Becoming

As I write this, it’s a beautiful autumn day outside. After a week of extreme heat, today is a desperately-needed refreshment. It rained lightly last night and the smell of rain is still hanging in the air. The sky is cloudy with some spots of blue daring to peep through from time to time. Some leaves on the trees are starting to change colour, but I think this is more due to the recent heatwave than to the new season, which is not even a week old.

AshWedesdayCrossIt’s also Ash Wednesday.

Traditionally this is the day the liturgical church declares the depravity and mortality of humankind.

As a cross of ash is made on our foreheads, we are reminded of our transient state:

“Remember you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Or, instead, we may be challenged:

“Repent and believe the good news”

Or, in different words:

“Turn from your sins and follow the Saviour.”

Ash Wednesday contains in its essence both a reminder of who we are and also a challenge to become who we are meant to be.

While our own mortality is something we all must learn to deal with (death happens to all, no exceptions), turning from a life of self-fulfilment and self-pleasure to walk in the way of Jesus is counter-intuitive at its best. Giving up what we want? Letting go of what we have? Forsaking the identity we’ve forged for ourselves and lived out all of our life?

In the words of Coldplay:

Nobody said it was easy
No one ever said it would be this hard
Oh take me back to the start

(The Scientist)

It’s always difficult when we are called to give up, let go and forsake. We must come first to the place of recognition that there is a better way. We must then go through the process of casting off the old and exposing ourselves–being vulnerable–in acknowledging the part we have played in who we are at the present.

But then . . . but then! We are privileged to be able to start again. No matter what we have done. Regardless of where we have been. Despite all our past.

In this moment we are made new. The slate is wiped clean. We begin again.

We start on a journey as we, through humility and courage, move forward in the way of Love, becoming who we were created to me.

I’m not a big fan of the institutional Church nor of what Christianity has become. There is no argument that organised religion has a lot for which to answer, both in the past and in our world today.

Yet, the symbolism attracts me and speaks to me in ways no catechism, no systematic theology, no rules or standards ever could. And in accepting the symbol of ash in a sign of the cross on my head, I am accepting that I have not yet arrived at where I need to be, but, every day I am changing, growing, learning, loving . . . becoming.

This is where I need to be today.

And, on Ash Wednesday, this is my hope and prayer for you:

Let today be the day you give up who you’ve been for who you can become.

Reblog: Resurrection Happens

enlight2Easter is a very conflicted occasion.

  • Pagan festivals and church processions.
  • Eggs and crosses.
  • Bunnies and burials.
  • Lilies and grave clothes.
  • Chocolate and empty tombs.

Then there is the question of reality–did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is there evidence beyond the Bible for this supernatural event? Is Scriptural evidence sufficient?

Regardless of our responses to these questions, there is a broader question that we ought to be asking: Is thee a wider truth that we can draw from the Easter story that speaks to us on a more universal, meaningful level?

Listen to the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

It doesn’t take that much imagination to put ourselves into the story of these disciples. “We had hoped. Our dreams were in him. Our future was in his hands. Now he’s gone.”

Are you feeling hopeless today? Do you feel that you cannot go on? Is the burden you carry great, and the pain too intense? Is the healing just not happening, the sorrow too much for you?

Here is the truth of Easter: God is in the resurrection business.

The very first words of Scripture speak of God making new life out of chaos. The creation poem tells us that God spoke there was light. The waters separated (the ancients believed above the sky was a water-dome called in Genesis ‘the firmament’). The dry land appeared. Fish and animals, human beings, plants and trees all came into being out of the chaos of ‘the deep.’

Some of the last words in Scripture state in simple words God’s grand plan: “Behold I make all things new.” From the chaos this world has become, resurrection will happen and new life–a renewed creation–will spring forth.

Whether or not we believe in a literal resurrection should not prevent us from drawing deeper meaning from this widely-accepted Christian narrative.

Resurrection–new life–is happening around us every day. It’s never too late to begin again. God is even now, in all-embracing love and grace, making all things new.

And this can be true for you too.

There is hope. The power of Christ’s resurrection is at work. The Spirit of God is moving amongst your chaos, speaking light into darkness, strength into weakness and new life into hopelessness.

Resurrection happens!

And resurrection can happen for you.

