ἀδιάφορα, or adiaphora to those of you who don’t use Greek, is the theological term for:
How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?
As John Wesley is reputed to have said about Christians and their beliefs:
In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.
Of course, proving that we Methodists get our doctrinal slipperyness honestly, how do you determine what is ‘essential?’
Who determines what is essential?
And perhaps most important of all: how do they determine it?
Historically, essential doctrines have always been discerned and debated over time by means of ecumenical councils. Think Nicea or Chalcedon and the creeds which they produced as a result of their consensus.
Presently, as any sentient creature knows, issues of marriage and homosexuality divide the ‘big C’ Church with passion and biblical motivation on both sides and no small amount of fatigue in the middle.
As much as those in the middle would like to move on from the issue and get about the Church’s ‘mission,’ we can’t.
As much as those on the ‘progressive’ side would like the Church to hurry up and get with the times, we can’t.
And as much as the traditional side would like to persist in its tradition and ignore the segment of her Body which believes the Holy Spirit is leading in a new direction, we can’t.
That’s because marriage- and sex within marriage- is not ἀδιάφορα. It’s a belief about which the universal Church has always held a particular, universally-held view.
It’s too important a belief, in other words, for individual churches (or individual Christians for that matter) to chart their own path.
Likewise, it’s too important a belief to ignore what many Christians believe the Holy Spirit has persuaded them about the matter.
Marriage is not ἀδιάφορα; therefore, marriage is a belief that necessarily calls out an even more essential marriage: ours to Christ. The Church’s unity.
And so, like any marriage, we’re stuck with each other for the long haul and, as in any marriage, we need to figure this out together. In conversation.
Here’s how NT Wright put it in his final address as bishop:
“Unlike the situation with children and Communion; unlike the situation with the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate; in the case of sexual relations outside the marriage of a man and a woman, the church as a whole, in all its global meetings, has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here.
The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese, or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on.
Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option, and the Church as a whole has declared that the case for that step has not been made. By all means let us have the debate.
But, as before, it must be a proper theological debate, not a postmodern exchange of prejudices.
No doubt it isn’t perfect. But it is designed, not (as some have suggested) to close down debate or squash people into a corner, but precisely to create the appropriate space for appropriate debate in which issues of all sorts can be handled without pre-emptive strikes on the one hand or closed-minded defensiveness on the other…to recognise and work with the principle of adiaphora; and that requires that it should create a framework within which the church can be the church even as it wrestles with difficult issues, and through which the church can be united even as it is battered by forces that threaten to tear it apart.”
We’re nearing the end of our annual commitment campaign as well as a sermon series on Generosity and Simplicity.
There’s nothing that will tighten the sphincters and of people in the pews like preaching on $$$.
Here’s a little-known gem of a bible story sure to raise the collective blood pressure; it shows, in economic fashion, money’s tendency to lure us into deceit:
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.3‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us* but to God!’ 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6The young men came and wrapped up his body,* then carried him out and buried him.
7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ 9Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
In case you skipped past the scripture, here’s the married couple, Ananias and Sapphira sell some property, hold back some of the proceeds for themselves instead of giving it to the Church, lie about it and then they’re struck dead, presumably by God.
The Lord may love a cheerful giver, but Acts 5 suggests God may kill stingy givers. Or deceitful ones.
And there’s my question to you.
As a pastor I hear a lot of folks repeating the ancient heresy: that the God of the Old Testament is angry, violent and full of wrath while the God of the New Testament is loving, gracious and forgiving.
I usually respond by pointing out some of freaky scary things Jesus says in the Gospels, but Acts 5 may be the best example of all.
Ananias and his Mrs being struck down instantly with no offer or opportunity for repentance and forgiveness seems like a story we’re more likely to find in the Old Testament not the New.
NT Wright says we can’t have the awesome deeds of power, miracles and mass conversions in Acts without also taking the more ominous displays of the Spirit like here in Acts 5. I don’t know how persuasive that view is even if it is logical.
What do we do with a story like this?
How do we explain justify God killing them?
What are we to take away from this story other than our reflexive fear and distaste?
Here’s the sermon from this past weekend from our series, Zealot or Savior?, reflecting on the arguments in Reza Aslan’s bestseller, Zealot. Like last week, I preached this in 3 parts spread out during the service, with a reading for each section.
Basically this sermon needs one giant footnote as I owe all the substance to NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.
You can listen to the audio here below, or in the ‘Listen’ widget in the right sidebar on the blog.
If God Did Not Raise Jesus, Then What Is A Better Explanation for the Gospels?
John 19 & 20
Last Sunday in my sermon I said this:
I don’t believe in Jesus because I believe in the Bible. I believe in Jesus because I’ve met him.
I don’t believe in the the resurrection because I believe in the Bible.
I believe in the resurrection because I know Jesus Christ is alive and so God must have raised him from the dead.
Some of you got your panties in a bunch over that ‘pathetic’ defense of the Resurrection.
Some of you accused me of intellectual cowardice, of making an entirely subjective, experiential argument.
He Who Must Not Be Named gripped my hand on the way out of worship and grumbled to me: ‘Just because we’re people of faith, you know, doesn’t mean we’re fools. Well, maybe you are.’ He said.
‘But you can at least make a case that it’s true not just for you, but True.’
And then he took me to task for not providing a rational, historical explanation for the Resurrection.
Indeed one of you said to me: ‘Jason, you don’t have a hair on your ass if you don’t tackle the arguments in Reza Aslan’s Zealot head on.’
So here goes:
When it comes to the Resurrection, here’s my question:
Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?
Why does someone who believes in the resurrection have to prove it?
Shouldn’t someone who disbelieves the resurrection have to come up with another, better explanation?
You can’t just discount the Resurrection automatically or out of hand.
You can’t just dismiss the Resurrection as ‘impossible’ and think you’re done. That’s intellectually lazy.
Because once you dismiss the Resurrection, the burden of proof shifts to you to come up with an historically plausible explanation for how the Church got started at all.
You see, you can’t answer ‘No’ to the question ‘Was Jesus raised from the dead?’ without then having to answer another question right after it:
‘How did Christianity begin? And why did it take the shape that it did?’
So, I brought my garbage from dinner last night.
Dump it all out, you’ll see there’s a box of brownie mix, carton of eggs, box of penne, vegetable oil, bottle of cheap wine, can of tomato sauce, a garlic bread sleeve and a plastic tin of lettuce.
Now, it’s true there’s a few ingredients from dinner not here. It’s true that only a few us experienced the dinner event firsthand. It’s true there’s no cold, hard proof other than these pieces of evidence and our testimony.
But you could sort through all these ingredients and plausibly conclude that last night we had penne with tomato sauce, along with salad and bread, followed by brownies and wine for dessert.
Even though it sounds impossible/incredible/unbelievable that any self-respecting, Giada-worshipping Italian- American would buy canned tomato sauce; your conclusion would be plausible and, in this case, correct.
Now, if you were to insist that ‘No, I don’t believe the penne with canned tomato sauce story,’ if you were to give a different account of the dinner event, then you would have to account for every detail.
