Archives For Zealot

995790_828275210634911_6003199688436457051_nSee: The Antiquities of the Jews Book 20, Chapter 9

 

Why is it that the burden of proof is always on the believer to prove resurrection?

Why shouldn’t the doubter have to come up with a more plausible explanation?

Now a 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. And history. Not to mention Judaism. And Greek philosophy- is that it ignores the indisputable facts of history.

For one-

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.

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?

Don’t forget,

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 we know.

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.

If you disbelieve resurrection, how do you account for the fact that Jesus’ own brother died for his belief in it?

What would it take to convince you that your brother was the Messiah?

Probably something like a Resurrection?

 

resurrectionNo.

Not unless you’re a Christian, that is.

In my Easter sermon this past weekend I echoed Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15 that if Jesus has not been raised from the dead then our faith is useless. Especially when it comes to Jesus’ teachings, I said, we’re off the hook if Jesus has not been vindicated by God through resurrection.

The assertions I made in the sermon provoked the anticipated pushback:

‘But you don’t have to believe in the Resurrection to be a Christian.

You can be a Christian by following the teachings of Jesus.’ 

Yeah, well, not really.

Never mind the irritating fact that if Jesus was not raised from the dead then there’s nothing transformative and death-defeating about his teaching. It just got him killed. Death had the last word (and still does).

If God did not raise Jesus from the dead, then God did not vindicate Jesus’ life, his way of life.

His teachings.

So then there’s nothing special about them, they lead only to crosses.

And then Nietzsche is right: power and will are the only sane, responsible ways to live in this world.

And then Paul is right: of all people in the world, we’re the most pitiable.

But the resurrection is a necessary belief on a less theological level too.

On an evidentiary level.

Think about it:

If I was witness called to the stand to testify on behalf of a defendant and every bit of my testimony rung true to you, the jury, until I got to the end of my story- the most important part- and I outright lied, then you would no longer trust any of my preceding testimony and you would cast aspersions upon the defendant about whom I lied.

At least, you should if you were doing your job as a jury.

To dismiss the Resurrection claim, which the evangelists believed whether or not you do, is to call them liars.

And if you think the evangelists liars about the climactic turn in their testimony, why in the world would you trust their prior testimony about the words and deeds of Jesus?

The disciples, after all, didn’t simply convert from one religion to another; they lived- suddenly- as if they inhabited a totally new world.

The disciples from whom we have received the Resurrection witness are the selfsame evangelists through whom we have received the ministry of Jesus. If they lied about the former then we’ve no basis to trust the latter.

And it really does come down to trust then, doesn’t it?

Because if you’re willing to accept the words and deeds of Jesus, as testified to by the evangelists, but not the Resurrection, as testified to by the evangelists, then you are, quite literally, picking and choose parts of the Gospel witness that you like.

Or that make sense to you. Or that fit into your a priori modernist worldview.

You’re not willing to trust that if what the apostles tell you about the sermon on the mount is true then perhaps what they tell you about empty tomb is too.

And ‘trust,’ let us not forget, is the best definition/translation for what the bible calls ‘faith.’

reza-aslan-muslim-zealot-book-author-slams-Jesus-christianity

This past weekend we concluded our sermon series on Reza Aslan’s best-selling book, Zealot.

Dennis Perry, my associate pastor, brought the homiletical thunder.

Or at least a couple of sermonic sparks.

Here’s Dennis’ sermon:

      1. Whose Jesus, Reza Aslan?

Borg, Bras and Clergy Collars

Jason Micheli —  September 24, 2013 — 5 Comments

In my sermon this weekend I tried to approach the question of Resurrection by putting the onus on the person who disbelieves the Church’s historic claim.

‘Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?’

It’s a damn good, table-turning question I think.

And it wasn’t originally my question. I thought giving credit where credit is due would not only be appropriate but illuminating.

Back in 2007, I went to the National Cathedral to listen to a panel discussion that the Cathedral was hosting.

The theme of the event was “The Church in the 21st Century” and for the event the Cathedral had gathered well-known speakers and scholars like Tony Jones, Diana Butler Bass, and, someone dear to my own heart, Marcus Borg.

Actually, I think Marcus Borg is a unimaginative, knee-jerk, liberal fundamentalist hack. Bless his heart.

Like Reza Aslan, the author of Zealot, Marcus Borg has made a career out of regurgitating old Aryan arguments and outdated, hackneyed scholarship to make the claim that the Jesus of the Gospels bears little resemblance to the “real” Jesus of history.

The Gospels, Borg argues, are not stories grounded in real history; they are instead myths and metaphors which convey deeper spiritual truths and universal existential principles.

dc-Marcus-Borg-speaking-to-a-group-300x160In other words, the “real” Jesus never really said: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 x 7, get rid of all your stuff and give it to the poor, a rich man’s getting into heaven is about as likely as shoving a fully-loaded camel through the eye of a needle.

According to Borg, the “real” Jesus never really said those things and thus the “real” Jesus never really expected us to do them. Not surprisingly, Marcus Borg is wildly popular in denominations like the United Methodist Church.

At the National Cathedral, Marcus Borg was the rock star of the panel, and by the time I arrived there was already a horde of Episcopal priests gathered up front staring at Borg so ecstatically I thought they might start to swoon or throw their bras and clergy collars at him.

Not wanting to be mistaken for one of Borg’s fanboys, I sat in the back with the civilians, scooting into a pew next to a tiny, old man who was wearing a knit suit.

Because the theme was ‘the Church in the 21st Century” and because we were surrounded by Episcopalians, it didn’t take long for the panel to steer the discussion toward which Christian beliefs were outdated and needed to be rethought and reinterpreted for the modern world.

