The violent entering the kingdom of God

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ (Matthew 15:34-39)

This is by way of a postscript to last week’s comments. Never mind the bystanders whose grasp of Hebrew/Aramaic is less than perfect (my grasp of either is nil!), and who give Jesus drink purely to prolong the spectacle (or do they actually want him rescued?). What has recently stood out for me is the centurion’s response. This man is not only a) a Gentile in the service of the occupying forces but also b) a man who lives by violence or the threat of it. And yet it is he who gets the point, while the others miss it.

You might expect this soldier to come out with his ground-breaking statement after Jesus has said ‘It is finished’ or perhaps after that touching scene with his mother and the disciple John. It would be even more appropriate, perhaps, if he were to make his profession of faith after hearing Jesus say ‘Father, forgive them’, and thus publicly renounce violence and embrace non-resistance. But he doesn’t. Instead, he speaks immediately after Jesus has cried his apparently most despairing utterance from the Cross. At this point, Jesus appears to be utterly defeated, throwing in the towel at his abandonment by his previously ever-present Father.

Yet it is here that the centurion recognizes the universal principle I suggested last week: ‘Power is made perfect in weakness’. Here, when Jesus is desperate, unable even to move, hardly able to speak, that a man of violence gains his insight into the victory that is expressed in absorbing violence, not returning it. Dare we act any differently, when we are threatened? Because when we meet violence with violence, our gospel is null and void. Only when we suffer violence and refuse to return it, do we have any good news for the world.

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Whose power, whose weakness?

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a)

Recently I was at a conference on mental health issues and Christian responses to them. I heard one speaker quote from this passage, using the words ‘For my power is made perfect in your weakness’. ‘No’, I thought to myself, ‘that’s wrong – surely it’s “my power is made perfect in weakness”; the “your” isn’t there, she or the translation she’s using has put it in.’ Now today I look at this version, the NRSV, and discover that not only is ‘your’ not there, but ‘my’ isn’t there either! Simply ‘power is made perfect in weakness’. What are we to make of this?

One reason I objected to the way the speaker had quoted it, was that it seemed to me to imply that in order for God to be powerful or strong, we had to be weak. Doesn’t this sound rather like a bullying or abusive God? What kind of Father (or Mother) requires their children to be weak so that they can show their power? Surely a creator God would want her/his children to exercise the strengths and gifts that God had placed in them, not to relinquish those strengths to make God even more triumphant?

What I originally wanted to say in this post was something like this: Without the ‘your’, surely Paul is saying here that God’s power is made perfect in God’s weakness; that when God is a helpless, incontinent, uncoordinated baby in a feeding trough, or when that baby, grown up, is nailed wrist and foot on an instrument of torture, barely able to breathe, that is paradoxically God at God’s most powerful, defeating the powers of evil and death by sheer vulnerability, by refusing to use the weapons of oppression and violence.

But now I’ve noticed that the ‘my’ is the translator’s addition too, I think there is even more going on here. Paul appears to be stating a universal law: that when God or ourselves are at our most powerless, when we refuse to use the world’s ways of gaining power, it is then that we have most impact, then that we are truly victorious. It occurs to me that there are really only two types of Christian in the world: those who think their faith makes them invulnerable, and those who believe their faith calls them to be vulnerable. I know which type I like better, and which type I aspire – though I have a long way to go – to be.

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Her-meneutic

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world (Hebrews 11:1-2)

Well, I’ve written several posts now and it’s occurred to me that while I explained on the home page what my purpose was with this blog, I haven’t really outlined what my guiding hermeneutic, or principle of interpretation, is. As we all know (or we should) there is no such thing as a neutral, unbiased, ‘plain’ interpretation of Scripture; we all stand somewhere, and operate with conscious and unconscious assumptions, and the more we can make the unconscious ones conscious, the better, or at least more transparent, our interpretation will be.

You may have noticed already that I have a leaning towards making the female characters of the Bible, and a woman-centred understanding of key passages, more visible. I make no apology for this: the Bible is vastly skewed towards male stories and male perspectives, but there is no need for us to make it more so than it already is, and there are many neglected female stories and perspectives that we can rescue. We may also note that, especially in Luke’s account, Jesus seems to go out of his way to include women both in his actions and in his parables. As a lifelong woman myself, I feel passionate about pointing this out! My hermeneutic is very much a hermeneutic, not so much a hermeneutic.

But if there is one verse (well, two really), that encapsulates my chosen approach to Scripture, this is it. Indeed, I could actually boil it down to what I consider the most important word in this sentence, the one in the middle: ‘but’. Why not ‘and’? Because what I think the anonymous author of Hebrews is saying, is that a) revelation is progressive, so new revelations may supersede or expand upon older ones, and b) Jesus, the supreme revelation of God, relativizes every other form of biblical revelation, so that since Jesus, no other part of the Bible can be read independently of his life, death and resurrection.