Your explanation of what really happened at my dinner table couldn’t leave out an ingredient like eggs.
And you’d have to account for all the embarrassing, impossible-sounding details like canned tomato sauce.
Now the standard skeptical explanation for the Gospels’ accounts of the Easter event generally goes like this:
The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today and believed in supernatural occurrences like resurrections.
They had believed Jesus was the Messiah when he was alive, and after he was dead they had a spiritual sense, a religious feeling, an existential experience that Jesus was still with them.
Over time, these feelings of Jesus’ spiritual presence developed into stories of Jesus’ physical presence and later those stories were developed into Gospel texts that were written in order to prove the Church’s claims that Jesus was the Resurrected Messiah.
That’s the standard skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from more than a few of you.
The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture.
Not to mention Judaism.
And Greek philosophy- is that it leaves too many ingredients unaccounted for.
For one, it fails to account for the fact that the message of Resurrection doesn’t begin in the Gospels.
It begins immediately, right after Jesus dies, with hundreds of people testifying: ‘I’ve seen Jesus resurrected from the dead, and the tomb is empty.’
Even if you do not believe the resurrection as an historical event; the resurrection claim remains a fact of history and it is announced not generations later but only days.
Another problem with the standard, skeptical explanation is that it fails to point out that the resurrection message is first written down not in the Gospels but in the letters of Paul, written barely more than a dozen years after Easter, written in public documents that were read aloud and circulated throughout the Empire, written not as hyperbole or metaphor but as verifiable testimony.
Paul doesn’t just write ‘Christ is Risen’ in 1 Corinthians.
Paul names names.
Up to 600 names of witnesses who had testified to seeing the Risen Christ and who were still alive when Paul wrote down and sent out his letters.
Witnesses who could be cross-examined by anyone who wished to call Paul’s bluff.
If he were bluffing.
Even if you choose to think the resurrection a fantasy, you still must account for the fact that those who first claimed the resurrection did not think it a fantasy.
The biggest ingredient the standard, skeptical explanation leaves out is this:
If the Easter Gospels are legends that were written down to prove that Jesus is the Messiah and to make the Christian claims of resurrection credible, then why is it that they do such a bad job of it?
If this is calculated propaganda meant to convince, it sucks.
Why, for example, do the Gospels not lie and tell you that it was Jesus’ brother, James, the next eldest in the family, who buries Jesus, as was James’ obligation under the Law?
Because by not telling you James buried Jesus, the Gospels are telling that Jesus died in shame; that is, Jesus was a source of shame to his family.
By not telling you James buried Jesus, the Gospels are telling you- reminding you- that Jesus’ family never believed in him.
Not until something happened to them.
If this is calculated propaganda meant to convince, it’s not very good.
For example, why is it that all four Gospels are littered with Old Testament citations from the very beginning of all four chapter ones, but when they get to the Easter stories the citations go silent?
Barely a one.
As though the Gospel writers are tying to tell you:
We don’t really know what happened but something happened.
We don’t understand this.
We can’t comprehend this.
Nothing in our scripture or experience or tradition led us to expect this.
If these stories were concocted to prove and convince, case-closed, then you’d expect a lot more than zero footnotes to support their claims.
If this is calculated propaganda, it’s kinda crappy.
For example, if the Gospel writers were making a convincing case for Christ (that was not based in experience and memory) then they would never invent women as the first eyewitnesses.
It’s not just that women weren’t credible witnesses; they weren’t even legal witnesses. Women could not testify in a Roman court of law.
Their word meant nothing, and so their witness here in the Easter story proved nothing.
There is no advantage to casting them as the first eyewitnesses and there is every disadvantage. There must have been enormous pressure on the Gospel writers to remove these women from the story.
But they didn’t. Why?
Likely, it’s because by then the women’s testimony was too well-known to omit.
You can dismiss the resurrection. Call it impossible, if you like.
But then the burden of proof shifts to you.
How is it that a novel, counterintuitive, unexpected message (God has resurrected a failed Messiah) emerged virtually overnight?
How is it that hundreds, not just the twelve, testified to it long before the Gospels were written? And continued to so testify even when it led them to crosses of their own?
And why is it that the Gospels do not read like calculated propaganda written after the fact, but instead read much more like the flustered, puzzled, confused testimony of witnesses each of whom tells the truth even if their facts and stories don’t perfectly match?
You can dismiss the resurrection, but if you let go of your superstitious belief in reason alone, you’ll see that resurrection is in fact the most plausible explanation.
If God Did Not Raise Jesus,Then What Is A Better Explanation for the Resurrection Message?
1 Corinthians 15.1-19
Suppose you sorted through the garbage from my dinner again.
Suppose you picked through the evidence left behind from our dinner, and this time you discovered among all the normal, traditional ingredients something brand new.
Imagine you discovered an ingredient for which there is no prior category- a new species of food that suddenly appeared in the world with no process of development or evolution or trial-and-error testing.
An ingredient that defies all culinary logic, that goes against everything people mean when they say ‘Pasta Dinner’ and would even make quite a few people nauseous just to contemplate.
A new species of food.
Whatever explanation you came up with for what happened at my dinner, it would have to account for that brand new ingredient.
Even if you refused to believe that there’s any way that new ingredient was ever really part of our dinner, even if you insisted that that new ingredient is just symbolic of something we felt in our hearts during our dinner, you still would have to explain how the ingredient got there in the first place.
Now the standard, skeptical explanation for the Resurrection Message goes like this:
The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today.
And the disciples either had visions and hallucinations of Jesus after he died and they called that Resurrection, or wanting people to think Jesus had been resurrected, they stole his body and claimed he’d been raised.
That’s the standard skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from a lot of you.
The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture.
Not to mention Judaism.
And Greek philosophy- is that it does not account for the fact that Resurrection was a brand new idea.
Resurrection was not conceivable to a 1st century Jew and it was not desirable to a 1st century Greek.
Resurrection belonged to neither worldview; it just appeared overnight.
A brand new species in the religious world.
If the disciples had had visions or hallucinations or if they’d stolen the body, they would never claim it had been Resurrection.
They had no motive to make it up because Resurrection was not a belief anyone would hear.
If they made it up, they chose the wrong message.
Because for Jews, the bodily resurrection of a single man was unthinkable.
And for Greeks, the bodily resurrection of anyone was unattractive.
The standard, skeptical explanation fails to remember that the entire religious worldview of Greeks centered around escaping this material world, which is finite and corrupt, and moving on to the spiritual realm, which is eternal and pure.
The whole trajectory of salvation was for your eternal soul to be freed from your mortal body.
Resurrection was not only an impossible belief to a Gentile, it was objectionable.
No soul, having escaped its body, would ever want to go back. If you had told a Gentile that a guy from Nazareth had died and 3 days later was resurrected, they would’ve said:
‘That’s terrible! I’ll pray for him!’
If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message.
Because for Jews, Resurrection wasn’t a generalized term. It didn’t refer to feelings in your heart or visions in your head.
