Pioneer Jesus

Precisely because he is a full human being, Jesus can open to us the pathway into wholeness.

 I was reading the Epistle of the Hebrews when I came to this passage, as it is translated by the New Revised Standard Version:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)

As sometime happens when I am reading a passage, one word jumps off the page and grabs my attention. In this case, it was the author describing Jesus as the pioneer of their salvation. That word pioneer seemed an odd choice.

When I hear the word pioneer, what first comes to mind is this definition: one of those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others. * So I think of childhood heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who launched into the virgin lands of the American West and opened them for settlement.

Why use this word to describe Jesus? That’s the question I asked myself. I wondered what was the Greek word that lies behind this translation. Consulting the Greek text, I found it was the word archegos. I opened my Greek dictionary to see what meaning it might assign to this word.

The first meaning the dictionary gave it was: a leader, a ruler, a prince. That made sense in that one meaning of the Greek word arche is rule or office. But then the dictionary gave the word archegos the additional meaning of: one who begins something, an originator, a founder. That, too, made sense in that the primary meaning of arche is beginning.

Given these meanings, why did the translation team select the word pioneer? Since I cannot talk with one of team, I must hazard a guess. Certainly Jesus could be regarded as the Christian’s leader or ruler. But I noticed the context places great emphasis on the importance of Jesus’ sufferings.

The importance of Jesus’ sufferings comes up again in a later passage: Hebrews 4:14-16. There we read that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he was one who was tested just as we are, but came through the tests into victory. The author counsels his readers, therefore, to approach the throne of grace boldly in their prayers. The one who sits on that throne is not a harsh, unfeeling judge, but one who understands our challenges because he has experienced them too.

Opening a Spiritual Mountain Pass

Here is where the translation pioneer begins to resonate for me. The author of Hebrews has no doubt about the divinity of Jesus, but he also believes just as firmly that Jesus was a real human being. We find in the epistle some of the most exalted language in describing Jesus, but also language that depicts his real humanity. The Jesus of Hebrews is a victor certainly, but a victor who has achieved his victory through a real experience of a life limited by the constrictions, anxieties, and trials of real human beings.

As the pioneers of America broke through the barrier of the Appalachian mountains and opened up to others the vast expanses of territory on the other side, so likewise I can think of Jesus as this pioneer who breaks through all the limitations of human life to open to humanity the vast and spacious territory of the Kingdom of God.

Now that the barriers have been broken through, the rest of us can follow. Jesus shows us the way to transform our trials and sufferings into mountain passes that can conduct us into a spacious wholeness beyond them. We find that way described for us in the gospels. Which is why the gospels are so central to our spiritual journeys. They describe not just Jesus the pioneer, but also the road which he opened up in the wilderness and on which he summons us to follow him.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers us the same power to grow through our own life sufferings and challenges into that spaciousness of life that we call salvation. He invites us to follow him on the road he has pioneered–which includes both a cross and a resurrection–so that we can experience that wholeness of life which he has entered into in advance of us.


* This is the first definition given the word in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1966.

An Uncomfortable Meeting with Jesus

If we met Jesus in person, would we love him, hate him, or be baffled by him?

The nameless woman wipes Jesus’ perfumed feet with her hair. Image by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabe, 20th century

Occasionally I fantasize meeting Jesus in person. What would the experience feel like? What would be my response? Would it mirror one of the many responses described in the gospels?

When we read those gospels, we hear of many people’s encounters with Jesus. Their responses are all across the board.

Some, for example, seem to fall passionately in love with Jesus. The most extreme example is the story (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9) of the nameless woman who interrupts a dinner party where Jesus is the guest. She pours an expensive perfume over his head and feet. She then wipes his feet with her hair.

The gesture is extravagant in the extreme. The perfume is expensive. It equals a year’s total wages for an ordinary laborer. All this is splurged in one sensuous moment. Jesus, unlike his disciples, is not alarmed by the gesture’s erotic overtones. He is deeply touched by it.

In the garden on Easter morning, we sense Mary Magdalene’s love for Jesus by her instantaneous embrace of him when she recognizes him (John 20:11-18). Women are not alone in showing such love. At the Last Supper Jesus’ beloved disciple reclines next to Jesus, manifesting his affection for Jesus and Jesus’ affection for him (John 13:23).

Others in their encounters with Jesus show profound awe. In John’s gospel we hear the story of the meeting between the risen Jesus and his doubting disciple Thomas (John 20:26-29). When confronted with Jesus, Thomas blurts out “My Lord and my God.” It’s the most awesome acclamation of Jesus in all the gospels.

We also read over and over again of how the crowds who hear Jesus teach and see him heal respond with astonishment. They wonder where his authority comes from. (See Mark 1:21-28.)

Others respond to Jesus out of their sheer confidence in his power to heal. The story of the woman with a blood hemorrhage who pushes herself through the crowd to touch the fringe of Jesus’ robe is one example (Mark 5:25-34). So too is the Roman centurion who feels unworthy to welcome Jesus into his house (Luke 7:1-10). He instructs Jesus to just say the word from a distance. He knows his slave will be healed. Something about Jesus has evoked such incredible confidence in Jesus.

Then there are those who hate Jesus. His enemies are numerous. In many cases they are religious authorities that, like the crowds, hear him preach and watch him heal. They respond, on the other hand, with hostility. Their anger seems provoked by Jesus’ subversion of their own authority and their inflexible rules for determining what’s right and what’s wrong. Jesus’ own disciple Judas ends up joining them out of motives we can no longer detect.

Baffled by Jesus

 And then there are those who seem baffled by Jesus. They just don’t know what to do with this strange man. He behaves in odd ways. They can’t fit him into one of the normal categories they use to pigeonhole the people they meet.

