Death, Punishment, and the Resurrection : reframing the Cross…?

dali_corpushypercubus1954

Punishment

Traditional portrayals of the death of Jesus often have Jesus as a lamb sacrificed by God substituted in our place to take the punishment due to us for the sin we have committed. But, the logic of God’s punishing Jesus for our sin does not stack up. Punishment is profoundly about restoration and the move towards reconciliation. If we ourselves have sinned, then logically we should be punished in order that we should be challenged, encouraged, motivated, and inspired back into relationship with God.

We cannot repay a debt to God

But, what also appears to be true is that whichever way one looks at it, we could never repay God for the sin of which we are apparently guilty. We could neither repair the ‘damage’ we have done to others, nor the damage we have done to ourselves, nor the injury we have apparently done to God and his open offer of relationship for us. While it may in some way be possible to calculate the sin we have committed against others I frankly doubt how anyone can possibly begin even to quantify the damage that is done to God by our sinfulness. How do we know, and how can we know how our acts of sinfulness, most often committed through sheer ignorance of a better way, be calculated as causing damage in some way toward God? Of course, this can play into the hands of power-seeking preachers and religious gatekeepers to speak of the guilt we are drowning under; for they, in turn, benevolently offer us a way out and we are forever grateful. But therein lies another (sordid) tale.

We require forgiveness

But the fact is that we require God’s forgiveness. There is no hope either for us, or for our neighbours, our friends, our family, let alone for those millions whom we do not know unless God graciously moves toward us to forgive the wrong we have done. We require God to do whatever is necessary to awaken our souls to begin the journey back home.

Indeed, if the definitive destiny of all creation is reconciliation as suggested by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17 ‘…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ then forgiveness is an essential element of that process. We require God’s forgiveness.

Moreover, because justice is an essential element of reconciliation then it is not enough to punish the wrongdoer. Yes, the wrongdoer needs to be forgiven and to be brought back into relationship with God, and the one he has wronged, and perhaps even the wider community, and any others who are implicated in the wrongdoing. Additionally, the one who has been wronged needs to be restored, personally and relationally.

The cross as imperial propaganda

Where then does this leave the cross? The death of Jesus, executed by the Roman Imperial forces, was an effective propagandising episode. It reminded the Jerusalem populace that Rome was all-powerful and the consequence for challenging their power would be execution. From the perspective of its immediate aftermath the crucifixion of ‘Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews’ appeared to be yet another nail in the coffin of love and justice and another medal pinned on the chest of power and violence. The death of Jesus was not, and cannot (it seems to me) have been, punishment by God brought upon Jesus to pay the penalty for our sin.

‘Sin’ … put Jesus to death…?

If we personify sin, as the Apostle Paul does in Romans 6, then perhaps we should consider that Sin can be a way of speaking about entire culture, ethos and value systems that are opposed to God – his love, justice and peace. The power and strength of such Sin lies in their opposition to God – his love, justice and peace. Whereas God is life and leads into fullness of life, Sin destines all to death and perhaps we could say that from birth Sin has already marked the individual for death.

Thus Sin, manifested in the despotic and violent power of the Roman Empire, put Jesus to death.

The power of forgiveness

There are then two responses by God that weaken and ultimately nullify the power of Sin – the culture, ethos and value systems that are opposed to God. First, the freedom with which God forgives weakens the power of Sin, which is opposed to God and requires avoidance of justice in order to sustain its power. Forgiveness is a deliberate and proactive move toward reconciliation. The reconciliation to God of powers, cultures, ethos and values systems that are opposed to God would require a transformation of those powers and systems.

When Jesus prays from the cross, ‘Father forgive them…’ he is calling upon God even as Sin – opposed to God, his love, justice, and peace – seeks to annihilate love that is manifested, lived out, and exemplified in Jesus. Forgiveness of Sin in this context – the openness to reconciliation – may well be a deliberate and proactive that is intended to subvert and even emasculate the power of Sin rendering it impotent.