This is a very Anabaptist hermeneutic, though I think I was unconsciously using it long before I was consciously Anabaptist (in fact when I began to discover Anabaptism, it was not so much a new understanding, as a realization that I had already been Anabaptist for 20 years but didn’t know that was what I was). For the Anabaptist interpreter (and that means ordinary church members, not just academic theologians), Jesus is the hermeneutical key, the lens through which we view the rest of the Bible. This is much more than just searching for predictions and foreshadowings of Christ in the Old Testament; it is using the life and teaching of Jesus as a yardstick to assess any interpretation of other Scriptures, both OT and NT: if an interpretation appears to contradict the actions and teachings of Jesus, it is probably wrong.

The use of ‘but’ here says to me that while there is continuity between OT revelation and God’s self-disclosure in Jesus, there is also a radical discontinuity: ‘You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…’. And we must always balance that continuity with that discontinuity, otherwise we descend into legalism, Christendom compromises, and the error of the Galatians, who thought that salvation was by grace, but sanctification by law.

So that’s my stall set out, and I hope you will continue to buy from it. I shall continue to write here, whether anyone reads me or not. But if you do read, please do let me know what you think – it can be quite lonely sending little satellites out into cyberspace and never hearing back!

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Foursquare

  And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour. (Luke 2:52)
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ (Luke 10:25-28).

I’m sure the lawyer in this passage never did a Myers Briggs test. How would his personality type have come out? Introvert or extravert? Certainly extravert enough to brave the crowds around Jesus. Sensing or intuitive? Perhaps far enough along the sensing spectrum to want a ‘right answer’. Definitely a thinker rather than a feeler. And, given that he was a lawyer, probably more judging than perceiving. Let’s call him an ESTJ. Of course the only thing we can say for sure that he shared with Myers and Briggs was a tendency to see things in four parameters. Or was that Luke? Luke was certainly fond of pairs: every time he quotes a parable or story in which a man is the lead character, he pairs it with one in which a woman is the lead character – check it out.

Did you notice that Luke, or the lawyer, has actually misquoted, or added to, Deuteronomy 6.5? For in the original verse from Deuteronomy, only heart, soul and might are mentioned. Interesting, isn’t it, that it is a lawyer who adds the missing ‘mind’? He also merges it with the Levitical command to love one’s neighbour, which suggests that he was, not exactly a human rights lawyer (that would be an anachronism) but one who recognizes that the law is designed for human flourishing. Perhaps these two verses were commonly linked at the time; I’m not enough of a biblical/historical scholar to know.

But what interests me is that fourfold linkage of heart, soul, strength and mind. It took me years to notice how it links up with Luke’s description of Jesus’ ‘hidden years’, where he is shown as growing intellectually (wisdom), physically (years, sometimes rendered as ‘stature’), spiritually (divine favour) and emotionally/socially (human favour). This portrait corresponds perfectly to the lawyer’s quartet, as he calls us to to love God with our emotions, our spirituality, our physicality and our intellect.

In some branches of twentieth century evangelicalism, especially the non- or pre-charismatic, loving God with the mind has been prioritized over the other aspects of our humanity. And this was for good reasons: leaders such as the great John Stott wanted to give their faith an intellectual content that could stand up beside the best of secular philosopy and science. However this could at times go with a distrust of emotions and the physical, which on a popular level was expressed as ‘faith not feelings’. This dictum was right in urging us not to let our faith fluctuate with our moods. But it also did a lot of harm to those of us who leant more heavily to the Feelings side of the Myers Briggs third parameter – especially women, who could be excluded from leadership, and indeed from being listened too, because we were seen as more (read ‘too’) emotional.

I am no advocate of the late unlamented Toronto Blessing; but when Stott questioned it with the words ‘I would not want to lose control of my mind’, I did wonder how he managed to go to sleep every night! The mind is only one of the four dimensions in which we are to love God, and when it dominates, we may develop a very limited or distorted image of God.

What would it mean to love God with our emotions? With our physicality? Eric Liddell never said, and would probably never have said, that famous sentence from Chariots of Fire, but when he says it in the film, the scriptwriter is identifying something important. I suspect if we are unable to love God with our feelings and our body, we will have little understanding of what it means to love God with our soul/spirit. Because the image of God in us consists of more than our rationality. It resides in our ability to relate, to communicate, to love, to ‘enjoy the world aright’, as the C17th poet Thomas Traherne says in his wonderful Centuries of Meditation. Do this, and you will live.

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Saving us from God?

Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office;  but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:23-25)

I love Hebrews, even though its list of faith heroes in chapter 11 is not at all good on including women. But these few verses have begun to bother me. What does it mean to say that Jesus intercedes with God for us? Does it mean that a compassionate Jesus pleads with an intransigent God who would otherwise not grant our requests? It reminds me of a very profound question I saw somewhere on the internet (probably Facebook, there’s some gold there among the dross of public piety): ‘Does Jesus save us from God?’ The question was, of course, about how we view the Atonement, but it could equally be applied to the strange claim that Jesus intercedes with God for us.

Since beginning to dwell on these verses, especially verse 25, I’ve begun to see it a different way. God’s reluctance to grant what we pray for, is perhaps all in our own imagination. We pray, sometimes with desperation, but we don’t always feel confident that God is hearing or will act. Our image of God can be distorted, can suggest a God whose arm has to be twisted. Poor interpretation of the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge, can reinforce this impression. Surely the point of the parable is that if even a Judge Jefferies type can eventually be worn down, how much more quickly and willingly will God, who is not an unjust judge but a just one, receive our prayers.

