Monday, 12 August 2019

Is dying for your friends the greatest love?

(Image from a Weslyan church group study)

In John 15:13, Jesus claims that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for friends.

I disagree.

What's more, I think that Jesus' own actions show that his claim was wrong. His actions show an even greater love ... because Jesus laid down his life for not only his friends, but for the whole world. Seems to me that Jesus voluntarily sacrificed himself not only for those close to him, but even for those who consider themselves enemies of God. Dying for your enemies is surely a greater (or deeper?) form of love than doing so just for your friends!

As Paul commented in Romans 5:8, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us". Love is not primarily shown through what God does for friends but what God does for enemies.

So John 15:13 is wrong!

But wait! For those committed to Biblical inerrancy there is another option. What if Jesus demonstrates a God who has no enemies? That aligns with the implications of Matthew 5:43-48, from which we learn that God loves even those who might consider themselves God's enemies. Even if a person thinks that way, God treats them as friends ... and Jesus willingly dies for all of God's friends. In which case we could read John 15:13 this way: "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And by the way, from God's point of view you are all friends."

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Embracing Chaos

Chaos and Order: a visual puzzle in stained glass
Chaos and Order: a visual puzzle in stained glass
I read yet another Christian thought-for-the-day piece this morning that celebrated God's ability to bring order out of chaos. Made me wonder why chaos gets such a bad rap.

There is a popular strand of thought that sees order as good and chaos as evil. In religious circles that thought is extended to position God as the lord of order and the arch-enemy Satan as the presumptuous lord over chaos. But surely that's not the Biblical view?

God is Lord of all Lord of both order and chaos.

Certainly, God created the structure of the universe out of the formless void (Genesis 1). God provides physical  boundaries so that the sea stays in its place (Jeremiah 5:22). Gravity so that the stars stay in their place (Psalm 8:3). Psychological boundaries to guide our personal growth like the Law, which acts as a kind of tutor (Galatians 3:24).

But God also created the Flood (Genesis 6-8), deliberately caused confusion (e.g. Genesis 11:7) and watches over a world dominated by entropy (Romans 8:20-21). God can calm the storm (Psalm 107:29) just as Jesus did (Matthew 8, Mark 4, Luke 8), but God created the storm in the first place (Psalm 107:25)! Jesus raised several people from death, but God had allowed them to die, and they all presumably died again later on.

I think it is time we stopped trying to escape from chaos. Let's stop thinking that when things go a bit crazy and out of (our) control that God is absent or even worse, that God must be angry with us. God can be found in the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the order and the chaos, because God is always and everywhere present.

God is as wild as fire and as uncontrollable as the wind. God cannot be contained or explained by any systematic, ordered, analysis but will always be mysterious and never fully known. My wife is mysterious and never fully known, and I take that to be a good thing! Why would we expect otherwise of God?

Do you wish we could escape the chaos of suffering and unknowing, and find a world of order and certainty? Why would we expect that to be either possible or helpful?

Of course we could not survive without a level of ordered predictability. But meaning and creativity and growth are found in the disruptions of life. Better to embrace those chaotic disruptions than try to escape them.

It's ok not to know. It's ok to experience confusion, uncertainty, pain. It's ok to not be in control. In fact my bet is that we will find God in the chaos.

May you have order and safety when you need it.
And may you have chaos and risk … when you need it.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Life fully experienced: John's greatest sign

Many commentators have noted that in the Gospel of John, Jesus' miracles are called "signs" rather than "miracles". They aren't just done as magic tricks to impress people. John records them along with lots of other things Jesus said and did so that we "may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (20:31). I think a lot of people emphasise the first reason more than the second. I mean, they think the miracles are to prove that Jesus is the Son of God. But they forget or downplay the second reason -- that the miracles somehow help people to experience life.

Two of the biggest miracles in the book written by John are at the very beginning and near the end. At the beginning, John says that "the Word became flesh" (1:14). That is the hugest sign possible that God loves us. God became human because God wanted to be with us. Amazing! How is that possible? It's a complete miracle, not part of what happens within the laws of nature.

Halfway through the book, Jesus says the reason he came was so that we could have life in all its fullness (10:10). Life to the max! That's what God wants for us. That is, God came here to be with us to show how we can experience what it really means to live.

Then, near the end, Jesus breathes on the disciples and says "Receive the Holy Spirit" (20:22). This is a reminder that the on-going life of God -- the very breath (pneuma in Greek means both spirit and breath) of God -- is what gives us life. It is the breath of God in our lungs that makes us alive! That's also an amazing miracle. It is a sign that God is on our side: God is for us, not against us.

Isn't that an amazing flow of ideas from beginning (God takes on human life), to middle (Jesus says the reason he came was for us to have life), to end (Jesus breathes God's life into us)?