Atonement, the Prodigal Son and ‘Why So Serious?’

cross_2There is no doctrine so entrenched in Christianity as that of the Substitutionary Atonement (also known as ‘Vicarious Atonement’ or the ‘Penal Substitution Theory’). In simple terms, this is the teaching that, on the cross, God’s wrath against sinful humanity was absorbed by Jesus—that the payment for sin was made to God by Christ; that this blood sacrifice appeased a holy God and saves us from certain (eternal) condemnation/torment.

This is a major (or may I say MAJOR) theme in many Christian circles, more so amongst fundamentalists. When I was a student at a leading fundamentalist university, this was hammered home to us in every sermon, in most classes, in many prayer meetings. It was not ‘a’ but ‘THE’ central tenet of The Faith and demanded a serious analysis, on a regular basis, of one’s place in the overall scheme of sin and salvation.

And serious it was. One would be out of line to show a smile in a church service or during the singing of a hymn. People had been expelled at this university for daring to treat a song about Jesus in a ‘frivolous’ manner. (see the video that got two students expelled and a third a severe reprimand here.)

And so they sing solemnly, seriously, it seems with a burden that is weighing them down. (Have a look at these two videos of a ‘performance’ of a well-loved (fundamentalist) hymn here and here.)

Here are the words for those of you following along at home (the sheet music is here.):

His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.

Chorus:
I cling to Christ, and marvel at the cost:
Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God.
Bought by such love, my life is not my own.
My praise-my all-shall be for Christ alone.

His robes for mine: what cause have I for dread?
God’s daunting Law Christ mastered in my stead.
Faultless I stand with righteous works not mine,
Saved by my Lord’s vicarious death and life.

His robes for mine: God’s justice is appeased.
Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased.
Christ drank God’s wrath on sin, then cried “‘Tis done!”
Sin’s wage is paid; propitiation won.

His robes for mine: such anguish none can know.
Christ, God’s beloved, condemned as though His foe.
He, as though I, accursed and left alone;
I, as though He, embraced and welcomed home!

(His Robes for Mine by Chris Anderson and Greg Habegger ©2008 ChurchWorksMedia.com All rights reserved.)

Here is an insight into Chris Anderson’s understanding that has prompted this composition:

“Verse 3 focuses on the grand doctrine of propitiation, the fact that God’s wrath was not merely deflected from us by Christ, but was rather absorbed by Him in our place. Jesus Christ bore the infinite wrath of God against sin, satisfying God’s wrath and enabling sinners to be forgiven—and justly so. Isaiah 53:10-11 describes it this way: God looks on the travail of Christ’s soul and is satisfied by it. His wrath has been exhausted on Christ. The doctrine of propitiation is taught Isaiah 53, Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2 and 4:10, et al.” (source: http://blogs.mbu.edu/praisemen/songs/his-robes-for-mine-authors-thoughts)

I have a HUGE problem with the language used (and the theology implied) in this song: ‘Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage,’ ‘Jesus is crushed, and thus the Father’s pleased,’ and ‘Jesus forsaken, God estranged from God’ among others.

But then I realise that this comes from that classic Biblical story:

A man who had two sons. One demanded his share of the inheritance and then went off and spent it, in a far country, on riotous and loose living. The father, enraged with a fiery anger against that son, took his brother and turned him over to the torturers and finally the executioner. Only when the elder brother had died, paying the penalty that the father demanded for the younger one’s disobedience, was the father able to open up his heart in love and welcome the younger son home and once again grant him the blessings of being a part of the family.

No, I don’t have that story in my Bible either. That, on so many levels, goes against my understanding of God. And if we understand Jesus to be the most accurate depiction we have of God in Scripture, then we must accept that God is loving and compassionate. He would forsake his own Son only as much as he would forsake us, his children. He would not demand a penalty to be paid vicariously any more than the father in the real parable would have demanded one son pay for the sin of another. That is a primitive view–a tribal understanding–of God rooted in a culture set in ancient history and grounded in stories handed down from generation to generation over fires and in marketplaces.

Many argue that this understanding of what took place at the cross is helpful to Christians in certain situations. Scot McKinght in his book A Community Called Atonement illustrates the many theories of atonement (Substitutionary Atonement being one) as being like a set of golf clubs where one club (say, a wedge) may be good for a particular situation (like, for example, if you land your ball in a sand trap), but not practical or helpful in others (as in driving). While this may be true in a metaphorical or illustrative sense (though this may be open to interpretation as well),  I don’t believe it is very helpful in explaining anything of the nature of God or God’s interaction with humanity.