And it didn’t take long for that discussion to get around to the resurrection.

With an air of enlightened self-importance, Marcus Borg droned on about how what matters is not that God raised Jesus from the dead; what matters is that the disciples experienced resurrection in their hearts.

For that matter, Borg continued doling out his koan-like nonsense, it doesn’t really matter if Jesus was never actually crucified. It’s doesn’t matter if Jesus never said or taught any of the words attributed to him by the Gospels. It doesn’t matter if someone named ‘Jesus’ from Nazareth was never born- virgin or not, we can suppose.

It doesn’t matter because what matters is that it’s experienced as true in us.

It struck me then that it’s appropriate Borg deems the Gospels myth since his entire theology revolves around another myth: Narcissus.

The panel continued on that nonsensical line for a while.

Finally, during the Q/A the old man next to me got up and shuffled up to the microphone. He was small and had white hair and must’ve been in his 80’s I guessed.

Softly into the microphone, he said:

‘Tell me, Dr Borg, was the tomb empty? Or not?’

 

With what sounded like a rehearsed reply, Marcus Borg said:

‘If I had to bet a dollar or my life, I’d bet there was no tomb. And if there was a tomb then it was not empty.’

 The old man’s mouth dropped.

 And Marcus Borg added: ‘Of course there was no physical, literal resurrection. That’s impossible.’

The old man shuffled back to my pew and sat down.

And then he leaned over and with genuine anger in his voice, he asked me:

“Why is the burden of proof always on the believer?

Shouldn’t someone who doesn’t believe the Resurrection have to come up with a better explanation for everything?”

But that wasn’t all.

While the man whispered in my ear, Borg had resumed his condescension:

‘We all know dead bodies DON’T come back to life. The Resurrection violates everything we know about nature.’

And the old man muttered underneath his breath:

‘But that’s exactly the damn point.’

 

resurrectionFor the sermon this past Sunday (which you can listen to here), I argued thusly:

     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. 

Quite obviously this was a subjective assertion, rooted in my own experience of being encountered and was decidedly not- as one vociferous worshipper grumbled- an “empirical or objective explanation” for the resurrection.

While the Barthian in me bristles at the unexamined assumption that that which is ‘objective’ and true must be empirically verifiable, it’s nonetheless true that the same Barthian in me is allergic to rational apologetics. I simply do not believe that the claims of Christianity can or should be rendered demonstrably true or, even worse, reasonable.

Any Christianity that ‘makes sense’ flies in the face of the first truth of the faith: that dead people stay dead and what God does in Christ is completely unexpected and counterintuitive.

Having said that, however, maybe the grumbling worshipper (a Deist in Christian clothes) was on to something. I do not believe apologetics or rationally ‘proving’ or making the common-sense case for Christ, yet neither do I believe that the ineffable and ineluctable nature of the resurrection makes it UNreasonable.

To say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is true, for we believe God intervenes from beyond history to raise Jesus from beyond the grave.

But to say the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical verification is not also to suggest that the resurrection of Christ is beyond historical plausibility, for we believe God intervenes to raise Jesus from the grave within history.

In fact, though it wasn’t the intent of last Sunday’s sermon (though it will be this Sunday) to argue the plausibility of the resurrection, I do think the resurrection is the best- or at least a compelling- historical explanation for the resurrection of Jesus.

I believe it.

Like Paul, and for that matter like every story there is, I believe the ending of the story determines the truth and worthwhileness of everything which precedes it.

If Jesus is not raised, I’m with Nietszche because if Jesus is not raised all the facts of history are on Friedrich’s side not Yeshua.

I do believe in the resurrection. I believe it based on my subjective experience, and I believe it as history.

Some of you, I know, do not.

Actually, my experience as a pastor in Mainline Christianity has taught me that a good many Christians, if not the majority, do not believe anything actually happened on Easter morning.

In my experience, most quietly confess the creeds but inwardly believe that Jesus was only raised in the hearts of his followers. Others are more open about their doubts, armed with just enough popular press ‘facts’ to miss just how impoverished is their logic- never seriously considering how, to take one example, someone’s existential experience of feeling Jesus in their heart was not likely to persuade another and even less so to lead them to a cross of their own.

Even still, I know some of you doubt the resurrection.

And I want to know why. Or what.

So I’ve got some questions for you to consider.

And, if you’re so bold, to answer:

If it’s true that God raised Jesus from the dead, triumphing over Death and Sin (and Rome) would you then be willing to trust that he is ‘Lord?’

Or, would you at least believe that, having been vindicated by God, Christ’s obedience is what God desires from all of us?

If you say, No, then do you think Easter is irrelevant regardless of whether it’s true or not? Why?

If you say, Yes, then, other than the manner in which we’ve received the gospel, how would you expect the news of Jesus’ resurrection to reach us today? What else would you require to accept it as a trustworthy witness?

And if you would require some other ‘evidence’ of the resurrection, are you actually saying that you need another miracle to verify the prior miracle of the resurrection?

Or are you saying that that even if God raised Jesus from the dead you would not believe? Because you don’t believe in miracles at all? Period.

And if you don’t believe in miracles at all, if you believe then that creation is a closed system from which God is transcendentally apart and in to which God does not act, then aren’t you really saying (even if you go to Church, pray etc) that you’re an atheist?

Or a clockmaker Deist like TJ?

But then that leads to one last question:

If creation is a closed system in which something could not have happened because we do not now observe it happening, then isn’t your ‘reason’ itself a product of that closed system?

And if so, then hasn’t your mind and reason evolved purely through natural selection alone? To give you a better chance only at survival?