The Roman governor Pilate is one. He clearly sees Jesus as innocent, but can’t understand why Jesus does nothing to passionately defend himself against the charges brought against him. Jesus does not fit the pattern of most prisoners that Pilate is called upon to judge.

I find the most fascinating example of people feeling baffled by Jesus by the story in the gospel of Mark (Mark 3:20-21, 31-33) where Jesus’ own mother and brothers come to take him home. They believe that Jesus is deranged. He must have been acting in a way so out of character with the boy and young man they had grown up with that they feel he has lost his mind. The ones who should have known Jesus most intimately are the ones now baffled by him.

The one response to Jesus that we do not seem to find in the gospels is terror. People may feel threatened by him, but they never seem to tremble in fear in his presence. (The one exception is the woman with the blood hemorrhage I mentioned above. Jesus quickly reassures her.)

I find that striking. By the time we get into the Middle Ages and the era of great cathedral building, the favored image that medieval sculptors placed over the central church door was usually a picture of the Last Judgment.

There a stern Jesus sits enthroned separating the saved from the damned. It was a fearsome image. It must have been meant to sear the consciences of the faithful as they entered into the church’s sanctuary. But I don’t find any sanction for that emotion of terror in the gospels.

As I said when I started out, which of these gospel responses would I mirror if I met Jesus in person? I don’t know. Knowing the complex and disjointed human being that I am and the complex and integrated person Jesus is, I realize I could be capable of responding with any of those responses I’ve described…and some others as well.

I am sure that my response to Jesus would surprise me. It would reveal something about me that I may not have acknowledged before. That would make me very uncomfortable.


Naked Lad on the Run

How do we make sense of a stray detail in Mark’s story of Jesus’ betrayal?

The kiss of Judas from Giotto’s fresco series in the Arena Chapel in Padua, 1305.

In Mark’s account (Mark 14:32-52) of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, he includes a detail that has puzzled both scholars and general readers ever since. He says that after Jesus’ arrest, his disciples all fled and deserted him.

Then follows these two odd sentences:

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked. (Mark 14:51-52)

Mark does not explain it. He does not tell us who the young man was nor why he was wearing only a linen cloth. Nor are we given any clue why the memory of this young man was preserved. What relevance does it have the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and death?

Wild speculation has raged as a result. Some scholars suggest the young man was John Mark, the alleged author of Mark’s gospel. Others have let their imaginations run wilder with even more bizarre fictions.

I myself have long wondered why Mark includes this odd detail in his narrative. And it is only recently that I have come to some inkling of why. Let me offer my speculation.

Mark as a Literary Artist

When we read the gospel of Mark, we find the author has a practice of using the literary device we call an inclusio. In this device the author brackets a part of his narrative between two short stories or comments that serve as bookends for the passage in between.

We see that in Mark with the great block of teaching in the center of Mark’s gospel. There Jesus teaches his disciples about his mission as Messiah and their discipleship (Mark 8:27-10:45). Mark introduces this block of teaching with a story of Jesus healing a blind man (Mark 8:22-26). This healing is a difficult one. It requires two stages.

At the end of the block of teaching, Mark also recounts the story of the healing of another blind man, Bartimaeus of Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). These stories are not accidentally placed. Mark seems to suggest that when Jesus teaches his disciples, he is trying to heal them of their spiritual blindness. This healing is slow and arduous, progressing in stages.

Again, we find Mark uses the device of inclusio when he recounts the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14, 20-24. This story comes in two parts. The first part recounts Jesus cursing the tree. The second recounts how the disciples the next day find the tree withered and dead.

It’s a troubling story as it does not fit our preconceptions of Jesus. He seems peevish. But we need to notice that these two parts of the story sandwich a story in between. It is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple of its noisy commercial activities in order to restore it to being a house of prayer.

I want to suggest that Mark is once again using inclusio to comment theologically on the story of the temple cleansing. Jesus comes to the temple expecting to find it a place that nurtures spiritual fruit. Instead he finds it a place of noisy commerce. It has betrayed its spiritual purpose. And therefore it is going to swept away in the future.

It may seem odd to us that Mark makes his theological comments in this subtle way instead of making them more directly. But nonetheless he chooses to so do.

Inclusio at Work Again

Now we come to the story in the Garden of Gethsemane. It tells this odd story of the lad who runs away naked at Jesus’ arrest. I want to suggest that this story is again a part of an inclusio that Mark employs to make a theological comment on the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and resurrection.

When Jesus is arrested, all his disciples flee. A bit later, Peter will deny Jesus. None of the disciples, in Mark’s account, attend Jesus in his crucifixion. Jesus dies alone, as I note in my previous blog posting Divine Desolation.

What the passion story reveals for Mark is the true character of the disciples. They are a fearful lot. They have no psychological or spiritual backbone. And when they desert Jesus, they shed any pretense that they may have had of faithfulness and piety.

In including the detail about the young man running away naked, Mark is commenting theologically on the disciples. In a sense, they are stripped naked spiritually, and they run away in shame.

The Second Bracket

Now if this detail forms the first part of an inclusio, we ask: Where is the second bracket? I want to suggest we find it in Mark’s account of the resurrection in Mark 16:1-8.

When the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb and enter it, Mark says they encounter a young man sitting there. He is dressed in a white robe. Mark does not call him an angel as Matthew does. Mark explicitly calls him a young man.

This young man, I want to contend, is the second bracket. And he too is a theological comment on the story.