The problem is that we have ‘Set the members of the Trinity against each other—as when the Son is described as the object of the Father’s wrath on the Cross. Others stretch the concept to charge that penal substitution language amounts to “divine child abuse”—where an angry, cosmic Father beats up his meek and helpless Son—hardly the biblical imagery of the relationship of the Father and the Son.’ (source: Christianity Today) God becomes a deity with a schizophrenic tendency or bipolar disorder (and, as we know, without proper medication, either one of these illnesses renders an individual quite unstable.)

Joking aside, if we accept that God is love—If we accept the story of the Prodigal Son to be an illustration of how that love works itself out in reality—then we must not be so hasty to take on the ‘traditional’ view of atonement as fact. Certainly, it can be argued, some of the New Testament authors seemed to believe this was so. But a look at Jesus and his revelation of who the Father is cannot be dismissed. Rather, it should be the cause of much joy, celebration and excitement: All are welcomed—sinners and saints, elder and younger brothers, tax-gatherers and Pharisees—not because Jesus satisfied an angry God, but that God has sought and found us and brought us into the embrace of love and grace.  Welcome home!

Losing Faith

I don’t know about you, but I have a faith problem. My faith problem is simply that I often lose my faith. It’s not a matter of maintaining appearances–I can do that awesomely; after all, I am a pastor’s son. I can look happy and spirit-filled at the drop of a hat.

No, this is far deeper, raw and honest; it’s a place where I find myself all too often.

Maybe it’s the books I read. People have said stuff to me like, “Don’t read (insert name here)’s books. Your faith can’t last if you expose yourself to such dangerous ideas.” Maybe its the blogs I visit and the topics they discuss like post-evangelicalism, post-modernism, post-Darwinian thought, post-Christian, post-colonialism, etc. Maybe its the stuff I put in my ears–words that tell me I need to think freely, have an open mind, be more inclusive, love more/hate less. . . .

Regardless, apart from the fact that there are certainly elements of danger every time I open my mind to entertain a new thought, I would say the greater danger remains in trying to maintain a status quo, an attachment to a system that just doesn’t work and is losing its credibility more each day. I can’t buy into the Evangelical culture any more than I can buy into consumerism, wanton capitalism, or corporate warmongering.

Ideals aside, it’s still Good Friday (and I digress).

Today we remember the cross, the sacrifice of Jesus, the rigged execution of the God-man who came to be revered as Lord,  King and Saviour.

It is a dark day and, perhaps, “Good” Friday is too sanitised a version of this story. This particular day was horrible, terrible, dark, depressing. It was a  time of pain, of loss, of an end to a promise. . . .

The disciples fled.

The women wept.

The soldiers mocked.

The earth kept spinning into night and the one who promised it all had died.

God had left the building.

There was no more promise, no more hope, no more kingdom.

Sometimes I feel like I’m living that day.

Sometimes my faith gives way to anger, pain, regret. Too often God is distant,  silent, unknowing and uncaring. This is my own personal Good Friday . . . or Monday,  or Thursday, or Sunday. . . .

How about you?

(To be continued)

Christ

I cannot talk about the season of Advent–or any season on the church calendar–without speaking of Jesus. He is the centre of all Christian celebrations.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, or Sarcastic Lutheran (as she is known on her blog) preached the following on Christ the King Sunday:

Yet when it comes down to it the most reliable way to legitimately know anything at all about the nature of God is to look to how God chose to reveal God’s self in Christ.  And most notably we see who God is in how God chose to reveal God’s self on the cross.  And just to be clear: The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and well, somebody had to pay.  Because the irony about viewing the cross this way is that the whole thing was about God saying  pay attention – don’t avert your eyes from the cross.  This this is the logical end of your value system. Here is where it will always end. In the suffering of God.  Here is the extent I will go says God to defy your idea of me as a vengeful God.  If you think I am about smiting your enemies then think again for I will not lift even a finger to condemn those who hung me. I will simply not be known as the God of vengeance.  I will simply not allow you to project your puffed up human traits on me as though I’m a bigger better version of the best parts of you or a bigger badder version of the worst parts of you

On the cross we don’t see a legal transaction where Jesus pays our debt.  We see God. The Word made flesh hangs from the cross. And let there be no mistake – this is Christ the King. And while his scornful and shameful death is insulting to our idea of a king and a God the divine royalty of Christ is simply unassailable.  by us or anyone else.  because sometimes things are so holy that they cannot be desecrated try as we might.

