Category Archives: gospel

Monday: “The Time Has Come”

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—"Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, "We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?" Jesus said to them, "The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light." After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

John 12:20-36

In twenty-first Century America, we tend to point to political problems as a way of explaining the injustice that is around us. When we become conscious of suffering, or oppression, or extreme poverty, we tend to point to the absence of a proper political solution. The answers may be different for each of us. Some might pose libertarian solutions to global poverty, others socialistic ones. But all of us look to the language of politics to explain what is happening.

Not so in John's day. For the people of this time and place, the root of the world's problems was principally a spiritual one. The world suffered under the burden of injustice, they believed, because there were "principalities and powers" who ruled the Earth in place of the Creator God. Political authorities were also responsible, of course, but they were more like collaborators than the true villains. The hope of the Jewish community was that, some day, these "powers" would be displaced by God, so that justice could be restored to the world.

Today's text is about that event. When some Greeks from out of town ask to see Jesus, they seem to be little more than tourists hoping to satisfy their curiosity. But, to the writer of John, their expression of a desire to see Jesus demonstrates that something much more important is happening. The time has come for the rest of the world – those outside the small Jewish state where Jesus lived and taught – to "see" God's new king.

 The world is ready to see so, of course(!), "the time has come." And the leader of the powers is about to be driven out (v. 31).

 As we will see later, this will not happen all at once, but the cross will mark the beginning of the end it will mean certain defeat for the spiritual forces that work injustice in our world.

For Reflection: Do you view injustice as a political problem, a spiritual problem, or both? How might your approach to responding to injustice change if you understood it as both a spiritual and a political issue?

Palm Sunday: “The World Has Gone After Him!”

The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!" Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written: "Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey's colt!" His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!"

John 12:12-19

For the next eight days, I invite you to join me in a journey through the last week of Jesus’ life, as it is experienced through the Gospel of John. To fully hear this story, we will need to be prepared to look below its surface. If we are not careful in this way, and only read on the surface, we will experience little more than a tragic account of how a peaceful revolutionary was put to death by a group of frightened, but powerful men.

We will also need to look beyond what we might expect. We have all been conditioned to think of the stories that are told during Holy Week as stories about  how God is offering up a sacrifice so that our personal sins can be forgiven. Without a doubt, forgiveness of sins – for all people – will be an important theme. However, as important as the forgiveness of sins is, what is happening here is much bigger even than forgiveness. This is a story – as today’s text tells us – about how Jesus, God’s representative, becomes King.

The story begins with a demonstration  in which Jesus’ followers recognize his Kingly authority. This limited demonstration, however, is only a precursor to what is to come in human history. The prophetic words that interpret this event come from his own enemies’ lips: “Look! The whole world has gone after him!”

On Palm Sunday, we follow their advice to “look” – both backwards and forwards. Backwards, to the events in the gospels and to the tradition of the Church in celebrating this day. And forwards, to the day when – as Paul puts it – every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus’ kingly authority.

The story we hear this week will climax with the most powerful empire on Earth declaring, ironically, that Jesus is “King of the Jews,” and it will end in a poignant moment in which a skeptic proclaims Jesus to have both the political authority of the Emperor and the divine authority of God.

For many, the experience of Holy Week is about Jesus’ suffering and death, and how we should be grateful for his sacrifice. This is an important and valid experience during Holy Week. But if you are walking through this week with John, it is only part of the picture. In this gospel, we are invited from start to finish to attend a coronation in which God’s chosen King comes into power.

For reflection: How does the theme of coronation change the way you think of Holy Week? What do you expect to experience as you see this week through the eyes of John’s gospel?

[Note: The interpretation of John that you will encounter this week hardly originated with me. NT Wright and Scot McKnight have played a huge role in shaping my perspective on the "big picture" story of scripture, and I am grateful for the work they have done. Scot's book on this subject is The King Jesus Gospel. NT Wright's recent book How God Became King also addresses the subject.]