The power of love

Second, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead transforms death – the ultimate display of the tyrannous power of Sin. However, it is important to note that resurrection does not avoid death, nor does it transform death into something that is it not. Death remains death, and when we die we are dead; death is still unavoidable. To say the obvious, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead takes place in the existential space beyond death. We cannot and should not minimise the reality of death and dying. We should not, I don’t think, for example dismiss death as a nothingness, or as a dream, or as a mirage – ‘it looks real, but when we get there death evaporates…’. Death is still death. We all still have to suffer and die. We will still all experience the nothingness of death, if indeed we can speak of the experience of death, for in death we will experience nothing, as we will be dead.

However, in the world of God, in which resurrection can or may be normal and ordinary, death is no longer final, no longer the closing full stop determining the conclusion of life’s narrative. In the realm of God resurrection proclaims the provisionality of death and thus the provisionality of the reign of Sin. If death is the decisive horizon against which Sin determines that all things are to be measured then resurrection re-evaluates this horizon as love. For the great power, which is manifested by God in raising Jesus from the dead, is love.

 

*Salvador Dali, “Corpus Hypercubus” (1954)

Stephen Fry, caricatures, reality, and the god of Jesus Christ

Stephen Fry calls God an ‘evil, capricious, monstrous maniac’

A video clip of Stephen Fry that has gone viral on the internet and has already been watched by millions shows the comedian delivering a tirade on Irish TV programme when asked what he would say to the almighty at the gates of heaven.

stephenfry

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/feb/01/stephen-fry-god-evil-maniac-irish-tv

Here are a few thoughts as an initial response…

Caricatures and reality…?

My first response is to agree with Stephen Fry. If I understand him correctly…then I’m not sure that there is any way around his argument that a god who creates and is directly responsible for a world that perpetuates such cruelty is not a good god. But then who is this god of whom he speaks? It is easy to dismiss his views by arguing that they paint a caricature of god, but every caricature has some element in truth somewhere. And, yes, I do think it represents the god proclaimed by some elements of some religion, but certainly not all.

Additionally, I would ask how anyone comes to believe that a god has this or that characteristic, whether kind or cruel? Do we believe that a god is like this-or-that because our scriptures explicitly says, ‘god is kind’, or ‘god is cruel’? Or do we deduce from the accounts of actions attributed to a god that therefore the god is kind or cruel? Then, we might also include the actions of those who claim to follow and/or represent a god. If a god’s followers are kind/cruel then it may follow that their god is kind/cruel.

The god of Jesus Christ

It seems to me that anyone who calls him or herself a Christian has an essential responsibility to pay attention to the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and thus the god revealed by Jesus Christ. We are, after all Christians…

Hell…and the capricious god

However, I do wonder whether the Christendom propensity to propagate the concept of ‘us-and-them’ may also be partly to blame for the perpetuation of the concept of a cruel and capricious god. What I mean is this: the idea of hell has, as far as can understand, been acceptable to those who are ‘saved’, because the ‘saved’ don’t think that they will be going to hell. Moreover, the ‘saved’ can not only hold to the idea of hell, but can preach the idea of hell and exaggerate its hellishness – burning for eternity in a pit of boiling sulphur with absolutely no relief– because they themselves do not consider it to be their eternal home. It is not for ‘us’ – the saved, it is only for ‘them’ – the unsaved… Indeed, the very idea that the unsaved will be punished purely for their unbelief is surely anathema to anyone who has known an ounce of kindness in their life.

The point here is that a belief in the reality of hell as I’ve briefly described it has consequences for the nature of the god who condemns the unsaved to this hell. Only a cruel god would condemn anyone to an eternity of excessive suffering. Even the mildest form of hell, if it is maintained that it is literally for eternity, far outweighs the seriousness of any act of evil, or cruelty that one is responsible for whilst one is alive. Even we mere humans have developed a legal system whereby, certainly in the civilised countries of the world, we can reckon on folk paying for their crimes by means of a time-limited prison sentence.

