The English words translate the Greek euangelion. This is the Greek word from which we derive the English words evangelism and evangelical. That good news message is the one declared in the previous two sentences: The time is fulfilled. The kingship of God has come near.

If this message proclaimed by Jesus is true, then a fundamental change in our attitudes, in our mindset, in our way of living is called for. Everything is about to change dramatically in the world. We need to get ready.

How are we to change? We need to read the rest of the gospel and listen to Jesus as he teaches to get a sense of what kind of different behavior he is inviting us into. Maybe that is why the Gospel of Matthew follows his nutshell presentation of Jesus’ preaching with the much more extended Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is drawing out the behavior implications of that nutshell declaration.

Jesus’ message today

How are we to take this proclamation of Jesus today?  One stance is to say that Jesus was wrong. The kingship of God was not established in a very short time back there in the first century. The disordered, corrupt, and oppressive order of the world has continued on for the past 2,000 years. I can respect the attitude of those who take this stance. For in many ways the Christian gospel can seem unbelievable in its claims.

Yet countless Christians have found Jesus’s proclamation believable and compelling, believable and compelling enough that they have been motivated to respond to it by becoming Jesus’ disciples.

Their experience suggests that that there is a perennial quality to Jesus’ proclamation. The kingship of God is always drawing near and is knocking on our doors. And when we live by that conviction authentically, it can indeed cause us to live our lives dramatically different. Their testimony is that it leads them into a deep experience of a kind of shalom, a well-being that nothing else can deliver.

Like Jesus’ first audiences, we, too, when we read Mark’s summary of Jesus’ preaching must decide if we find it believable and compelling or not. Whatever we decide will, however, have an impact on how we choose to live. We will change our fundamental mindset or we will not.

 

 

Flesh Finds Its Fulfillment

Death is not the ultimate destiny for our mortal flesh.

I find it hard to make sense at times of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I get the gist of the author’s argument. He is trying to persuade some wavering Christians to remain firm in their allegiance to Jesus.

What I find hard to follow is the support arguments he makes for his case. For one, he makes constant references to the old Jewish temple and sacrificial rituals. If we are not familiar with them, as most modern Christians are not, then we will find the arguments he makes based upon them puzzling.

For two, the author is well versed in the Greek literary culture. He writes elegant Greek. He also slides in and out of the Greek practice of interpreting narratives as allegory. He sees aspects of the Old Testament story as prefiguring the events that happened with Jesus. This is not quite seeing Old Testament details as spiritual symbolism, but it’s not far from that. That can challenge our attempts to understand his argument, too.

Yet his imagery and phrasing can prove highly provocative to the imagination. They stick in our minds like thistle burrs. We have a hard time shaking them out. They have left an enduring impact on Christian worship language and theology.

The Example of Melchizedek

Let me give one example. The author makes a big deal about the Old Testament figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is a minor figure in the Old Testament. He is described in Genesis 14 as the priest-king of Salem, the future city of Jerusalem. He greets Abraham after his victory over four kings. Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of the spoils. Melchizedek in turn entertains Abraham with a meal of bread and wine.

Early Christian readers noted that small detail. They saw it as prefiguring the Christian Eucharist. And so in Christian iconography, Melchizedek’s reception of Abraham is linked to the celebration of the mass.

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The mosaic of Melchizedek in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. 6th century A.D.

A beautiful example appears in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. There a mosaic shows Melchizedek offering a sacrifice of bread in front of something that looks like a Christian altar. His bread is clearly prefiguring the bread that will be consecrated in this spot in the Christian Eucharist.

Entering the Inner Sanctuary

 It was a different detail, however, that caught my attention as I was reading Hebrews recently. In chapter 10, the author writes:

Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:19-23)

The point of the passage is found in the last sentence. The author repeats once again his admonition to remain steady in faith. He has been repeating this theme throughout the letter.

We can be resolute in faith, he argues, because Jesus has opened the way into the inner temple. Here he is alluding to the curtain that separated the most inner sanctum of the Jewish temple, the Holy of Holies, from the less sacred Holy Place. Only the high priest could enter this inner room. And that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement.

Now the author of Hebrews employs this imagery to express a spiritual reality that the earthly reality points to. The inner sanctum is the presence of God. We can confidently enter into that presence because Jesus has opened the curtain that separates us from the presence of God.

The Curtain of Flesh

Here’s the detail that grabbed my attention. The author says in a parenthetic phrase that that spiritual curtain is our earthly flesh. By having lived a life of faithfulness in the flesh—a flesh he shares with all of us human beings—Jesus has opened the way into God’s presence.