With Jesus’ resurrection, the disgraced disciples will be restored to grace. They will be renewed. Jesus will forgive them, explicitly as told in the case of Peter in John 21. In the new era of the kingdom which has dawned with Jesus’ resurrection, they will receive a new status of honor and dignity. They will be called to the noble mission of apostleship. In symbolic terms, they will be spiritually re-clothed as the young man in the tomb has been.

Significantly Mark tells us the young man is dressed in white. Here may be an allusion to the rite of baptism in the early church. When new converts was baptized, they stripped off their secular clothes and were immersed in the baptismal pool as if they were new babies. When they emerged from the waters, they were dressed in white robes and then led into the church congregation for their first participation in the Lord’s Supper. The white robe signified their adoption into the family of God with all it conferred in honor and dignity.

What narrative do we find sandwiched within these two brackets of the inclusio? It is the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. In this story, the disciples will be stripped of their pretensions and then restored to honored status in Jesus’ family. The two stories of the young man are alerting the reader or listener as to what is spiritually going on in this tragic yet grand story.

Yet One More Possible Meaning

There is yet another possible meaning in these subtle comments. Jesus himself will be stripped of his honor and dignity in the story that follows the detail of the naked lad running away. He will be heaped with shame, for crucified men were usually stripped naked before being nailed to the cross. Yet in the resurrection Jesus will be re-clothed not only in his resurrected body, but with a spiritual dignity and honor that surpasses all measure.

Once again the two brackets are alerting us how to read the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I concede that if this is what Mark is doing with this strange inclusio, it is very subtle theology. But if we have been paying close attention as we read all the way through Mark’s gospel, we come to realize that though he is abrupt at times and sparing in words, Mark is an extremely subtle theologian. And if we are to catch his depths, we cannot skim through his gospel.


Living Life in the Shadow of the End

Jesus offers surprising counsel on how to behave as we face the coming end of history or of our personal lives.

Autun_St_Lazare_Tympanon - Version 2
The Last Judgment as depicted in the west tympanum of the Cathedral of Saint Lazare in Autun, France.

Several years ago, when I was working as a pastor, a young man who was attending our church asked to meet with me. He needed some guidance, he said, on a serious question that troubled him.

When we met, I asked what question was agitating him so much. He had apparently been exposed to some dispensational theology on the End Times, possibly the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. If Jesus would be returning to earth at any moment and usher in the end of history, what should he as a Christian do to prepare for that momentous event?, he asked with some clear anxiety.

I suggested that the best answer to that question could be found in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 24, we find Matthew’s version of what scholars call the Little Apocalypse.

In this passage Jesus offers a description of what will happen just before the end of history. The description has many confusing and alarming features, typical of an apocalyptic vision in the Jewish tradition. It culminates in the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. This mysterious figure sends out his angels into all the world to gather the chosen ones into his kingdom. (Mark has a version of this vision in Mark 13, and Luke in Luke 21.)

Keep Awake

Jesus ends his teaching with an admonition to his disciples: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming (Matthew 24:42).

This admonition immediately raises another question. What does it mean to keep awake. This is the same question the young man was asking me, except in different words.

Matthew does not keep us hanging. He answers the question immediately as he recounts four parables that Jesus taught. They all focus on what we need to be doing to keep awake as we await the end. (When I use the word the end, I understand those words in two ways. One can be the end of history; the other our personal end at the moment of our death. What Jesus says applies equally to both.)

The Parable of the Faithful Steward

The first parable (Matthew 24:45-51) is not really a story so much as an extended metaphor. Jesus uses the analogy of the steward an estate owner appoints to manage the estate and its personnel as the master goes on a long journey. The servant’s particular responsibility is to provide for the feeding of the other servants.

Jesus then remarks, Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives [home] (Matthew 24:46). The point of the parable is to caution his disciples not to become lax, complacent, and indulgent in their duties, especially their duties in carrying for others for whom they are responsible. They are to always provide responsible and faithful care.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

 The second parable (Matthew 25:1-13) tells the story of ten bridesmaids who await the arrival of the bridegroom’s wedding procession to pick up his bride. As the bridegroom delays, the girls fall asleep, but have oil lamps burning.

When the bridegroom approaches, five of the girls, called the wise ones, have extra oil with which to trim their lamps and keep them burning. The other five, the foolish ones, did not bring extra oil. They rush to buy more, but while they are gone, the bridegroom arrives. The five foolish girls are left out of the wedding banquet.

As I read this parable, I interpret the oil lamps as the traditional disciplines of Christian spirituality–disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, participation in the sacraments, meditation, contemplative prayer, etc. These disciplines pour spiritual oil, we might say, to our spiritual lives, keeping them burning.

The Parable of the Talents

 In the third parable (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus tells a story of a master who departs on a journey but before he goes, he hands over varying amounts of money (called talents) to three servants. He expects them to invest it. Two do, with extraordinary returns–100% over the invested capital. But the third servant, fearing a loss, buries the money in the ground, keeping it safe for his master’s return.

When the master returns, the first two servants receive extravagant commendations from their master for their return on their investment. But the third one receives utter condemnation. By abiding to his spirit of fear, the third servant not only loses the original principal the master gave, but he is banished from his master’s service and presence.

The point of this parable, as I read it, is that we have all been given talents and abilities, some more than others. Yet all of us are accountable for using those talents and abilities in service to God, the world, and our own lives. The call is to take risks with what we have been given rather than going through our lives cowering in fear and apprehension.

The Parable of the Last Judgment

Finally we come to the fourth parable (Matthew 25:31-46). This final parable provides a vision of the Last Judgment. The nations (notice not just individuals, but also nations) are called before the Son of Man for judgment.

Admittance into his kingdom, however, does not rest upon believing correct doctrines or upon the depth of their piety. Rather their admittance depends how they have treated the disadvantaged in the world. Have they fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the sick and those in prison?