But, many Christians continue to believe in and preserve the idea of gratuitous eternal punishment. And this means that the idea of a capricious and cruel god of which Stephen Fry speaks is also perpetuated. Added to this is the view that there have been those who call themselves Christian who have acted cruelly, sometimes on a vast scale. But, lets not for a moment deceive ourselves with the overly simplistic opinion that cruelty is only a christian or religious problem. It most certainly is not. It seems to me that humanity of all ethnicities, politics, and religions, (or none of these!) takes all to easily to acts of cruelty.

Believing in the god of Jesus Christ

There is a sense I suppose in which the longer I have called myself a Christian the less I have come to believe… Or perhaps more accurately, there are fewer things that I can affirm, but I probably hold them more deeply.

I believe in the god revealed by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus claimed to model the character of god. In the life of Jesus we see a life of love, kindness, forgiveness, mercy, compassion. But we also see an impatience with injustice. Jesus messed with the stratum of social status. He welcomed and affirmed the poor and outcast. He blessed the prostitute. He forgave his executers. He miraculously restores sight to the blind, heals the cripple and the sick, and even raises the dead. In his chosen team of disciples Jesus brought together people of apparently very different social backgrounds and political beliefs. Jesus announced the presence of the Kingdom of God. Jesus’ first recorded sermon according to Luke has him quoting the prophet Isaiah and speaking of a desire to see very real, practical, down-to-earth political change. In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus articulates the values and ethos of the kingdom of god. A kingdom that is rooted in love and justice. Whereas many may hold to the apparent simplicity of laws and rules Jesus affirmed the primacy and power of love over law.

We need also, I think, to be clear that in announcing the kingdom of god and in both teaching its values and living its ethos Jesus clashed with the imperial powers that dominated vast swathes of the ancient world. The penalty Jesus paid for his refusal to accept and live by the values of the domineering power was execution. His crime, according to the sign placed above his head on his cross, was that the Romans regarded him as the king of the Jews and thus seeking to usurp imperial power. Jesus was prepared to go to his death espousing love over violence, justice over injustice, compassion over cruelty. The god of whom Jesus spoke, and whose ethos and values he modeled, is a god I can believe and hope in.

The God of resurrection

While this next point is controversial to many, at the heart of the narrative of Jesus is the account of his resurrection. And yes, there may be many disputes as to its meaning, or historicity, and so on… but this is what I think it says about the kind of God that Jesus believed in and espoused. I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. Moreover, I believe that the power God used in order to raise Jesus from the dead was the same power that had motivated and inspired Jesus throughout his life and even to his death – the power of love. And yes, we might say that this can sound simplistic and trite but I really don’t think so. The greatest power is love and compassion. God’s power to raise Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of the nature of God. And that nature is love. Moreover, I think that the account of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is a parable that love and justice will ultimately subvert and usurp violence and power.

A commitment to love, justice, peace…

Now, this doesn’t say much about bone cancer in children, or eye-burrowing insects and so on, but it does say something about the God whom I believe in. I can’t give complete answers to questions about the presence of evil in the world, whether illnesses, or disasters, or malevolent dictators who impose their power through immense acts of cruelty and so on… But, I’m not sure that atheism gives clear answers either. Some of these things just are… We wish they weren’t, but they are…

The way of Jesus and, I think, the way of the God he revealed, is a way of love and compassion, of a desire for justice, of standing against evil whatever its disguise, of working for peace, of dealing with and preventing disease wherever possible, of helping the poor, working against iniquitous systems at every level of society…

Love and resurrection…

Martin-Resurrection-Morning

Love is enough…?

One thing is clear…the kingdom of God is rooted in love… its fruit is love. The kingdom of God is built upon foundations of love; its building materials are love. The oxygen of the kingdom of God is love; its food is love; its purpose is love; its life, energy, destiny and everything else can, I think, be summed up with this one value…love.