For Jews, Resurrection very specifically referred to what happened NOT to one man in history but what will happen to all of God’s People at the end of history.
Resurrection referred exclusively to a future event, when God restores his creation, when wolf and lamb lie down together, when nations beat their swords and spears into plough shares and pruning hooks, when mourning and crying and pain are no more.
If you had told a 1st century Jew that one man, a failed Messiah no less, had been resurrected, they would have responded:
“What are you? An idiot? Resurrection hasn’t happened. Caesar and Herod are still in their thrones. Israel is still not free. War and pain and suffering and injustice still abound.”
If the disciples made it up, they chose the wrong message.
There was too much built-in resistance to the idea of Resurrection, from Jew and Gentile.
That’s why the empty tomb and the appearances of the Risen Christ are so important for the Resurrection.
You couldn’t have had one without the other.
You’d would’ve needed one to substantiate the other.
If the tomb had just been empty, but no one had seen the Risen Christ, then everyone would’ve concluded that the body had been stolen or scavenged.
No one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just an empty tomb.
And if followers had seen the Risen Christ but the tomb was not empty, then everyone would’ve chalked it up to the ordinary visions people have after a loved one dies.
But no one would’ve concluded Resurrection from just visions of Jesus.
You would’ve needed both.
Because no one had Resurrection in their worldview.
So where did it come from?
You see, you can dismiss the Resurrection.
You can refuse to believe it- fine- but that doesn’t get you around the fact that they did.
James and Paul believed it.
Something happened to them.
Something that caused them to believe something for which their Jewish and Greek world views had no previous category.
You can dismiss the Resurrection.
You can hold up your hands and say ‘Look, I don’t believe that dead bodies come back to life.’
You can say that, but realize: you’re missing the whole point if you don’t understand that that’s exactly how people like James and Paul felt.
Until something happened to them.
And you see that’s where the burden of proof shifts to you.
Because you can say you don’t believe in the Resurrection as an historical event, but that doesn’t get you around the fact that the resurrection claim is a part of history.
And so if you dismiss the Resurrection, then you’re left with some explaining to do.
Just how is it that an entirely new, distinct and divergent worldview emerged virtually overnight?
How is it that virtually overnight Jews were worshipping Jesus as Lord, which they’d never done for any previous Messiah and which violated the 1st commandment?
How is that virtually overnight they started worshipping on Sundays, which violated the 4th commandment?
How is it that virtually overnight Jews were proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus which violated everything their scripture told them?
How is it that virtually overnight they began living in such a way that violated everything the real world told them?
If you dismiss the resurrection, you still must explain how this resurrection worldview sprang up out of nowhere immediately after Jesus’ death.
And as any scientist will tell you, new species of animals do not appear overnight.
That would take an act of God.
If God Did Not Raise Jesus,Then What Is A Better Explanation for the Church’s Witness?
The Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 9
You could pick through all the ingredients from my garbage and come up with an explanation for what we had for dinner last night.
You could sort through the pasta and eggs etc and come up with an explanation for what you think happened in our kitchen.
But explanation is not the same thing as understanding.
You could never understand the meal we shared, until you asked questions about our experience of it.
What the meal meant to us. What it led us to do.
Our experience of the meal is every bit as essential as the ingredients.
For example, if none of us ever made penne with canned tomato sauce again, you could conclude that the meal was inconsequential, that it was nothing more than the sum of its ingredients.
But if it meant quite the opposite to us, then you would know that there was something else about the meal, something more than the ingredients you can see and sort through.
You could never really understand our meal, and so you could never really give an explanation of it, without taking into account the experience of those who lived the meal.
Now the standard, skeptical explanation for the Disciples’ Resurrection Witness goes like this:
The disciples, being ancient 1st century people, were superstitious people who didn’t understand biology etc like we do today and believed in supernatural occurrences like resurrections.
They had believed Jesus was the Messiah when he was alive, and after he was dead they concocted what became the Resurrection Myth either to continue Jesus’ movement themselves or to further their own agenda.
That’s the standard, skeptical explanation, and I’ve heard it from many of you.
The problem with the standard, skeptical explanation- other than it’s complete ignorance of first century culture.
Not to mention Judaism.
And Greek philosophy- is that it ignores the indisputable facts of history.
If the disciples had wanted to continue Jesus’ messianic movement, they wouldn’t have concocted a Resurrection.
They would have passed Jesus’ messianic mantle to his brother, James, the next eldest and the next in line.
Just as followers had done with all the would-be Messiahs before Jesus.
But no one ever proclaimed James as the Messiah.
Because James proclaimed the Resurrection.
But the biggest problem with the standard, skeptical explanation is that it ignores that, no matter what you believe about the Resurrection, the first Christians really did live as though they believed Christ’s Resurrection had begun God’s future Kingdom in the here and now.
They really did live as though the Resurrection had made them first fruits- signs- in this world of the world to come.
These weren’t give an hour a week and drop a few bucks in the offering plate people.
They really did live as though if the Resurrection is true, if God vindicated Jesus’ life, then everything Jesus said and did matters more than anything else.
So they shared all their money and possessions with each other.
They opened their homes and their dinner tables and their worship to outsiders.
They cared for widows and the poor, and they rescued newborns Romans left in fields to die.
They forgave their enemies and turned the other cheek and faced down emperors without picking up the sword.
And they proclaimed the Resurrection of Christ even as it led them to crosses of their own.
If the Resurrection is not true, how is it that they lived the Resurrection?
Peter, he was crucified upside-down.
Andrew, he was also crucified.
James, son of Zebedee, executed by a sword.
John, he was lucky enough to grow old and die of natural causes, so far as
But Philip, he was tortured and then crucified upside-down.
Just like Bartholomew and Thomas and Matthew and Thaddeus and Simon.
Just how many people are willing to die for a lie?
And don’t forget James.
James, who did not believe in his brother until after his brother died and then one day, because of living like his brother and confessing faith in his brother, James was condemned by the very same people who had condemned his Jesus.
James died just like his brother.
What would it take to convince you that your brother was the Messiah?
We’re finishing up our week here in Guatemala, working on the first phase of building a sanitation system in the community of Chuicutama in the Highlands of Guatemala. If you’d like to learn more and/or support our work, as it’s a multiyear project, you can do so by clicking here:
As part of our week, we’re reflecting on the bible’s commandments about Jubilee. You can think of Jubilee as scripture’s economic policy. Jesus unveiled his own Gospel in terms of Jubilee in Luke 4, his first sermon.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not remit your brother or sister’s debts.’
NT Wright, an Anglican Bishop and theologian, quips that the Christian world can be divided into ‘gospels people’ and ‘epistles people.’
By that, he refers to the way Christians tend to frame the faith in an either/or dichotomoy: Christianity is about following the example of Jesus’ life (gospels people) or its about Jesus’ death and resurrection rescuing us from our sin (epistles people). Despite the frequency with which Christians so divide the faith, the problems with such a dichotomy should be obvious. Focusing only on Jesus’ life or only on the forgiveness of sins renders the other unintelligible.
And it couldn’t be further from what Jesus himself taught.
Again, the Lord’s Prayer.