This parable remains a sober reminder that how we treat our neighbor, especially our neighbor in need, has eternal consequences. And so as we live our lives, we need to be taking our responsibilities to the needy and disadvantaged with utmost seriousness.

The Point of the Parables

Now when we look at these four parables, we find Jesus counseling behavior that looks remarkably like living responsible lives in the world. It is not advocating anxious behavior to withdraw from the world and live in spiritual isolation, as we see sometimes in apocalyptic groups like the Branch Dividians or the Jonestown community.

Nor do these parables sanction alarmist behavior like the 19th century Millerites who abandoned jobs and sold all their property in anticipation of the return of Christ on March 21, 1844.

Rather what comes across in these two chapters of Matthew is wholesome living in this life and world, balancing a life of simultaneous inner cultivation of the spirit and outer service to others, especially others in need. This is true preparation for the End, whether that be the end of history or our own personal death. Alarm and panic over the approaching end of history is not fully warranted, though emotional sobriety, calmness, and alertness about our responsibilities in life are.

This is what I tried to share with this young man who came to see me. But I guess it was not the answer he was looking for. We never saw him in our church again.



Divine Desolation

Mark’s account of the death of Jesus is the bleakest of the four gospels, yet it evokes a surprising sense of awe.

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

Of the four gospels’ accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, I find Mark’s account (Mark 15) the bleakest.

Jesus dies utterly alone. All his disciples have fled out of fear of the authorities. Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ mother being at the foot of the cross, as John does. Only three women, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and Jose, and Salome, witness his death. They do so from a distance.

In Mark a barrage of abuse accompanies Jesus in his death. In the Roman judgment hall, the Roman soldiers mock him. They spit on him and pay mock homage. The passers-by at the crucifixion site deride him. The priests and scribes witnessing his death mock him as well. In Mark both of the bandits crucified with him also taunt him. There is no mention of the repentant thief that we find in Luke.

Jesus’s final words in Mark are the quotation from Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1) Jesus seems to be saying that even God his Father has abandoned him. The bystanders misunderstand and therefore distort this final cry of desolation. They think Jesus is calling on Elijah to come to his rescue.

These final words in Mark contrast sharply with Jesus’s last words in Luke, where Jesus’ final cry is: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23:46). This seems to be a much more faith-filled acceptance of death than the words of Psalm 22. They follow upon Jesus’ earlier compassionate words on the cross: Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke 23:34)

And in John, Jesus’ final words are a kind of triumphant declaration: It is finished (John 19:30). It is as if Jesus is the valiant soldier, who has achieved his assigned objective, and now in his dying breath declares: “Mission accomplished.”

There is none of these positive notes in Mark’s account. Jesus not only dies alone, but in deep darkness. Mark says a gloom descends upon the land even though it is noontime. It is as if the whole of creation is closing in on Jesus to suffocate him.

A Mystifying Turn in a Bleak Account

It is because of this bleak account that I find so surprisingly unexpected the final words in Mark on Jesus’ death. They are the words of the Roman centurion who presides over the crucifixion. Mark quotes the soldier as saying: Truly this man was God’s Son! (Mark 15:39).

 An alternate translation of the Greek could also be “Truly this man was a son of God.” The right translation does not concern me, even though it will some who worry this alternate translation disparages Jesus’ divinity. What jumps out at me is this startling comment from a Gentile who apparently had never had any previous contact with Jesus.*

Mark says the comment was provoked by the centurion’s observation of the way Jesus died.

This raises for me the question: What was it about the way Jesus died that would evoke such a startling comment from a bystander who had probably witnessed many a crucifixion? It seems to be all the more extraordinary given Jesus’ final words in Mark. We are left with a mystery.

If their accounts give us accurate reports on the crucifixion, then Luke’s and John’s accounts of Jesus’ dying words may give us some insight into the centurion’s reaction. Comments like those Luke and John record would have likely been highly unusual in a normal crucifixion. And given the barrage of abuse he endured, it is surprising that Jesus never responds with words of anger, cursing, and vituperation such as many a dying man on a cross might have hurled back at his abusers.

But there was something unusual about Jesus’ death that evoked this judgment from the centurion. It is as if the centurion was able to discern the presence of the divine in this moment of desolation. This is what I presume that Mark wants his readers and listeners to discern as well.

What was it that opened the centurion’s eyes to this perception? We cannot know, but as in his life so also in his death, Jesus’ actions evoked a sense of awe from some of the people who encountered him.

Two Awesome Deaths

As I read Mark’s account, I am reminded on another death where the manner in which the condemned man died results in a kind of awe from bystanders. It is the death of Socrates, as recounted in Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo. Like Jesus’ execution, Socraetes’ death too is an blatant act of injustice. But when you read Plato, you get the sense of awe that Plato and Socrates’ other companions had as they witnessed Socrates’ calm acceptance of his approaching death. They must have been mystified by it.

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ death, there are not the notes of placid calmness that we find in Plato. Jesus’ death is much more unsettling. Mark punctures any pious Pollyanna complacency we might feel about that death. Yet Jesus’ death too issues in an emotion of awe on the part of the centurion. That is part of the drama of Mark, and part of the drama of the Christian gospel.


* I am aware some people question whether Mark records facts accurately. Is the centurion’s comment Mark’s embellishment? We can never know. But the issue of historicity does not concern me. I enter into the story as Mark tells it. And I ask the question that the story raises within me.


Christ is Risen: How Do We Know?

Belief in Christ’s Resurrection Suggests We Live in an Open Universe.

The traditional Eastern Orthodox depiction of Christ’s resurrection from the Church of the Chora in Istanbul, 14th century.

