theology as God intended…?

wordmadeflesh

There’s something that needs to be said about theology.

On Monday evening I attended a panel discussion at St. Martin’s in the Fields in Central London considering the question, ‘Does the Church Really Need Academic Theology?’ It felt to me that on the whole the panel seemed to take it for granted that ‘yes ,of course the Church needs academic theology.’ All but one of the panel had a PhD. Even as I read through the biogs of the panel in advance of the session I had a sinking feeling that the challenging aspect of the question would not be seriously considered. The sole member of the panel who could not lay claim to a doctorate (other than a honorary doctorate!) was the only one challenging the assumption that was inherent in much of the discussion. That assumption being as I stated above, ‘yes, of course the church needs academic theology.’

I remember that when I was at College we read and studied Karl Barth. I had the privilege of studying under a theologian who read Barth’s Church Dogmatics every summer and could readily and freely reference this vast work in response to many of our questions. However, while we studied, and pondered, and struggled, and wrestled with Barth’s voluminous writings – perhaps precisely because we struggled so much to understand Barth’s thought – we didn’t seem to place or comprehend those writings within their particular historical context as much as I now think would have been helpful.

And yet, it now seems perfectly obvious to me that much of what Barth wrote was precisely as a natural and obvious response to the ecclesial and social and political context in which he found himself. An very obvious example of this would be the way in which Barth’s thinking culminated in the Barmen Declaration: a severe criticism of those Christians who supported the Nazis. You can’t be a follower of Christ and at the same time accept and conform to a fascist regime. Here we have theology that is fully and courageously engaged. Here we have theology that is connected with incarnation. A follower of Jesus, in this case a professional theologian, engaged with the increasingly challenging issues of the day, wrestling to respond with Christ.

I would suggest that for many students the study of Barth is often limited to the words and concepts he wrote about the church, and God, and so on, as you might expect. But, I can’t help feeling that Barth’s writings gain their real edge, and power, when they are understood within the ecclesial, social and political context in which they were written. I can read Barth and marvel at his insights about Christ, the Christian life, or the atonement, for example, but for me these same writings take on a different gloss when they are understood contextually.

It is this engagement with life – ecclesial, social, and political – that, it seems to me, gives theology its purpose. Theology can so often be limited to what we can regard as academic theology. Theology in the academy – a learning community that occupies a limited, rarefied space, emerging from time-to-time to utter supposedly wise words to a mystified and sometimes confused public – at least to those who would even listen.

(My thoughts now are incomplete, random, and very much imperfect. And yet I am searching for something)

The term ‘theology’ in ‘academic theology’ is of course a noun. It is a thing. It is a field of study. But, I wonder whether we need to talk about theology in a more nuanced way.

When we speak of ‘theology’ as in ‘academic theology’, theology is the field of study, the subject area. Thus we should regard theology simply as a noun. Theology in this context is an objective reality – it is a mere thing, a field of study.

When we study theology, that is: when we engage in the learning process, acquiring knowledge about the writing of a particular theologian, ‘theology’ is no longer simply an objective reality. To some degree at least we are engaging with the ‘theology’ of someone. We are thinking about the reflections of theologians. How can we best describe this process? Certainly we are learning. We are learning about theology. We may think that we are doing theology – that is we are actively engaged in thinking deeply and richly about God, but I doubt it. Most often we are thinking about thinking about God. Now, without a doubt this is important. To draw on the insight of those on whose shoulders we stand. But, this – often regarded as academic theology – is not authentic active theology.thinking about

It seems to me that theology comes into its own when it is incarnated. This is when it become real, and purposeful. When it is engaged. When it is responding. This is theology as a verb. This is theology as an active, engaged process.

What I’m reflecting on here is theology-on-the-ground. The learning community/academy/community of believers wrestling with how to respond to its social, and political context. Wrestling to make a Jesus-centred response to the perverted attraction of consumerism. Or the ugliness of power. Or the apparent inconsequentiality of drones. Or the pervasiveness of post-truth / alternative facts. Or the unavailability of health care. Or the ease with which refugees are turned away. This is authentic theology. We are drawing on the reflections of others – those who have written about God before us, but we are processing those theologies through the filter of our own context. This is engaged incarnated theology.

This is theology as God intended…?

Jesus and Harry Potter’s resurrection stone…

I know it’s not Easter yet, but you might be forgiven for thinking so by the Easter displays starting to be erected the shops, but I’ve been thinking – randomly of course…What does it mean when Christians confess ‘Jesus rose from the dead’?

Resurrection Stone

Harry Potter’s Resurrection Stone

I was wondering about all this when I was watching J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2. Harry gains possession of the Resurrection Stone – a small stone that purportedly could bring back people from the dead. In the event the Resurrection Stone could only bring back a shadow or an echo or the dead person. Moreover, Harry Potter knows that the Stone has no power to resurrect him once he is dead, but the Stone brings back the spirits of some who love him so that Harry will have courage when facing his apparent inevitable death.

In this final instalment of the Harry Potter series some might have thought – and some most likely did think – that possession of the Stone was enough to bring Harry back from the dead; so he could face his nemesis Voldemort without fear. If Harry should die, then that would be ok, because the Resurrection Stone will ensure that will would come back to life. In the event Harry drops the Stone.

Did Jesus resurrect himself?

But, here’s the point and the link that I made in my mind: when Jesus faces his own death does he do so knowing that he has some vaguely approximate equivalent of the Resurrection Stone within him? Does Jesus die in possession of some innate power that means he will inevitably come back to life from death? This is a big question. Did Jesus resurrect himself from the dead?