When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, he teaches them to pray for the forgiveness of their debts just as they forgive their debtors. Woven into Jesus’ prayer is the correlation between how God regards us and how we in turn regard others. We extend grace and forgiveness just as- indeed because- we have been shown grace and forgiveness by God in Christ. Likewise, our ‘debt’ of sin is reconciled by God through Christ not as an end in itself but so that we can extend God’s reconciliation to others.
Salvation can never be something God does just for me; it must always also be what God does through me and with me for the world.
Our ‘personal’ salvation is but the basis from which Christ brings his Kingdom to all of creation.
In the first century, Roman taxation very often reduced Jewish peasants to a slavery of indebtedness. Jewish peasants frequently had to borrow money at debilitating interest to pay their taxes. As a result, many peasants wound up losing their property and found themselves sharecroppers on land formerly owned by them. In addition, the Roman tax system created a hierarchy of intermediaries, most often Jewish, whom Rome contracted to collect the tax.
In Jesus’ Parable of the Merciless Servant, the Jubilee year has been proclaimed, the ‘remittance’ of debts is offered by the king to a servant.
Now, if salvation were purely personal or spiritual- what God has done for me so that I can go to heaven when I die- then Jesus’ parable could end right there, a comforting echo of how God has forgiven us.
But Jesus continues.
Having been forgiven his debts, the servant later encounters a peer who owes him a sum of money.
Having just been forgiven his debts, the servant nonetheless demands his peer pay him the debt that is owed. The servant to whom the Jubilee was extended refuses to offer the Jubilee to another.
The merciless servant will now no longer receive mercy. His Jubilee is void. Handed over by his peers, the king orders his torture.
Jesus continues: ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not remit your brother or sister’s debts.’
Protestants often point out how Jesus was not a legalist regarding the Jewish covenant and often sparred with those who were legalists. Didn’t Jesus say the Sabbath was made for people not people for the Sabbath?
However, on one key matter of the Jewish Law and Jubilee Jesus was absolutely rigid: only those who practiced grace towards others would receive grace themselves.
Our personal salvation, the remittance of our debts, is null and void if we do not return the King’s mercy with works of mercy of our own.
For Christians, the challenge of the poor is never just an economic or political challenge. It’s a theological and spiritual challenge. It’s a challenge to our sense of gratitude for the forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ, for those who truly know they’ve been granted unwarranted, Jubilee-like mercy for their ‘debt’ should be eager to extend gratuitous costly grace to others. Those who know that the mercy shown to us is great know too that now much is expected of us.
Just as Jesus challenged his first listeners to free those enslaved by debt incurred through injustice, Jesus challenges us today to free those who are bound by a systemic cycle of poverty and hopelessness.
This week we’re continuing our Justified sermon series through the Book of Romans.
Romans is ground zero for the historic Christian doctrines of the fall, original sin and atonement.
Owing in large measure to St Augustine and John Milton (Paradise Lost), it’s become so commonplace to read Genesis as describing a Fall it often surprises Christians to learn that others, namely the Jews, read it any other way.
Not to mention, the traditional categories of Creation and Fall, which focus on Genesis 1-3 to the exclusion of the other 47 chapters in Genesis, ignores the central plot of Genesis: the promise of God to renew the world through the people of Abraham.
Reducing Genesis to Creation and Fall, to chapters 1, 2 and 3, misses that the calling of Abraham is intended by God to be creation redux.
New Creation, which climaxes in Revelation 21-22, begins in Genesis 12 with the calling of Abram.
Distilling the narrative down to Genesis 1,2, and 3 to a story of Creation and Fall lops off entirely the story of Abraham and what God was trying to do in and through Abraham.
It creates a problem (original sin) to which Jesus is the solution completely independent of Abraham or Israel.
It pushes the Jews out of their own story.
Just ask yourself: how many Christmas songs can you name that reference in any way the promise to Abraham? I can’t name any. They’re all about Jesus coming to heal the ‘curse’ of original sin.
So how did we end up with a reading of Genesis according to the Creation/Fall theme?
It’s all a matter of hindsight.
While Jews read Genesis 1 as an allegory of our disobedience and an attempt to describe the less than perfect state of the world, St Augustine, reading Paul, saw in Genesis an allegory for the total and complete alienation of creation from God. The Fall in Eden describes how Sin corrupts the goodness of creation, every creature best intentions and renders us incapable of venturing to God on our own. Look again at Paul’s words in Romans. Because of what happens in the Garden, all of creation is effected, ‘groaning’ for redemption.
The Fall necessitates grace.
But if Christians did not inherit this way of reading Genesis from the Jews, then how did it arise?
Why does Paul see creation this way, as enslaved and suffering under the power of Sin? Why was Augustine’s notion of the Fall able to take root and survive in the Christian memory?
It’s a matter of hindsight.
Jews and Christians read Genesis differently because of Jesus.
It’s not that Paul or Augustine read Genesis in isolation and discovered an insight never before uncovered. It’s that after Easter and Ascension, having turned out to be the sort of Messiah no one expected, Jesus provoked the first community into asking all sorts of questions that then begged still more questions.
Why did Jesus need to come if not to liberate Israel from Rome?
Why did Jesus meet with such a violent end?
What does Easter accomplish?
How we are different/similar to Christ?
It was by reflecting on and discovering who Jesus was and is that the first Christians discovered anew who it is we are. The Fall and its attendant understanding of our own sinful nature are beliefs only possible in light of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection.
Let me break it down.
Take this passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, one of the earliest documents in the New Testament:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
This text is actually a Christian hymn, earlier than Paul’s letter. The hymn gives a window into how the very earliest community of believers understood and worshipped Jesus.
And what does the hymn sing about?
It praises Jesus as the image of God.
Back to the imago dei.
What is it?
According to the early Church, it’s Jesus. Christ is the image of God.
For the earliest believers, it wasn’t just that Jesus is God. It’s that Christ is the created image of God. In other words, he isn’t just true God as the creed says he’s also true man- the true human.
Look at it another way. If God is Trinity then the life of the Son belongs eternally to God; therefore, when God declares in Genesis 1 ‘let us make humankind after our likeness’ God’s talking first and foremost about the life of Jesus.
In his desire not for his own furthering but for the Kingdom
In his relationships that paid no regard to prejudice, convention or fear
In his obedience to the way of God no matter the cost to himself
In valuing the Reign of God over the finite kingdoms and power of the world
In his truthfulness
And in his absolute trust in God, that God would vindicate him
The early Church found in Christ a content-filled definition, an embodiment, of what it means to reflect the image of God.
Rather than a priori doctrines, Fall and sin and Sin are discovered by hindsight.
We read Genesis realizing something we couldn’t have realized before Christmas:
we are not who Jesus is or was in his earthly life.
Our world isn’t the sort of place that welcomes or tolerates a person like Jesus.
The world may be replete with goodness and it may show forth abundant beauty but it still crucified Christ.
Think of the crowds on Palm Sunday who hail and welcome Jesus only to cry for his death later in the week- we may be good people but we still crucify Jesus.
