Friday, February 26, 2010

Do Justice To The Event: Liquidating Undesirables

What have the Romans ever done for us?

One thing not contained on the list was crucifixion. At Calvary the story of crucifixion and the story of Jesus met. What, then, was the story told by the cross? According to Wright,

Crucifixion was a powerful symbol throughout the Roman world. It was not just a means of liquidating undesirables; it did so with the maximum degradation and humiliation. It said, loud and clear: we are in charge here; you are our property; we can do what we like with you. It insisted, coldly and brutally, on the absolute sovereignty of Rome, and of Caesar. It told an implicit story, of the uselessness of rebel recalcitrance and the ruthlessness of imperial power. It said, in particular: this is what happens to rebel leaders. Crucifixion was a symbolic act with a clear and frightening meaning.

What is often neglected is the light that this story sheds on the story of Jesus.

Jesus was executed as a rebel against Rome.

He was an undesirable who was liquidated, falling on the same sword as a political renegade. As Wright suggests,

When Jesus was crucified, the general impression in Jerusalem must have been that he was one more in a long line of would-be, but failed, Messiahs.

Here was the man who was supposed to redeem Israel from her pagan oppressors, the man who would usher in the age of Ross YHWH. But after his crucifixion, hope turned to bitter disappointment (Lk. 24:13-21).

However, was Jesus worthy of crucifixion? Was he a real threat to Rome? Though executed as a rebel, he was surely not guilty of the charge in the conventional sense of the word. After all, what kind of rebel insists on turning the other cheek and going the extra mile? Nonetheless, his announcement that YHWH was becoming king carried with it some sort of threat to all other kingdoms. YHWH’s kingdom may not have been a kingdom of this world, but it was a kingdom that Jesus prayed would be manifested on earth as it is in the heavens, to the detriment of present earthly kingdoms.

Pontius Pilate must have contemplated such things as he was warned by the Jewish authorities that do fail to execute Jesus would be to make oneself an enemy of Caesar. Pilate didn’t want to do what the Jews wanted him to do (apparently he never wanted to do what the Jews wanted him to do), but he also didn’t want to make Tiberius angry. He knew Jesus was innocent of the charges laid against him, he knew he wasn’t the rebel the Jews painted him out to be, but…

And so caught between a rock and a hard place, he washed his hands in an attempt to absolve himself, but the fact remains that under Pilate’s watch, Jesus was crucified. Therefore,

In terms of the Roman authorities, the answer to the question ‘why did Jesus die?’ is that Pilate not only put cynical power-games before justice…, but also, on this occasion, put naked self-interest before both.

Jesus died under the sovereignty of Rome, charged (rightly or wrongly) with sedition. To onlookers, his crucifixion was nothing less than his utter degradation and humiliation at the hands of the empire. The question now becomes, what did his crucifixion look like to those Jews who did their utmost to get him hanging on that cross? Why were they so desperate for Jesus to die?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Mere Words

What makes him want to do this?

He stands in front of dozens of people. Most of the eyes in the room are fixed on him. Others are glimpsing at the clock on the wall. This is no Las Vegas casino. Time matters, and how he manages it is key to his success. There has just been a mass exodus from the room. Not a good start. And as the hoards left, no doubt some of those remaining sat there with jealous hearts, desperate for a time when they could follow suit. But they continue seated, duty triumphing over desire.

He surveys the onlookers from an elevated position. A necessary evil. They don’t look as happy as they did not so long ago. And now they are sitting instead of standing. He sometimes wished they stayed standing. Perhaps that would at least give the illusion of attentiveness or interest.

Water, water. He searches the shelves on the awkward looking piece of wooden furniture in front of him, eventually finding a glass half-full (or half-empty) of the liquid he now craves. Just a sip is enough to throw his eyes wide open, realising that this is last week’s vintage. A fit of coughing ensues, but he puts his hand up to signal that he is all right. This would be a good place for a joke, but he can’t think of one. All he can think about is a small section of the large book now resting atop that timber frame.

He spent all week pouring over it, worrying about it, sometimes despairing about it. His task was to take this ancient book and bring it to life. The people now opposite him expect impact. They expect an encounter. They expect transformation. They expect the impossible, he often thinks. These are just words, and he is simply telling them their meaning. Is there even a point?

But he recalls a time when sat where his onlookers now sit. All he heard were ‘mere’ words from the front, but these words were like entities unto themselves. They were living, breathing realities that cut him to the heart. He listened, but he more than listened. He ate and drank. He knew. Deep mysteries were being unveiled before his eyes. A story was being told, and he wanted to join in with the current cast of characters. This was the story he had been searching for. He knew it. He just knew it.