Said in another way, someone who lives their life in the kingdom of God is trusting that love is enough. When Jesus was asked, ‘“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” he plainly affirmed the answer, “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.” Jesus then added, ‘do this and you will live’ (Luke 10:26-28). As far as Jesus was concerned love is enough.

Love as the definition of a disciple

In John’s gospel we have a dramatic account of the last night of Jesus’ life that is strikingly different from the other gospels. John recalls how Jesus took the position of a slave, washed his disciples’ feet, and then later directly instructs them, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). This raises a probing and challenging thought: the definition of the disciple of Jesus is not a particular, well-defined theological statement or series of doctrine and dogma, but the practise of love. Moreover, it seems as though John’s account is making clear that Jesus is setting his disciples up for examination by the rest of society… It’s as if Jesus is inviting the wider society to judge a disciple in this simple way: ‘Whatever they say, whatever they claim, whatever their politics, the size of their congregations, their influence…just look at how they live. You will spot my disciples by their love.’

Jesus was saying to his disciples, ‘do as I do.’ Jesus set himself up as the paradigm of the kingdom of God. Jesus both said it and lived it. More fittingly, Jesus lived it first and then said it.

Jesus: loving others…

The life of Jesus was a life lived in the kingdom of God, adopting and modelling the values and ethos of the kingdom. A simple reading of the Gospels gives numerous examples of the love and compassion with which Jesus lived and taught. He loved poor, and the wealthy. He loved and welcomed the outcast, the leper, the sinner, those who were blind, sick, or dead. He loved the tax-collectors who had thought that siding with the imperial rulers was politically expedient, but in the process seemed to have lost their soul. Jesus welcomed the lost and the lonely, encouraging them to sit, and listen, and learn, and be blessed, and receive unequivocal forgiveness, to live free from guilt and shame. Jesus encouraged folk to come and be part of God’s kingdom family. There was no qualification necessary, no form to fill in, no approval required by purity gatekeepers, no doctrinal exam. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Love was the basis of the life of Jesus. And, even as he was crucified, Jesus was relentless in his commitment to love. In his suffering he cries out to God that God would forgive those who killed him. Love from beginning to the end. The love of Jesus is generous and broad. It is not judgemental. It does not define or restrict people according to their background, ethnicity, education, sexual preference, religion, or politics. It is forgiving and kind. We may even regard it as outrageous. But, this is the life of the kingdom of God.

Jesus: loving God…

But the love exhibited by Jesus was not simply a superlative version of humanism. Jesus rooted his love in God. He drew his love for others up from a deep well of a trusting in God. He submitted himself to baptism because he knew that it was a step of obedience before his Father. And God responds with the beautiful affirmation of Jesus’ intention, ‘You are my son, I love you. I am pleased with you.’ At times Jesus slipped away from his disciples and took time out from the demands of people, in order to make space to be with his Father and to pray. Jesus spoke passionately of his desire to please his Father, to know his love and delight.

Jesus: loving himself…

Additionally, Jesus loved, honoured, and looked after himself. Although the gospels don’t make this explicit – in words of one syllable, I think it’s clear that Jesus carried himself with a profound sense of his own worth. He knew he was loved. He knew he was valued. We never read of Jesus rushing from place to place, filling every moment of everyday with appointments Jesus was certainly not the slave of to-do lists, becoming burnt out and needing to read survival manuals for the first century celebrity. Jesus looked after himself. He forgave freely, and welcomed, and healed, and blessed because these all add up to wholeness in body and soul for oneself and for others. Jesus knew what it was to love God, love oneself, love one’s neighbour and to live whole.

The limits of the loving life…?

