Tag: Jesus

Jesus Decides Who’s Included (and It’s Not Who You Want)

The Gospels (really all Scripture) are filled, over and over again, with stories about who we think belongs or doesn’t belong. We are by nature boundary-forming, exclusionary creatures. A world where I can know who is in and who is out, or who has it right and who doesn’t, is a much neater world. It’s a world where I get to make the rules — or at least where I get to know what the rules are.

These stories and teachings in the Gospels abound, and they often take one of two perspectives. Sometimes, those who are presumed to be “out” or “excluded” are shown to be included against our expectations. Take the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.

The poor inherit the kingdom, those in grief gain comfort, the meek and lowly inherit the land. It’s an intentional subversion of our expectations and our instincts. My instinct is that it is not the poor but those who work and gain and live richly are the favored ones. My expectation is that those who are powerful, great orators, or skilled politicians are the most powerful.

In the second perspective, it’s not simply that those who are normally excluded are now included — it’s that those who think they’re in actually aren’t “in.” Often, Jesus uses his harshest language in these stories. Any kind of Gehenna/hell/torment language is when he’s talking about people who thought they were in because they fit certain criteria. Let’s look at Matthew 23, and Jesus’ famous “woe” language:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?

I come from evangelicalism and (mostly) non-denominational Pentecostalism, and we often talked quite poorly of Pharisees (naturally, given the fact that they were the “bad guys” in the Gospels and some of the New Testament epistles). But what we often didn’t realize is that many of us were much closer to a Pharisaical idea of religion, right belief, morality, etc. Evangelicalism has a strong streak of holiness ideals within its expectation of what Christian faith looks like. In other words, if you call yourself a Christian, this means that you ought to 1) actively mentally affirm a certain group of religious statements and 2) act (or not act) in certain ways. If you don’t do these certain things, you are not in or you are shamed out.

There are probably tons of psychological reasons for this — reasons I plan to get into later.

But! I think it’s important to make this particular point when we are talking about “inclusion” within Christian communities. We build communities that usually have clear boundaries that help us determine whether certain kinds of people belong or do not belong. Jesus’ actions, teaching, and parables quite often are meant to short-circuit and subvert our natural inclinations towards exclusion.

It’s almost as if, of all the things you could do as a follower of Jesus, including those whom you want to exclude is of the highest priority. When in doubt, include.

Repentance Means We Are Wrong

I’ve been reflecting recently on a simple question:

Is it possible — or perhaps probable — that Christianity can require something of us that *goes against* our personal moral inclinations?

Perhaps this is too simple of a question. On its face, I think most people would say “Yes.” I.e., Christianity requires us to *change* in some way. Beginning to follow Jesus means that I need to change my current course of action in some way. It almost seems like a silly question to ask.

But I want to dig deeper on this, because I don’t think we often appreciate the reality of this question.

From the time we are born, we are inculcated into a way of living. And within that way of living, we are given a moral compass. It’s probable that this moral compass is acquired from multiple, somewhat unknowable sources. But it stands to reason that these sources would include culture and socialization, ancient philosophy and religion, reason, emotion, political and ideological commitments, geography, and baseline biological instincts. There are probably more that I am missing. This is true for nearly all human beings (barring those experiencing mental illness that prevents them from making moral judgments). In other words, we all have a sense of what actions are “right” and “wrong.” Some of us believe killing animals is morally acceptable. Some of us believe responding to violence with defensive violence is morally right. Some of us believe sexual relationships belong to married, heterosexual couples, while others of us disagree.

Therefore, it stands to reason that prior to submitting to faith in Jesus or a decision to follow Jesus, we have a pre-built sense of “right” and “wrong.” In other words, we have a moral compass. And that moral compass, for the most part is strong. If I believe killing another human being is wrong, it’s likely that I have a strong belief that this is so, and that I ought to never do such a thing.

Now, perhaps there are lesser moral inclinations that are harder to follow. For example, maybe I “know” that I should not yell at my children, but I do so anyway (I clearly have no experience with this). I may have given myself some kind of permission in my head to do this, but will probably feel remorse afterward, and (hopefully) attempt to not do so again in the future.

I want to focus in here on the stronger moral inclinations — the things that we have an unshakeable inclination are right or wrong, and are almost impossible to change our views on.

I might argue that Jesus’ primary call (the call that overarches the ethics to which he calls all humans) is the simple line: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

Why would he issue such a demand unless he is requiring something of us that goes against our moral inclinations?

Let’s look at it another way:

1. We all have a sense of right and wrong.
2. We have no choice but to (at least attempt to) line up our lives with that moral sense.
3. Therefore, the way we live our lives (usually) lines up with the moral duty we feel (especially for *strong* moral inclinations).

If Jesus requires us to “repent,” doesn’t this mean that he is asking us to deny at least some of the strong moral inclinations that we feel? Repentance means a “turning away” coupled with a “turning towards.” He recognizes that we are living our lives in a certain way, by inherited moral standards, and expects that we will reject those standards in favor of a different standard (informed by what the world would look like if we lived as if God was “king”).

If we make the decision to follow Jesus, and submit to the requirements of living under the purview of the Kingdom of God, we need to grapple with this problem: what moral standards do our culture and upbringing and natural reason give to us that are incompatible with the following of Jesus?