And if so, then on what grounds could your mind and reason possibly be in a position to know what is true about reality (that closed system) as a whole?

There’s a big, big difference between saying ‘I do not believe the resurrection of Jesus happened’ and ‘I do not believe resurrections can happen.’

I suspect most claim the former while in fact confessing the latter, not realizing they leave this trail of logic behind them…

Resurrections (as events from beyond history in history) cannot happen.

Therefore God (as Being and Actor beyond history) does not exist.

Therefore Reason (my ability to speculate about the bounds of history and reality) does not exist, or at least not in the manner in which I assume.

Or, as DBH puts it: david_bentley_hart

“…it makes sense to believe in both reason and God, and it may make a kind of nonsensical sense to believe in neither, but it is ultimately contradictory to believe in one but not the other. An honest and self-aware atheism, therefore, should proudly recognize itself as the quintessential expression of heroic irrationalism: a purely and ecstatically absurd venture of faith…” – The Experience of God

In other words, as JAM puts it:

While belief in the resurrection yields fools for Christ, non-belief in its possibility yields fools.

zealot_reza_aslanHere are the audio files for each of Sunday’s mini-messages from our Zealot or Savior? series. They’re also on the side widget on this blog and will be downloadable in iTunes too.

 

 

 

 

      1. Trusting the Gospels Historically

 

      2. Trusting the Gospels Politically

 

      3. Trusting the Gospels Historically

How Can We Trust the Gospels?

Jason Micheli —  September 16, 2013 — 2 Comments

zealot_reza_aslanThis Sunday we continued our sermon series reflecting on the arguments in Reza Aslan’s bestseller Zealot. For my sermon, rather than a single sermon or a 3-Point Sermon, I preached 3 separate sermons spaced throughout the worship service.

I’ll post the audio here soon.

Trusting the Gospels Historically: Philippians 2.5-11

Twenty years ago, my mother uttered those words that have since gone on to become synonymous with American Exceptionalism:

‘Let’s go to Costco.’ 

Actually, my mother said ‘Let’s go to the Price Club’ because that’s what it was called back then.

We’d never been to the Costco before and if my mom was prepared for what we found inside, I sure wasn’t.

It was like a shopping mall for the apocalypse.

“No wonder all my Mormon friends’ parents shop here” I remember thinking.

It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember how that day, in addition to a tub of frozen Pork BBQ and a gallon of black olives, I talked my mom into buying me a copy of the Stephen King novel, Gerald’s Game, a book which in hindsight should’ve been titled 69 Shades of Grey and should never have been allowed into the hands or the mind of 15 year old me.

It’s been 20 years, but I can still remember like it was yesterday how that day at Costco my mom bought herself a compact disk- they were called ‘CD’s’ back then. It was the soundtrack to the major motion picture, The Bodyguard.

In case you don’t remember, The Bodyguard was the ’90’s version of the Twilight movies, except instead of werewolves and vampires it starred a balding, swollen Kevin Costner as the eponymous hero and Whitney Houston as a pop star whose troubled personal life echoed Houston’s own.

The movie was typical for both stars. Whitney Houston sang as she always did on stage and Kevin Costner attempted to act as he always does on screen.

Giddy with romantic projection, my mom laid the CD into the shopping cart and headed to the register.

As you no doubt remember, The Bodyguard lasted longer in the daydreams of suburban women than it did at the box office, but the theme song from the film became a sensation.

It sold a million albums in its first week. It won a Grammy. In the 20 years since, it’s sold 45 million copies and it remains the bestselling movie soundtrack of all time.

It was 20 years ago.

But I remember how when we go to my mother’s Honda Accord, she frantically ripped the CD from its packaging with her teeth, like a solider trying to staunch a comrade’s bleeding.

She turned the key in the ignition, slid the CD into the mouth of the console, and then, like a desert wanderer reaching out towards a mirage that’s too good to be true, she pressed the Play button: ‘I Will Always Love…”

After a few moments, she pressed Pause and looked over at me and in complete seriousness said: ‘Isn’t this great?v‘Kevin Costner’s just so…’

She sighed like Maggie the Cat and her mind wandered and I tried to keep my mind from following wherever hers was going.

Since we didn’t live far from Costco, we sat there in the car, in the parking lot, in the afternoon rain, listening to the next 3 tracks of The Bodyguard soundtrack.

It was 20 years ago.

So I’m sure some of the details of my memory are off.

I’m sure if you asked my mother or my sister, who was also there, they’d recall the details of that day a bit differently.

Because, after all, they’d viewed that day through their own eyes and so would remember it from their own perspective.

Their takeaway from our Costco trip might not be the same as mine.

And none of us knew that, one day, there’d be a reason, I’d be trying to commit those moments of memory to paper.

But once you allowed for variations in detail and changes in emphasis and shifts in perspective, our story would be the same but different.

And each of us would be telling the truth.

20 years, after all, isn’t that long ago.

I’d never tell my mother this but I can still sing all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You’ which I do in the shower.

And I still remember that the next 3 tracks of that album, in order, are: ‘I Have Nothing,’ ‘I’m Every Woman,’ ‘Run to You,’ and ‘Queen of the Night.’

20 years isn’t that much time.

20 years is a short enough amount of time that if I lied or embellished too much or made things up, my mom and my sister would know.

And after just 20 years, you would know what was true and what was not true.

For example, if I told you The Bodyguard was a good movie, you would know that was wrong.

Its only been 20 years- that’s not enough time for you to forget the truth of how awful it really was.

And if I told you that Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner had good chemistry in the movie, then you could think back and know that that doesn’t jive with your own memory, which tells you that marionettes would have been more believable.

