Sunday, August 28, 2016

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem

Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again." But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said. (Luke 18:31-34)

Of course they don't understand, he thought. Has this not always been the question since the dawn of creation? Why should there be any suffering at all?

For a while he said nothing, while his disciples followed, arguing with one another what his words meant. He contemplated the great passage in Isaiah, "Who has believed what we have heard, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?" Who, indeed? Has it not always been a struggle? How much longer, Father, must I be with this crooked generation? How much longer must I put up with them?

Yet for this reason he had come into the world. For this reason, in some sense, he had created the world. In all of this suffering he revealed his glory. Why did no one seem to understand?

Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me. Yet not what I want, but what you want.

There was always that tension within him. Maybe that famous complaint of mortals was right, after all. Why bring into being a world only to subject it to its own evil? Why should I suffer for the sake of the world? Why does it exist at all? Could there not have been a better way?

"So the Lord said, 'I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created--people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.'" Jesus couldn't help thinking about these words. He prayed in his heart, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Truly, they do not know what they are doing. But had not Job spoken what is right about God, and had not his friends kindled God's anger against them? And was not the psalmist telling the truth when he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Were not all of these complaints vindicated by the Scriptures? Perhaps mortals know more than they get credit for.

Perhaps I am the one to blame for this, he thought. Is that why I am going to die? Is the sin of the world really my own, after all? I am the light of the world... But if the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. What a fine phrase for the Prince of Peace! The suffering that I bring is not only my own, but of the whole world. If I have the power to raise the dead, why should anyone die at all?

"Why do you all me good?" He had really meant it. He knew very well that mortals had many complaints in their hearts against God. If being born man had truly taught him anything, it was that time and finitude were enough to drive anyone mad, even to the point of wondering whether the Father was there at all.

Three times he had told his disciplines exactly what was about to happen. And three times they had become distressed, not understanding what he meant. Maybe they never would understand.

As he was lost in thought, he barely noticed the blind man calling out, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" He stopped. "What do you want me to do for you?" The man said, "Lord, let me see again."

It really was so obvious. Lord, let me see again. I'm blind, so let me see. The difference between this man and the crowds is that he knows exactly what he wants.

Why is he blind? Is it just so that I can heal him? Did the world come into being for my own vanity? "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher." Even if I heal this man, will his life be any less vain?

Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has saved you." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

But no one understood why he was going to Jerusalem.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Anthropocentric religion, part 2

A while back I wrote on this blog against the complaint that Christianity is essentially anthropocentric. Yes, the universe is vast, and humans are very insignificant in relation to the whole sum of existence. That is hardly an argument against a faith which, historically, strongly affirms these claims.

But then again, experience often contradicts this fact and reinforces the idea that Christianity is a religion focused on satisfying some human psychological need. I was reminded of this a week ago during Sunday worship.

Perhaps the vast majority of self-identified evangelical churches would summarize the gospel as follows: we are great sinners, but Jesus is a great Savior, who through his sacrifice on the cross atones for our sins and loves us unconditionally, so that through faith in him we may approach God with confidence and find eternal life.

All the main elements of worship at the church where I worshiped were clearly designed to reinforced this message. From the opening remarks (in which the associate pastor confessed that he, too, is a sinner, awkwardly eliciting faux surprise from the congregation) to the songs (including a rendition of "It Is Well with My Soul" in which the instruments made sure to put a musical climax around the verse, "My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought... is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more...") to the sermon (an interpretation of Psalm 139 which, though quite sophisticated, nevertheless boiled down to, "God loves you and thinks about you even more than you do"), everything pointed one's thoughts toward our individual need for love and redemption and the good news that God satisfies these needs. (Ironically enough for an evangelical church, it was perhaps the Lord's table which made an exception to this rule, the focus being not merely Christ's atonement on our behalf, but the spiritual life he gives us by feeding us. But I digress.)

The closing hymn was none other than "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," which has the following lyrics:
I am weak, but Thou art strong,
Jesus, keep me from all wrong,
I’ll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.

Just a closer walk with Thee,
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea,
Daily walking close to Thee,
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

Through this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.

When my feeble life is o’er,
Time for me will be no more,
Guide me gently, safely o’er
To Thy kingdom's shore, to Thy shore.
Now, far be it from me to say this song is without merit as a hymn of praise. It is not wrong to celebrate one's personal walk with Jesus Christ. And yet, an outside observer could be forgiven for concluding from these words that Christianity is fundamentally about worshiping an imaginary friend who comforts individuals through hard times and assures them that one day this sad, physical, temporal existence will give way to an eternal, motionless bliss.

To be clear, I don't think the evangelical summary of the gospel is a lie. I merely think it is not a summary of the whole gospel. Where is the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ? Where is the story of God's creation? Where is the hope for the redemption of the universe? These things are also part of the gospel, and they beckon us toward something much larger than the affairs of human beings.

Consider a different hymn, "Of the Father's Love Begotten":
Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

At His Word the worlds were framèd;
He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean
In their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun,
Evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion,
Death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children
Doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Saviour of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face,
evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him;
Angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him,
and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert sing,
Evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time
Chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord,
Evermore and evermore!

Righteous Judge of souls departed,
Righteous King of them that live,
On the Father’s throne exalted
None in might with Thee may strive;
Who at last in vengeance coming
Sinners from Thy face shalt drive,
Evermore and evermore!

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father,
And, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant with high thanksgiving,
And unwearied praises be:
Honour, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory,
Evermore and evermore!
I have no idea why this is considered a "Christmas carol." It is a song which literally summarizes the entire gospel--from Christ's divine identity, to his creation, to his incarnation, to his redemption of humankind, to his final judgment. It calls in the entire universe to praise him, reminding the singer that human beings are not alone in receiving this good news.