What this verse in Hebrews has come to mean to me, then, is that when we pray, with however little faith, we are plunging ourselves into the stream of Jesus’ constant prayer for us. That prayer is not so much to a reluctant Father, but is rather against the evil in the world, and indeed the evil in ‘high places’. Jesus is not mediating our prayers to God; Jesus’ prayer for us represents the immeasurable longing of the whole Trinity for our good, and the good of the creation. The Father prays, the Son prays, the Spirit prays. So when we pray, we are accessing a ‘prayer force’ way beyond our little, timebound,  narrow-visioned requests. We are swept up into the great desire of God for a transformed universe.

Viewed in this light, our prayers are just a tiny drop, not only in the turbulent sea of the world’s prayers, but in the great ocean of God’s prayers. Does it mean God prays to God? And if it does, why not? After all, it is in the nature of persons to exhort themselves to achieve things. But it also means, perhaps, that God’s prayer is a word of defiance against destruction, against greed and violence, against the ‘accuser of the brethren’ (and especially the sistren…). If such a God is on our side, who indeed can be against us?

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Love at first sight?

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18 Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.”‘ 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him. (Mark 10:17-21a).

Do you believe in love at first sight? I don’t just believe in it, I’ve seen it. In fact I’ve experienced it, multiple times. There are just some people you meet, and you know instantly that they’re on your wavelength, that you want to relate to them. It’s not always sexual; I’ve felt like this about men, women, whole families, places, works of art. Something just fits. On the other hand, I’ve met people I didn’t think much of at first sight, but whom I instantly knew were going to be important in my life. One of them, I’ve been married to for 25 years!

I don’t see any reason why Jesus shouldn’t have had this common human experience. Yes, at a spiritual level he loved, and loves, everyone infinitely. But at a human level, there must have been people – and indeed we know there were people – whom he just felt drawn to more than to others. ‘Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus’ (John 10:5). ‘One of his disciples — the one whom Jesus loved — was reclining next to him’ (John 13:21).

What should we make of this apparent ‘favouritism’? If Jesus apparently loved, or at least liked, some people more than others, does that mean it’s all right for us to do the same? And does it mean he still prefers some of us to others – and if so, on what does he base that love or lack of it? Scary stuff…

Perhaps we should take a lesson from the figure representing God the Father in The Shack, who frequently remarks that she is ‘especially fond of’ X or Y’. But when asked whether there is anyone she is not ‘especially fond of’, she is unable to name any – she is ‘especially fond of’ absolutely everyone. Or to put it another way, I think God loves every single one of us exactly the same amount (which is unlimited) but each in a totally individual way according to how God has created us. Just as a good parent, in fact, does not love any one of her children more or less than the others, but at the same time, loves each in a different way.

As human beings, there are always going to be people we like or love more than others, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Only in the new heavens and new earth, when we are fully who we are meant to be, will we be able, like God, to be ‘especially fond’ of absolutely everyone – to love everyone to the same degree, but each one in an individual and totally different way. In the meantime, we will always have people we don’t warm to, or positively dislike. And when Jesus told us to love our enemies, perhaps as well as those who actively seek to do us harm, he also meant those people who have never done us any harm at all, but whom we just find irritating or unattractive or uninteresting. Maybe those are the very ones we are meant to love ‘at second, third, or umpteenth, however unwelcome, sight’. God give us the gift of being able to…

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The end of church?

 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (Revelation 21:22 )

I can’t remember the exact wording, who tweeted it or who they were quoting from, but it went something like this: ‘The church exists because of the presence of the Kingdom of God in the world’. And I immediately replied with something like this: ‘No. The church is the training ground for the Kingdom’. Then a day or so later I remembered this verse in Revelation. There is no temple in the city of God. How can that be? Is there no religion in the New Jerusalem? Surely we will still worship? This is what I think: the Kingdom does not exist to produce the church, but the church to help produce the Kingdom. The church is not a result of the Kingdom, rather the Kingdom should be a result of the church.

When the Kingdom of God comes fully, the church will be redundant. There will be no special place or time to worship, for all of life will be worship and every place will be sacred. There will be no priests or preachers – rather we will all be priests, and as for preaching, it will not be necessary. Religion, as a distinct department of life, will be dead. There will also be no politics and no government, except the government of the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. We will be holy anarchists. I can’t wait – can you?

But how do we expect to get to this holy state, this ideal world, unless we start practising our ideals now? If the church’s true calling is to make itself redundant, shouldn’t we be working on that? And doesn’t that mean, for example, that we spend as much time on campaigning against food poverty, and for greater economic equality, as we do on handing out tins at foodbanks? Because actually the point of the church is not to make converts or members but to make disciples – and a disciple is someone who learns the ways of the Kingdom and practises them. And the purpose of God is not to create more and more churches, but to bring about the Kingdom: the transformation of this world. And politics is as much a way of effecting that as charity is, if not more.

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