It’s only been 20 years.

If I told you that Kevin Costner is a good actor, you’d know that’s a lie.

20 years isn’t enough time to invent a myth that contradicts everything we know to be true about Kevin Costner.

It’s only been 20 years.

I can’t lie and tell you Kevin Costner’s a good actor when there’s too many people still alive, people who were there to see for themselves, movies like Waterworld, The Postman, and 3000 Miles to Graceland

There’s too many people still around who know the true story on Kevin Costner; 20 years just isn’t enough time to change the story.

It’s not enough time to take the once-promising but ultimately-disappointing actor we know as Kevin Costner and reinvent him as a god of stage and screen.

But that’s exactly what popular books like Reza Aslan’s Zealot and even Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code would have you believe.

The assumption behind popular books like Zealot is that we could take an ordinary, flawed actor like Kevin Costner and in no more than 20 years convince everyone who’s seen his movies that he’s really an actor on par with Daniel Day Lewis.

You see the popular skepticism about the trustworthiness of the Gospels is the assumption that the real Jesus of history was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels, but was instead probably either a great, inspiring human teacher or a great inspiring human revolutionary who either died a tragic death (in the case of the former) or died a symbolic death (in the case of the latter).

Therefore…

The assumption goes, Jesus’ followers attributed myths to him, myths like his divinity and his resurrection, only much, much later.

Making claims about Jesus neither Jesus nor his first disciples made about him.

The problem with that assumption is that it has no answer for the scripture you heard today from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

What you heard read- it’s actually a song, a Christian hymn, that was popular enough for Paul to quote it and assume his audience would know it.

This song that speaks of Jesus being the eternal God made flesh in the form of a humble slave.

This song that alludes to God raising Jesus up from the dead.

This song that climaxes with echoes of Daniel 7 where every tongue confesses and every knee bows down in worship.

Of Jesus.

This song, according to scholarly consensus- Christian and non-Christian scholarly consensus- originates at the latest to 20 years after the crucifixion.

And probably more like 15.

      Think about that.

This song is closer to eyewitnesses’ own experience of Jesus than we are to Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You.’

This song which speaks of Jesus in some of the most sophisticated theological language in the entire New Testament was sung by people who had actually known Jesus.

Think about that.

At the same time the first Christians were proclaiming in oral form what we know as the Gospels, they were already putting that proclamation into praise songs and prayers.

Think about that.

Among a Jewish People that had for hundreds of years suffered persecutions and executions for refusing to worship anyone else but the God of Israel, we have proof that in just 15-20 years thousands of them were worshipping Jesus.

Which broke the first and most precious commandment and was the worst of sins.

Unless it were true.

20 years is not a lot of time.

If it’s true that I can still remember all the words to ‘I Will Always Love You,’ then there’s a good chance that this song (from Philippians) is based not on myth but on memory.

Trusting the Gospels Politically: Mark 1.9-11

 

10 Years ago I was at a funeral home in Lexington, Virginia for the visitation hours of a funeral I would celebrate the next day.

As I usually do at funeral homes, I wore my clergy collar, which costumes me, to Christians and non-Christians alike, as a Catholic priest.

When you’re a pastor, visiting hours at a funeral home are nearly as painful as parties or wedding receptions.

There you are, trapped in a room full of strangers who desperately do not want to talk to a professional Christian.

Even worse are the people who do, and you’re forced to plaster a fake smile on your face as someone tells you about the latest Joel Osteen book.

So there I was, making the rounds, making small talk, when this middle-aged man in a too-tight polo shirt and a Dale Earnhardt belt buckle, shook my hand, called me ‘Padre’ and then proceeded to ask me if I had read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

“No, I haven’t read it” I lied. “What’s it about?”

He went on to tell me in breathless tones the now familiar fantasy that “the real Gospel message” was politically subversive and had been suppressed by the Church and by Caesar, that the Gospels as we know them are redactions, edited to support the status quo and consolidate the authority of the Empire.

“Sounds fascinating” I lied.

“Oh, it is- and the truth is kept from people today by a secret group called Opus Dei, ever heard of them?”

“Heard of them?” I whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a member.”

“Well, then you should definitely read it” he said without a trace of irony.

“Tell me,” I asked, “have you actually read the Gospels?”

He didn’t blush.

He just said: “I’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie.”

Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot, is a slightly less fantastical version of Dan Brown’s own.

Reza Aslan’s central thesis is that the one verifiable, historical FACT of the Gospels is what we recite in the Creed: that Jesus of Nazareth “was crucified by Pontius Pilate.”

Crucifixion, Aslan notes correctly, was a punishment reserved exclusively for crimes of sedition against the state.

Therefore, Aslan speculates, the “real” Jesus was not the Jesus we find in the Gospels.

If we know Jesus was crucified then the “real” Jesus must have been a zealot, a member of a 1st century Jewish movement, which agitated for the violent overthrow of Rome.

     If Jesus died on a cross by definition he was a revolutionary.

After his death, Aslan argues, the politically subversive message of Jesus was expunged from the record.

The once politically-charged Gospels were spiritualized to make them amenable to the Empire in which Christians lived.

Now, Reza Aslan’s thesis is half-right, and he gets right something a lot of Christians miss.

 

     Jesus was/is political. Jesus was/is subversive. Jesus was/is revolutionary.

     Reza Aslan is right about all of that.

     You don’t get sent to the electric chair for being a spiritual teacher or saving souls for eternal life.

But Reza Aslan is wrong about the manner in which Jesus was a political revolutionary, and he’s wrong to imagine this subversive message is not to be found in the Gospels.

It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. That’s why Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.