This isn't just a long complaint about how the church needs "better music." Every element of worship is a choice affecting what members of a congregation will fix their minds on and remember. Worship is a reflection of our beliefs about God, and attending regularly will tend to shape and reinforce our beliefs about God. Just as one needs to be concerned with eating a balanced diet, so also, it seems to me, we ought to be concerned as Christians, whether our worship gives a balanced view of the gospel.

It is rather trivial to observe that most people focus on themselves most of the time. I'm not actually sure how true this is, exactly, but I know that any pastor can easily proclaim it as an unquestionable axiom of human existence. What is perhaps less trivial is how focused we are on our need for acceptance from others. Human beings have always been social creatures, dependent on family and tribe for survival, and this is only more true in a civilization in which most of our professions depend not at all on nature and the elements but wholly on ideas, technology, and our relationships with others. Beginning as children raised in schools, and continuing on as adults whose survival depends on successful performance reviews, we are obsessed with assessment. Perhaps it is no wonder that we present the gospel in these terms--God's view of our performance.

While it is certainly comforting to know that God is not like our boss--that he is loving, compassionate, patient, and forgiving--I think it would be even more eye-opening to have our gaze turned toward something other than God's assessment of us. When God spoke to Job in response to Job's complaints about suffering, he gave Job a tour of the whole creation. There is something about being reminded of our place in this universe which allows us to flourish in ways we had not understood before.

If Christian worship does not direct our minds and hearts toward the majesty of all creation, what will? Modern life doesn't reinforce the splendor of creation. We are obsessed with human creations--democracy, economy, technology, popular culture. I think it is our Christian duty to direct the eyes of human beings back toward the heavens, so that we might say with the psalmist, "The heavens are telling the glory of God," and, "What are mortals that you are mindful of them?"

Sunday, August 14, 2016

No king in Israel

"In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." -- Judges 17:6
"And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them."  -- 1 Samuel 8:7
One of the central tensions throughout the Bible is a lingering question: should Israel have a king? Deuteronomy law permits Israel to have a king and provides some guidelines for how a king should behave. When David finally does become king, he is considered a man after God's own heart, and a consistent theme in the prophets is that Israel's future hope will be found in his royal line. Judges 17:6, which is repeated in 21:25 (the very last verse), becomes a haunting theme framing the latter section of the book, which recounts one of the most disturbing stories I've read anywhere. So that seems like pretty strong evidence that Israel needs a king; it is dysfunctional without one, but under good king David, life is good.

On the other hand, we have the famous passage in 1 Samuel 8, where the people ask Samuel to give them a king, much to his disliking. In response, God explains that the people have not rejected Samuel, but rather God: "According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you." Indeed, the whole story of the exodus is not merely a story about God saving his people, but about him coming to be king. (This explains why the whole second half of Exodus gives instructions, not only concerning God's moral code, but also on how to prepare the tabernacle for his dwelling place. The Sunday school version of Exodus most often fails to get this point across very well!) It is not hard to imagine that, especially in ancient times, when a strong warrior came and liberated a people, they were inclined to make him king. In the story of the Exodus, that warrior was God. The fact that the God of the universe was not a good enough king for the people of Israel, according to Scripture, says something rather unflattering about them.

This tension is resolved in Jesus Christ. The Son of David does show up to be king and liberate Israel from its oppressors. But who is he really? The answer is that he is the God of Israel. The one who led them out of Egypt has now returned to finish the job--now he will lead them out from the bondage of sins.

And what kind of king does he intend to be? "And [Jesus] said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves." (Luke 22:25-27) This is a unique kind of king. On the other hand, it is important not to miss the continuity between Jesus in the gospels and God in the book of Exodus. Jesus gives the law and expects his people to follow it: "Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)

All of this seems essential for thinking like a Christian about the concept of liberty. The point of freedom is to be free from human kings. But the divine king does not use force. He comes to us as a servant. He expects us to obey his commandments because his words have power, not because he has weapons to enforce them.

I've noticed that a lot of Christians talking about politics try to propose the question, "What would Jesus do?" This question seems to betray a lack of faith. The proper question would seem to be, "What does Jesus do?" Do we believe him to be alive or not?

Because as far as I can see, Jesus is the most libertarian king who ever existed. I have never known him to come down and enforce his will by physical threats or punishments. And yet he is seated on high, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Or does he rule us by his words? Just as he commanded the wind and waves, perhaps he also punishes us by merely speaking.

Yet I have never known the world to abide by a simple view of justice. Jesus himself did not deserve to suffer, yet he suffered a most gruesome death. Not only that, but he called us to follow him in suffering.

I am not saying Jesus Christ is a libertarian, certainly not with all the connotations that word carries in modern American politics. But what I would guess is that he is not very impressed with all of our political reflections and ideas to make government better. Maybe, just maybe, we should start taking him seriously as our true king.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Creation story

In the beginning, there was One.

All was One, and One was all, One alone.

No one was with One, and One was with No one.

No One loved One, because One was alone. So No One was lonely, for All was One. Yet One was with No One, and One loved No One.

One was No One, for if All is One then there is only


And No One was One.

One beheld No One, as in a mirror, and No One beheld One. Their love was impossible, yet real, all at once. Because One was, One alone, One was not, that is, No One was. One begot No One.

There was One and No One, Two. And One and Two made Three.

Thus all the numbers were born.

For in the very ambiguity between existence and non-existence proceeds a relationship, that is, "two-ness" or duality. But the duality is actually a third, that is, a bond between two. Once this bond proceeds from the first two, which are really One, then all other relationships extend outward to infinity.

One and One are Two, and One and Two are Three. One and Three make Four, and then Five, Six, and Seven.

And so it goes, forever and ever.