When I was just a young lad I remember being captivated by some of the great hymns that spoke about the resurrection. For example, I remember being in church while Crown Him with Many Crowns was belted out at full volume. It was great. The second verse:

Crown Him the Lord of life,

Who triumphed o’er the grave

Who triumphed o’er the grave

And rose victorious in the strife

For those He came to save:

His glories now we sing,

Who died and rose on high,

Who died eternal life to bring

And lives that death may die.

The second and third lines imply at the very least that Jesus himself ‘triumphed over o’er the grave’ and Jesus himself ‘rose victorious’. There is no indication here that Jesus needed any help from anyone or anything else.

Likewise, the easter hymn, Low in the Grave He Lay, with a slow (boring) verse but a rousing, roof-raising refrain.

Up from the grave He arose,

With a mighty triumph o’er His foes;

He arose a Victor from the dark domain,

And He lives for ever with His saints to reign:

He arose! He arose!

Alleluia! Christ arose!

Once again there is the implication here that Jesus rose from the dead on his own steam with no help from any third party. Yes, I know I’m probably splitting too many hairs for too many people, but bear with this for just a moment. In my estimation there is a whole swathe of bible-believing Christians who would straightforwardly affirm – ‘Jesus rose from the dead’ – and assume that Jesus raised himself.

1 Thess.4

Now, the biblical text sometimes suggests that this is precisely what happened. A key example is found in the Apostle Paul’s first letter, 1Thessalonians 4:14. ‘We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.’ The verb used seems clear enough: the subject – Jesus – died, and then using the active voice, ‘rose again.’

Interestingly, the earlier reference to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in this same letter comes in 1 Thessalonians 1:10. ‘whom he [God] raised from the dead—Jesus.’ There it seems equally clear that it was God who raised Jesus from Jesus. That is, Jesus didn’t raise himself from the dead, but being dead he necessitated a third party – in this case, God – to resurrect him. It seems to me that this is a massively important point theologically.

But elsewhere, the Apostle Paul’s long section of resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, repetitively affirms that Jesus was raised and specifically by God.

that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day (1 Cor. 14:4)

‘But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor. 15:12-17).

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep’ (1 Cor. 15:20).

Jesus was dead…

First, we need to affirm that when Jesus died he was dead. That is, Jesus was brain dead; body dead; spirit dead. soul dead. The evidence of history affirms this assertion. When a human being dies they are dead, absolutely, completely and wholly dead. And for Jesus? No difference.

Humans are not naturally immortal…

Second, we need to counter the teaching that humans are immortal, and so when humans experience death, there is some part of them that continues to exist. If this were true, then it might be simple enough to affirm that when Jesus died there was something of him that continued to exist, to live, to be. I’m not sure that this is true, although I’d be perfectly willing to be proved wrong on this point. A biblical text that counters the ‘humans are to some degree immortal’ is 1 Corinthians 15:54. Here, the Apostle Paul suggests that at the point of resurrection the human being may put on immortality, but not until then. The sense here is that Paul is imagining that upon experiencing resurrection the human being will be clothed in immortality. That is, the human being does not possess immortality ontologically, but will take on immortality, or get dressed in a cloak of immortality, at the point of resurrection.

The death of the fully human Jesus…

Third, we need to counter the assertions and claims that because Jesus was God he could not die, or could not fully die. Either Jesus died as a human – precisely as you and I die or he was not fully or completely, intoto, a human being and therefore not like us. He was otherwise a superhuman, a non-human. I recognise that it is precisely here that many folk may well have a problem. The critical issue is that if Jesus was divine then surely there was at the very least some part of him that could not die. There are those who want to argue from the basis that Jesus was both human and divine and at the same time. I remember hearing a preacher state, ‘Jesus was never ever less than God and never ever more than man.’ And of course, there is a deep and profound mystery within that statement!

But, I would want to push back with the human Jesus. Whatever our faith claims about Jesus, I would assert that we cannot read back into Jesus the later creedal claims about Jesus. The Church’s later affirmations that Jesus lived as both God and man, a god-man, surely should not cloud our view that Jesus lived as a human being. And that, as fully human Jesus experienced – and naturally had to live within – the limitations of humanity. And, when Jesus died he was precisely dead.

Jesus could not resurrect himself…

Fourth – and I recognise that I am somewhat labouring the point! – but, when Jesus was dead he could not raise himself from the dead because he was dead. To assert that Jesus died must mean that he was fully dead – as I have asserted, brain dead; body dead; spirit dead. soul dead. Therefore, Jesus had no capacity to raise himself, he had no ability to do anything other than be dead.

It is God who raises the dead…

Fifth, Jesus was raised from the dead by God. This is an important point! If I am at least partially correct in what I argue here then we need to say something more about resurrection. I claim that when Jesus died he was dead, Also, that as a completely dead human being (what other type of dead person is there!?) Jesus could not resurrect himself. Nor could Jesus contribute in any way to the act of resurrection other than by receiving the life that was gifted to him.

Therefore, we need to affirm that it is God who raises the dead. When Jesus died, and when any human dies that is the end of the road. Death is the full stop at the end of life’s narrative. However, as we approach death, and, come to think of it, as we live each day, we might seek to trust that, should we die then our only hope is that God might raise us to new resurrected life.

 

ok. random. rambling. full stop.

 

‘All critics cherish their independence.’

independence

‘All critics cherish their independence.’ So begins this piece in yesterday’s Guardian about an initiative to fund a music critic. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/01/boston-globe-subsidised-classical-music-critic-dangerous

The article is interesting, but it was the opening line that made me think about theology and biblical scholarship.

Perhaps we should rewrite the opening line as ‘All theologians cherish their independence’ or ‘All biblical scholars cherish their independence.’ It seems to me that it is only from a position of independence that good theology and biblical scholarship can take place.