Through the Needle’s Eye: A Reflection on the Narrative of the “Wealthy Righteous”

“Teacher,” the rich man declared to Jesus, “I have kept all these commandments of God since I was a boy!”

Then, there is one thing you lack,” Jesus said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples were amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

- Adapted from Mark 10 (NIV)

When you live in the wealthiest and most powerful society in the history of humanity, texts like this don’t sit well. Invariably, discussions about the text focus on whether Jesus’ command to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him is universal in nature: Did Jesus issue this command to this one person, in this one instance, or does it apply to everyone?

Such a question leaves those of us who are a part of comfortable, suburbanite-type families in a dilemma. To say that the passage applies only to this man seems to cheapen Jesus’ words. But if the command applies to us, then we must face the fact – like this man did – that we are spiritual failures.

No wonder that, for 40+ years, almost every discussion I’ve heard on this subject ends with a lot of head scratching and puzzlement. There seems to be no easy way out of this one. You walk away from it feeling either overly dismissive or hopelessly guilty.

But as I’ve thought about this passage recently, I have started to wonder if the discomfort we feel when encountering this passage is not the problem, but the point.

To illustrate, I need to begin by pointing to a part of this text that tends to get ignored in discussions about this text: the disciples’ astonishment at Jesus’ statement that it is “hard” for rich people to be saved.

Why would they think this way? I doubt they thought every rich person would make their way into God’s kingdom. However, some, like this person – who seemingly kept all God’s commandments from his youth – apparently struck them as being super-righteous. If they can’t make it, they later to say, who will?

I want to suggest that this perception – that there are certain wealthier people among us who are super-righteous – is perfectly understandable, even in our own cultural context. In fact, I think that both the comfortable suburbanites such as myself and the marginalized of our society, both struggle with this narrative of “wealthy righteousness,” and that it explains a lot of why churches struggle to keep people who are poor, addicted, or divorced within their walls.

More specifically, I want to suggest that one of the many advantages of wealth is that it allows people to buy their way out of sin.

I know that statement may sound a little strange. “What do you mean? Money can’t help you avoid sin, can it?” you may ask. In some cases, I think so – particularly when it comes to the kind-of sin that is blatant and obvious.

Just stay with me for a minute, and consider this: When you have plenty of money and food, it is unlikely that you will be tempted to engage in prostitution, or to be dishonest with someone, or to steal. In our culture, at least one member of your family probably doesn’t work long, hard hours – or cover the night shift to make ends meet – so its possible to spend a lot of time with your kids, training them to be good and “proper.” Stable, white collar labor and financial security help you to avoid a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that is prevalent among the poor, and it means much less stress on family relationships. As such, families are much more likely to stay together, and they are much more likely to give the appearance of something that is healthy. Also, less stress with respect to the basic necessities of life means its less likely you’ll try to escape your troubles through alcohol or substance addiction.

And, yes, I know it isn’t quite that simple. Wealthy people do have their own set of temptations and sins. But, for the most part, the more obvious “vices” are much milder, and much less impactful on their lives. The ability to own their own homes, work in their own offices, and move about independently also makes it much easier to conceal what problems they do have.

Now, think about how the “wealthy righteous” lifestyle looks to the lower-middle income, white male who moves from job-to-job doing blue collar labor, and who goes through long periods of unemployment. He has probably never had enough income security to take a wife, and if he did have one, there is a good chance the family broke up during a period of unemployment. He has probably taken up smoking or drinking, as they provide one of the few forms of escape that he can afford. When he looks at the large, extravagantly decorated churches in his town, and at the families that pile out of minivans in their parking lots, cleanly dressed and well groomed, the first thought that is going to enter his mind is this: “they are too good for me.”

He may think this defiantly, or resentfully, suspecting on some level that it isn’t really true. He still has some pride, after all. But in truth, he cannot afford the lifestyle that is necessary to put on a proper façade of righteousness. His “sin” is obvious for all to see.

