whytheology

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Archive for the tag “faith”

The King has Come

Today we celebrate that the King has come.

Today we remember that his death was not the end.

Today we acknowledge that in his death we ourselves died, so that in his resurrection we ourselves will find life.

Today we reflect on the power and glory of his name.

Today we see the emptiness of the tomb.

Today we are commanded to “Make disciples” “through going, teaching, and baptizing.”

Today we marvel that God has become human.

Today we look forward to his arrival again.

Today, Yesterday, and Forever, the King is here and we praise his name.

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The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Something that has really stuck with me about the account of the events of Good Friday was probably best summarized in a talk given by N.T. Wright. He begins talking about this question of authority that Jesus and Pilate had a conversation about (what amounted to his official trial). There’s quite a bit of background to this question that, in the talk I heard, Wright doesn’t really have time to get into. Essentially, Pilate is trying to ascertain whether Jesus is guilty of sedition, of trying overthrow the empire to establish his own Kingdom. It turns out, Jesus is 100% guilty of that charge, but not in the way that Pilate had suspected. The whole dialogue is spread of John 18 and 19.

Pilate asks if Jesus is a King. Jesus responds by asking why he would think such a thing. Heavily implied in Jesus’s response is that Pilate actually has no authority, but does as others ask him. Yet soon it comes about where we have a key line from Jesus “My Kingdom is not from this (ek tos) world.” This is not saying there is a kingdom and it exists somewhere, but not here. Instead, Jesus is boldly declaring that his kingdom does not arise out of this world. It comes from somewhere else. Because it comes from somewhere else, it will be achieved in a radically different way. Jesus is basically telling Pilate that the Kingdom is coming from God himself, and Jesus’s death will only accelerate its arrival. This is why Pilate tries to release him.

The crowd having none of it, Pilate tries to make him king, in a mocking sort of manner, and in the cruelest way possible. Pilate seeks to make him a king completely according to the ways of this world, through violence and insult. Yet it is to no avail. Instead the people remind Pilate of Jesus’s claim, he claimed to be “the Son of God.”

There is a heavy nuance we often miss today in our modern sensibility. Jesus’s claim to be the “Son of God” was not, exclusively, a claim to divinity. There are other, much more explicit passages about that (“I and the Father are one.” “Before Abraham was, I AM (ego eimi)”). Instead, it’s important to note that, by this time, the Roman emperor had taken on a very specific title: son of the gods. It is for this reason Pilate became terrified. This is a true and unmistakable revolution. It also leads Pilate back to touting his authority, rebellions must be squelched, after all.

It is here that Jesus reminds Pilate of what authority actually looks like. Pilate claims to have authority, but any authority he has “comes from above.” The dual meaning here is that it comes only from Caesar, who is in authority over Pilate, but also that it comes from God. That is if he has authority. As it turns out, Pilate does not act like one with authority. His wish, at that point, is to be done with Jesus and not to crucify him, yet he succumbs to the will of the people, those over whom he claims to have authority. Pilate wants to release Jesus, but that is in violation of his authority from Caesar. Still he wants to to release Jesus, but his authority is taken away by the crowds.

And it brings me back to this line from the lecture by N. T. Wright.

“Pilate and Jesus have this debate about authority and who has authority and where authority comes from. Pilate hands Jesus over to be crucified, and Jesus wins.”

Pilate cannot let it go, and must admit Jesus is King, because he acted with authority. And there, on the cross, he is inaugurated. The Kingdom of God has broken into our world. The sorrow of the Friday will turn to joy on the Sunday. But let us not skip over the sorrow too quickly.

The King is dead, long live the King.

Everybody needs to calm down about the Blood Moon (especially Christians)

I didn’t really believe it at first, but there it was, right on my Facebook feed. Someone talking about how the lunar eclipse that happened on Tuesday. Or, in their terms, the “blood moon.” I don’t really blame them, there are people who like to stir up hysteria and they make very convincing arguments with nice rhetoric. But they are mistaken about it, and usually don’t really care how often they are wrong (and if you look at the track record of the sorts of people who cause these hysterias they are almost always wrong). Nor was simply talking about the moon a problem. I mean everybody was talking about it. This was one of the clearest and fullest lunar eclipse of our lifetimes, and so it is a rare opportunity to view the moon looking almost entirely red. No, the problem was that the talk focused entirely upon a discussion of how the end of the world is about to happen at any minute. Now it may be the case that the end of world really is about to happen at minute, but it has nothing to do with the “blood moon” and here are three reasons why:

Someone get that moon a bandage. It's bleeding everywhere.