However, there is a slight, but very awkward problem in all this. It seem evident that Jesus lived his life – according to the values and ethos of the kingdom of God, a life rooted in love – as a direct counter to the values and ethos of the prevailing culture. But – and it’s a very big BUT – the prevailing imperial culture roundly rejected Jesus. The imperial powers put an end to this exemplary life. And this, it seems to me is a problem. The loving, beautiful, kingdom-of-God life of Jesus clashed with the values and ethos of the imperial world. The love of the kingdom of God clashed with the violence, tyranny and injustice of the Roman imperial world. And in the end there was, it appeared, only going to be one winner. Because we all know, that he who has the bigger, sharper sword, and the larger, stronger army will win. The beautiful life will be stamped out by violence. And so, even though Jesus lived an extraordinary life; and even though Jesus loved to the limit of his personhood…he died. Again, in humanistic terms, the life of Jesus was exemplary.

Jesus ended his life precisely the same way as every other human being…in death. There have been millions of other people who have lived – some good and some bad, and some very good, some very bad and a lot of very ordinary run of the mill people. But ultimately there was nothing to mark out Jesus from these millions of others once he had died. They were dead. Jesus was dead. Death is the big full stop (period) at the end of life. Death makes no distinction. Good life or bad life or mediocre life, death will have you in the end. And this gives rise to an important question: other than being impressed by the exemplary, beautiful life lived by Jesus, why follow Jesus at all and why seek to live in the kingdom of God, and why take up the challenge of living a life ruled by love if after everything even Jesus ended up dead? And yet…perhaps that is the point. Maybe it is enough to love, and to love, and to love, and then to die?

Love: the power of the resurrection.

The answer lies ultimately in the event of the resurrection. In dying, the only hope that Jesus could have was that there was a power that was more powerful than death. His only hope was that he was loved, because there is nothing more powerful than love. In raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrates that love is truly enough. Love will get you through death. Love will raise you from the dead. Resurrection is the point where God says, ‘you are my daughter/son. I love you. I am pleased with you.’ And yet, the love that matters is God’s love. God’s love will raise us.

Living and loving and dying in Jesus

Of course, we could ask… ‘does my life really matter? If it is God’s love that will take me through death…then why should I love…?’ If love truly is love, then it is not earned. Love just is. Either: I am loved by God, and that love will draw me through life and death…and resurrection…into a new eternal life; or I am not loved. Love is not a dependant clause. So why does it matter that I love in my life?

It seems to me that we have to reckon with Jesus. Jesus lived the best life. Overflowing with love and kindness. Love was constant and unrelenting. My simple reflection is that much as I would like to, I do not love like that. Perhaps, there’s a degree of fear of losing myself if I try to love like that. Perhaps it’s a struggle with forgiveness? Maybe I can’t shrug off old and engrained habits and learn to fully love myself? Whether we call it sin, or imperfection, mistakes, or failure…I’m not going to …and, let’s face it, I can’t…make any great claims for myself. My only hope is to hide myself in Jesus. As the Apostle Paul wrote, ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, and so somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.’

 

Painting is ‘resurrection morning’ by JRC Martin.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God…

Jesus and the Kingdom

Mark’s gospel records the beginning of the active ministry of Jesus as taking place following the imprisonment of John. Jesus appears to take up the mantle of John and echoes his call to repentance, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).

We might try to equate the coming of the kingdom of God with our own democratic political system. We’re heading towards a General Election in a few months time and already the various political Parties are setting out their agendas trying to convince us to vote for them. Imagine Jesus entering into the present political debate in the UK and announcing, ‘The Kingdom of God is near. Vote for me and together we will usher in the values of the Kingdom of God.’ At least here there is some sense of choice. Some sense that we might be able to exercise our option in accepting or rejecting the Kingdom of God.’

But, this is in no way how Jesus begins his ministry.

Jesus enters a world where the undisputed ruler was Emperor Tiberius. Delegated powers came down from the Emperor to Herod in Galilee and Pontius Pilate in Judea. Jesus announces that the Kingdom of God is near and in some cases was very much present as a direct challenge to these rulers. As a contrast we recall how the Magi travelled from the east to Jerusalem and made their inquiry to King Herod the Great, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’ (Matthew 2:1). There was a degree of hiddenness and uncertainty as the Magi made their quest.