It is this encounter that causes him to stand where he now stands; the memory of it, and the hope that it can happen again. He puts his worries aside, prays to the One who longs for such encounters, and begins to tell the story of this One; he begins to preach.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Incomprehensibly Daring

The comments section at the aforementioned Storied Theology blog threw up a great quote from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber:

To the Jew the Christian is the incomprehensibly daring man who proclaims redemption to an unredeemed world.

Do Justice To The Event: Dealing With History

Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who announced to Israel that YHWH was becoming king, and who saw himself as having a special role to play in that inauguration.

This is the first 539 pages of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God in a nutshell; this is the story into which the question at hand -- why did Jesus die? -- fits. It is no timeless question answered in timeless truths, but a question which transports us into “the fullness of time”, and a question which yields to us timely answers.

As Wright remarks, by asking “why” we are involving ourselves in the pursuit of human intentionality. There are four such humans to consider: The Roman authorities, the Jewish authorities, Jesus of Nazareth, and 1st century Jews who subsequently became loyal to their crucified Messiah - Jews who could confess not long after Jesus’s death that “he loved me and gave himself for me”. Why, according to these people, did Jesus (have to) die?

And given that he did die, who was responsible? The Romans? The Jewish authorities? What about Jesus? What role did this troublesome but non-violent prophet have to play in his own downfall? Was it an integral part of his vocation, linked with all that went before it? Or was it simply the inevitable consequence that would befall anyone who rocked the boat as much as Jesus did, nothing more and nothing less?

When dealing with these questions we are dealing with history. Real, human history. Not nice ideas or religious jargon, but actions and events within space and time. Of course as with all human history precision is not an option, but complete ignorance doesn’t make anything go away. The death of Jesus remains part of the human story whether we acknowledge it or not; it may even be the pivot, the point at which all that went before it converges and all that comes after it diverges.

Society is not served by suppressing truth or inventing falsehood. The stories must speak for themselves.

The next installment will chart the role Rome had in the story of Jesus’s death.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Do Justice To The Event

Why did Jesus die?

Roughly 1,980 years ago a Jewish man from the insignificant village of Nazareth in Galilee was put to death in a roman cross. Not long after, a tidal wave swept across the Roman empire as the message of Christ crucified began to turn the world upside down. What did these message bearers see in Jesus's death? Of all the would-be Messiah's on all the crosses in all of the Roman empire, why this particular one?

The historical, political and theological answers to the opening question might just provide the clues to why Easter Sunday continues to be celebrated by millions of Christians around the world.

With Easter Sunday not long away now, I thought I'd lead into it by doing some posts (roughly one a week) on a chapter in N.T. Wright's Jesus and the Victory of God that deals with the intentions behind Jesus dying a disgraceful, humiliating death.

It's impossible to extract just one chapter from Wright's magnum opus and retain all of its significance and depth, but I will try my darnedest to do justice to the text that is Wright's attempt to do justice to the event.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

His Morning and Evening Blast

I had what you might call a Corinthian Valentine’s Day.

On Sunday the 14th of February I indulged in not one but two communion services. Like a drug addict getting his morning and evening blast, I got my morning and evening fix of the elements. As in Aspen, this Valentine’s Day the blackcurrant juice flowed like wine, and I drank till I was merry.

I have to say, there was something quite special about breaking bread on Valentine’s Day, the day of love. Saint Valentine, after all, was (allegedly) a martyr for the sake of Jesus, who himself died for the sake of others. And before Jesus died, he had one final meal with the ones he called “friends”.

It was not an especially romantic meal, but love was in the air. True love. The kind of love that compels a master to wash his servant’s dirty, dusty feet. The kind of love that causes someone to dedicate themselves to having their body broken and their blood shed, for the sake of others and for the sake of newness and for the sake of making things right.

(It’s worth noting that there’s not even a hint of sex in the above description, which is so foreign to our thinking today that all but equates love and sex.)

At my evening fix, one of my fellow “young adults” gave a short talk before we shared in The Lord’s Supper which really brought things to life. He had several points, but one in particular resonated with me. It was simply this:

Jesus isn’t afraid of our sin.

So often we think that we have to get ourselves right before approaching God; before being in his presence. But in fact it is the very presence of God that makes us right. As Jesus demonstrated throughout his life and at his death, his wholeness is more powerful than our brokenness. It does not scare him away but rather incredibly, it draws him near; near enough to touch us and to change us. It is we who are afraid, but we needn’t be. We are encouraged to encounter god’s grace boldly, because we are dealing with a prodigal god who just can’t help himself when it comes to loving us.