1. This is not the first lunar eclipse and it won’t be the last

This point is really pretty obvious. It is true that most ancients and medievalists thought the red moon or “blood moon” was a bad omen, but they thought that because it occurred periodically. However, when bad things followed such an event, it was really just a case of confirmation bias. That’s a phenomenon where you only pay attention to observations that confirm your already held suspicion. It’s not proof, it’s selective observation. “But this one’s different” I’ve heard and seen people say. Well…

2. This lunar eclipse is not really that different

It’s different in the sense that it looks a lot clearer and more obvious than most lunar eclipses we will likely witness in our lifetime. But it’s not different in the sense of paying attention to specific dates and times, etc. Do you know who set about creating calendars and such? People did. They are a social convention. Now, it is true that they’ve conformed generally to some external phenomenon, like the revolution of the earth around the sun, or the lunar cycle (note: the current Jewish Calendar is somewhere between the two). Still, it is ultimately a human invention. The Holy Days enacted in Scripture are an example of God accommodating his revelation to us. At least that seems to be the opinion of Paul in the 2nd chapter of Colossians (NIV):

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. 18 Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. 19 They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

In fact, the obsession with timing specific days and alignment with the planets as somehow an omen is not routed in Christianity. Instead, you would expect to find that sort of thing in Astrology and Paganism (both ancient and modern or neo-paganism).

“But” someone will object “what about those bible verses?”

3. Those Bible verses don’t necessarily mean what you think they do

There are, by my count, exactly three verses of the bible that refer to a red moon. And one of those is a New Testament passage explicitly quoting an Old Testament passage. So let’s look at that one first.

In Joel 2, it reads:

28 “And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
30 I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
31 The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. (NIV)

Now that doesn’t sound so bleak. I mean, it does call it a “dreadful day of the Lord,” but the Hebrew text uses words in different ways than we do. I mean what’s with the prominence  of “Fear of the Lord” in Proverbs. Does that mean we should be scared and hiding from God, or does fear mean something else? Does “dreadful” mean something else? This becomes particularly clear in the context of the chapter. Immediately prior to this section, the prophet Joel describes the restoration of the land and provision from God, and immediately after Joel notes that all who call upon God will be saved. That’s not very bleak at all. In fact, if we look to the New Testament, we see how they understood its fulfillment.

At the beginning of Acts, immediately after the outpouring of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, Peter gets up and starts shouting that this very passage has just been fulfilled. After all, the Spirit is being poured out on all of the church, not just an individual (as had been the case in the Old Testament). What’s more, he quotes the bit about the sun being black and the moon being blood during what, by all accounts, seems to be a pleasant day (people are outside celebrating this festival and no one is terrified). There’s no black sun and no red moon. What gives? It could be that the black sun and red moon mean something else entirely.

One more passage before I come back to that. In Revelation 6 we have the following appear:

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. (NIV)

It’s always interesting to me how different people treat the book of Revelation. (Sidenote: pet peeve of most biblical scholars: putting an “s” on the end of Revelation. If you know one, try it out and watch them squirm a little before apologizing). Everyone talks about taking it “literally” but what they mean by that varies.

-Revelation mentions that there will be two prophets against the city of Babylon? Well then, we better look for exactly two men who are prophesying against a pagan city, bonus points if that city is actually named Babylon.

-Revelation talks about a beast rising up out of the sea, a third of the stars falling from heaven? Well, I mean it’s not a “beast” but a person. And those stars are demons. Clearly a metaphor.

-Revelation mentions Jesus standing at the door and knocking? Well that is not bound to a specific time period in any way shape or form. Come on, give us some credit.