It’s the same story for the single mom who gets off her shift at 6:00 am on Sunday. Because of her lifestyle, she doesn’t have the luxury of a good night’s sleep before Sunday morning church, and since she hasn’t done a load of wash in a week, she can’t even send her kids in clean clothes. She won’t be there. Neither will the kid who spends most of his life on the streets and at the local tattoo place because the company he finds there is a lot better than what he experiences in his abusive home. Or the stripper who doesn’t know any other way to make enough money to pay the rent.

When you have a little spare cash and a little free time and space, its easy to make yourself look good. In fact, in some more obvious ways, its easier to be good.

Which brings me to my point about the rich man in this text: What if Jesus’ command in this instance was not made because there is some inherent merit in selling everything you have, but to make it abundantly clear to the peasants and fisherman who were looking on that he, too, is a sinner? What if Jesus’ objective is to expose the disturbing reality of wealth-addiction that rests behind his righteous façade?

Only seconds earlier, he was bragging about all the commandments that he had kept throughout his life. He was, in effect, like the well-dressed family getting out of the minivan at church: he looks awfully righteous from a distance. Yet now, as he walked away sadly, it was obvious that he could not bring himself to being fully obedient. He was just like the rest of them.

No. Not just like the rest of them. Worse than the rest of them. His problem is so great, Jesus goes on to say, that it is akin to getting a large, stubborn beast through an impossibly small hole.

Even Jesus realized that he had just asked this man to do the impossible.

That is why I say that our discomfort in reading this passage is not a problem of interpretation, but the entire point of the passage: we know full well that we, like him, would never do what Jesus asked of him. It strips strips our suburbanite sheen and exposes us for who we really are.

And if we are willing to acknowledge that, it suddenly becomes possible for us to come alongside the alcoholics and strippers and single moms who never take their kids to church, and the young adults with tattoos who smell of marijuana smoke and pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

That is why this story ends with good news. The poor and hungry are indeed blessed by God as Jesus often taught, but guess what? The journey through the needle’s eye is not impossible where God is concerned. It may be difficult, it may be painful (the Camel must go “strand by bloody strand” C.S. Lewis once wrote). But it can happen.

Yes, as strange as it may sound, God can even save those wealthy people who go to church on Sunday mornings.

A New Kind of Christianity #5 – The Gospel Question

[This is the fifth part of a multiple-post review of Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity, which I introduced here. In the book, McLaren sets out the ten questions that he believes are reshaping Christianity in the West.]

Having considered the nature of God in question 3 and the nature of Jesus in question 4, one might expect McLaren to complete a trinitarian theme in question 5, focusing on the Spirit of God. But McLaren's list of questions instead takes another somewhat natural turn by considering the nature of the gospel.

So what is the good news that we call the "gospel"? Before getting into McLaren's approach, it would probably be helpful to take a quick detour that frames the gospel question in the context of the book as a whole.

The best way to think about this issue is to consider not only the "answer" of the gospel, but the "question" that the gospel is answering.

Lets begin with the question and answer that forms the center of the traditional, evangelical approach to the gospel (we will call it Gospel A):

Q. How can I avoid being punished for my sins by spending an eternity in hell?

A. By having faith in Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross served as a substitute punishment for my sins.

Notice how this falls within the confines of, and serves the purposes of, the Greco-Roman narrative that was the subject of Question 1. If the main problem is that individual humans are in danger of being thrown into the trash heap as a result of the cosmic sorting bin that is the physical world, then the "good news" will naturally show how to escape this predicament.

However, there is a completely different way of thinking about the gospel (we will call it Gospel B), which looks something like this:

Q. What will God do about evil and oppression in our world?

A. God is establishing a new, benevolent society – a kingdom – among us that liberates us.

McLaren favors this second approach to the gospel, believing that it is the most natural way to read scripture outside the constraints of the Greco-Roman narrative. Under this approach, Jesus' proclamation "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!" is itself the gospel.