Communion on Valentine’s Day was a moving way to remember this, and amidst all of the hype and pseudo-love, it helped me to fix my eyes on what love really looks like.

Nail pierced hands, wounded side
This is Love
This is Love

Thursday, February 11, 2010

How To Read: A Call To Tear Down

Jesus fought the law, and the law appeared to be losing.

This was perhaps the conclusion prominent readers of Scripture were coming to as they observed the would-be Messiah tear down their traditions and rebuild something new in their stead. If there is one thread running through each of the last three posts on how Jesus read Scripture -- and I would contend that there are several -- it’s that his was a reading that generated conflict - conflict with the satan in the wilderness, conflict with his neighbours in Nazareth, and conflict with the scribes and Pharisees in Galilee. One might even say, with the benefit of hindsight, that Jesus’s reading of Scripture was what got him killed, but I’m jumping the gun.

Matthew 9 presents another conflict scene, and once again Jesus and Scripture are at the heart of things. This time he’s not eating with defiled hands, but rather eating with defiled people - tax collectors and sinners. Those pesky Pharisees want to know why this is happening. They appear to be caught between two minds. On the one side, they recognise some kind of authority in Jesus, both in his words and actions. But on the other, he’s just not playing by the rules! And of course if Jesus was truly god-ordained, he would look much like them…or so they thought, anyway. So they ask “Why?” in order to expose Jesus as the charlatan they thought he was.

Jesus is wise to their games, however. He points out that the kingdom agenda of the Pharisees takes care of the healthy; his own kingdom agenda -- the true kingdom of god -- takes care of the sick. Then he tells them to “Go and learn what this means”:

I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.

These words are taken from the prophet Hosea, with YHWH being the speaker. He is the “I” who desires mercy, and not sacrifice. So, what does this mean? How does this relate to Jesus’s table fellowship with the unclean? What were the Pharisees supposed to go and learn? What had Jesus learned from his own reading of this passage?

Whatever else we can say about this passage, Jesus’s reading of it produced the following outcome: He was communing with the sick/unclean, and calling them back to YHWH.

It seems that Jesus read this passage as authority to bypass the sacrificial system -- a system set up by YHWH under Moses no less. The cultic law was always a pointer towards a greater reality, and with Jesus being the very enfleshment of God, that reality was at hand. Therefore the barriers inherent in the system -- barriers between God and man, between the clean and the unclean -- were being done away with in Jesus’s ministry. Compassion was the order of the day; knowledge of God was trumping burnt offerings.

This is why Jesus could fraternise with those whom the law would call “unclean”; this is why he could touch the untouchable. The Pharisees knew the law all right, but they did not know the power of God nor the heart of God. Their interpretation was of the letter, not of the spirit. They read Scripture with a view to exclude; Jesus read it with a view to embrace.

So often we read Scripture in such a way that builds barriers. Here Jesus reads in it a call to tear them down. And at the heart of it all is the desire of YHWH, who longs to know his children and be known by them, from the least to the greatest.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Not A Court Drama

There is a new blog on the market by scholar J.R. Daniel Kirk. Just when I was beginning to question the raison d'etre of blogs, reading Storied Theology gave me hope. For example, how about this for pulling the pin out of a grenade and launching it into the ranks of centuries of theology:

The structure of the universe is not law, the story of the universe is not a court drama.

Now I like A Few Good Men as much as the next person, but I think I'm ready to hop on board Kirk's train when he says this.

And then there's his take on the one we Christians call "God":

We have not spoken of the Christian God when we have spoken of a “spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” We have talked about an ideal for a divinity. We speak of the Christian God when we speak of the God who has acted to send His own Son, to give that Son up for us all, to raise that Son from the dead, and to see to it that the message of this son is sent to the ends of the earth.

In other words, one of the most important pay-offs for being willing to have our transhistorical theological categories exchanged for the biblical categories is that it creates space to reconceive of the identity of God as put on display in the biblical narrative itself: a God who is relentlessly on mission to draw the world to Himself.

Praise be to the blogging gods, for they have looked favourably on us in this new year.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Down With That Sort Of Thing

...real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. Only in the empire are we pressed and urged and invited to pretend that things are all right....And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.

But think what happens if the Exodus is the primal scream that permits the beginning of history.

- Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination

Christianity has been the single most creative cultural, ethical, aesthetic, social, political, or spiritual force in the history of the West, to be sure; but it has also been a profoundly destructive force; and one should perhaps praise it as much for the latter attribute as for the former, for there are many things worthy of destruction.