But without seeking permission, and without asking for a democratic mandate, and without letters of recommendation, Jesus simply announces the presence of the Kingdom of God, ‘It is here!’ No longer hidden. Out in the open for all to see, and hear, and experience.

Repent and believe

The challenge is clear, repent and believe.

Jesus’ call to repentance is stark. It feels easy to speak of how repentance involves turning from sin … and then turning to God, but what does this mean?

Tom Wright contrasts the two kingdoms – of the world and of God – by asserting that the kingdom of the world runs on violence and the kingdom of God runs on love. And, it is easy to see how this is so. While violence may seem distance to us at the present time, the reality is that the values of the world are sustained and perpetuated through violence. The survival of the strongest. The domination of the militarily strong. The propagation of the values of the wealthy. Whether we speak of the values of consumerism, greed, success, acquisition, power, domination selfishness and so on, we feed these values through violence. We attack those who threaten our freedom … our freedom to consume, dominate, acquire, etc… Violence is a key value in preserving all those things that we hold dear, whether in terms of the individual, the community or the nation.

Certainly this was true in the first century. Whatever the benefits that the Roman Empire brought to much of Europe and North Africa, it was brought about with a phenomenal cost to human life, in death, humiliation and slavery. Violence was the key to imperial power. Moreover, there are many examples of environmental devastation. Vast areas were deforested and turned into desert; military campaigns devastated the countryside; natural resources began to be plundered. This is the way of empire. As then, so too today.

The call of Jesus to repent involves turning from the values of the world and of course, all that is involved in protecting those values; and then turning to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is…love. When we look at it like that, there is more than a hint of confrontation and challenge.

Then there is the call to believe…to trust. To trust – having turned from the values and ethos of the kingdom(s) of this world – that in the kingdom of God love is enough. And this, it seems to me, is where the rubber hits the road and we begin to feel the crunch. But, this is where the call to the Kingdom of God is in danger of floating off into an impractical dream world. Can we really trust that love is enough? And that justice is possible? Can we abandon violence and seek peace? Moreover, is it practical to abandon the consumerist values of the modern world and accept we have enough, more than enough? Or refuse to bow down to the gods of growth? Or commit to love and peace and work for justice without violence – even refusing to feed the insatiable appetite of the world’s insanely vast military machine?

The Political Kingdom

Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God was fundamentally political. Politics is to do with people, relationships (local, communal, national), and power. The Kingdom of God is political, but its power is love.

Luke records how Jesus begins his active ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth. He reads from Isaiah 61, ‘“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then Jesus, says, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ The Kingdom of God consists at least in announcing good news to the poor. Good news to the poor must have something to do with alleviating their poverty, otherwise it would sound and feel crass and insensitive.

And who are the captives who are released? All too easily we can say, ‘oh yes, of course, Jesus is speaking here about the spiritually captive…’ But, if good news to the poor is manifested in the alleviation of their poverty – a very practical, down-to-earth change in their circumstances, then perhaps there are captives who are to be freed. Perhaps Jesus is hinting that the slave – so prevalent in imperial culture – is to be set free. Perhaps he’s thinking about the captivity involved in debt and advocating that debts are cancelled and forgiven in the Kingdom of God? Perhaps Jesus has in mind political prisoners – those who have challenged the status quo? Perhaps there’s a hint towards the imprisonment of John the Baptist? It seems to me that unless the Kingdom of God has a practical, earthy application then it is no more than the opiate of the masses.

Then there is recovery of sight for the blind, which begins to become apparent in the ministry of Jesus as he graciously responds to the cry of the blind and gives them their sight. They then have a restored opportunity to live, and work, to belong, to contribute, and to benefit. Last, but not least, the oppressed are to go free and the year of Jubilee is announced. Perhaps it is worth noting that Jesus doesn’t read the second phrase of Isaiah 61:2 ‘…and the day of vengeance of our God.’ Jesus is not about the wrath of God. Jesus is not about violence and revenge.