For example-

Take the passage you heard from Mark 1, Jesus’ baptism.

As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus.

Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.

Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence.

Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different.

And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.

So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.

The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.

     It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle. A collision of kingdoms- that’s what Mark wants you to see.

And that’s not all.

Because the very next verse has God declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’

That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.

     Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you Beloved Son.

And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. Not soldiers but the poor.

Reza Aslan argues that you can’t trust the Gospels.

You can’t trust them because the radical, revolutionary message of the “historical” Jesus isn’t there, that it’s been expunged. That the Gospels you have have been rendered safe and sanitized for the status quo.

But from the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith- ‘Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not)-’ the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.

As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.

Reza Aslan is correct: only political revolutionaries wound up on Rome’s crosses.

But the mistake Reza Aslan makes is in assuming that the only revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one.

      Reza Aslan assumes the only effective revolution is a violent one.

 

     And so,  Reza Aslan completely misses just how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are because he doesn’t believe that any Kingdom can defeat its enemies by loving them.

And to the extent that you miss how politically-charged and radical the Gospels are, perhaps its because you don’t believe it either.

But just remember, it’s 2,000 years later and there’s a whole lot of us who believe that Jesus is Lord.

And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

Trusting the Bible Personally: John 21.2-20-25

I got this Bible as a gift from Woodlake United Methodist Church when I confirmed, back when I was 17 or 18 years old.

Truth be told, I didn’t actually open this Bible until I went to college; in fact, I didn’t read a single word of the Bible at all until after I was confirmed- that is, until after I became a Christian.

In other words, I became a Christian without the Bible.

Or rather, I didn’t need to believe in the Bible to believe in Jesus because, when I was a teenager, through the mediation and witness of my church, I met the Risen Christ.

Or, to be grammatically correct, thanks to the mediation and witness of other Christians in my church community, I was encountered by the Risen Christ.

John concludes his Gospel with the cliffhanger that he’s just scratched the surface of what Jesus said and did.

     Which, on the one hand, means John thinks he’s told you enough; John thinks he’s told you all you everything you need to know this Jesus.

But on the other hand, it also means John doesn’t think the Gospel’s about proving the case for Jesus beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If that’s what the Gospel was about then surely John would include every possible piece of evidence, leaving no stone or story unturned.

Not to mention, if the Gospel was meant to prove the case for Jesus then you can bet that Matthew, Mark and Luke probably would’ve gotten their stories straight.

And you can be damn sure the ancient Church would’ve allowed only 1 Gospel into your bibles.

But they didn’t. The ancient Church included all 4 Gospels, and they did so knowing those 4 Gospels were filled with all the chronological inconsistencies and internal contradictions that folks like Reza Aslan want you to get hot and bothered over.

     The Gospels aren’t trying to prove anything about Jesus because that would imply you can know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.

     And you can’t.

     You can’t know Jesus by reading a book about Jesus.

The Gospels don’t try to prove; they bear witness to something that only be known by experience and encounter.

When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we don’t mean they’re objectively provable.

When we say scripture’s the word of God we mean not that its the literal word of God but that its a trustworthy pointer to Jesus Christ, the one-capital-W- Wrod of God.

     When we say the Gospels are trustworthy, we mean they’re more like windows.

     And the purpose of a window is not for you believe in the window.

The purpose of a window is to help you see what exists outside the window. Beyond the window. Independent of the window.

When I say I believe the Gospels are trustworthy, I mean that- like windows- in them and through them, I see the Jesus I’ve already met.

I know the Gospels are trustworthy because I know Jesus Christ.

 

     You see,

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.

 

I don’t believe in the virgin birth because I believe in the Bible.

I believe in the virgin birth because I know the Risen Christ and if Jesus is resurrected then that’s the start of a whole New Creation and virgin birth sounds like a good way to describe how it must’ve all began.

 

I don’t believe Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so.

I believe Jesus loves me because Jesus told me so.

And tells me so.

And what I find in the Gospels is confirmation of the Jesus I already know.

 

And therefore I trust them.

 

Can I prove that?

Of course not.

Neither can I prove that I love my wife.

All I can do is bear witness. Like those Christians at Woodlake UMC bore witness to me; so that, one day I might be encountered by Christ myself.

The Gospels are like windows.

And some Christians spend their whole lives at distance, debating the merits and measurements of the window.

But I can promise you that just looking through the window to see what it’ll show you is a much more interesting way to live.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

zealot_reza_aslanAs I posted earlier, during our September sermon series, Zealot or Savior, we’re reflecting on the questions raised by Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot.

I’m also trying to catch up on my Barth reading. With tones of a mother-in-law, some of you have noted I’m behind.

Foregoing 1.1 §12.1-2 (Holy Spirit), which I think is Barth at worst, forcing theological dogma upon scriptural texts (the HS is the love exchanged between the Father and the Son) at the expense of the clear intention of the authors.

Instead I decided to press ahead into 1.2 §13.1-2.

Happily, Barth and Aslan intersect in a revealing and possibly fruitful way.

Like other popular ‘Real Jesus’ fare and the more scholarly historical-critiques works they simplify and rehash for a buck, Aslan’s attempts to get at the Jesus behind the canon begin with what becomes a determinative premise: the Resurrection as an historical impossibility.

If only Aslan brought the same degree of critical rigor to examining his own presuppositions as he does to the received canon and the Jesus within it.

Aslan et al take it as self-evident that Jesus was an impressive, inspiring existential teacher of compassion (Bultmann), an apocalyptic sage (Borg) or a violent revolutionary (Aslan) whose death on the cross was either the result of a tragic misunderstanding or signaled the failure of Jesus’ intentions.