- David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions
Criticism, destruction, grieving - not words you'd associate with Western Christianity today. Perhaps not even words we would want to be associated with.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Religious Experience

Sometimes life and football combine to form a religious experience; a moment of sheer transcendent beauty that makes you conclude that there is after all a God...and right now, he is a Barcelona fan.

In May of 2009 I had one such moment, and thanks to YouTube I can relive it again and again and again.

There is so much to enjoy from this minute and a half that I don't know where to start. In real time I was resigned to Barcelona's fate. Alves hit a rare decent cross into the box, but Terry seemed to have extinguished the threat. Then, through a combination of luck and carelessness, the ball was at Messi's feet just outside the Chelsea box. Chelsea fans in Stamford Bridge could immediately be heard inhaling nervously; Barcelona fans edged out of there seats. At least I did anyway. Finally, in a scene reminiscent of the one in Mighty Ducks D2 where Mendoza passes the puck back to the goaltender of all people, Messi strokes the ball towards the unassuming Iniesta. The rest is very much history.

I rarely get demonstrably excited, but this had me bouncing up and down on the couch and hugging my friend beside me. Of course that was nothing compared to Barcelona's celebrations. Iniesta removed his shirt and started swinging it around awkwardly. Most of his teammates jumped on top of him near the corner flag, many of whom had run from the Barcelona bench. Then the camera cuts to Ashley Cole looking utterly dejected, which brings things to a whole new level.

The focus shifts to Pep Guardiola, who is scampering back towards his own bench (we see why in a few seconds) frantically gesturing towards whatever substitutes weren't lying on top of Don Andres at that particular moment. Andy Grey sums it all up for us as a replay of the goal is shown:

"No wonder this is the sport we love."

Indeed, Andy. All eyes move to the reaction of the Barcelona bench as the goal is scored. We witness Pep running down the touchline with arms flailing and eyes looking to the heavens, no doubt with a mix of disbelief and gratitude.

Unbelievable. Unscripted drama at its very best. This is the sport I love. This video tells you why I love it.

How To Read: Where Is Your Heart?

What happens when the heart just stops?

We usually fake it. We fake sympathy, we fake joy, we fake love. Our lips move, but they are so out of sync with our hearts that you’d swear you were watching Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live symbolically re-enacted.

Much of Jesus’s ministry zeroes in on the heart. His reading of Scripture reflects as much.

In one story from Mark 7, Jesus finds himself confronted by a group of Pharisees. These were the zealous keepers of law, who saw strict adherence to it as the mark of true Judaism. Their law determined who was in and who was out. The question for them was, where did Jesus stand? Could he be trusted by them to do things their way?

Evidently not, because on account of his disciples’ “unlawful” behaviour they were forced to ask him,

“Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

Jesus replies by transporting the words of Isaiah to the present time:

“This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

This quotation highlights a dramatic role reversal not unlike the one seen at Nazareth. The keepers of the law, the ones so scrupulous in their desire to remain uncorrupted, are seen by Jesus to be part of corrupt Israel. And as YHWH judged Israel through Isaiah the prophet, so Jesus was bringing that judgement to a climax through his own ministry.

Unlike much modern usage of Scripture, Jesus did not here employ it to form doctrines or rules to beat others over the head with. That’s not to say doctrines and rules are bad; it’s just that that’s not their purpose. After all, Jesus did not intend to add burdens, but to remove them.

Instead, Jesus reads Scripture in terms of man’s relation to YHWH. We saw this already in the wilderness, where all of his quotations centred on this relationship. The question for the Pharisees was, Where do you stand in relation to the traditions of the elders? The question for Jesus is, Where do you stand in relation to God? Are you far from him, or are you near?

Of course the Pharisees probably thought that meticulous keeping of the traditions reflected right covenant relations with YHWH. For them the two were intertwined. For Jesus, it was a matter of the heart. If our reading of Scripture leads is in any other direction, we are not reading it as Jesus read it.

Finally, his relationship with the Law is again shrouded in mystery here. According to Jesus, it does not matter what food goes into a person’s mouth. This flies in the face of much of what we read in Torah, which speaks at length about what food should and shouldn’t be consumed. And yet Jesus claims elsewhere not to be doing away with The Law, but to be fulfilling it (Matt. 5).

Normally I’d interpret that "fulfillment" as Jesus coming to meticulously keep all of the laws written in Scripture, but Jesus’s words and actions towards the Pharisees and his own reading of Scripture put that interpretation in jeopardy.