During this holiday weekend, Christians around the world will shout out the ancient Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Critics of Christianity–as well as sometimes our own doubting selves–keep asking the question: How do we know that it is true? Is it just one vast delusion or even an egregious lie?

Categories of Evidence

The New Testament offers three categories of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The first is its stories of the empty tomb. When men and women on Easter morning come to the tomb where Jesus was buried, they find it open. Entering in, they find the grave clothes but no body in repose.

They also encounter strange figures in the tomb, which some gospel writers identify as angels. These strangers offer the meaning of the empty grave clothes. Jesus has risen, the angels tell them (see Matthew 28:1-8).

The second category of evidence the New Testament writers offer is the personal encounters various disciples have with Jesus. These include the encounter Mary Magdalene has with Jesus in the garden (John 20:1-18), the encounter the eleven disciples have with Jesus on Easter evening behind locked doors (John 20:19-23), and the encounter two disciples have with Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).

The gospel writers suggest that these encounters are more than ghostly visions by emphasizing very material things that Jesus does during these encounters. Luke, for example, tells us that the risen Jesus eats a fish in the presence of his disciples (Luke 24:41-43). John says that Jesus invites doubting Thomas to place his finger in the wound scars on his body.

What is fascinating to me about these two categories of evidence is that they depend upon each other for their full persuasiveness. The empty tomb, for example, has been challenged ever since ancient times. People have charged that someone stole Jesus’ body, or his disciples moved it.

The empty tomb is not persuasive by itself. But if you balance it with the stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples, then the empty tomb begins to take on more persuasive power.

Likewise the stories of the encounters with the risen Jesus have been challenged. Some charge that they represent wishful thinking on the part of the disciples or possibly some kind of group hallucination.

Those challenges become harder to sustain when the evidence of the appearances is combined with the evidence of the empty tomb. If the tomb was truly empty of a body, then the appearances may be something more than ghostly apparitions.

So we find the two categories of evidence do not work well alone. They must work in tandem to support each other.

The Evidence of Changed Lives

The New Testament also offers a third category of evidence. That is the changed lives of the disciples.

The gospels are blunt that the resurrection of Jesus comes as a surprise to his disciples. They do not expect it. Instead the picture we get in the gospels of the disciples after the crucifixion is one of fear and disillusion.

The gospel of John, for example, says that when the risen Jesus appears for the first time to his eleven disciples on Easter evening, they are gathered in fear behind locked doors. They were afraid for their own lives.

When Jesus encounters two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s gospel, and they tell him of the events that have just happened in Jerusalem, they conclude their narrative with what I consider some of the most despairing words in the Bible: But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21). That word had speaks volumes about their true feelings.

And the gospel of John tells us that after the events of the crucifixion, the disciples return to their old jobs of fishing on the Sea of Galilee (John 21). It’s as if now that their hopes have been dashed, they return to old, abandoned occupations.

Yet when we turn the pages after the Gospel of John, we find in Acts stories of these same disciples boldly preaching about Jesus despite all orders from the ruling authorities to cease. When the Sanhedrin orders Peter to stop preaching, he (the one who had denied Jesus three times out of fear) refuses, saying, We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

The other writings of the New Testament show these same disciples as well as others confidently presenting their message without any cowering fear for their own lives. Despite fierce opposition from both Jewish and Gentiles sources, they continue to boldly scatter out into the world with their message.

How do we account for this dramatic change? Something clearly happened that changed the way they looked at life and how they felt about their lives. Something extraordinary, in fact.

Identifying that something is one of the greatest challenges any historian of Christian beginnings faces. The New Testament attributes the change to the impact of Jesus’ resurrection and his subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit. These changed lives then become the third category of evidence. For me personally, it is the most convincing of the three categories of evidence.

The Challenge to Our World View

Whether any one individually finds these three categories persuasive will depend in large part on how willing we are to concede that we may live in a far more open and mysterious universe than we commonly imagine.

Those of us who are heirs of the Enlightenment live with an understanding of the world where the world’s natural processes are governed by scientific laws of nature. These laws not only describe how the universe operates but also how the universe must operate. The picture of the universe they give us is of a universe that is a closed system. And it permits no exceptions to its iron laws. This is why Enlightenment thinkers were convinced that all miracles were impossible.

This is the common vision of the world that I suspect most people absorb from their rather rudimentary education into the sciences. In that vision something as exceptional as a true resurrection is impossible. It cannot be believed.

To even concede the possibility of a resurrection, therefore, involves a willingness to accept that the Enlightenment view of the universe as a totally closed system may just be wrong. Modern science as it has developed in the 20th century with such things as relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. gives evidence that scientists may not be able to be so dogmatic about the universe as scientists sometimes seem to be.

Life and the universe may be just more open and mysterious than we are able at the moment to understand. If we accept the Easter proclamation as true, then we must be prepared for all our presuppositions about the universe and life to be shaken. And that includes our presuppositions about how we should live. An open universe becomes an invitation into a journey that will constantly shake us up and startle us, but at the same time astound us with its beauty and surprising hopefulness.

May I wish you all an Easter of joyful surprises.

What’s the Measure of Our Knowledge?

Jesus invites us to raise the ceiling level on our spiritual understanding.

In a block of parables (Mark 4:1-34) that Jesus teaches his disciples, he makes the following comment:

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mark 4:24-25).

It’s a puzzling statement, especially if you think Jesus is talking economics. In that context, Jesus seems to be giving sanction to blatant financial inequality. But the context in which the two verses appear shows that Jesus is not referring to financial concerns. He is talking about understanding the word of God and the pursuit of wisdom.