Monday, 6 February 2017

The impotence of the Church in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"

Over the weekend I attended the opening night of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible at The Young Peoples Theatre Newcastle. The direction, by a very young Nick Thoroughgood, emphasised fear and aloneness. But the aspect of the play that struck me anew was the way religion was co-opted by an agenda of power and subsequently made impotent.

Do you recall the general plot? Set amidst the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, the play follows a group of young girls who claim divine/demonic knowledge in their accusation that many people in their rural village are in league with Satan. The fate of one man, John Proctor, unfolds … from his affair with one of the young girls, through the struggles of forgiveness with his wife, his attempt to disclose the girls' pretence in court and a moral dilemma that leads to his hanging.

The play begins in the house of the local preacher, the Rev. Samuel Parris, a man cautious of his own reputation, who hopes to avoid the scandal of being associated with witchcraft. He calls for help from another cleric, the Rev. John Hale, who is acknowledged as an expert in such matters. Between them they promote the church's authority to uncover and prosecute "the other" -- in this case the vile offenders who, apparently, have sold their soul to the devil.

As has been widely noted, the play has wider application than simply being a historic comment on seventeenth century Puritan superstition. That the message is universal is made clear by the Nick Thoroughgood's decision to re-dress the actors in pure black and white for Acts 3 and 4. In the cultural context of 1953, when it was published, the play challenged the extreme pressure in the USA to denounce Communists, but it does not matter whether the accusation is witchcraft or Communism, nor whether the accusation is true or false. What is really on trial beyond the fourth wall is the process of "othering" -- the human propensity to accuse and exclude; the futility of fear-driven victimisation.

At the beginning of this victimisation is religion. Religion spreads a cloak of morality over the fear and suspicion. Religion gives permission to exclude, and adds divine authority to the denunciation of the "other". Neither Parris nor Hale initially accused anyone of witchcraft. Parris was motivated by pride and the protection of his own social standing. Hale wished to be led by the evidence towards the truth. But both were coerced by social pressure, mislead by pride, and beguiled by the taste of power. Neither was immune to the growing hysteria, but instead fanned its flames and were swept along by its ineluctable fury.

In Act 4, both Parris and Hale show the compassion and mercy that is more true to their calling. They realise the girls' pretence. They understand the emptiness of admissions made under the threat of death. They plea for leniency. But it is too late. The fire has burnt beyond their control. Having served their own demonic purpose, Parris and Hale are side-lined and impotent. Having ignited fear and judgement, religion has ceased to be authoritative or even relevant.

Is this not a pattern we have all seen repeated? Isn’t this what has happened within Islam -- where terrorists claim religious motivation regardless of how strongly Islamic leaders denounce them? Isn't it what is happening in Australia as religious voices accuse and damn homosexuals? Isn't it clear from the conservative Christian support of Donald Trump and his obvious contempt of their support?

Religion is often co-opted by causes that are deeply irreligious … but religion allows itself to be so used.

The Christian church has been side-lined in the Western world and hopelessly compromised, as it has been by every regime and culture since Constantine. It is too late to reclaim any respect. The church is compromised by sex abuse scandals, paternalism, patriarchy and violence. But that is not the root. As The Crucible demonstrates, the essence of the church's inability to sway public sentiment away from hysteria towards justice and mercy is that, having been instrumental in starting the fire, she is no longer needed. Once the flames of fear, judgement and damnation have been ignited, the "powers and principalities" -- whether political or spiritual -- can fuel them independently, with or without religious endorsement.

The only way out is to never buy into the devilish deal in the first place. If we deliberately and explicitly recant our allegiance to every source of power, to every social movement, to every nation and culture, then we might have the integrity to be heard. The role to which the church is called is to subvert every "power and principality". Like Christ, who didn't think that the power of heaven was something to be grasped, the church is called to forsake all power. Rather than seek power only to become impotent, the way of the gospel is to join the powerless from beginning to end.

If the Reverends Parris and Hale had followed that example -- if they had stood with the girls instead of condemning their youthful follies, and if they had stood with those accused of witchcraft instead of pandering to the later accusations of those same girls -- then two things would have happened differently. The fire of hysteria and fear would not have enough oxygen to take hold. And if the crunch time still came about when justice was on the brink of failure, then the voice of true religion, of compassion, would have retained the credibility to be heard.

May we yet learn to forsake power and to stand in solidarity with the accused.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Undermining the patriarchy

Three of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) record Jesus' witty phrase that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. In each case the listeners are amazed but Jesus refuses to water it down. One can surmise that the hearers assumed that the rich and powerful always get priority. But are they amazed that Jesus turns the priorities upside down? Or amazed that he would speak so subversively in public?

Who knows?