When I read that, this detail became the burr that stuck in my mind and provoked some further reflection.

It is an axiom of Christian spirituality that God is spirit. As invisible spirit, God cannot be perceived directly by the sensory organs of our bodies. We cannot see God with our eyes nor hear him with our ears. In that respect our material bodies are a barrier to spiritual perception.

We can only perceive God’s presence indirectly, through the effects God has in his actions in the world. That’s why I think the traditional proof for God’s existence based upon the world’s design has such persuasive power, even if it does not provide a logic-tight proof. We sense the presence of a creative power behind the beautiful universe we observe with our senses and our scientific tools.

And that is how it must be as long as we remain creatures of flesh. In that sense, I resonate with what the author of Hebrews says when he identifies the obscuring curtain with our material flesh.

But what if our flesh can come to perceive spirit? What if our flesh can be given the right perceptive capability? That is, I believe, the good news of the Christian gospel. For the destiny of the material universe–and the destiny of each of us as material human beings–is ultimately to be so infused with God’s Spirit that we can come to perceive God’s presence directly. The barrier of flesh is transcended.

The Role of Resurrection

And how does that happen? By a transformation of the flesh in the experience of resurrection. In the resurrection we become, indeed the whole universe becomes, material bodies which unite with spirit in a perfect and fulfilling union. As a result of that union, we become capable of perceiving the world of spirit in a way we could not before.*

This transforming experience seems to be what the apostle Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15. There he says of the resurrection that lies ahead:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. (1 Corinthians 15:42-46)

Our experience of life in the flesh is one of both pleasure and pain. It is a life of mutability, for our bodies are always in flux. It is one of health and of disease. It is one of amazing ability (witness Olympic athletes) and one of disability and limiting injuries. It is one of creativity and one of staleness. It is one of vitality, and one that ends in total loss that comes with death.

It is these facts of life that made the ancient Greeks so disdainful of material life. In the great Platonic vision, salvation meant escape from this imperfect, mutable existence and arrival in the static, but perfect world of spirit (the world of the Forms). Christian spirituality has inherited much of this disdain in its various forms of extreme asceticism.

But that is not the vision of the New Testament. When Christians proclaimed the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus, they held out to the world an unprecedented hope. They saw the destiny of human beings–and ultimately of the whole universe–to be a glorious transformation when material existence is not abolished, but raised to a high and glorious existence, in which matter and spirit are so interfused that they become one.

We see this vision described with great vividness in the vision of the new Jerusalem that we find in Revelation 21-22.

The Practical Point

Now what is the practical, here-and-now point of this Christian vision? It means Christians are called to care deeply about life now in the flesh. In caring for that life here and now we are stewards with God in working to bring material life to its glorious destiny.

We do not run away from the demands placed upon us by daily living, demands that we encounter in carrying for our families and earning our living in our jobs. We pursue with all our energies the search for healing for bodies and minds. We work to nurture the well-being of our environment and the earth’s climate. We care deeply about the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, for we work to help them rise to their glorious destiny too.

And yet we do all this well aware that the eternal is not the same as the material existence we now live. Therefore there is nothing about our present material existence that is of supreme value. We do not turn material existence into idolatry. We long for a glorious destiny that has not yet arrived in its fulness. All of the material creation must pass through the door of death before it can emerge into resurrection.**

I am aware that what I am writing may sound just as strange as the language of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. I am trying to describe a vision I have of creation and life that I cannot describe with full precision because it is not yet here. Yet I glimpse hints of it throughout the New Testament.

We can sometimes feel about our lives that we are stuck in the mud, as if we are turtles crawling through the muck of a fetid swamp. That, to some degree, is life in the flesh. Yet the Christian gospel tells us that is not a fully correct perception. The swamp will someday be transformed into a beautiful paradise garden, fed by all the life that was the swamp. And we turtles will one day sprout wings so we can soar through this garden like dragonflies.

In the meantime, let us–as the author of Hebrews might counsel–keep up our faithful crawling encouraged and buoyed by our vision of the glorious destiny that is coming in God’s providential timing.

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* If I understand the theology of Teilhard de Chardin correctly, this is what he means by his Omega Point. Like the Epistle to the Hebrews, his writings can be challenging to read, but they linger in my mind and continually stimulate my thought. What I write in this post would not be possible without the influence of Teilhard de Chardin on my own thinking.