(Here comes the gripe) A lot of what passes for theology and biblical scholarship (including my own at many points) arises it seems to me directly from a perspective that is not independent. That is: there are things that cannot be said because the theologian/scholar may lose their jobs, be passed over for promotion etc. We hear these stories increasingly…. And yet, surely the theologian and/or biblical scholar must be released to critique the biblical text, religious culture, other theology and scholarship with a degree of freedom, not worrying about what others might think.

The theologian and biblical scholar who cherishes their independence should be able to think seriously about LGBQ issues without worrying about the fallout – or at least not from those who claim to be the scholar’s side.

The freedom to critique western marriage, to say that what we know as traditional marriage is not necessarily what we find in the bible, is crucial if our theology and biblical scholarship is going to do its job – lead us toward Jesus and the source of all truth.

Ditto issues about salvation – universalism, who gets saved etc. Is there a hell, or a purgatory, where people go after death? Freedom/independence to think and reflect- free from restrictive confessional straitjackets is a necessary aspect of good scholarship. How vast is the love of God? Surely if God’s love is as vast as we say it is then, of course, everyone may well be saved in the end…?

Ditto the violence of the Cross and concerns about the wrath of God.

Ditto the issues about the bible: inerrant? Infallible? etc

Ditto reflections on the nature of Jesus of Nazareth. Was he human? Was he divine? Did he have a preexistence? Or did he become divine upon his resurrection from the dead?

You get the point…

This biblical scholar cherishes his independence – the little that he has…

the priority of love…

indiana04_800

Here’s the thing… I’ve been preaching through the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Rome in the last year. We’ve just hit chapter 9 and we started right after easter 2015. It’s been good…at least from my perspective. I think that the entire first section of the letter is dealing with the big ‘contemporary’ issue: who’s in and who’s out…and on what basis? That is: who is part of God’s family and on what basis?

I’ve been struck by a couple of things:

Law…

First, how much of the discussion revolves around ‘law’ – nomos. This is to be expected in so many ways. Paul, as a Jew, had lived a life like so many other of his contemporaries, that was driven by the interpretation of the religious law. Adherence and faithfulness to the ‘law’ denoted one’s own faithfulness to the covenant with God.

And yet the crunch is that Paul, having encountered the resurrected Jesus has become aware that there is a new way to live – a new righteousness – that is not determined by faithfulness to the ‘law’ but by a trusting relationship with God (Rom 1:16-17). It appears that it is this assertion, and Paul’s mission to the gentiles on the basis of it, that has caused no end of strife and struggle in the Israelite/Jewish community.

Love…

Second, what seems to inspire this paradigm-shifting transformation in Paul is on the one hand his encounter with the resurrected Jesus, but on the other hand it appears that Paul has been (metaphorically) blown away by a fresh understanding of God’s love. While ‘love’ is mentioned on fewer occasions in the letter than ‘law’ it is clear that love is THE driving force in Paul’s missional agenda. Love is a present experience in the life of the disciple (5:5); Love is the evidence of God’s commitment to humanity (5:8); Love is the ever-present, unbreakable bond of God with humanity (8:39); Love fulfills the law (13:8-10).

Priorities…

I for one do not think that the Christ-following Paul preached a gospel that was deliberately antithetical to traditional Judaism. I think that in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus- perhaps having missed this previously – Paul comes to realise that Judaism is in fact (and always has been) infused with love, grace, mercy, and compassion. Judaism is built on the foundation stones of love and grace. Whether recalling Abraham or the Mosaic law it seems that love and grace predominate Paul’s thinking in Romans. Abraham’s call is an example of God’s grace in action. God choice of the people of Israel is run through with love. The gift of the law is another example of God’s grace. Paul makes clear – following Jesus, and other ‘teachers of the law’ (Luke 10:27) that the key to keeping the covenant with God and thereby obeying the law is that ‘love is the fulfilling of the law’ (Romans 13:10).

In the beginning was love. For God is love. The gift of the law gave practical examples and directives as to what love looks like among the community of God’s people.

But the priority is love.

So, the big ‘contemporary’ issue I began with: who’s in and who’s out…and on what basis? That is: who is part of God’s family and on what basis? For too long I guess I/we’ve forgotten that God is love and this question answered only through this lens: God is love.

 

Image: Robert Indiana, LOVE, 1968

Atonement : a loving reunion (part 2) 

Charlie Mackesy The book of love

Rethinking the place of atonement…

“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.” So says the Apostle Paul. If we take this statement at face value, how might we go about interpreting it?

Reconciliation in Jesus

  • That God was at work throughout the life of Jesus doing the wonderful, mysterious work of reconciliation. With every step Jesus took; in every conversation; in each embrace. God was at work in Jesus working the wonderful work of reconciliation – the work of welcoming humanity back to God, back to humanity’s true and restful home.
  • That God was at work in every detail of the death of Jesus working the mystery of reconciliation. In his arrest; in the beatings; in the humiliation; in the abuse; as the nails pierced his hands and feet. God was at work reconciling the world to Himself. As the religious authorities and the imperial soldiers mocked and yelled up at Jesus, ‘If you’re the saviour of the world, come down from the cross and then we’ll believe in you.’
  • That God was working the wonder of reconciliation as He expressed His never-ending love in the resurrection of Jesus from death.

God was working in Jesus to bring about the reconciliation of humanity to Himself. But, how was he doing this work of reconciliation? What was God’s strategy?