And what if Jesus was right? What if the Kingdom of God was present? What if, under the noses of the imperial power, the alternative Kingdom has become present… Did it arrive? Or did it emerge? Or is it best just to say, ‘it wasn’t here then, but now it is’? Is the whole point that the Kingdom God is manifested in the person of Jesus? And thus the kingdom of God is present wherever Jesus is present, and then again wherever the values and ethos that he embodied are lived out? However the Kingdom of God came to be, it is surely not possible to believe that it was not a direct challenge to the political and religious powers. The sign over Jesus on the cross is a clear indication that the Romans regarded Jesus as a political upstart. And, true to form, they turned to the cross, which symbolised and was the epitome of their immense power. The death of Jesus is to do with the clash of kingdoms.

The call of Jesus to repentance is a call to turn from the values and ethos prevalent in the world and to turn to God, accepting His Kingdom, and trust that love is enough.

I am still a Christian because…

On a number of occasions during my life I have been asked the direct question, ‘Why are you a Christian?’ Over the years I guess I must have answered this in a whole range of different ways. For one, I quite often tell my story. In the old days, back when I was young, this was called my ‘testimony’. But I prefer simply to talk about my story, that sense of how I journeyed in life and faith from A to B. Certain things happened in my life, conversations, reflections, and so on that caused me to make a decision to begin following Jesus. You won’t be surprised to hear that over time I have reconsidered my journey many times. I’ve rethought things, changed the angle of my beliefs, corrected myself, been passionate about some aspects of the journey and not about others and on more than one occasion then made a complete u-turn. I’ve read the bible through from cover-to-cover more than once, I’ve preached hundreds of sermons, wrestled with bits I didn’t understand, meditated on other bits. It has been a journey involving a great deal of change.

And so perhaps what I’m really thinking about is the more searching follow-up question that is sometimes asked ‘But, after all these years, why are you STILL a Christian? Why, after all the questions and searching and so on, do you keep on following Jesus?’ And this, of me, is the crunch question.

Here, my own searching and questioning, and I have to say, many conversations with believers and non-believers, have caused me to reflect on this question many times. When I was young the standard answer would form along the lines: ‘Jesus died on the cross for my sin. I am forgiven and free to live as God intended. In his dying for me Jesus, as the perfect man, did something for me that no one else could do… and so on…’ I’m not even sure I can remember now exactly how I used to argue and debate so passionately. This is one point at which I know I have changed.

If I begin here, saying to an inquirer or to an audience that Jesus died on the cross for mine and their sins, I think I’m in danger of coming across as someone who is imposing a particular subjective interpretation on a historical event that may be without warrant. What I mean is this: Jesus died on a cross. That much is sure. But, many tens of thousands of others also died on crosses. What makes the death of Jesus any different? Why should any of those to whom I speak accept what can come across as a very particular and subjective interpretation. It also seems to me that in the twenty four hours following the death Jesus, it was highly unlikely that there were folk seriously thinking about continuing to follow Jesus and risking everything to announce him as the Messiah, Saviour of the world, and Lord of all creation on the basis of his birth, extraordinary though that may have been; or his miracles, however awe-inspiring they might have been; or his profound and authoritative teaching and so on. It seems ludicrous to me to think that at this point, in the first twenty four hours after his death, we have the basis for the missionary activity of the apostles that would begin the transformation of the ancient world. Yes, of course they could have announced much as I have suggested above that Jesus had indeed died on a cross. And, yes, they could have said that his death was for the sins of the world and now the power of sin had been broken, ‘so come and follow Jesus, the saviour and lord of the world’. Evidence could have been presented on the basis of Jesus’ life, teaching, miracles and so on and perhaps there would have been some who would have begun following Rabbi Jesus. But, I cannot accept that this was life-changing, let alone world-changing. It seems to me to be seriously problematic in that those who proclaim such a message have no actual evidence for their assertion. If Jesus had died for the sins of the world, then why can’t we say that perhaps someone else has also died for the sins of the world?