Exemptions

Creating exemptions for the Sermon on the Mount and explaining when and where Jesus’s teaching does not apply is fine (in theory, I suppose); but at some point you have to decide what Jesus DID mean with his kingdom imperatives on nonviolence and enemy love. Which is to say, we eventually have to ask ourselves what DID Jesus intend and when DO we need to turn the other cheek? If our default response to this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is to craft exemptions, we might give the impression that we really don’t believe in Jesus’s ideas of nonviolent resistance to enemy love AT ALL.

Brian Zahnd – A Farewell to Mars

Prophetic Energizing

The resurrection of Jesus is not to be understood in good liberal fashion as a spiritual development in the church. Nor should it be too quickly handled as an oddity in the history of God or as an isolated act of God’s power. Rather, it is the ultimate act of prophetic energizing in which a new history is initiated. It is a new history open to all but peculiarly received by the marginal victims of the old order.

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann (107)

Good Liberal Fashion

The crucifixion of Jesus is not to be understood simply in good liberal fashion as the sacrifice of a noble man, nor should we too quickly assign a cultic, priestly theory of atonement to the event. Rather, we might see in the crucifixion of Jesus the ultimate act of prophetic criticism in which Jesus announces the end of a world of death (the same announcement as that of Jeremiah) and takes that death into his own person. Therefore we say that the ultimate criticism is that God himself embraces the death that his people must die.

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann (91)

A Mundane Holy Week

Every year when Lent rolls around, I tell myself that I really want to do something different this year for Lent/Holy Week/Good Friday/Easter Sunday. I internally say that I want to have a little more focus, maybe use the daily lectionary, maybe pray a little more, maybe do something to better understand what the atonement is and what Resurrection means and how it fits in this life of mine.

And then, you know. Work, kids, TV shows, new music, grass mowing, herb gardening, reading, visiting family, coffee roasting, and on and on.

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None of it is bad. I actually AM trying to find ways to enjoy and just be in these daily and weekly rituals. This time with my girls and my wife that I will never get back if I keep checking my phone for Facebook and Twitter updates. Mowing the lawn is a lot more fun now that I’m an adult (Chris from ten years ago would look at me with such disdain).

So I can look back at this past couple of months that I gave up Twitter for (most of) Lent – only to replace it with constant Facebook checking – and be disappointed in myself. I can look back and be frustrated that I didn’t spend time in prayer nearly as much as I wanted to.

Or

I can be satisfied. Content. Happy that I actually do have a fulfilling life. I can use this next few days to reflect on my failings and faults and successes over the last few months and change something about myself, about how I see the world and parenting and being a husband and a Jesus follower.

Is that the point of all this? To try and fail but try to not be discouraged but see where I can do better and see how the Spirit might be working in me and in the people around me that I love so dearly? I think so.

Maybe this Easter Sunday won’t feel special in any real way. Our family will go to church, hopefully have some time to reflect, both on what the Crucifixion might mean and what the Resurrection pulls us toward. We will do so while one of us bounces a five-month-old so she isn’t fussy and we both worry about how our two-year-old is doing in her little classroom. We’ll leave church and eat ham and play in our new backyard and maybe, even if for only a moment, we will experience a taste of the Kingdom of Heaven in our seemingly mundane lives.

Michael Hardin on the Bible & Atonement

Around minute 53, Hardin makes a really great point. During the original Holy Week, Jesus is seen as the “lamb that takes away the sin of the world.” The thing is, in Judaism, Yom Kippur is seen as the day when the people received atonement for sin (not Passover), and there is never a time when a lamb takes away sin – it’s always two goats.

So in becoming the lamb that takes away the world’s sin, Jesus changes the way we view sacrifice, and how atonement works. Instead of a reinforcement of the old system of sacrifice, where we need a scapegoat to take our blame, Jesus takes on humanity’s violence and retribution, and offers peace and forgiveness in return.

This is the beauty of atonement in Christianity – not that God is vengeful and needs to settle the cosmic score (so to speak), but that God takes on our need for retributive violence and says “No more.”

Michael Hardin on the Bible & Atonement

Violent Contagion

There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that God causes the mob to come together against Jesus. Violent contagion is enough. Those responsible for the Passion are the human participants themselves, incapable of resisting the violent contagion that affects them all when a mimetic snowballing comes within their range, or rather when they come within the range of this snowballing and are swept along by it. We don’t have to invoke the supernatural to explicate this.

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – René Girard (21-22)

The Goal of the Law

When Jesus declares that he does not abolish the Law but fulfills it, he articulates a logical consequence of his teaching. The goal of the Law is peace among humankind. Jesus never scorns the Law, even when it takes the form of prohibitions… The disadvantage of prohibitions however, is that they don’t finally play their role in a satisfying manner. Their primarily negative character, as St. Paul well understood, inevitably provokes in us the mimetic urge to transgress them. The best way of preventing violence does not consist in forbidding objects, or even rivalistic desire… but in offering to people the model that will protect them from mimetic rivalries rather than involving them in these rivalries.

I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – René Girard (14)

God is Like Jesus

In Christ we see God – not in a filtered theophany – but in the form of human flesh! Jesus is the final word on God. God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known this, but now we do.

Beauty Will Save the World – Brian Zahnd (210)