Friend of sinners

Now, there are many names, titles, and ascriptions given to Jesus – by the prophets before his birth, by people – including Jesus himself – during his life, and then by the apostles after his resurrection from the dead. But of all the names given to Jesus perhaps one of the most moving, and beautiful is a name intended as an insult: ‘Friend of sinners’. Throughout his life Jesus became friends with sinners. Friends with people who were on the outside. Friends with those who were ‘not good enough’; people who didn’t fit in; friends with those who had done wrong, knew they had done wrong, and lived in the deep pool of their shame. Jesus became friends with such as these. And Jesus became friends with others too. People who wanted his friendship; people who were lost; people who were lonely; people who needed loving. God worked reconciliation as Jesus made friends.

Friendship

The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes movingly about friendship in his recent book, The Living God and the Fullness of Life.’[1]

  • Moltmann identifies friendship as ‘a personal relationship that makes no claims.’
  • Friendship ‘means accepting and respecting … just as they are.’
  • Friendship ‘is the promise to walk together side by side’ with ‘no prejudgement that pins the other person down, and no ideal picture that has to be lived up to.’
  • ‘Friends open up free spaces for one another, for personal development.’
  • ‘Friendship is enduring and is aligned toward permanence.’

These descriptors are, I think, beautiful assessments of the true nature of friendship. And they describe the friendship of Jesus.

Friends forgive

Jesus forgives because that’s what a friend does. When he is mocked, and insulted, when he is beaten and crucified, Jesus cries out to God, ‘Father forgive them’, because that’s what a friend does.

Reconciliation. Friendship. This is the beautiful work of God in Jesus Christ. The response of humanity was brutality and hatred. God’s activity in the death of Jesus was forgiveness…the on-going work of reconciliation. This work of reconciliation is not isolated to the death of Jesus alone, but is true for the whole of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Resurrection: friendship

Resurrection is the most powerful demonstration of the love of God: Love that breaks through any barrier; Love that raises the dead; Love that is faithful and true; Love that is not weakened by death. Resurrection is the unbreakable friendship between Father and Son.

Atonement

Here is atonement. Here is where God brings about the reunion of humanity, and all creation, to Himself:

In friendship.

 

 

The Book of Love Charlie Mackesy.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann. The Living God and the Fullness of Life. Geneva : WCC. 2016. p.118-119.

easter – a meditation…

emptycross

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

Maundy Thursday: friend.

Some years I find myself pausing on Maundy Thursday… Maundy Thursday, the day of the betrayal of Jesus, the day of his arrest, the beginning of the end…

Maundy Thursday, the day when Jesus welcomed his friends and ate and drank with them.

Bread: “This is my body given for you.”

Wine: “This is the blood of a new covenant”

Some years I need to pause on Maundy Thursday and remember that when Jesus welcomed his friends and ate and drank with them he welcomes me.

Good Friday: forgiveness.

Some years I find myself pausing on Good Friday…Good Friday, we call it good, but it was anything but good. The ultimate betrayal of a good man..THE good man. Compassion, love, mercy, kindness, goodness, gentleness were all traits of his character. And yet he was met with hatred. They crucified the Prince of Peace. They stood around his cross and mocked him. “If you’re the saviour of the world come down from that cross and save yourself.”

Good Friday, the day when Jesus looked upon those who had rejected, betrayed, denied, mocked, beaten, and crucified, and said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

Some years I need to pause on Good Friday and hear the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive…”

Holy Saturday: mystery

Some years I find myself pausing on Holy Saturday…Holy Saturday, the day after and the day before. The day when hope was lost. The day before hope arose. The day when questions abound. The day when I just don’t know anymore… I’m not sure I believe anymore… Everything has become a fog and I just don’t know…

Some years I need to pause on Holy Saturday because the questions are overwhelming and the easy answers just don’t resonate anymore.

Easter Sunday: love

Some years I find myself pausing on Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday…when Mary went early to the tomb, and finding it open and empty begins to weep. She turns and pleads with the gardener, “tell me where you have put him.” In her surprise, and shock, and fear, and disappointment, she misses the greatest reality…

Jesus speaks her name, “Mary”

Some years I need to pause on Easter Sunday and, amid the confusion of my spiritual journey, amongst the questions, doubts, and fears, I need to hear my name. That one word, my name, spoken with the greatest love, changes everything.

 

 

*Empty Cross Commission For A Monastery : Ulrich De Balbian

Atonement : a loving reunion… (part 1)

prt35241

The doctrine of atonement is the central Christian doctrine where we consider how it is that God has brought about the reunion of humanity and indeed, all of creation, back to Himself. This presupposes of course that the most natural existence for humanity is to be in relationship with God and with creation.

The doctrine of atonement concerns itself with the understandable reality that humans are regularly not at their best and therefore often fail to live well with themselves, with creation, and with their creator God. Another way of putting this is to talk about the sinfulness of humanity, or a broken relationship.

Atonement doctrine asserts that humanity has tried but has failed to bring about this reunion with God and therefore requires that God has to act to repair the relationship and to bring about the reconciliation of all things to Himself. This involves forgiveness for all that have spoiled the relationship.

At this point it seems to me that we need to assert a profound and fundamental reality about God. God is love. That is: God is love.

Thus it follows logically to say that the reunion of humanity with God is brought about by love and in love. Atonement is an example of the wonderful, beautiful, glorious nature of the love of God. From beginning to end atonement is flushed through with love. Because God is love, God can do no other.

Plus, just so there is no confusion; at no point in the process of bringing about this reunion does God act outside of love.

So, in order to bring about atonement – the reunion – what is necessary?

  • Love. God moves towards humanity with a passionate desire for a renewed relationship.
  • Forgiveness. Forgiveness arises out of love and is necessary to deal with all that has messed up the relationship.