In that pursuit, Jesus is saying, I believe, that the amount of effort we put into the pursuit will in part determine what we find in our pursuit. So when we seek to understand the word of God, give full attention to our effort. Otherwise we will miss a lot, maybe miss the most important things.

If we take Jesus’ word seriously, it makes a difference in the way we read the Bible. When we hear the Bible read in church or we open our Bible on our lap to read, we need to give it as much of our attention as we can at that moment.

This does not mean we will understand everything we hear or read. We won’t. The Bible is full of puzzling statements. But if we listen intently, we stand a better chance of absorbing what the text actually says rather than what we think it says.

We may notice, for example, that the text surprises us by its peculiar choice of words. That’s not what we expect the author to say, but he does. That may cause us to ask why, and from pursuing an answer we may stumble onto a new insight.

Tools for Paying Close Attention

The practices of exegesis are one of the ways we try to listen intently to what the text says. Those practices are designed so that we do our best to draw the author’s meaning out of the text rather than reading our own meaning into the text.

These practices are not, however, peculiar to Bible reading. I first learned the basics of exegesis in a college class in poetry writing. We use these same techniques when we try to read any literary text closely.

In a future blog, I will try to describe some of these basic principles as I have come to practice them.

A second way we can let the text sink deeply into our consciousness is a form of Bible reading known as lectio divina (Latin for divine reading). This is a very old technique with roots in ancient Israel and Christian monasticism. It seeks to turn Bible reading into a means of prayer. It is also the roots of the Evangelical practice of the quiet time.

In lectio divina we are not trying to understand the text, but let the words sink into our consciousness and take root. As we read we stop at a word or phrase or sentence that reaches out and grabs our attention. We then turn that word over and over in our mind, as a cow chews its cud, exploring the different facets of that word, trying to understand why it speaks to us.

In the process the word, phrase, sentence stands a chance of becoming rooted in our memory. It is because of this practice, I suspect, that the words of Scripture became so embedded in the character and thought of the Church Fathers and the monks. It was almost as if they breathed Scripture.

The Spiritual Principle Behind Jesus’ Saying

Now the interesting thing in this Marcan saying is that Jesus seems to be saying that the measure of attention we give to listening will determine to a large degree the measure of insight we receive. In-depth listening will be rewarded with in-depth and growing insight; lazy, superficial listening will be rewarded with shallow insight. And the one who neglects listening runs the risk of losing whatever insight he or she has.

Jesus’ saying does not promise that careful, attentive listening will be rewarded with perfect understanding. No one, especially as an individual, is granted that blessing. But careful, attentive listening will open the door of the mind to ever deepening understanding.

Behind this saying of Jesus lies an even deeper spiritual principle. That is, that as we grow in the Spirit, we are granted an opportunity to grow in spiritual wisdom. And the measure of the intent of our search becomes a measure of what we will ultimately find.

This reminds me of another saying of Jesus:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

I suspect that it is an understanding of this principle that lies behind the apostle Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. He laments that he would like to speak to them as spiritual people, but he cannot because they are only beginners in the life of the spirit.

He compares them to infants that he must feed with milk, because they are not yet mature enough to eat solid food. And what shows their immaturity? The level of jealousy, strife, and quarreling that is going on in the congregation. This behavior reveals the immature level they have attained so far in their spiritual lives. If Paul were to speak about spiritual things at a deeper level with them, it would be like what Jesus describes as throwing pearls in front of swine (Matthew 7:6).

I think C.S. Lewis says something similar about growth in moral knowledge. In his book Mere Christianity, he writes:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.*

 The Sign of One’s Growth in Spiritual Wisdom

One last thing to say about this principle of the spiritual life. If we are growing in our spiritual understanding, we are not growing in infallibility. We are instead growing in our awareness of our capability of being wrong. We are confident but confidence does not award certitude. Instead we know how easy it is to get things wrong. We therefore welcome doubt as a precious companion in our journey to understand. In the highest levels of spiritual wisdom we become the most humble about what we know just as much as we are about how good we are.

* C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958. Book III, Chapter 4, “Morality and Psychoanalysis.”

Can You Summarize the Gospel in One Sentence?

How would you express the core message of the Christian gospel?

Job counselors often advise job seekers to boil down their experience, skills, and job objective into a short two-minute presentation. That is the length of a short elevator ride. It may be all the time a job seeker has to make his or her pitch to a potential employer that they meet at a networking event.

It’s a useful exercise because it helps to separate the core of one’s appeal from its elaborations. And the focal point of that elevator speech is the benefit you can provide to this employer.

Recently I took part in a workshop at a national conference on Christian education. The speaker was Dr. John Vest, Assistant Professor for Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In an adaptation on that tool of the elevator speech, he challenged us to summarize the gospel in one or two sentences.

A newspaper reporter is reputed to have given that challenge to Karl Barth, whose systematic theology runs for several volumes. How, the reporter asked, would Barth summarize his massive theology in one short statement? Barth responded by quoting the children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me/This I know/For the Bible tells me so.”

A biblical condensation of the gospel

So it should be easy to take up Vest’s challenge. But it is not, especially for Presbyterians like me who value a full-bodied theological education. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing with this challenge.

What is the core message of the Christian gospel? After turning over several alternative ways of expressing that core in my own mind, ways that invariably trapped me into a swamp of words, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Gospel of John has done the job for me already. It does it in the classic words of John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 I am reluctant to use this verse in any discussion of the gospel because of how so many Christians, even well-intentioned Christians, have abused it. For example, I don’t hear the author of John saying: “You better believe in Jesus because if you don’t, God will be angry with you and damn you to hell. But if you do believe in Jesus, you will go to heaven when you die. So give your life to Jesus right now before it’s too late.”