So how did Christians come to embrace Gospel A, while ignoring/losing track of Gospel B? McLaren believes (and I agree) that the problem originates from a particular interpretation of Paul's letter to the Romans that developed during the early period of the Reformation. More particularly, I would add, the problem arises out of an interpretation of Romans 1-4. That interpretation has become the framework by which we try to understand the rest of the New Testament, including the rest of Romans, as well as the stories about the life and teachings of Jesus.

If you read the stories of Jesus first, and then interpret Paul's letters, and particularly Romans, in light of those teachings, you end up with a completely different perspective. And, essentially, McLaren's discussion of the meaning of the gospel briefly outlines the way that the Jesus-first-then-Paul approach has changed his own viewpoint.

So, beginning with the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must first see that Jesus came so that – as he taught us to pray – God's will is done "on earth as it is in heaven." He challenged us in his teachings to rethink everything, and to enter into a life of discipleship, seeking to love our enemies and care for the least among us. This is a fulfillment of the longings of the Old Testament for: (1) a new Creation, (2) a new Exodus, and (3) a new Kingdom.

Along next comes Paul, who, after some time accepts the teachings of Jesus and seeks to enter into this new kingdom. But there is a problem. This kingdom isn't an exclusive Jews-only club. It must be available to Gentiles as well. How can that happen? Paul takes it upon himself, McLaren argues, to bring the Gentiles into the fold.

Romans is, he argues, not an attempt to explain what the gospel is, but an effort to show how Gentiles and Jews can live, in diversity, within this same kingdom. Thus, in Romans, Paul makes seven brilliant moves:

  1. Reduce Jew and Gentile to the same level of need
  2. Announce a new way forward for all, Jew and Gentile, a way of faith
  3. Unite all in a common story from the Hebrew scriptures
  4. Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory
  5. Address Jewish and Gentile problems, showing God as God of all
  6. Engage all in a common life and mission
  7. Call everyone to unity in the kingdom of God

That Paul is ultimately committed to the same "kingdom" gospel that Jesus taught is further made clear by the fact that, when Paul goes to Rome some years after he wrote his letter to the Romans, we are told that he was "testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince [those who came to hear him] about Jesus."

Is the kingdom Gospel "fine print" to be added to Gospel A, or is it a radically different perspective in which Gospel A becomes, at best, only a small part of the picture? If all you can manage for now is Gospel A, with Gospel B as a footnote, McLaren thinks it is a good start. But either way, we should "repent [and] believe the good news, for it is good indeed."

After reflecting on McLaren's exposition on the gospel and Paul, I am in agreement with him as far as he goes. However, I also think that his picture of the gospel is still a little underdeveloped. The primary focus of McLaren's exposition is on the way the gospel rearranges social relations, and while I think this is true, I believe that you ultimately have to address the problems of cosmic decay and death for the gospel's full impact to be felt. In particular, I believe you need a better understanding of the way the death and resurrection of Jesus reinforce the gospel of the kingdom.

God isn't merely rearranging society, as wonderful and necessary as that might be – but he is liberating us from the forces that draw us physically, socially, spiritually into states of decay and death. In Romans, it takes Paul almost no time to let his readers know that God has established Jesus as Lord of this new world, and has shown this by raising Jesus from the dead. This resurrection brings with it the promise of a new creation that bursts free from the entropic constraints of the "old" universe.

In a sense, the "cosmic" view the gospel brings Gospel A back into the picture, albeit with less concern on hell and more concern with the way sin has brought with it the consequences of physical death.

To put it another way:

  • Good: God is saving people from the consequences of their own actions (Gospel A, sort-of)
  • Better: God is liberating people from social oppression and evil (McLaren's emphasis)
  • Best: God is renewing (a) individuals, (b) society, and (c) creation itself.

Without all three elements, I think the "kingdom" gospel – and Paul's expression of it, in particular – is incomplete. I don't think McLaren would necessarily disagree with this. I just think that, for whatever reason, he likes to place more emphasis on the aspects of social transformation that are present within the gospel.