How about forgiveness then? How does God forgive?

Was God active in the death of Jesus?

Now, it is often said that the death of Jesus was a necessary prerequisite for God to forgive and renew relationship with humanity. Some atonement theories state that God was somehow active within the violent event of the death of Jesus bringing about the reunion of humanity with Himself. My view, reflecting on the words of Jesus, is that God was not involved in the violence of the death of Jesus.

Shocking…? Maybe. But here’s what I mean. As he hung on the cross Jesus cried out to God, ‘My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’ Jesus did not believe that God was active in the violence of the cross.

  • The violent death of Jesus was perpetrated by a violent culture.
  • If God was involved in the violence of the death of Jesus then God is a violent God.
  • If God was involved in the death of Jesus then we could hold God culpable of filicide – killing His own son.

Was the death of Jesus necessary for atonement?

Some theories even suggest that the death of Jesus was somehow necessary in order to bring about forgiveness, atonement and reunion. Again I assert that this is simply not true. God is love.

  • When has the death of a perfectly healthy, sane, good person ever been an act of love?
  • And I simply do not believe that God was so inadequate in His love that he required a bloody sacrifice, without which he could not forgive and bring about atonement.
  • God is perfectly able to forgive…because God is love.

If we take a look at the life of Jesus how do we see forgiveness?

  • Jesus forgave the sins of a paralysed man (Matthew 9:2).
  • Jesus forgave the sins of the woman who anointed him with perfume (Luke 7:48).
  • Jesus insisted that his disciples should forgive, and forgive, and forgive (Matthew 18:21-22).
  • While Jesus was dying he continued to forgive (Luke 23:24).

The reality that we see in the life of Jesus, which we would claim is the best evidence we can turn to for the character and values of God, is that forgiveness does not require violence, or death. Forgiveness is given freely. And for disciples of Jesus forgiveness is insisted upon. In the Lord’s Prayer – more properly the Disciple’s Prayer – Jesus teaches that forgiveness for the disciple is dependant upon the disciple forgiving others (Luke 11:4). The point being that forgiveness is offered freely, without recourse to bloody sacrifice or violence.

So what can we conclude?

  • God is love
  • God is able to forgive from within Himself.
  • God does not require anything – sacrifice, death, etc – in order to forgive.

God forgives because God is love. God forgives because he desires a renewed relationship with humanity and he desires that humanity should be reconciled with God and creation. Everyone who turns to God in humble trust will receive forgiveness.

This is not the end of it, but the death of Jesus is not the place of atonement – of reunion. If anything, the death of Jesus shows humanity at its worst. Moreover, I am not at all convinced that the Apostle Paul thought that the death of Jesus was a prerequisite for atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

‘And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1 Corinthians 15:17). Let’s think about this. The Apostle Paul is reflecting on a position in-between the death and the resurrection of Jesus: post-death and pre-resurrection. Jesus has been crucified, but he has not yet been raised from the death. At this point, suggests Paul:

  • You are still locked into your sins,
  • Atonement has not taken place
  • Reunion / reconciliation has not been accomplished.

Atonement : a loving reunion (part 2) is on its way…

 

‘the return of the prodigal son’ Charlie Mackesy

 

the darkside of easter…

Christ in the tomb

Stand on Holy Saturday.

Behind you is Good Friday. Before you is Easter Sunday.

You are post-death but pre-resurrection.

Jesus is dead. His body is going cold in the tomb.

Jesus cannot raise himself from the dead, because he is dead.

Ask the question: ‘in what way does the death of Jesus differ from say, Ghandi, MLK, the Maccabean martyrs, Polycarp…etc’

Taking inspiration from Gestalt Therapy we might call this reading of the death of Jesus a gestalt reading. A ‘what-does-this-mean-in-the-moment’ reading; A ‘here-and-now’ reading. Such a reading requires that we enter into the moment. Too often, and all too easily we interpret the historical event of the execution of Jesus from a post-resurrection perspective. The problem with this interpretation is that we already know that ‘it’s all going to end up happy in the end’ and we read positive outcomes back into the event of the death of Jesus.

If we are to read the death of Jesus as a key – or even the key – to atonement then we do need to explain the mechanics of how Jesus’ crucifixion brings about the reunion of God, humanity, and creation. If we think that atonement comes about through a combination of death and resurrection then it seems appropriate to critique this assertion and ask pertinent questions: What does the cross contribute to atonement? What does the resurrection contribute? What do either of these contribute that the other doesn’t? Is there an overlap? And critically, it seems to me that any good theology of the cross / resurrection / atonement must seek to explain the mechanics of how it all works. As Robert Jenson intimates, ‘theology…born of the urge to demythologize’[1] insists on such a critique.

The death of Jesus was one among many thousands who were crucified by the Roman Empire in their pursuit of power and their preservation of power and privilege…but now he is dead.

Jesus lived a wonderful life. Full of love, compassion, beauty, kindness, forgiveness… but now he is dead.

Jesus lived as one who took up the missional mantle of Israel – Jesus was the light of the world…but now the light has been extinguished. Now he is dead.

Jesus lived as a prophet – revealing in his words and in his actions the reality and truth of God… but now he is dead.

The story of the life of Jesus resonates with joy, and love, and laughter, food and friendship…but now a full stop has been placed at the end of story. Now he is dead.

At this point – post death, pre-resurrection – does the death of Jesus have meaning and significance other than that which we can ascribe to the death of any other (good) person…?

Post-death, pre-resurrection:

  • if the death of Jesus was a sacrifice – to which god was the sacrifice made?
  • if the death of Jesus was for the atonement of sin, what are the mechanics of the transaction and who is to say it is valid?
  • if the death of Jesus was a revelation of the love of God…just, how?
  • if the death of Jesus was a victory…just, how?