** In saying that, I think of the strange phenomena of black holes in our universe. I wonder if we cannot think of black holes as the form of death that stars experience. What happens to a star when it is sucked into a black hole? Does it dissolve away? Or does it go through some kind of resurrection experience? Who knows? But the message of the gospel might suggest that in the black hole experience stars too undergo some kind of mysterious transformation.

 

Qoheleth and the Trinity

If love is real, what does that say about the meaning of the universe?

If you are prone to depression, then you might be wise not to tackle the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The author is billed as the Preacher (Qoheleth in Hebrew.) As a revered sage, he reflects upon his life obsession with discovering the meaning of life.

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The Great Sage: Augustine of Hippo in his study by Sandro Botticelli, 1480.

His conclusion is disappointing. Vanities of vanities!, he concludes, all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The Hebrew might be more accurately translated as “mere breath” or “a puff of wind.” Nothing lasts. What is here today is gone tomorrow. And in example after example he drives that point home.

So what’s his advice for wise living?

This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. (Ecclesiastes 5:18)

 This conclusion is the fruit of his lifelong pursuit of wisdom. He has read deeply. He has observed the world of both nature and human beings. He has applied all his rational powers to trying to understand it. His approach parallels that of most philosophers and scientists today.

The Dead End Search for Meaning

He comes to the same conclusion as many of them do as well. Years ago I read a book titled Why Does the World Exist? byJim Holt.* The author seeks to penetrate the mystery of existence by interviewing a number of distinguished philosophers and scientists, including Nobel laureates.

His interviewees offer a number of answers, some of which mirror those of various philosophers down through the ages. But what I found most curious was the number of cosmologists and physicists who said the end result of all of their scientific explorations was the conclusion that the world was meaningless. There is no discernable reason why the world exists.

It reminded me of something that the philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote.

Even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home… that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temper of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.**

 One gets the idea that Qoheleth would fit right in in the halls and classrooms of modern academia and scientific labs.

In an intellectual world in which only rational conclusions are accepted as valid, it seems to me that Qoheleth and his companions present a perfectly persuasive argument. The law of entropy suggests that a form of death is the irreversible fate of all that exists in the universe. And if you take up the task of trying to answer why evil exists, then you are probably hammering the nails into the coffin of meaningfulness.

But What About Love?

I was reading Ecclesiastes recently, as I have many times before. I noticed something peculiar this time. The author is convinced that God is real. But the author’s favorite image of God seems to be that of the judge. This leads to the book’s final note of advice:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

What is strikingly missing from the author’s reflections is any perception of God as a God of love. The theme of love is missing throughout the book. And I find myself wondering if that lack accounts for the author’s such dismal conclusions.

If love is real–and human experience says it is, even if in all the partial and broken ways we experience it­–then there is a force at work in the universe that cannot ultimately be captured by human reason or scientific instruments. And may the meaningfulness of the universe be ultimately grounded in that reality? I would like to suggest that is not a phantom assumption.

Love Grounded in the Triune Character of God

I suggest that on the basis of the orthodox Christian assertion that God is triune–a Godhead that is not a singular, motionless monad, but a Godhead who is a unified, yet complex network of presences, presences that Christians have labeled Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we confess that God is love, we are saying more than that God relates to creation–and to us–in love. We are saying that God is love within God’s own very being. The doctrine of the Trinity makes that very clear when it asserts that what constitutes the very being or life of the Godhead is the eternal dance of giving and receiving that goes on among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That dance is itself love.

Meaning is to be found and experienced within all our networks of love, but most especially in the network of love that constitutes the divinity. If God is love, then the universe that comes from him and is sustained always by him is grounded in love. And that will give the universe and human experience its ultimate meaning.

We may not be able to fully express what that meaning is in words, but we can be confident that when we experience love, we are experiencing in a deeply existential sort of way the meaning of our own lives as well as the meaning of the whole universe.

If all this is true, then Qoheleth’s search for the meaning of life takes on a whole different complexion. Let us indeed eat, drink, and be merry, but in the sobriety as well as the intoxication of love in all its many dimensions.

Writer’s Note: I recognize that I am likely to be vastly misunderstood in what I say if my reader limits his or her understanding of love to erotic love alone. When I talk of love, I have in mind the full spectrum of love as the Christian tradition has understood it. That includes erotic love, but even more importantly compassionate love, service love, and sacrificial love. For the Christian tradition, the highest expression of love was the love of Christ who  accepted the suffering of the cross for the sake of the salvation of the world.

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* Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?, New York: Liveright Publishing Company, 2012.

** Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not A Christian,  Simon And Schuster, New York, 1957, p. 106.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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.

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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.

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* 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.

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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.