In the previous chapter of Luke as Jesus sits at table sharing his last supper with his friends they break out in an argument over who will be the greatest.  Jesus says “the greatest of you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves…I confer on you says Jesus to his faltering friends “I confer on you a kingdom so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and you will sit on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.

Even Jesus speaks of his kingdom and of thrones and judgment.  Yet today on Christ the king Sunday we see that Christ’s kingdom is comprised of thieves and Christ-deniers.  Today on Christ the King Sunday we see our king enthroned yet the throne is not one of gold and jewel but of  blood and puke stained wood and the crown is not one of gold and jewel but of twisted thorn. And as his crown is piercing his brow it is from here the King of Glory judges the world who put him on a cross.  From his rough hewn throne of a cross Jesus looks at the world…those who betrayed him, those who executed him those who loved him and those who ignored him and he judges it all.  The pronouncement is made and the judgment is ….forgiveness.  Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing is, as my friend Justin reminded me this week,  an eternally valid statement. From his cross Christ the King loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us. Because his divine self was unmockable.  Protected and apart and unmanipulatable by our opinions and value systems.  And it finally is only a God who enters our human existence and suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness who can save us from ourselves.  It is only a self-emptying God who walked among  as Christ Jesus, who, in the words of St Paul, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,  humbled himself to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Read the entire sermon here).

*   *   *

Brian McLaren on The Propitiation Question:

. . . [T]he question itself is problematic because it rests on assumptions about God and God’s nature that need to be examined. Many of us saw that – to use your terms – there is original blessing in the Bible, and there is the reality of sin – and it doesn’t make sense to minimize one to magnify the other. That made a lot of us look for a deeper question – and for me, that question is, “What is the biblical narrative really about?” If it’s about “sin management” – dealing with the “problem” of sin as a legal problem, we’ll read the Bible in one way. If it’s about creation, liberation, reconciliation (and, I might add, incarnation) … we’ll read the Bible differently.

So what is your straight, non-sidestepping, no-holds-barred take on “The Propitiation Question?”

The best way I can reply, since I think the category of propitiation is often defined within an unhelpful and other-than-biblical narrative, is in the form of some questions:
1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us? Since I don’t think God needs to change, but rather we do, I’d vote for the latter.

2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday – in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice with and for us? Again, I’d vote the latter.

3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God? Again, I’d vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of “the perfect penitent.”)

In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can’t even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that’s a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it.

Scandalous Cross?

Present-day Christianity makes much of the cross.

We read about it, preach it, sing about it, worship around it, claim it’s saving power, remember it as we take the bread and wine, use its sign as a prayer ritual, wear it as jewellery, stick it on our car  bumpers, display it in our churches and schools . . . It is, after all the great turning point of history when incarnate God so fully identified with his creatures to the point of experiencing their death.

Today we view the cross as such a shocking, horrific death, recalling the humiliation, pain, torture, and isolation Jesus must have felt nailed to that pole of execution.

But it wasn’t seen (by the spectator, I mean) that way in that era of history. Crucifixion in the Roman colonies was a daily occurrence. Bloodthirsty citizens looked on it much as we would look on the boxing ring of the wrestling arena. To Jews of the day—unless you personally knew the person being executed (or were indeed that person)—it was just another public statement by the occupying forces on a day when human life was seen as having little if any value.

It is possible that Jesus on the cross would have meant little to anyone living in Jerusalem in 30 CE.

But his life? That’s another story! Following this itinerant rabbi were scandalous stories of religious defilement, indignity, and disregard of societal values.

Think about it. The tabloids of the day (assuming there would be a comparative gossip network in first-century Judaea) would have the story of the gentile woman who touched Jesus’ robe blazoned across the front pages: “Foreign Woman Defiles Popular Rabbi.” The fact that Jesus stopped and carried on a conversation with this woman would have caused a scandal. As would his compassionate act of casting out the seven demons from Mary Magdalene, his conversation with the woman from Samaria and his acceptance of another who anointed his feet with a very costly perfume.

Then what about the indignity of the proper Jewish patriarch who not only endures the scandal of having his son take his share of the estate and leave the family, who then runs with abandonment towards his returning destitute son, embracing him, welcoming him home, and restoring him to his former position of honour? How would that parable been taken by the masses who heard it in the towns and villages of Galilee?

Oh, and did I mention touching lepers and harvesting grain on the holy day? What a blatant disregard for the revered tradition of Moses!  How about partying with tax collectors? What about calling the respected leaders of the day “Whitewashed Tombs”?