And, there’s another strand here: if Jesus was dead do we really believe that Jesus was active – in death – ‘preaching to the spirits in prison’ (1Peter 3:19)? What then does it mean to be dead? Are we dead – body, mind and soul? Or are we only partially dead? (A previous blog post discusses this: ‘What does the resurrection say about the body…?’)

Post-death, pre-resurrection: Possible options for understanding the death of Jesus.

  1. From the perspective of the Roman Empire and the ruling religious authorities:
  • The death of Jesus ensures that the power wielded by the Roman Empire and by the ruling religious authorities is undiminished.
  • The death of Jesus is a reminder that the Roman Empire is (still) in control.
  • The death of Jesus is an ancient billboard advertising the success of intimidation.
  • The death of Jesus confirms that violence is the ‘Power’s’ preferred method of pursuing and preserving power.

2. The death of Jesus from the perspective of the disciples of Jesus:

  • The death of Jesus marks the end of hope.
  • Another prophet is dead.
  • The ‘Messiah’ has failed.
  • Return from exile is just a pipedream.
  • ‘Our God, our God, why have you forsaken us…?’
  • Power and violence maintain their unrelenting grip.

3. The death of Jesus from the perspective of Jesus:

(Accepting that we cannot know the psychology of Jesus and get ‘inside his head’…)

  • ‘It is finished’ Mission accomplished? That is: if the mission of Jesus was to live a life for God; a life of love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.
  • Victory? A life undefeated by ‘Sin’. A life lived free from the values of the world. A life lived to the full as a blessing to all. A life lived without resorting to violence. ‘Love no matter what.’

 

(Le Christ au tombeau (1883) de Henner Jean Jacques)

[1] Robert W. Jenson ‘On the Doctrine of the Atonement (2006)’ in Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation. Eugene, OR : Cascade. 2014. p.132. This is an excellent essay, well worth reading. Jenson’s critique in this essay suggests that without the resurrection ‘a crucifixion would be anything but beneficial.’ p.129. This essay can also be accessed here: https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/on-the-doctrine-of-atonement-by-robert-w-jenson/

 

The Revelation of God in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

empty tomb

Greg Boyd has posted an excellent article on The Revelation of God in the Cross http://reknew.org/2016/02/the-revelation-of-god-in-the-cross/ In this post I want to put a different perspective. And yet, I am agreeing with much of what he says.

In order to counter what Greg rightly considers to be a misguided interpretation of the event of the resurrection he states, ‘The cross cannot be understood apart from the resurrection, just as the resurrection can never be understood apart from the cross. They are two sides of the same coin.’ My response is simple; of course the cross can be understood and interpreted on its own terms. Just as the resurrection can be understood and interpreted on its own terms. Now, I understand precisely where Greg is coming from, but I think that he may well be overstating the case in his assertion. What Greg is seeking to do in the article – I think – is to correct the misguided view that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is fundamentally different than the God who is revealed in the life of Jesus.

However, I would interpret the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus from a slightly different perspective. I would be interested to see if Greg concurs with my view…?

My perspective is this:

The execution of Jesus is a clear revelation of the unjust violence of political, imperial, religious power. Violence in our present day is an echo of this same injustice, and an admission of failure.

The Power that put Jesus to death on the cross is blind to – and rejects – love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

To suggest that in resurrecting Jesus from the dead God uses superior brute force is at best to misunderstand the nature of the power of God, which is love; and at worst to deliberately manipulate the event for selfish and malevolent means.

What then do I consider to be the meaning of the resurrection?

  • God who raised Jesus from the dead is precisely consistent with God revealed in the life of Jesus.
  • The power exerted by God in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is never more and never less than love. For God is love.
  • The resurrection vindicates the faithfulness of Jesus in ‘loving-no-matter-what’ even if they crucify you for it.
  • The event of the death and resurrection of Jesus epitomises the trust in which Jesus related to his Father. When Jesus died he was dead. Jesus trusted his Father to do what was good and loving and just whether that meant resurreciton or not.
  • The loving power of God in resurrection is postively, life-affirmingly, and beautifully transformative.
  • The resurrection is a direct challenge to the violence, and injustice of political, and religious power. Jesus died in a violent act, following the perpetration of violence and injustice upon him.
  • The resurrection is an example non-violent power
  • The resurrection subverts political and religious power.
  • The resurrection insists that the love of God – that forgives, reconciles and restores – is more powerful than the power of violence that put Jesus to death.
  • The power inherent in the resurrection is altogether different and of a different category – completely other – than the power exhibited as violence, might, force, pressure, manipulation…
  • The resurrection reveals a way of justice that is other than the legal justice enforced by violence, threat, and punishment.

 

 

What does the resurrection say about the body…?

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

The body matters. That God raised Jesus bodily from the dead says something powerful about the body. Jesus did not consist simply of spirit. What was important about Jesus was not simply spirit. Jesus was body, mind, and spirit. It all mattered, but without the body perhaps there was nothing worth keeping? Why else would God raise Jesus bodily from the dead?

The brothers in 2 Maccabees 7 who courageously faced execution at the cruel hands of Antiochus confidently asserted that the God whom they trusted would restore physicality to them post-post-mortem.

2Mac. 7:10   After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, 11 and said nobly, “I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.”

The physical body, our bodies, my body; these are integral to resurrection. Without the physicality of our bodies resurrection is nothing of the sort. Without the body resurrection becomes purely spiritual, ethereal, ghostly, transcendent, and unrelated to the corporeal physicality of the life as we know it.