I read the verse in a different way. First of all, I hear John announcing good news in the very first words: God loved the world. John’s gospel is not about an angry God who is so enraged at sinful humanity that God will damn every one of them if they don’t repent. John’s gospel is about a God whose character and motives are all about love, love for the creation that God has made. Compassion drives God’s actions.

That love is not reserved just for the select few he has chosen (what traditional Reformed theology has labeled “the elect”). The object of God’s love is the world (in Greek the word cosmos). I read that as every human being, indeed the whole cosmos. What lies at the heart of the gospel message is good news that God is a God of love, not wrath.

A message for the world of the walking dead

Now it is also a given for John, as well as the other New Testament writers, that the world that God loves is a flawed world. It is a world of frustrated potential. All life is born just to begin its journey to death.

Human beings particularly fall short of their potential. We dream of a life of health, abundance, harmony, and peace. But our dreams are never fulfilled to the degree we dream them. That’s why I like the way Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, describes our lives as a kind of zombie life, a life of the walking dead.* This is how I understand John when he talks of perishing. It is to live life without hope of it ever getting better.

God sent his only son, Jesus, to address this dilemma. Jesus does so not by a gory death that will somehow appease God’s bloodthirsty anger. Jesus does so by opening a pathway into that potential we dream about. By his teaching, by his actions, by his example, including his submissive death by crucifixion, Jesus manifests the way of God’s love, and then invites us to enter into that same way. This requires a radical re-orientation of our attitudes as well as our behavior.

For John, eternal life is much more than just going to heaven when we die. Yes, there is a promise in the gospel of something glorious coming after death. But the concern of John is more with life here and now.

That comes through clearly if you pay close attention to the seven miracles that John labels as “signs of Christ’s glory.” They begin with the miracle at the Cana wedding when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). This signals the mission of Jesus to transform our ordinary, routine lives into something rich and Spirit-intoxicated. It is a wonderful affirmation of the goodness and potentiality of earthly life as we live it.

The signs continue with the healing of the royal official’s son (John 4:46-54), then the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5:1-9). Jesus’ mission is about healing, both of our bodies and souls. Following these two miracles we get the sign of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (John 6:1-14) and then the sign of Jesus walking on the sea (John 6:16-24). Jesus addresses our physical needs as well as our fears and anxieties.

Then follows the two most astonishing miracles, the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) and the raising of dead Lazarus (John 11:1-44). I call them the most astonishing, because although all the signs have double meanings (both literal as well as metaphorical), the spiritual references of these two last miracles become especially clear.

What all of these signs are pointing to is the rich and complex meaning of eternal life as we encounter it in John’s gospel. All of them are about entering into a depth of life here and now that begins to fulfill God’s creative intention. Jesus will call this living life abundantly (John 10:10).

John will bring this complex meaning of eternal life to a peak where John quotes Jesus as saying: This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3). Eternal life is about a living relationship with the loving Creator. That relationship becomes a spring of living water within the believer’s heart (John 7:37-39).

For John, this focus on life is the core message of the gospel and its purpose, as John makes explicit in the concluding words of his gospel: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

 What makes the gospel message persuasive?

 The persuasiveness of this message comes, however, from the reality of the lives that Christians who accept this gospel live. If their lives manifest a sense of being more fully alive, of being people who are breaking out of the mass of the walking dead, who seem to experience enhanced living through knowing God in spite of whatever conditions of life they are living in, then their gospel will capture and attract the attention of others.

But when Christians live lives that seem to deny the love of God for humanity, lives that seem constricted, narrow, and judgmental, then their gospel will be drained of any attractiveness or power, no matter what scare tactics they may employ.

In conclusion, John 3:16 may be a superb summary of the gospel. But as my unpacking that verse shows, this summary is dense. I am stuck having to use a lot of words to explain what its means.

Which leads to my final point. I believe the simplest and clearest explanation of the gospel comes not from our words, but from the lives we live.

But now let me throw out John Vest’s challenge to you. How would you summarize the gospel in one or two sentences?


* I picked up this wonderful image from Brian Blount’s 2011 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School. The lectures were published in the book, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).



How Do We Come to Know God’s Character?

Discerning the character of God requires donning special spectacles.

In my last posting (The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience), I wrote about the crucial role of religious experience in answering the question: How do I know God is real? Religious experiences are not infallible proofs for the existence of God. Nonetheless they have played an important role in grounding my own confidence that in such experiences I confront something/someone divine that is real, not a delusion.

Believing God exists, however, does not carry one very far into a full-fledged Christian belief. After we are convinced that God is real, a new question emerges: What is the character of this divine presence we have encountered in our religious or mystical experiences?

If we base our theological reflection on a study of nature alone, we end up with more questions than answers. Is God one or many? Polytheism seems just as compatible with the evidence of nature as any monotheism. In fact, polytheism has been the preferred answer for most people in human history.

Is God good or evil, or just plain uncaring? Again if you try to answer that question by an appeal to nature alone, you get more equivocal answers. Certainly the finely tuned order of the natural world suggests that its creator is not only powerful, but supremely wise.

Is that divine power, however, beneficent? All the natural disasters that have devastated human life would suggest otherwise. At the very least the divine power is unpredictable and possibly capricious.

So where do Christians and Jews get their idea that the divine power they perceive in their religious experiences is a God of justice, love, and forgiveness, committed to their ultimate welfare?

Historical events as revelations

Christians and Jews don’t get that understanding of God from any contemplation of nature. Instead they draw these conclusions from theological reflection upon events in history where they believe God intervened and acted. These events, these acts of God as we call them, reveal God’s character, will, and intentions.

For Old Testament theology, those events include the call of Abraham, the liberation of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and their subsequent journey through the wilderness, the establishment of Israelite life in the land of Canaan, the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, the exile of the Israelites from Canaan, and their restoration to the land under the Persians.