Jesus is not the only great teacher that the world has known. Jesus is not the only miracle worker the world has known. There were holy men and women before and after Jesus. There were prophets who claimed to speak for God before and after Jesus announcing this and that message. It seems to me that there has to be more.

At the Society for Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in San Diego in November 2014 I was struck by some of the debate that took place at a meeting where a book by the agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman was being discussed. As far as I can recall… Bart Ehrman had written that the disciples of Jesus would have begun to consider Jesus as Son of God on the basis of their conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But, one of the more evangelical scholars insisted passionately and with some scathing humour on more than one occasion that the disciples would have developed a conviction that Jesus was the Son of God simply on the basis of Jesus’ own sayings. I have to say that I think the evangelical scholar was mistaken and I find myself agreeing with Bart Ehrman on this.

It seems to me that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead holds the key to everything else we might come to believe about Jesus.

If Jesus has not been raised from the dead then he is still dead. And any interpretation of his death at all, whether it be about his death being for the sins of the world, or being in some way salvific, or taking upon himself the wrath of God (which I myself find abhorrent), and so on is no better than spitting in the wind. Ordinarily death is meaningless. Death is the full stop (period) at the end of life. There is nothing else. No matter how good a person has been they are still dead. This was most certainly true of Jesus. When he died he was dead and that was it…full stop. It seems to me incredulous that scholars and preachers and evangelists and pastors so often seem to ignore the Apostle Paul’s clear assertion to the church at Corinth, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins’ (1 Cor. 15:17). The resurrection is what matters.

I’ll never forget the experience that I had listening to a ‘leading evangelical leader’ here in the UK (best not to name him), who gave a paper titled something along the lines of, ‘the Ten Key Elements of Evangelical Preaching.’ It would not surprise any good evangelical to hear that the cross and the atonement were top of the list alongside a high view of the bible. But, most surprising to my ears, was what was omitted. There was no mention at all of the event of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!

But if Jesus has been raised from the dead then everything has changed. And this is where my faith is centred – on the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I am a Christian – a follower of Jesus – because I believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. It seems to me that everything else we may want to say or need to say about Jesus is rooted precisely here – in the event of his resurrection from the dead.

In the beginning…

Beginnings matter…

Here I am beginning a blog. I’ve not done this before…

Beginnings matter…

Because of what comes next. Have I set out in the right direction? Will I reach my destination? Do I even know where my destination is?

If I could set out in the middle of night, when everyone else is asleep and by the time anyone wakes up and notices I’ll be on my way – the journey will have begun and I’ll be some way down the road. Somehow, being on the journey feels easier than beginning the journey. I know this is true, because of the number of times I have been struck down by a severe case of procrastination. I’m very familiar with procrastination, at times it has been my life companion; that skilful ability to do anything, but the very thing I should be doing; preferring to dream about the journey, but resisting the pain of the beginning.

In the beginning, God…

A beginning before all beginnings. A beginning that has no end. Did God think about the immensity of the beginning before he lit the touch paper, checked that his companions were standing reassuringly close and then, boom? or rather, bang! …and it was a big bang! This is not a comment on creationism, or science, or pointless squabbles… just that in the beginning, God…

Millions of years later people observed life, the universe, and, well, just about everything, they reflected, checked their pencils and made their statement about how they understood things: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ In this they said everything that needed to be said.

In the beginning, God… belongs to a category we cannot yet imagine nor could we comprehend even if our imaginations were athletic enough to begin a journey so vast that even after a lifetime of lifetimes it would look as though we had only just stepped off the front porch and taken a few tentative steps…

Beginnings matter…

Those first few steps. Gaining confidence. God is good at beginnings. New beginnings. Resurrection.