I am my body and my body is me

I am my body. My body is me. And yet at this precise moment I find myself wanting to say, ‘no it isn’t!’ And yet, without my body there is no me. My body seems to be integral to who I am. Yes of course, if my heart was in danger of giving out, or my arteries became seriously blocked and it was deemed by medical professionals that my life was in danger they might suggest or advise, or insist that I have a heart transplant. Someone, somewhere might donate their heart in order that I continue living. I don’t think for a moment that having someone else’s donated heart inside my body, pumping my blood around my body, makes me any less me. Nor if I was have receive donations of any other part of a body. There’s no doubt that medicine and transplant techniques are rapidly advancing and evidence of this is that soon there will be an attempted body transplant. Yes! A surgeon in Turin, Italy is convinced that within a couple of years he will be able to graft a living person’s head on to a donor body! Wow! I have absolutely no doubt that ethicists will have a field day! But, if successful there remains the question as to whether the recipient, who apparently will only have contributed his head to the new person/body will still be the same person. Personally, I have absolutely no doubt that whichever lucky individual is deemed suitable for this extraordinary operation will still be the same person when she/he wakes up. But, and this is surely crucial, without a body that person will cease to be. The head requires a body, just as the heart requires a head.

Floating on clouds…?

Within Christianity there are all sorts of weird ideas floating around about life after death. Ethereal, disembodied persons floating around on clouds, strumming and stroking gilded harps; spirit beings gathered in an infinite choir forever singing solemn chants. Most prevalent is perhaps the idea that the believer rises instantaneously upon death to heaven – whatever heaven is pictured to be.

A recent bestseller and now massively profitable film ‘Heaven is For Real’, asserting that a boy had been to and returned from heaven, included claims that Jesus rode a rainbow coloured horse, and that the boy sat in the lap of Jesus whilst muscular angels sang to him. Once the money had been made the boy confessed that it was all untrue and no, he had never been to heaven. But, the success of the book and film shows the eagerness of folks to grasp a hold of images, pictures, ideas of heaven as a place that exists and is waiting for them once they die.

Jesus – the only evidence

What is it that awaits us after death and more to the point, what part does the body play in this afterlife? It seems to me that the only clue we have to life-after-death, life-after-life-after-death, and so on is the experience and witness of Jesus. I would contest that there is no one else who has even a clue as to the reality of post-mortem experience. Not even the Apostle Paul, for all his wisdom and insights, not the Old Testament prophets, no one else has been through death, come out the other side and has been presented to human beings as a witness to the reality of life on the other side.

Jesus lived; he died; and he was raised from the dead, not to live and die again, but somehow to live forever. And all this Jesus did in a body. If we then take Jesus as the paradigm for our investigation of the body in the life-after-death and life-after-life-after-death what do we have? First, we can assert confidently and without any fear of contradiction that Jesus lived in a body. And Jesus’ body was pretty much the same body that we are all familiar with. No sensible person would ever suggest that in his completely ordinary body Jesus didn’t experience precisely the same experiences that you and I experience. The gospels record that Jesus was hungry. And thirsty. Jesus slept and ate and drank. Jesus would have experienced itchy eyes when the wind swept the dust up into his face. He would have known that familiar ache of weary muscles after a long walk along a hard beaten road. He would have had all the same daily routines of washing, pooping, stretching, eating, sleeping that all humanity is familiar with – some of course to a greater extent than others. All this was accomplished in his body. Needless to say the DNA of Jesus would be absolutely recognisable as human DNA. Bearing a close resemblance to his mother, brothers, and sisters, nephews and nieces. We have no idea what Jesus’ body looked like. What colour his skin, or his eyes, or his hair. But the chances are skewed massively in the direction of Jesus being no different from a regular Palestinian Jew. Darker skinned, dark hair, brown eyes. Jesus lived as a regular, recognisable human being. And he died much like any other human being. Once Jesus had been pronounced dead a man by the name of Joseph, possibly aided by another named Nicodemus, carefully removed Jesus from the cross and took him to a nearby garden where there was a tomb carved out of the rock. Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped up his body in burial cloths, placed him in the tomb and rolled a stone in front of the entrance. This latter act was not to prevent Jesus from leaving the tomb – the tomb was not a jail where the dead were imprisoned – but rather to prevent hungry wild animals from entering the tomb and enjoying a juicy morsel or two.

Jesus, in toto, was buried

Now, this may be moronically obvious but it perhaps needs to be said that when Jesus died and was buried, he took all of this to his grave. His body was buried. Jesus was buried. The person who was Jesus, in his body died and was buried. There was nothing of Jesus that was left behind outside of the tomb. Jesus, the complete whole person suffered, and died, and was buried. There was nothing physical left outside. There was nothing spiritual left outside. Everything, in toto, that could be considered to be Jesus and was Jesus was buried. No loose ends. Once Jesus’ body was buried, everything that was Jesus was buried.

This is important because following the burial of Jesus there is silence. There is stillness. Nothing happens. For up to thirty-six hours following his death Jesus lies in the tomb. That is, Jesus, the complete physical, spiritual, emotional, but now deceased, human being, lies lifeless in his tomb.

Did He or didn’t he…?