For many (perhaps most) of those present in Jerusalem on the day, the end of Jesus on a cross would have been viewed as another revolutionary getting his just desserts, another rabble-rouser being silenced. After all, his life and teachings shook Jewish (and Roman) decency to the core.

The cross has become central to our theology and impacts and permeates our life as nothing else. But just as sensational, revolutionary, and scandalous was the life of Jesus the Christ. His radical compassion turned insensitive religion on its head. The portrait he painted of God his father showed a God of great love who was present and active in his creation.

So while we recognise the awesome symbol of the cross as central to our faith, for our life let us embrace the scandal of the life of Jesus and seek to follow in his steps.

Guilt vs Freedom

This weekend is the time of year when we reflect on what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection. Traditionally it is on Good Friday we remember his crucifixion and then celebrate his victory over death on Easter Sunday morning.

I was having a conversation with Vicki (my beautiful and intelligent wife, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of an introduction) about the usual Easter sermons that appear on the church’s ‘menu,’ and she made a really good point: the punishment Jesus received was not unusual or even extraordinarily harsh for the empire in which he lived. Many, many people before him suffered the same fate. The court system was as corrupt and unjust for countless others before him. The flogging, the mocking, carrying his cross, dying this cruel death was common. And the people who witnessed it, those who called out for Barabas, those who watched his last procession down the Via Dolorosa, those who stood around the Roman execution stake on which he hung, were possibly no more moved than we might be watching the latest action flick or monster truck rally. So ‘normal’ was this scene in first-century Jerusalem.

But preachers, it seems, are after some type of emotional commitment and, for many, their message goes something like this: ‘Jesus died a cruel and horrifying death [insert gory details here] inflicted by such despicable men [insert character references here] and suffered such torture on on the way to his death [insert horrific acts of cruelty and barbarism here], all because of an unjust and corrupt Roman judicial system [insert examples here].’ By this time, the congregation is feeling so horrible, tears are starting to well up, hearts are starting to beat faster, and the preacher goes for the clincher: ‘And it wasn’t the Jews or the Romans who killed Jesus. It was you and I that drove those nails into his hands and his feet and lifted him up on that cruel cross to die a slow and painful death.’

Talk about a major case of guilt! I murdered my Lord! It was my hands that killed the Messiah! How could God ever love me? I am so unworthy. . . .

In my opinion, this borders on spiritual–and, potentially, emotional–abuse of God’s people.

Jesus didn’t die so that on Good Friday and Easter Sunday churchgoers everywhere could partake in a ceremony of guilt and fear. God, contrary to increasingly less-popular belief (Hallelujah), does not think I killed his only son. In fact it wasn’t even my sin that nailed him to the cross (that spoils a few good hymns, doesn’t it?). Technically, it was the Romans at the insistence of the Jewish religious leaders who did the terrible deed. Biblically, Jesus laid down his life willingly to show his kingdom was about a new way of seeing, a new way of relating, a new way of being. In giving up his life (by his own authority, Scripture says), Jesus embodied in reality what he taught in theory: how love truly is a better way.

Jesus would not have wanted us, 2,000 years down the track, to feel responsible–or guilty–for his death. He did not come into the world to condemn, but to deliver us from condemnation. He didn’t go to the cross with the idea that millions of people will feel oppressed by fear of God’s wrath in millennia to come, but that they, instead would experience the freedom of God’s forgiveness and grace.

If grace is true–and I believe it is! Praise God!–then Jesus died to show us God’s love and the freedom that comes from experiencing his unconditional love.

So, thank you, Jesus, for willingly submitting to the death of the cross to demonstrate that your reign indeed is not of this present world system, but is able, through love, to redeem it eternally for God’s glory.

And praise to you God, holy Three-in-one, Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, for the freedom we enjoy because of Jesus.

* * * * *

This morning I arose early and went to Holy Cross Church to celebrate Easter with my Anglican brothers and sisters. At 6.00 a.m. they held an Easter Vigil where we lit our candles and processed into a darkened church to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ as the Passover Lamb, and then to declare his resurrection in exulting and light-filled celebration. In doing so, baptismal vows were renewed and the Eucharist was celebrated. It was a beautiful and moving service, full of Scripture, prayer, and simple faith–not a hint of guilt or anxiety in sight. Thank you Fr Neil for such a blessed reminder of the joy and freedom that is ours because of Jesus. He is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Alleluia!