As Paul says, even our best intentions net results that fall far short of Jesus’ life.
Here is this weekend’s sermon from Romans 3.21-31 for our series, Justified. As a visual, I had boulders form a wall with a chasm between ‘us’ and God to demo how the ‘plan of salvation’ is often illustrated.
You can listen to the sermon here
Or you can download it in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
A couple of years ago my wife and I made the decision to get rid of our cable; so that, now we get zero channels on our television. You can imagine how popular that decision was with our children (not).
Even though our boys still claim to hate us and curse the day I sealed our cable receiver in its box and shipped it back to Verizon, Ali and I think it was a good and even necessary decision.
For one, we thought it was ridiculous to keep paying the mortgage payment that is the Verizon cable bill.
For another, we didn’t want out kids exposed to a constant stream of advertisements that train them to want and want and want and want and want.
Of course, if you asked my wife why we got rid of our cable, she wouldn’t mention any of those reasons. No, she’d tell you it was because her husband- me- is a complete sucker for informercials.
A pushover, she’d say. An easy mark.
And it’s true.
If I was surfing the channels and I heard the words ‘set it and forget it’ fuggedaboutit, I was hooked, convinced I absolutely needed to be able to rotisserie 6 chickens and a side of ribs at one time.
If I was flipping channels and came across the informercial for the Forearm Max, I’d spend the next 2 hours shamefully amazed that I’ve made it this far in my life with forearms as pathetic and emasculating as mine.
If I saw the commercial for the Shake Weight, my first thought was never ‘that seems to simulate something that violates the Book of Leviticus, something my grandmother said would make me go blind.’
No, my first thought was always ‘that looks like something I need.’
So we got rid of our cable, but that hardly solves my condition.
There are advertisements everywhere.
A few months ago, near Valentine’s Day, Gabriel and I went to Whole Foods to get some fish.
At that point, I’d been on the infomercial wagon for 18 months, 2 weeks and 3 days. But guess what I discovered they were doing back by the seafood section?
Uh huh, a product demonstration.
The person doing the demonstration was a woman in her 20’s or 30’s.
For some inexplicable, yet very effective, reason she was wearing a black evening dress that reminded me of the one worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith, which then reminded me of the dress worn by Angelina Jolie in Mr and Mrs Smith.
Whether the woman doing the demo did in fact look like Angelina Jolie or just had the same effect on me- my memory cannot be trusted.
‘Hey, let’s stick around and watch this’ I said to Gabriel, who smacked his forehead with here-we-go-again embarrassment.
In addition to the slinky dress, the demonstrator was wearing a Madonna mic which pumped her bedroom voice through speakers, which beckoned all the men in the store to obey her siren call.
The product she was demonstrating that day was the Vitamix.
Have you seen one? Do you own one?
If you haven’t or don’t: the Vitamix is like the Bentley of blenders.
Angelina pulled the Vitamix out of its box like a jeweler at Tiffany’s. And then in her sleepy, kitten voice she went into her schtick:
‘The Vitamix is a high-powered blending machine for your home or your office. It’s redefining what a blender can do. The Vitamix will solve all your blending problems.
With this 1 product, you won’t need any of those other tools and appliances taking up so much space in your kitchen.’
And as she spoke, I wasn’t thinking: ‘Who needs a high-powered blender for their office? Why does a blender need redefining? It’s just a blender.’
No, I was thinking…
‘This could solve all my blending problems. If I have this, I won’t need anything else.’
I looked down at my side, Gabriel was transfixed too.
The first part of her demo she showed off the Vitamix’s many juicing and blending capabilities. But then to display the diversity of the product’s features, she asked the crowd: ‘Who enjoys pesto?’
And like a brown-nosing boy, desperate to impress the teacher, the teacher he has a crush on, I raised my hand and spoke up: ‘I do. I am Italian after all.’
And she smiled at me- only at at me- and said: ‘I’ve always had a thing for Italians.’
‘Can you cook?’ she asked me. And I nodded my head. Like Fonzi, too cool for words.
‘Even better’ she purred.
And then she pretended to be speaking to the entire crowd even though I knew she only cared about me.
‘Have you ever noticed how the pesto you buy in the store never looks fresh? It’s dark and its oily.’
And we all of us, we nodded like Stepford Husbands.
‘But when you try to make pesto at home (and she held up her hands like this was a problem on par with AIDS or world hunger) food processors and traditional blenders just won’t do will they they?’
And then she looked my way, like I was a plant in the audience.
Hypnotized, I said: ‘No, they won’t do’ even though I’ve been making pesto since I was 10 years old and I can’t say I’ve ever had a problem.
She licked some of the pesto off her spoon as though it were a lollypop or a popsicle or… and and then she said in her come-hither voice:
‘I’m not married (sigh) but if I was…this is what I’d want…for Valentine’s Day.’
I drove my new Vitamix home that afternoon.
I showed it to my wife, presenting it to her like a hunter/gatherer laying his bounty at the foot of his woman’s cave.
And then I got back in my car and drove it back to the store in order to return it because as my wife pointed out I already had a blender and a food processor and who could convince me to buy this ridiculous thing and what am I, an idiot?
Sure, I’m an easy mark, but how could I not be?
Take it from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Commercials and product pitches- they’re more powerful and persuasive than any preacher.
Just think, you’re exposed to 3 thousand advertisements a day. A day. And every last single one of them operates on the same, simple, seductive formula:
They identify a problem- maybe a problem you didn’t even know you had until they told you that you had the problem- a pesto problem say.
And then they make you a promise: this product can solve your problem (and maybe all your problems).
And best of all, it’s easy. All you have to do is make a decision, say ‘yes’ to this product.
There’s nothing else you have to do.
3 thousand times a day we’re told we have a problem and we’re offered a solution and we’re promised there’s nothing more we need to do.
3 thousand times a day.
And so it shouldn’t surprise us that many Christians pitch Jesus according to this same marketing formula.
‘Faith in Jesus’ gets treated like a product in a sales pitch. In some churches, this sales pitch is called ‘the plan of salvation.’
The ‘plan of salvation’ makes for great advertising.
It’s cheap. It hardly costs the customers anything.
And like any good infomercial, it’s lends itself to a visual demonstration.
First, it identifies a problem: You’re separated from God.
The emptiness in your life, the sense of something missing, the guilt and shame you feel underneath- it’s because you’re separated from God.
It’s called sin and because of sin there’s a great chasm between you and God.
You’re here and God’s over there.
And there’s nothing you can do, no good deed, no matter how hard you try, there’s nothing you can do to get from where you are to where God is.
The plan of salvation sales pitch offers you a solution to the problem: Jesus Christ died on the cross so that you might no longer be separated from God.
If you have faith in Jesus Christ, then your problem? Gone. Shazam.
Your sin? Dealt with. You will be right with God.
You will be “justified” by your faith in Jesus Christ.
The plan of salvation- like all sales pitches- ends with a promise too good to be true.
It’s free. It doesn’t cost anything. There aren’t 3 Easy Payments of $19.95.
None of the cost is passed on to you.