Here’s the problem with the above. How literal one takes Revelation depends upon how literal the one doing the reading decides to take it. And it usually is a personal choice, with little to no respect (or even awareness) of the genre in which the book was written. It’s read like a modern book, and one that the reader knows based upon a gut feeling (that gut feeling is not the Spirit, by the way. The Spirit is expressed in the full body of believers known as the Church). So we read it “literally” when it is convenient, and dispense with literality any time it is convenient or interesting to do so. That’s a problem. Revelation is a hard book to understand. I don’t claim to fully comprehend it, but while I’m willing to admit that, I do understand it on some level.

So what’s going on here?

Well John, the author of Revelation, is very adept at blending into Revelation and referencing a wide variety of Old Testament symbols. He doesn’t do so explicitly (partly because that would violate the genre in which he’s writing), but it is permeating by the Hebrew Bible. Given that the only reference to a red moon found in the Old Testament is in Joel, we should probably see if there is any overlap. For Joel, the use of the images of a black sun and red moon were indications of the end of the world. Not because Joel thought there natural occurrences would actually foretell the end of the world, but because this was an already established motif. Other cultures sure seemed to think that, but Joel didn’t (or, at the very least, Peter quoting Joel didn’t believe that). They are merely a more poetic way of talking about the end of history.

That fits pretty well with Revelation, but it doesn’t explain why Peter references it in Acts.

It helps if we understand that Peter was a Jew, not a Gentile Christian. As such, he had certain expectations about how the world would end. During the first century, this included a belief in the “resurrection of the dead.” Peter, and all the early church, wholeheartedly believed that Jesus was raised from the dead. For the early church, then, that meant the end of history wasn’t only eminent, but already present. The end of the world had come. Indeed, one question that 1-2 Thessalonians and Revelation are all trying to deal with is how the end of the world could have so clearly arrived, and yet the world not be over yet. It is then that the church began to make sense of Jesus’ statements that “A time is coming and is now here.” This is two Kingdoms theology. The end of the world has come, it has come in the Kingdom of God, which is the Church as it should be. It is at war with the kingdom of the world. Yet, in light of the resurrection of Christ and Pentecost, the kingdom of this world has already lost to the Kingdom of God. The end of the world has already happened. It’s coming, yes, but it’s already here. Maranatha!

More than Trust, and just Trust (Faith part 2: Foundational Doctrines)

This week I’m talking about how faith is trust, but in a way more than what we typically think of trust, and what this means on a daily basis. This is part of a series of “foundational doctrines” where I am looking at the six foundational doctrines from Hebrews 6. Last week, I talked about how faith has to be more than just intellectual assent. Ascribing to a set of doctrines won’t get you saved, we saw last week, because the demons have impeccable theology. So it must be something else.

Faith as Trust

If you’ve been involved in a church for more than a few months, you have likely heard this at some point. If you grew up in the church, and especially church youth groups, you likely heard it a lot. Faith is trust. In the same way I have faith in the chair that is holding me up that it can continue to hold me up (and so relax upon it), so we trust in God. This certainly seems to be moving in the right direction. After all, the key distinction between us and the demons is that the demons refuse to rely upon God, believing they are self-sufficient somehow. They lack the basic element of trust.

Yet, it seems, that the kind of trust we usually talk about is pretty mild stuff. We usually end up couching it in terms of (again) belief. Trust is believing God can help me, we say. Trust is believing that God is for me. Trust is accepting my status as elect (ok just the Calvinists on that one). But by phrasing it in these terms we are just again putting it in terms of belief, intellectual assent. Faith has to be more than a mental state, though. If it were only about saving our minds, why would Christ need to take one flesh? No faith must be transformative of our whole being, not just our minds.

Plato’s to blame

For a long time we seem to have accepted the idea that faith is simply intellectual assent in the church. If we get our doctrines in a row, we’re good. This, it seems, was the position of Augustine. It was all about believing in the right God and believing in the right sort of things. (Except when you read the conversion story in his Confessions it seems like a lot more was involved). Similarly Luther, following Augustine, in his emphasis on justification by faith alone (a correct one I would say) disdained books like James because, as he saw it, they weren’t doing justice to faith. But his mistake was, again, conflating belief and faith.