Bound by their own Enlightenment presuppositions, such critics then uncritically deduce that, with their leader fallen, the first followers of Jesus either had an inner, spiritual experience of Jesus a la Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (if we remember him it’s like he’s still with us) or the disciples simply invented out of hand the resurrection story and started to worship Jesus as the divine Messiah.

Sounds plausible, right? Unknown

Actually, not at all.

And if such scholars weren’t so wedded to their modernistic world view, they would know better.

But scholars like Borg and Aslan never mention how the existential ‘experience’ they attribute to the post-cross disciples is an incredibly modern projection on to a culture, period and religion that new no such rubric.

Jews- and Gentiles- didn’t experience reality that way nor did they narrate their reality that way.

What’s more, and more important, is the FACT that 1st century Jews did not expect a resurrection- anyone’s resurrection- until the general resurrection at the End.

Not only did they not have a belief structure in place to posit something like one man’s (a failed Messiah no less) resurrection from the dead, that they would in their lifetimes start to worship this Jesus as God (with sophisticated, high theology) violates the most basic foundation of their faith:

the first commandment.

Whether you believe or not is one thing. But to dismiss, as Aslan and others do, from the outset that there must be a real story behind the story is to not take seriously enough the serious questions:

How is it the first disciples claimed to have been encountered by something (the resurrection of a crucified Jew) they had no contextual reason to expect or invent?

What seized these observant, faithful Jews that was so compelling it prompted them (allowed them) to violate what was otherwise the most sacrosanct of laws?

After all, if the first commandment was that malleable to these Jews they would’ve saved themselves much suffering and persecution by violating in Caesar’s favor rather than Christ’s.

In 1.2 of the Dogmatics, Barth begins by wondering what it means for God to reveal and speak and we, as humans, can even know that God has/does reveal(ed).

Barth is frank where Aslan and others obfuscate.

Barth admits that when it comes to our knowing and God’s revelation, there are only two possible options.

We can begin with our own experience and understanding of the world (Aslan) which eventually brings us to the impossibility of God’s revelation.

Or, we can start with and accept in faith the “actuality” of God’s revelation of himself to us in Christ.

There’s only two choices Barth makes plain, but, Barth insists, they are choices. We’re not bound to the first option.

So, rather than trying to get at the Jesus behind the text, which always prove an elusive golden calf, Barth begins with the event of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

We can trust what the Bible says, in other words, because we already know what God has said/says in Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word made flesh, corroborates the words of scripture. Not the other way around.

And if this sounds like a semantic shell-game, Barth insisting we can know because ‘the bible tells us so,’ then I think Barth would point you back, as he does here in the CD, to what a counter-intuitive surprise it is that the first confession (historically attested outside scripture) was:

“Jesus is Lord”

Aslan, Borg et al would have the first Christians, wholesale, committing idolatry rather than surrender their own modernist assumptions.

But where Aslan, Borg et al think Christianity was originally a set of teachings or a this-worldly political agenda, Barth won’t let us forget the one indisputable fact of Christian history:

The first Christian believed SOMETHING HAPPENED.

Something happened that caused them to rethink all their religious assumptions, forsake all their categories of shame and power, reread their sacred texts, commit what would otherwise be the worst of sins (idolatry) and ultimately sacrifice their lives on crosses of their own.

You can believe or not believe Resurrection.

You can dismiss it as an historical possibility out of hand.

But you can’t dismiss that the first followers of Jesus were so compelled as to reorient their entire minds and lives that SOMETHING HAD HAPPENED.

 

zealot_reza_aslanThis weekend we began a sermon series, Zealot or Savior?, in which we’ll spend 4 weeks reflecting on and responding to the claims author Reza Aslan makes in his bestselling (but hardly novel) book, Zealot.

If you wish to be spared the minutiae of regurgitated, outmoded, largely discredit 19th century conjectures that Aslan makes in his book, then here’s the basic gist.

The Jesus of faith that has been received by the Church through tradition and canon bears little resemblance to the actual, ‘real’ Jesus of history.

The historic Jesus, according to Aslan, was a Zealot.

The Zealot movement, in case you didn’t know, was a 1st century political movement within the period of Second Temple Judaism that agitated for armed revolt against the Roman invaders. Whereas the Pharisees were the most extreme in wanting a return to moral and religious purity for their people, the Zealots were the most extreme in wanting to return to nationalistic purity. Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, was a Zealot, according to the Gospels- a curious revelation to make, one would think, if the Gospels’ intent were to hide that Jesus was also one. Some scholars also believe Judas was a Zealot and attribute Judas’ betrayal of Jesus to Judas’ growing impatience and disenchantment that Jesus, having ridden into Jerusalem as a mock general, nevertheless refused to take up the sword.

Aslan’s assertion is based on the premise that crucifixion was reserved by Rome for the crime of sedition and threatening the state. Therefore, Aslan assumes, Jesus must have been a revolutionary.

That Aslan assumes such a revolution must necessarily manifest itself violently and that sedition and threat to the status quo can only come through force I think reveals a depressing lack of political imagination.

Aslan’s logic is essentially the same as someone who would argue that Martin Luther King must have ‘really’ been like Malcom X because non-violent resistance could never change the status quo or threaten the powers that be.

As Dennis Perry preached this past weekend, Aslan essentially claims that the ‘real’ more interesting Jesus is the one Pontius Pilate knew and condemned. That some of his find this Jesus more compelling too shows, I think, that, like Pilate, we don’t know the answer to the question: ‘What is truth?’

There are several lines of attack when it comes to critiquing Aslan’s book. For one, had Jesus been a Zealot his Messiahship would have conformed much better to 1st century Jewish expectations and it’s likely he’d be remembered today not as the Christ but as Judas the Hammer was for leading his own Messianic revolt.