Better yet, if you choose this product while there’s still time, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, there’s nothing else you have to do, there’s no further obligation required.
It says it right here on the packaging: “You are justified not by your works but by your faith in Christ
For most of you, even if it wasn’t hawked to you in an infomercial kind of way, this is the product you were sold.
The problem is your sin, your separation from God.
If you have faith, if you have faith in Jesus Christ, if you have faith…
Then you’re justified, you’re made right with God.
And there’s nothing else you need to do because you’re justified by your faith not by your works.
For most of you, even it didn’t come packaged in a slick sales pitch, this is the product you were sold.
And maybe you’ve never given it a second thought.
But some of you have. I know.
Some of you were sold this ‘faith in Christ product’ and then one day you took out the instructions.
You took out the instructions, and what did you read there?
Something more than the salesman promised you.
You read Jesus saying that you should be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect, and you read Jesus laying down a whole lot of ‘woes’ if you’re not working to be perfect.
You read Jesus saying I am the vine and you are the branches and if you do not bear fruit with your faith, then you will be pruned away.
You read Jesus warning that ‘when I come back, I will separate the sheep from the goats according to whether or not you gave water to the thirsty or clothing to the naked or food to the hungry.’
Because if you didn’t, Jesus Christ will treat it like you didn’t do it for him.
We’ve all been sold this ‘faith in Christ no more work necessary’ product.
But when you actually open up the instructions to this product, you read Jesus’ brother warning that ‘faith without works is… no good.’
Or you read Paul- Paul!- saying that one day we will be judged by our character, by our work, by our deeds, by the fruit the Holy Spirit has harvested from our faith.
The promise that was sold to us doesn’t match how the instructions say this product is meant to work in our lives.
But to discover that, you’ve got to dig into the fine print.
The truth is always in the fine print.
The fine print is always where you realize what the actual cost is going to be.
And when it comes to fine print, there is no better example than today’s passage from Romans 3.
If you open your pew bibles, you’ll see that today’s text actually comes with fine print- footnotes that imply something far scarier than the fine print in your credit card bill.
The fine print in the case of today’s text- it comes down to just two words: Pistis and Christou.
The word ‘pistis’ is the Greek word that gets translated as ‘faith.’
But the word ‘pistis’ doesn’t mean ‘rational assent’ or ‘belief’’ and certainly not ‘a feeling in your heart.’
It means something closer to ‘trusting obedience,’ and so the better way to translate the word ‘pistis’ isn’t with the word ‘faith’ but with the word ‘faithfulness.’
And the word ‘Christou.’
Obviously that’s the word for Christ or Messiah. Christou is in the Genitive Case.
And the best way to translate it is not ‘in Christ’
The best way to translate it ‘of Christ.’
When you read the fine print in Romans 3, you realize Paul is saying something different than what you were sold.
He’s not saying we are justified by our faith in Christ.
He’s saying it is the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you.
Now, I know you’re probably thinking ‘Jason just likes to be a smarty pants and this doesn’t make any difference.’
To the smarty-pants charge: guilty, I say.
But to the other charge: I say it makes all the difference because Paul wants you to see something that is both better news and far more demanding than the ‘faith in Christ’ product that was hawked to you.
For Paul, it’s the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah that justifies us.
It’s Christ’s faithfulness that makes us right with God.
It’s Jesus’ trusting obedience, not just on the cross but all the way up to it, from Galilee to Golgotha, that zeroes out the sin in our ledgers.
For Paul, Christ’s faithfulness isn’t just an example of something. It’s effective for something. It changes something between God and us, perfectly and permanently. Just like Jesus said it did when he said: ‘It is accomplished.’
That’s why, for Paul, any of our attempts to justify ourselves are absurd. Of course they are- because he’s already justified us.
Dig in to the fine print and you see that, for Paul, the good news of our justification is not a conditional if/then statement: If you have faith in Christ then you will be justified, then your sins will be forgiven.
That’s not good news; it’s a marketing lure.
It suggests that Christ’s Cross doesn’t actually change anything until we first invite Jesus to change our hearts.
But Jesus didn’t hang on the cross and with his dying breath say ‘It is accomplished
dot, dot, dot
if and when you have faith in me…’
This is why the fine print’s such a big deal!
Because it’s such better news than the sales pitch.
Think about what Paul’s saying:
your believing, your saying the sinner’s prayer, your inviting Jesus in to your heart, your making a decision for Christ- all of it is good.
But none of it is necessary.
None of it is the precondition for having your sins erased.
None of it is necessary for you being justified.
Because you already are justified- because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
That’s it. That’s the good news.
You can have a mountain’s worth of doubts and you can have faith as small as a fraction of a mustard seed- no worries.
Because your justification does not depend on you or your faith or lack thereof.
But on Jesus Christ and his faithfulness.
When you think about it, there’s a reason Paul’s message gets pushed to the fine print. It makes for terrible marketing.
There’s no problem to get your attention.
There’s no bad news to spark your worrying.
There’s no scary threat to provoke your fear.
Paul’s fine print message could never be an informercial because there’s no visual to demonstrate. The chasm that once separated you from God- it’s gone.
It’s already been repaired. By Christ.
Your justification. Already taken care of.
Paul’s message doesn’t follow the sales pitch formula.
There’s no problem; there’s just good news.
There’s no way that’ll sell.
But there’s another reason why Paul’s message gets pushed to the fine print.
Because when you realize that it’s the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that has set you right with God, his faithful life of sacrifice and selfless love, his faithful life of compassion and forgiveness and generosity and boundary-breaking, enemy-embracing love- then you realize…
You can’t just respond to that with “faith,” with “belief,” with “a feeling inside you.”
You can only respond by attempting a life like his- a life that once led to a cross.
You see it’s not there is anything you are required to do. Rather there is now so much you are summoned to do.
When you realize and trust it’s the faithfulness of Christ that justifies you, his faithful life all the way to the cross, you realize…
That what’s been given to you for free- it could end up costing you EVERYTHING.
And that’s terrible advertising. That’s an awful sales pitch.
No one would ever buy into that.
No wonder it’s easier to count ‘decisions for Christ’ than to count people carrying bearing crosses for him.
This week we continue our sermon series through Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s a tricky letter to expound because many assume that Paul’s primary message is justification by faith alone- how we’re made right in God’s eyes not by anything we do but only by faith.
As NT Wright says, thinking Paul’s main message is justification by faith alone is to confuse key for melody, for Paul’s main message isn’t how we’re justified but how God has raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord of all creation.
The trouble is many Christians not only think justification by faith is Paul’s primary message; they think justification by faith is the Gospel.
Scot McKnight cleverly calls these Christians ‘soterians’ after the theological jargon that emphasizes Jesus’ saving work.
Scot had this post recently, outlining how you know whether or not you have a soterian Gospel- vs Paul’s actual Gospel.
The soterian gospel is a rhetorical bundle of lines about the doctrine of salvation that came to the fore in the 20th Century. I had lunch recently with a missionary who told me he’s been struggling with the “soterian” gospel for years and is so glad I wrote The King Jesus Gospel because it put into words what he’s been thinking for more than three decades. He’s not the first to tell me this.