I think we have Plato to blame for that. Plato argued that our mind was all that really mattered. He introduced a sort of dualism into our consciousness that devalued the body and elevated an ephemeral spirit that was were our identity supposedly lay. For Plato, also, knowing something, that is believing something that was also true, was as good as doing it. So if he just could make himself genuinely know the right things, his actions would follow. If his actions didn’t follow, he reasoned, he didn’t really know it because, at the moment of his wrong actions, he had managed to convince himself otherwise and thus didn’t believe it. Thus, subtly over the years, Platonism entered the Christian consciousness. And the focus was upon the immaterial and belief (which is also descriptive of Western culture on the whole).

The problem is, that’s not the message of the bible. The bible declares that the physical “stuff” of the universe is, fundamentally good (see Genesis 1). God came to redeem that world, to purify and refine it. Jesus was raised bodily because the body matters. What is more, believing something intellectually was not the same as having actions in line with it. The prophets of Israel were effective (sometimes) precisely because the people did believe, they just didn’t trust.

Full Trust

My “faith” in the chair is useless if I don’t go and sit in it. I don’t really have faith in it to hold me up if I stand the entire time. Faith requires a genuine acquaintance. A close relationship. A fully giving of our full selves. James is concerned with actions as evidence of faith because the two are no divorced. Faith as trust is relying upon God and following him. To follow him is no simple task, either. Jesus continually talks about “counting the cost” before following him. He talks about taking up your cross to follow him. In the context of trust that makes sense. We trust God because when he calls us to follow and we follow, knowing he has our best at heart, even when it is a road marked by suffering and death. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer put it “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s trust. Trust of your whole being. Trust with your life. That’s what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. To trust him completely.

Fundamentally, though, faith is about grace. Apart from grace we have no basis for trust because we know that our actions deserve the same fate as the demons. It is only because of grace that our trust is possible and ends in hope. Next week I’ll talk about the relationship between faith and grace, which is important for beginning to grasp what faith is.

James 1:6-8 (Lent Readings)

Passage

Here’s the KJV (click link for NIV)

But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

Comment

I actually prefer the KJV to the NIV (and most modern translations) for this section at least. This is first major mention of faith in the book of James. As we will see, faith is not just believing (“without doubt” as most modern translations put it), but has to do more with being faithful, and so not wavering. Like wisdom (verse 5) is not just mental, but practical (doing the right thing), so it is with faith. One can be faithful and have doubts. It has to do with an entire disposition. Let’s take an example of a married couple. Because I’m a guy, I’ll take it from the man’s perspective (but it works either way). Which is better: a man who believes without question that his wife loves him unconditionally and uses this as a license to cheat on her, neglect her and do whatever else he selfishly wants (on occasion); OR a man who (on occasion) has some doubts about how whether or not his wife loves him without question yet, regardless of this, is wholly faithful to her out of his love? Which one is better? The one who wavers in devotion, but knows intellectually he’s ok, or the one who is completely faithful, with or without doubts? Now, clearly it is better to have both, but if we stick with one, which is better. This idea of faith will come up again.

James is saying our relationship should be like that of a faithful person. Someone who does not waver depending on the situation in our devotion. If we do, how can we claim to be a follower of Christ? If we are brazenly and openly sinning or denying Christ anytime the winds change (that’s pretty unstable), how can we expect God to give us whatever we ask for, simply because we know he’s good? Of course he’s good, that’s why he won’t give it. For starters, you don’t seem to really care about getting wisdom (if you are so two-faced). And second, you won’t ever learn how to be faithful. This is a call to be faithful servants, not ones who change daily (and are thus unstable).

Question

How faithful are you? Does it help to be reminded that Jesus Christ is our faithfulness? (See 2 Timothy 2:11-13)

A Call for Community: A Dying Man’s Wish

So the other day I ran across the video below. The guy featured in the video has asked that this video be shared as much as possible in the hopes that it would go “viral.” After watching it, I think it is something that can go viral and should go viral. This is my attempt to help in that effort. His request is simple: cultivate community wherever you are and in your own way. He is a Christian, though because the video is produced in part by “Soul Pancake,” which is a non-specific religious/philosophical/spirituality organization started by Rainn Wilson (yes Dwight from the US version of “The Office”), his Christianity is only alluded to (“death is just part of our story” etc). Still, I encourage you to watch the video (WARNING: It will probably make you cry), share it, and stop by his website (you can click here).

Again that website is: http://www.grassrootsconspiracy.com/blog . Do stop by and leave comments/encouragement/prayers over there.

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