The other points of critique I’ll save for another day save this one.

One of the tests historians use for the reliability of ancient documents, like the Gospels, is the degree to which they narrate unflattering, shameful details that would be embarrassing to their community and for which there’d be no reason to document UNLESS THEY WERE TRUE.

For example, divulging that all of your Messiah’s disciples betrayed or abandoned him.

For example, making women the first and key witnesses to the resurrection at a time when they could not even be witnesses in a Roman court.

For example, repeatedly saying that Jesus ‘ate and drank,’ ‘welcomed,’ and ‘forgave’ sinners. This is a consistent theme in every one of the 4 Gospels. And its one that could not possibly be true had Jesus actually been a Zealot.

Think of Zaccheus. Or Matthew. Their ‘sin’ wasn’t greed but collusion with the Roman occupation. The Zealots’ zeal was such that they had no patience for Jews like Matthew who would make their living skimming off the backs of their fellow Jews, making a profit off of Rome’s oppressive occupation. Jesus’ merry band of armed freedom fighters NEVER would’ve admitted someone like Matthew into their ranks.

If Jesus were a Zealot who welcomed sinners like Matthew and Zaccheus he would’ve been a failure before he even entered Jerusalem much less died on a cross.

If Jesus were a Zealot then Zaccheus, the wee little man, never got down out of that tree. If Jesus were a Zealot then Matthew was never a disciple and Jesus never fellowshipped with sinners just like him, a charge (made by the Pharisees remember) repeated too often for it to be the creation of the Church’s later imagination.

 

 

zealot_reza_aslanThis past weekend we kicked-off the new church year with a sermon series intended to reflect on and respond to Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot. In it, Aslan makes the familiar argument that the Jesus of faith is different than the ‘real’ Jesus of history and that what we find in the New Testament are accretions and attributions affixed to Jesus much later by the church.

The Gospels, in other words, are not reliable records of who was the ‘real’ Jesus.

Indeed, by Aslan’s logic, the Gospels are not reliable. They’re often at odds with one another in terms of detail and chronology. Did Jesus give his sermon on the mount or on the plain? What day did Jesus die? Did he celebrate the Passover the night he was betrayed or did he just wash his friends’ feet? Was he born of a virgin and, if so, why do only Luke and Matthew tell us so? Why does Mark hardly tell us anything, including anything about people actually seeing the Risen Christ?

That’s the question for worship this coming weekend:

How can we trust the Gospels?

Since I’m the one stuck preaching, I’d like your help. How would you answer the question?

How can we trust that the witness of the Gospels is a reliable testimony to Jesus?

Why do you, personally, trust the Gospels or for that matter not trust them?

Leave a comment here or email me at jamicheli@mac.com.

Better yet, email me audio of you answering the question and I just may use it in the sermon.

zealot_reza_aslanStarting after Labor Day, we’re doing a sermon series that will address some of the questions and claims of Reza Aslan’s meteoric (thanks to Fox News’ embarrassing prejudiced interview) book, Zealot.

You can read some of my reactions to the book, here and here.

Here’s a clever send-up of the interview. It’s funny, though, I don’t know if anything can quite match how ridiculous was the actual interview itself.

 

 

imagesI’m digesting, having recently finished it, Reza Aslan’s bestselling, mud-in-your-eye-to-Fox News- book, Zealot.

Sadly, Aslan’s book reveals more about the latent anti-Islamic temper of the American political-media establishment than it does about New Testament studies.

When it comes to how Americans view Muslims with an abiding suspicion, Aslan’s book- or the reception to it- speaks volumes.

When it comes to how scholars understand that other guy from the Middle East, JC, Aslan’s book merely rehashes 19th century scholarship.

One of the truly annoying features of books like Aslan’s is that they buttress the prevalent liberal assumption that the INSTITUTIONAL CHURCH complicated, theologized and ruined the simple message of Jesus, the Rabbi of Compassionate Love.

Claims of Jesus’ divinity, resurrection, incarnation, preexistence et al were all added on later, it’s assumed, by power-broking philosophers.

Not only is that too simple to be true.

It’s also so simplistic it’s actually counter-intuitive.

Early Christianity’s small population meant few people knew much about them. What was ‘known’ was that Christians practiced ritual initiations and ceremonies that sounded like cannibalism and infanticide. They were known to have eccentric beliefs that ran counter to Roman virtue and refused to participate to venerate imperial gods.

For these reasons they were labeled unpatriotic and atheists.

Put more positively, Christians early on were known for what was visible (not behind the closed doors of worship) about them.

Namely:

They practiced what seemed to Romans like a conservative sexual ethic, marrying and practicing monogamy.

They practiced nonviolence, insisting converts resign military commissions.

They cared for widows, orphans, lepers, the poor and ‘rescued’ newborns ‘exposed’(an ancient equivalent of abortion) by Romans.

In fact, over time Christianity compelled ordinary people to such acts of boldness, compassion and virtue challenged dominant Roman attitudes about virtue and class. Romans, owing to Greek philosophy, believed virtue could only cultivated by years of training and education and, as such, belonged to the realm of the wealthy.

Even the emperor Julian, no friend to the faith, lamented how “it is a disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well.”

A pertinent question to ask is what motivated such bold, potentially dangerous, culturally counterintuitive acts among Christians?

It’s fashionable today to praise Jesus as a teacher and person and even to wish to emulate his life while at the same time disavowing the theological claims which have supposedly grown up around him.