Critique of that rhetorical bundle can be found from a number of quarters, including the new Calvinists, theologians, pastors and leaders, and also from some evangelists I’ve met.
Perhaps the secret to the success of the soterian gospel is its teachability and its programmability. Whatever the reasons for its successes, we are not alone in being convinced it is not a fair representation of the NT gospel. I got a chuckle from this reflection by Lee Wyatt:
What would you add? What do you think is the fundamental Question the soterian gospel asks? What do you think is the fundamental Question the gospel of Jesus and the apostles asks?
You might have a Soterian Gospel if:
-you think of humans primarily as sinners in need of redemption (which we, of course, are) rather than divine image-bearers in primarily in need of restoration to their primal dignity and vocation of God’s royal representatives in the world and creation’s wise overseers;
-you think Christ became human only because humans sinned and needed redemption;
-you think that the forgiveness of sins is the end/goal of God’s redemptive work;
-you think human destiny will be in a not-earth place (heaven) and in a not-earth kind of existence (immaterial, so-called “spiritual”)
-you think the earth is not a part of God’s eternal plan.
I’ve posted a few times this week about the Church’s historic theories about how Jesus saves us on the cross. Atonement theories. None of these theories are perfect. Some are problematic.
The chief problem with all of them is how incidental they make Jesus’ Jewishness.
Jesus is the incarnation of Yahweh not a generic concept of God. That should matter and govern how we understand his life, death and resurrection.
After all, the New Testament is replete with parallels between the Hebrew Bible and Jesus’ life:
The Genesis Creation Story – Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus and Jesus’ Virgin Birth
Joseph Going Egypt – Holy Family’s Flight to Egypt
Death of the Firstborn in Exodus – Herod Killing Newborns in Matthew
Deliverance through Red Sea – Jesus’ baptism in Jordan
Wilderness Wandering – Jesus’ Temptation in Wilderness
Moses Giving the Law – Sermon on the Mount
Manna – Feeding of the Multitude
Passover – Last Supper
Garden of Eden – Garden of Gethsemane
Tree of Knowledge – Cross
NT Wright says that “Jesus is Israel in person.” Jesus doesn’t just re-enact, in a general way, our human story. Jesus re-enacts the particular story of Israel.
Jesus goes down to Egypt with Joseph like Israel did. He begins his vocation at the Jordan River like Israel did. He’s tested in the wilderness for forty days just as Israel was tested for forty years. Jesus calls twelve followers like Israel had twelve tribes. Jesus echoes the prophets by calling attention to those who’ve been forgotten and marginalized.
Jesus is the Second Adam. He’s the one righteous man like Noah. He forms a new people like Abraham. He’s the new Israel like Jacob. He despairs and nevertheless saves his people like Joseph. He leads his people to freedom like Moses. He’s God’s chosen King like David. Like David facing Goliath, he does for his people what they cannot do for themselves. He’s a healer and trouble-maker like Elijah.
And by following the way of the Cross, Jesus goes into Exile among his own people to bring them home and change the ending of their story. The rejection Jesus faces puts God to the ultimate test, but on Easter God turns that rejection into a display of his grace.
Jesus is the entire story of Israel in the flesh. Redone. Recapitulated. Repeated. Perfectly this time.
By living perfectly the life God originally intended for all of us, by doing what Israel could never do, Jesus unwinds the story of Sin. He shows Sin to be a false narrative, a corruption, devoid of power or ultimacy. He starts creation again. Resurrection is a reset. In him, is a new creation.
So salvation doesn’t just begin with Christmas or on the Cross. It begins when God calls Abraham to be a blessing to the world. And it’s embodied by the whole life of Jesus. It’s living this whole story that saves us and continues to heal the world.
In other words, there is something fundamentally askew with human existence- we’re imperfect, corruptible and prone to sin despite our best intentions.
So, in Christ, God takes flesh to set right what is wrong with our fleshly lives. Just as Adam disobeyed God by eating from a tree, Christ obeys God even if it leads him to be nailed to a tree. Christ thus perfects every part of our human lives.
We’re saved because, by becoming one of us, God joins our imperfect character to his perfect character. God became one of us so that we might be freed to become more like God.
In this perspective, the Cross is an image of Christ’s obedience (not God’s wrath). Christ doesn’t suffer for us, in our place. He suffers because of us. In other words, sinful humanity’s reaction to the life of someone who bears God’s image is to see him as a criminal and kill him. Think of Martin Luther King.
He didn’t come to die, but its easy to see how death was the likely outcome of a life lived as he lived it.
God’s wrath didn’t require his death; his vocation did.
The cross is a sign of Christ’s obedient life. Even when threatened with suffering and death, he doesn’t waver from the form of life God desires. Easter then is vindication. It’s God saying with an empty tomb: ‘this is the life I desire.’
The cross is a sign of obedience and Easter is vindication, but salvation begins happening with incarnation, in Mary’s womb.
Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Moral Exemplar- these traditional atonement theories all have scriptural support. They’re all right, in a sense.
The problem, though, is that each of them focuses on only one part of the story: Good Friday or Easter or Christmas Day; Jesus’ suffering or the Sermon on the Mount or the Resurrection. None of them focuses on the whole of the story. They all see Jesus fulfilling a part of the Hebrew Bible but they fail to put Jesus in continuity with the entirety of the Hebrew Bible.
They really are theories in that they’re abstracted explanations.
They’re abstracted from the detail and the context of Jesus’ life.
They all forget that the context of Jesus’ life isn’t a courtroom or a battlefield or our hearts. Sin isn’t just a matter of guilt. Sin isn’t just a matter of metaphysical corruption. Sin isn’t just ignorance.
Sin is a corruption of Israel’s destiny.
And the context of Jesus’ life is Israel.
Because Jesus effects a re-inaugeration of the creation story, we are now free (through the Spirit’s work) to live Jesus’ life. Jesus’ earthly teaching is not extraneous nor is it simply something that can change our hearts. It’s the true story of creation. It’s, as John Howard Yoder says, ‘the grain of the universe.’
The recapitulation perspective sees Jesus’ work not only as living Israel’s life perfectly so that Sin can be defeated. It sees Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection as the first act of God’s New Creation.
In the Book of Revelation, for example, ‘heaven’ is not a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ otherworldly realm. Rather, heaven is a New Earth. Heaven comes down to earth. Our destiny is a New Jerusalem in which God dwells in peace and love with his creatures- just as things had begun in the Garden in Genesis.
The Gospels, however, emphasizes the importance of Jesus’ life because it’s that life that leads to New Creation.
The proper trajectory of salvation, then, is not that we go to be with God, but that, because of the reversal made possible by Christ, God will come down and be with us forever.
Here’s this weekend’s sermon for our Counterfeit Gods series on idolatry. You can download the sermon here or in the iTunes Library under ‘Tamed Cynic.’
You can listen to it on this blog, to the right under ‘Listen’ widget.