Within those events, the experience of the Exodus is especially revelatory of the character of God. In it, we encounter a God committed to liberation, to covenant living, and to compassion for the underprivileged. This Exodus experience reveals a God committed not to the status quo, but one who leads us out of that status quo into something new and more life giving.

Through theological reflection upon this Exodus experience, the Israelites came to one of their greatest insights into the character of God. God is a God of committed, loving grace.

The book of Deuteronomy expresses this insight explicitly in a passage in which Moses addresses the people of Israel just before they leave the desert to enter into Canaan. It reads:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

This passage identifies the motive behind God’s actions on behalf of Israel as God’s gracious love and faithfulness. As the theology of the Old Testament and then of the New Testament unfolds, we find that God’s actions on behalf of Israel become the paradigm for how God relates to all humanity. God chooses all of us to be God’s people not because of our superiority, but because God dearly loves the good creation which God created.

For the New Testament, the decisive historical event that reveals and fulfills this character of God is the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Here we find revealed the depths of the compassion of God. For in those events Christians assert they discover that the character of God is supremely the character of self-giving love, a love that expresses itself in service.

The events of Jesus Christ also confirm those insights into God that we find in the Old Testament. That’s why for Christians the capstone of Biblical theology is reached in the assertion of the Gospel of John: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The Bible offers our spectacles

And here’s where the Bible comes into the picture. The Bible is a collection of writings that report these historical events where the faith communities of Judaism and Christianity have seen God’s intervention into history. The Bible also gives us the theological reflections that those believing communities have used to interpret those events. Through that dialogue between the events and the theological reflections upon those events, our confident assertions about the character of God emerge.

It is for this reason that the Bible continues to play such a central role in the life of faith within both the Jewish and Christian communities. We return again and again to this written word to be reminded of those historical events and to be challenged by the theological interpretations that those written words give to those events.

John Calvin famously taught that the Bible is the spectacles through which we look to understand the God we perceive in both nature and human life. Whereas the God we perceive in nature remains somewhat blurry, through the Bible the character of that God comes into sharp focus. The Bible is also the spectacles through which we discern the character of the God we encounter in our religious experiences.

Those who are unconvinced by the Jewish or Christian faiths will be forever puzzled as to why we believers give such importance to these writings from the ancient world. For much of the modern world, science provides the interpretative spectacles through which we see and interpret the world. Writings that many today regard as outdated and mythical can provide no doorway into the truth.

But for people grounded in a biblical faith, it is the Bible that gives us that interpretative key. That is why we invest so much time and energy in reading, studying, and discussing this book. For in this book we discover the character of God that guides the way we worship, believe, and live.


The Spiritual Quest of David Bowie

Was Bowie a budding contemplative?

I have never been a great fan of rock music. My preferences have always run towards Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Mozart. So I have never given much attention to the rock scene.

That is, until I read the tribute that Simon Critchley wrote on the death of David Bowie. It is titled Nothing Remains: David Bowie’s Vision of Love. It was published in today’s New York Times.

It is a beautiful and loving tribute. It begins with this extraordinary statement: …for me, and for his millions of fans, he was someone who simply made life less ordinary. Indeed, Bowie’s music made me feel alive for the first time.

After reading that, I thought to myself: How many people would say that after their encounter with a worship service in most of our churches? That’s what a lot of Christians claim for the gospel. But how many Christians, let alone outsiders, really experience that sense of being fully alive?

Critchley goes on later to say: Bowie spoke most eloquently to the disaffected, to those who didn’t feel right in their skin, the socially awkward, the alienated. He spoke to the wierdos, the freaks, the outsiders and drew us in to an extraordinary intimacy, although we knew this was total fantasy. But make no mistake, this was a love story.

Does this language sound vaguely familiar? It should, for it describes the Jesus we encounter in the gospels. He, too, drew people, particularly outsiders, into an extraordinary intimacy.

Finding the Spiritual in an Unexpected Place

But what was especially impressive to me in Critchley’s tribute was how he highlighted the theme of “nothing” that recurs over and over again in Bowie’s songs. Nothing is everywhere in Bowie, writes Critchley.

Now most of us, including me, would be inclined to interpret this as a profound nihilism. But what fascinates me is how Critchley hears behind this theme of nothing, a clear Yes, an absolute and unconditional affirmation of life in all its chaotic complexity, but also its moments of transport and delight.

What Bowie was negating, as Critchley sees it, was all the nonsense, the falsity, the accrued social meanings, traditions, and morass of identity that shackled us. Says Critchley: At the core of Bowie’s music and his apparent negativity is a profound yearning for connection and, most of all, for love.

 If Critchley is right in his interpretation, then Bowie’s negativity is an expression of that spiritual virtue of detachment that contemplatives through the ages have seen as an essential condition for experiencing that deep connection, that intimate love, that they have named God. In this value given to detachment Christian contemplatives share a common understanding with Buddhist and other Eastern practitioners of meditation.

When I read Critchley, I feel strikingly at home, because the language he uses is quite resonant with the language I encounter in the masters of contemplative prayer that have so deeply shaped my understanding of the spiritual life.

I feel as if Bowie was on that contemplative quest in life, even though Critchley and probably Bowie too would not so name it. But Bowie’s yearning is cut from the same cloth as the yearning that the psalmist writes of when he says:

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God? [Psalm 42:1-2]

In saying this, I am not trying to co-opt Critchley or Bowie as anonymous Christians. Rather I am expressing my amazement at finding the spiritual in the most unexpected places. Maybe I need to broaden my musical tastes and listen more intently to the music of my own era.