For this reason it’s often assumed that earliest Christianity, and hence the purest expression of it, was focused on Jesus life and teaching, that understandings of his divinity and worship of him as God-incarnate were later developments and, accordingly, are for modern people optional.

The reality is the opposite.

As the liturgical sections of the Didache illustrate, the very earliest Christians were making very sophisticated claims about Jesus’ identity. And one should wonder why it would be any other way.

To assume that the early Christians risked their lives and the Empire’s wrath because they believed ‘compassion would change the world’ is facile.

It’s much easier to suppose that with high christological claims comes greater focus on embodying the Gospels’ teachings.

In other words:

the early Christians practiced Jesus’ teaching so thoroughly because they were convinced the One who said them was God. 

As any Mennonite will tell you, committed as they are to nonviolence as THE witness to the truth of Cross and Resurrection, there’s no way you’re following this guy very far if you’re not convinced he’s God.

That’s why, as Stanley Hauerwas likes to say, Christians should live in such a way that MAKES NO SENSE if Jesus Christ is NOT raised from the dead. 228958_10150729303960096_564145095_20288493_4614542_n

Thank God, Reza Aslan to the contrary, some Christians did.

imagesLike the Almighty Narnian lion that bears his name, the arrival Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has been felt across the cultural landscape.

Thanks to (possibly in reaction against?) a prejudice-confirming, cringe-inducing interview on Fox News Aslan’s book has ascended to the top of bestseller lists, which are usually less interested in Jesus than they are in life lessons gleaned from dogs.

If not for the viral Fox News interview and the author’s own Muslim biography, Aslan’s book might have disappeared with nary a notice like the many that have come and gone before it.

I think this most certainly would’ve been its fate. I say this because, unlike the Fox ‘journalist’ who interviewed Reza Aslan, I’ve actually read his book.

And while his arguments may be challenging for Christians and the questions raised by them good ones,

Aslan essentially regurgitates 19th century German historical-biblical criticism that first posited and then went down the rabbit-hole searching for the ‘real’ Jesus of history behind the propagandized Jesus of faith put forward by the authors of the New Testament.

It’s a happy coincidence that Karl Barth can enter this conversation through 2 different doorways- 3 if you want to talk about how Barth, author or the Barmen Declaration, would feel about the jingoism frequently on display on Fox News.

Door #1: 453703048

Karl Barth’s theological program, first in his commentary on Romans and later in the CD, was an explicit attempt to disavow the 19th century German theological and biblical scholarship mentioned above, which Barth had inherited as a student near the turn of the century.

Barth had seen firsthand, in the capitulation of the Church to the Kaiser in WWI and in the horrors committed by German ‘Christians’ in WWII, the devastating effects of searching for a Jesus of history rather than submitting to the Jesus of faith. If the root sin beneath all sins is idolatry- our wishing to fashion a god in our image- then Barth believed constructing a portrait of the ‘historical Jesus’ had proved a fatal temptation.

Before anyone gets too excited about Zealot, I think Barth would caution that historical Jesus conjectures made possible the Nazis’ de-judaizing Jesus which made possible their dehumanizing of Jews.

Door #2: 

One of arguments- asides really- in Aslan’s book is that the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as possessing the power to perform miracles is hardly a novel conceit. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly not the only miracle worker in 1st century Palestine, Aslan argues. Jesus’ ability to perform miracles, he says, does not prove or even imply his divinity, a status later believers attributed to Jesus.

Aslan is correct in his assessment that Jesus was only one among many miracle-workers in Palestine.

In his suggestion that the New Testament does not present Jesus as uniquely singular miracle worker, Aslan is not only wrong he proves to be a shabby read of scripture.

Illustrating the adage that there’s nothing new under the sun, Karl Barth in §11.1 serves up a solid rejoinder to arguments like Aslan’s.

Just think, Barth writes, that the oldest Christian confession- older even than any part of the NT- is ‘Jesus is Kyrios.’

Lord.

Consider that Jews, for whom the first commandment was sacrosanct and the reason behind centuries of suffering, would, within the first generation of disciples, call anyone but God ‘Lord.’

Jews had routinely irked Caesar’s ire for refusing to call him ‘lord.’

But quickly after Good Friday many took to calling Jesus ‘Lord.’

As Barth writes:

‘…it cannot possibly have happened unawares and unintentionally that this word (kyrios) used to translate the name of God Yahweh-Adonai was then applied to Jesus.’

Aslan notes that later believers attributed to Jesus claims Jesus himself did not make for himself; however, Aslan fails to mention that those believers would’ve been breaking the first and overarching commandment by doing so…unless something (like a Resurrection) had convinced them that this Jesus and Yahweh were one and the same.

Barth then turns to a miracle stories to illustrate this point.

The Gospels’ miracles stories do not suggest Jesus’ divinity by pointing to his ability to perform miracles. They do so by what is said in the miracles stories.

Take the healing of the paralytic in Mark. The story turns not on Jesus’ wonder-working but on a dispute about who has the power (ie, authority) to forgive sins.

To the Pharisees’ consternation, Jesus claims authority that belongs to God alone. The Pharisees, it should be pointed out to Aslan, accuse Jesus of what?

Blasphemy.

Ignoring their outrage, Jesus forgives the paralytic and heals him. The actual miracle here, Barth notes, is a secondary feature to the story.

The act of the miracle, Barth writes, is meant by the author as a visible confirmation that ‘the word spoken is God’s Word’ and, I would continue the logic, that the one who spoke that word is God.

Barth:

“This is the meaning of the miracles ascribed to Jesus (and expressly to his apostles too…) and it marks off these miracles, however we assess them materially, as at any rate something very distinct amid the plethora miracle stories in that whole period.”