We’ve been doing a sermon series during Lent on idolatry; that is, giving to earthly things what we should give to God alone. Wednesday afternoon Dennis told me he wasn’t going to be able to preach this weekend as planned.
I said, ‘No problem.’
He said, ‘Thanks.’
I said, ‘Remind me again what idol we’re talking about this weekend.’
He said, ‘Partisan Politics.’
I said, ‘Oh___________.’
And Dennis nodded ruefully and then he said, ‘Well, at least not many people in the congregation are politically active.’ And then, like Satan himself, he laughed diabolically and disappeared in a cloud of sulfur.
So there it is.
I think we can all agree that our fearless leader has given me a poopy-flavored lollipop. I mean, Jesus gets crucified right after today’s passage. If I can just do better than Jesus, I’ll be happy.
Given our hyper-partisan culture, if we can all just take a deep breath, if you can just trust me for the next few minutes, and if we can make it, in Jesus’ name, to the end of the sermon together- if we can just do that then Aldersgate Church will be like a light to the nation, like a city shining on a hill.
To insure I don’t end up on that (the cross) at the end of the service, I want to be as simple and straightforward as I can today. No jokes, no inspiring stories and absolutely no personal opinions- you have my word on that.
I just want to open up today’s scripture passage, unpack it for you and then offer you one clear, bipartisan recommendation that I believe comes out of this scripture.
So open up your bibles to Mark’s Gospel, chapter 12. For you liberals out there, the Gospel of Mark is in the New Testament. Just kidding…That’s the last joke.
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we or shouldn’t we? Yes or no?”
The first thing this passage makes unavoidable is that Jesus is political. It’s not that he’s not.
I know some of you have a Joel Osteen notion of Christianity: that Christianity is a private religion of the heart, and Jesus is about spiritual things. The only problem with that kind of Christianity is that it requires a bible other than the one God has given us.
Mary’s pregnancy begins with her singing of how her in-utero Messiah will one day topple rulers from their thrones and send the rich away with nothing.
Jesus kicks off his ministry by declaring the Year of Jubilee: the forgiveness of all monetary debt owed by the poor.
And for 3 years, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and, because Jesus was a Jew, he didn’t have pearly gates in mind. He was talking about the here and now.
Jesus is political.
The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.
The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.
The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.
So it’s not that the tax was onerous.
It was offensive.
One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: ‘Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.’ Carrying the coin broke the first and most important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’
And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean. It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.
You see how it works?
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies. On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome. On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus has a temper tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip.
And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.
To answer that question, you need to know a little history.
200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer.
The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.”
So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.
Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.
But not before Judas the Sledgehammer becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.
That was 200 years before today’s passage.
About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean- he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax.
With an armed band he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he cleansed the Temple
And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King.
Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.
You see what’s going on?
Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers.
The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax:
Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? is the real question.
Come down off the fence Jesus.
Which side are you on?
Politics makes for strange bedfellows. For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan co-sponsoring a budget bill.
And that’s not even an exaggeration because the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.
The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus.
But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties.
The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options.
And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.
The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to Israel. The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.
The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. The Pharisees were bible-believing observers of God’s commandments.They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and ‘Son of God’ printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.
The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.
And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff, and they’ll write him off and walk away.
That’s the trap.
“Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’
If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.
If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.
Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?
Which is it going to be? The Sword or the Sledgehammer?
Which party do you belong to?
You’ve got to choose one or the other.
What are your politics Jesus?
Jesus asks for the coin.
And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’
And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is ‘eikon,’ the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be ‘eikons of God.’
Eikons of Caesar, the coin. Eikons of God, you.
Jesus looks at the coin and he says ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.’
But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for ‘give’ isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question.
When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means ‘give,’ as in ‘to present a gift.’
But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.
Instead Jesus the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier. Jesus says: ‘Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.’
You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is?
What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him.
But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.
And what does God deserve from you?
Jesus is saying is: ‘You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.’
Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.
But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation- you can’t give to those things, what they ask of you: your ultimate allegiance.
You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question.
The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.
They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now.
Or another kingdom not too different.
They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.
But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise.
He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides.
Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.
A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.
But with a cross.
Jesus refuses to accept their premise.
Because his movement wasn’t about defeating his opponents.
His movement was about dying for his opponents.
And that’s a politics that qualifies and complicates every other politics.
If you were to ask me: ‘Jason, what’s your absolute, A#1, favorite part of ministry?’ then I think I’d have to say it’s: getting email forwards.
Who doesn’t love email forwards?
Some of you only get email forwards from your family or your circle of friends. I pity you. I’m blessed to have an entire congregation thoughtful enough to send me email forwards. How awesome is that?
And much like you, I’m sure, my favorite email forwards are the political ones. Seriously, I don’t know what Christians did prior to the internet. They must’ve had to ask questions and engage in civil conversation and listen patiently.
I can’t even imagine.
Here’s one that has a special place in my heart:
“Jesus said his disciples were to be as wise as serpents. So how can any Christian with a brain be so stupid as to vote for __________ candidate? If you’re a Christian with a brain please forward this to a Christian without one.’
I sent that one to Dennis
But see, aren’t you jealous? Just imagine what your life could be like- getting a dozen forwards like that a day from people who pay your salary?
Seriously, I could filibuster my way past Pentecost just reading the political email forwards I get from you.
On every imaginable issue, I get emails. Emails asserting that God is on this side, not that side.
that bible-believing Christians check this box, not that box,
that Jesus is with this party and against that party,
that to support this agenda instead of that agenda is simply to do what Jesus Christ himself would do.
The Bible has a word for rhetoric like that.
And for some of you, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.
So here’s my one, simple bipartisan recommendation. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
I wanted to get you all plastic bracelets with the acronym on it but the shipping was too expensive.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Don’t put Jesus in a box. Don’t make Jesus choose sides. Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.
Don’t say Jesus is for this Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this or that agenda.
Because we all know it’s more complicated than that. And so is the Gospel.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
I mean, this might be an epiphany newsflash for some of you, but you can find good, faithful, sincere, bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians everywhere all along the political spectrum.
You know how I know that? You’re sitting in front of me.
But what you must not do is insist that Jesus is for this or that politics.
Jesus wouldn’t do that to himself so why are you doing it to him?
You’re mixing up God and Caesar.
You’re making Jesus fit your politics instead of conforming your politics to Jesus.
You’re committing idolatry, using your ultimate allegiance to bless and baptize your earthly opinions.
Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.
Because when you do-
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes too easy to believe that the problems in the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what the Gospel says: that the problem in the world is what’s in here (the heart) in all of us.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes harder and harder to like your neighbor and it becomes impossible to love your enemy.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection kicked off isn’t a Kingdom that any political party can ever create.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom launched by Jesus’ death and resurrection is a Kingdom
where trespasses are forgiven, gratis;
where grace is offered, free of charge;
where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis;
where peace isn’t won and isn’t a soundbite it’s a practice;
where money is shared without debate so that the poor would be filled; where our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this Table together.
When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus brings is you. When the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit doesn’t cast a vote for Emperor. The Holy Spirit creates the Church.