Suggestions that can be gleaned from the New Testament as to the activity and whereabouts of Jesus while he lay in the tomb are scarce. The earliest reference comes in Ephesians 4:8 in a passage speaking about gifts that Jesus has given to his followers. ‘(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth?’ We can take this to mean that the writer here is proposing that in his death it was believed that Jesus descended into the place of the dead – Hades. Likewise, the Apostle Peter, speaking at Pentecost quotes Psalm 16:10 and speaking of Jesus, affirms ‘He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh experience corruption’(Acts 2:31). A third and a fourth reference come in 1Peter. 1Peter 3:18-19 asserts, ‘He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, and he ‘went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19). This is commonly taken to mean that in-between the death and resurrection of Jesus he was busy preaching to all those who had died previous to his own death. Indeed, even the Apostles’ Creed asserts, ‘he descended into hell.’ First asserted by Clement of Alexandria towards the end of the second century C.E. this view then grew in popularity up to the time of Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century.[1] A final reference comes in 1 Peter 4:6, ‘the gospel was proclaimed even to the dead.’

But, other than these there is nothing in the witness of the apostles or the gospel writers to suggest that Jesus did anything after his death except lie very still.

One thing is clear: between his death and resurrection Jesus’ body did not leave his tomb. What is contested however, is whether Jesus was already experiencing life post-mortem, but pre-resurrection in a spiritual sense. The idea of Hades, place of the dead is something that NT Wright discusses in The Resurrection of the Son of God. ‘Death itself was sad, and tinged with evil. It was not seen, in the canonical Old Testament, as a happy release, an escape of the soul from the prison-house of the body.’[2] But, as far as the New Testament writers were concerned Jesus died, and went spiritually into Hades, whilst his body remained in the tomb. All of this is difficult. We cannot know for sure what happened to Jesus when he was lying in the tomb. Physically yes, Jesus stayed where he had been placed. Spiritually, we cannot truly say. However, if we conclude that Jesus was present and alive spiritually in Hades, then we need to ask about the situation of others who had died; what of their spiritual whereabouts? Was Jesus welcomed into Hades by Abraham and Sarah, and by Isaiah and Jeremiah, and by David and Solomon? If so, then can we speak of the immortality of the soul? Can we affirm with Plato that within the physical body there resides immortality waiting to be released? I don’t think so. The bible otherwise seems to be clear that the soul is not inherently immortal. After all, the Apostle Paul talks about the mortal body putting on immortality (1 Corinthians 15:54). Hopefulness is all very well, but hopefulness does not equate to reality.

I would suggest that once Jesus had been laid in the tomb he did not move physically or spiritually. I would submit that in our mysterious creation God has wonderfully and beautifully tied our spiritual selves to our physical selves. One depends upon the other. Without our bodies we are not complete. Likewise, in the absence of our spirit we are incomplete.[3] Thus, when Jesus is raised from the dead, he is raised bodily. A new body nonetheless, a ‘transphysical’ body to be sure, but a body all the same. ‘Christians envisaged a body which was still robustly physical but also significantly different from the present one.’[4] In addition Wright also makes clear that the early Christians, ‘were not talking about a non-bodily, ‘spiritual’ survival. had they wanted to do so, they had plenty of other language available to them.’[5]

Death as sleep

What does this then mean for our own deaths? Is there a life after death but pre-resurrection? I’m not so sure. It seems to be that we can affirm the description that was given when many of the kings of Israel died – they slept with their ancestors. ‘Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David’ (1Kings 2:10). The notion of sleeping has so much going for it. Sleep is not a permanent state. Death as sleep speaks hopefully of awakening. Sleep is a state of restfulness, recuperation, of preparation. Sleep is a place of safety, and peace. Death as sleep anticipates a future that is active, and purposeful. Just as I think Jesus rested/slept for something like thirty-six hours, so too I don’t think we can say anything about our immediate and longer-term death state other than that we sleep.

Wait, trust and wait.

And we wait. We enter death trusting in the love that is God. We rest in that love. We do so just as Jesus rested, and waited. Waiting for his Father to affirm his love for his son and to bring him through death into newness of life, embodied with newness, radiating with vitality.

When Jesus was raised from the dead and was encountered by Mary, and Peter, and John, and Thomas and the others, he was encountered as a physical being. Pointedly, when Jesus gently and wonderfully confronted Thomas he says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27). It is clear that the scars inflicted on Jesus in the last hours of his life still remain. His body in resurrection is the same body as in life. But what of those who are crippled? What of those who have dreamed and longed for wholeness in their bodies? Who have longed to be able to walk, and run; or to clench, and stroke; to see, and hear, but have been unable in life to do so? Jesus in resurrection is no longer tormented by the injuries so brutally inflicted upon him as he approached death. It is as if he had not been beaten and incapacitated, and yet he has the scars to prove it. So too, for those crippled in life, either by injury or by birth. Wholeness awaits in resurrection. Yet, we will still have the scars that we will carry with us.

No body, no resurrection.

Conclusions…?

Resurrection involves the body. The body is a gift of God. The body is God’s unique gift of wonder and beauty. And this means that we are honour our body in whatever form we experience it. And we are to honour the bodies of others. We are called to love our bodies. Jesus is explicit in asserting that what is required of the disciple is to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. It is clearly difficult to love one’s neighbour – to give one’s neighbour the care and attention we should unless one also pays good care and attention to oneself and in particular to one’s own body. The body is not a dustbin prepared to take the garbage of life, or to be discarded. The body is not to be abused; it is a gift of God. We care for our bodies in anticipation of resurrection.

The body will be renewed but it will still be recognizable as our body. We will carry our bodies as we carry ourselves into death and beyond. The body will become more and not less.

 

(The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio)

 [1] J. Dalton. Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits : a Study of 1 Peter 3:18-4:6. Analecta Biblica 23. 2nd, fully rev. ed Roma : Editrice Pontifico Istituto Biblico. 1989. [1st ed., 1965.]

[2] N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God p.126.

[3] But then of course, when we speak of our ‘spirit’ what are we speaking about !!!??

[4] Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God p.601.

[5] Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God p.601.