But whatever the reason, Peter recognises the great reversal implied by Jesus and says to him "We have left everything to follow you!"

Now the next bit is a fascinating example of the importance of what is not said. Jesus' reply to Peter is recounted in most detail by Mark, who writes:
‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ‘no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields – along with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)

The core message here is that throwing your lot in with Jesus will disrupt the normal family alliances, but will replace them with a new community in which there is abundant safety and resources, and above all, company. Oh, and hardships.

But Gerhard Lohfink highlights something I have never seen before. Of all the things you might leave behind there is one missing from the list of things you might gain. There are no fathers in the new community! The patriarchy is left behind!

It is a subtle reminder of the Jesus' earlier observation about rich people: don’t assume that if you are rich, powerful and male then there will be a seat of honour for you in God's kingdom. You might not get in at all. If you do get in there will be no place for your male, controlling, dominating, privileged status.

Of course, I'm not like that … well, not much :(

At the risk of watering this point down, but in order to be thorough, there is something else to add about fathers. The omission of fathers from the new community of course does not mean that fathers are excluded, just that they will need to leave their fatherhood at the door. Jesus says that more explicitly elsewhere: "Do not call anyone on earth 'father', for you have one Father, and he is in heaven" (Matthew 23:9). That must never be assumed to mean that there is one dominate alpha male father in heaven and as a consequence no-one else should dare compete for the role of "father". As I have written elsewhere, Jesus has a very different idea of how the title "father" should be applied to God.

(This post is inspired by Gerhard Lohfink's observation in Jesus of Nazareth, p. 237.)

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Grace to your enemies

I've been reading Gerhard Lohfink's book Jesus of Nazareth: what he wanted, who he was and although I don’t find his depiction of Jesus very stimulating, there are certainly some gems of insight here and there.

A section considering Jesus' command to love our enemies is one such gem. He comments on this speech by Jesus, as recorded by Luke:
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:32-35, NIV)
… and starts by saying that the translation of "credit" is not very helpful. Other English versions use reward, thanks, praise, benefit and blessing, which perhaps are no better. But the Greek word, charis, has the primary meaning of loveliness, agreeableness … even charm or beauty. The majority of times charis is used in the New Testament it is translated as grace.

I'm nowhere near a level of understanding of Greek to question what the majority of translators have done in Luke 6. Nevertheless, with Lohfink, I like the idea of inserting grace into these verses. It appears in four places – three times in the positive, and once as the negative acharistous. What that reveals is something more like this:
If you love only within tribal or family boundaries, where is the grace in that? If you only do good to people who do good to you, where is the grace in that? If you only loan money when you're sure you'll get it back, where is the grace in that? But if you love and do good and lend to anyone – even your enemies – wow, that is a beautiful thing! That kind of charming, lovely grace is reward in itself. Those acts would show who your God really is! The God I know is kind even to those with no grace!

Saturday, 16 April 2016

God is not angry, says Clement of Rome

While reading the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, I paused over something he wrote about peace.

This letter, written about 96 CE, is one of the very earliest documents we have (other than New Testament texts) from the young Christian movement. Clement was bishop of Rome and was writing to encourage the church in Corinth, especially about an internal dispute on which they had asked Clement's advice.

Early in the letter, Clement writes "Let us cleave, therefore, to those who cultivate peace with godliness, and not to those who hypocritically profess to desire it" (chapter 15) and then gives examples of the type of humility we should imitate. Jesus of course is one of his prime exemplars.

Then, in chapter 19, he writes: 
The humility therefore and the submissiveness of so many and so great men, who have thus obtained a good report, hath through obedience made better not only us but also the generations which were before us, even them that received His oracles in fear and truth. Seeing then that we have been partakers of many great and glorious doings, let us hasten to return unto the goal of peace which hath been handed down to us from the beginning, and let us look steadfastly unto the Father and Maker of the whole world, and cleave unto His splendid and excellent gifts of peace and benefits. Let us behold Him in our mind, and let us look with the eyes of our soul unto His long-suffering will. Let us note how free from anger He is towards all His creatures.
Putting aside the gendered language, what stands out to me from this passage is the firm belief that God is not angry. Another translator declares God free from wrath rather than anger.

This is the witness of an early bishop, whose understanding of God is derived from what the apostles learnt directly from Jesus that God's disposition towards the world is not driven by wrath or revenge. If that is the case, then there is no need for God's wrath towards the world to be redirected against Jesus.

This is not a denial that Jesus "bore our sins": Clement explicitly applies that thought from Isaiah 53 to Jesus. But Clement did not think that the reason Jesus died was to assuage the anger of God. Why? Because when you reflect on the examples of people who have been faithful to God such as Jesus, David, Job their humility points to a God who is without anger.