Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Jesus of the Scars

This poem by Edward Shillito was first published in Jesus of the Scars, and Other Poems, a volume that appeared shortly after World War 1.
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
      Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
      We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
      In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
      Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
      Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
      Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
      They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds speak;
      And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Cited in William Temple, Readings in St. John’s Gospel (London: Macmillan, 1949), 385; John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Leicester: IVP, 1986), 337; D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006), 170; Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 1175.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Ezekiel 37 and the ministry of Jesus

Ezekiel's famous vision of the dry bones can be read as anticipating that the ministry of the Son of Man would have two phases. In The Rhetorical Function of the Book of Ezekiel (SVT 76; Leiden: Brill, 1999) I argued that it is not merely for rhetorical effect that the bones are at first only re-constituted with a second act of prophesying required for the bodies to come to life and to stand up as a great army. Ezekiel 37 reflects the belief that it would take more than one generation for Ezekiel's prophecies to have their full effect. Within the first generation, during Ezekiel's oral ministry, the prophet gathers the community around him but without changing hearts and minds (see Ezekiel 33:31-32). This is not success; it is not failure either. It is a first step but more is required. In book form the prophetic word will give life to a future generation (see pages 199-209 for the detailed argument).

This can be related to different ways of hearing God's word. In many synagogues and churches today the reading and hearing of Scripture serves community cohesion, gathering people around a tradition. This is good but not the same as communities receiving life in the hearing of Scripture and so becoming a mighty force to be reckoned with.

Acts 1 tells us that during the forty days following his resurrection Jesus continued to speak with his disciples about the kingdom of God. His ministry prior to the ascension can be summed up as a re-constitution of the people of God, symbolised in the election of twelve disciples. This is completed by the replacement of Judas by Matthias. But the Gospels also show us that Jesus's disciples continually failed to "get it" and so they may remind us of bones coming together, bone to its bone, with flesh and sinews on them - but as yet without the breath of life.

The breath/Spirit is of course given at Pentecost which turns the disciples into a force to be reckoned with, no longer just gathered around Jesus but a people on fire with a mission. This time the major second step takes place within the same generation but similar to Ezekiel's, the ministry of Jesus can be divided in a first phase which focused on gathering and re-constituting God's people around the prophet and a second phase during which the wind/Spirit brings life to the people of God once the prophet has been taken out of sight.

Both movements, the gathering around Christ in word and sacrament, and the sending out to the ends of the earth, are still still important within the church. The second cannot truly happen without the first; the first is not enough without the second.

Monday, 15 May 2017

On St Matthias Day

O the promise of God’s presence
spurned as greed led to contempt
and to the great revocation
and to death.

One made God his chosen portion,
to do God’s will his daily bread.
Full of delight in all God’s people
he will not be held by death.

O the horror of being hurled away,
whirled round and round, thrust down,
vocation taken away.
Despair cuts out a tomb –

or is cut off on the holy hill,
pegged to the uncorrupt one
who fastened to the cross
draws all people to himself.

“The promise is for you,
for your children, and for all who are far away.”
It is for the fullness of God’s people,
as Matthias testifies today.

With Jesus from the beginning,
twice he saw him taken away,
now a witness of the resurrection,
and of the great re-vocation.

Called to abide in God’s presence,
called to remain faithful to the end,
called to be friends of Jesus,
and called to bear fruit that will last.

1 Samuel 2.27-35; Acts 2.37-47; Psalm 16; Isaiah 22.15-25; Psalm 15; Acts 1.15-26; John 15.9-17

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Martin Luther on Evening Wolves

From his Lectures on Habakkuk, discussing the translation of Habakkuk 1:8.

The Latin Text (1525)
There is a difference of opinion among the linguists whether it ought to be translated “evening wolves” or “wolves of the desert.” Jerome translated “evening wolves,” influenced by this line of reasoning: Since evening wolves have suffered hunger throughout the day, they attack a flock more viciously than other wolves do, and they do not leave until they have filled themselves. Who does not see that such an interpretation is weak? Therefore I prefer to adopt the other interpretation, so I translate “wolves of the desert,” that is, wolves that are fierce and untamed.

The German Text (1526)
“The Hebrew letters admit either...I believe that these are evening wolves. I think that this means to say that wolves, which are rapacious, ravenous, murderous beasts by nature, are far more so in the evening because they have not roamed about during the day and their hunger looks to the evening. Therefore the term “evening wolves” is practically synonymous with “hungry wolves” who have not eaten for a long time.

Luther's Works, Volume 19: Lectures on the Minor Prophets II (Jonah, Habakkuk), translated by Charles D. Froehlich, edited by Hilton C. Oswald (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1974), 112-113, 170.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Homo Viaticus

Some kind of journey, is essential to what it means to be human. Redeemed humanity will have a history and memory which would not be there if we had been created straight for “heaven”. God wants the kind of beings we will be in the new heaven and earth more than the kind of beings we might have been without the possibility and history of suffering, death, and sin.

I cannot remember from where this thought came to me a few years ago. I do not remember having come across the blog https://thinkingreed.wordpress.com before today but Lee M.'s post Was this trip really necessary? could have been the inspiration.
My reasoning is that, just as my personal history is an essential part of my identity, the history of the human species is an essential part of its identity. ... maybe the long evolutionary history of humanity is an essential part of us. Human-like creatures created in an immediate state of blessedness simply wouldn’t be human beings since they wouldn’t be the heirs of human biological history. If they were close enough replicas they might have the characteristics of humans, but those characteristics wouldn’t be the result of the same process that created us.
...Christian theology has usually held that the condition of the blessed redeemed is superior to the original condition of Adam and Eve in the garden. Redemption is not simply a restoration of Eden, but a transition to a higher state. So it seems that humanity was always destined for a journey from a less exalted state to a more exalted one; going through a historical process is essential to our destiny.
Another consideration: creation, in the opening chapters of Genesis, is said to be good, not perfect. This allows for a development or process toward better things, even if we recognize that at some point humanity went off the rails into sin and away from God’s intentions. (This is a more “Irenaean” picture of the fall than an Augustinian one.)
Finally: a robust minority tradition in Christian theology has held that, even if there had been no fall, God would still have become incarnate to unite human nature to the Divine, and to manifest the divine love to creation. This also seems to imply that humanity was not created in an original state of perfect blessedness, but with a potential for that state – being united in the closest possible relationship with God.
So, there are both theological and broadly philosophical reasons for thinking that some kind of process of development, some kind of journey, is essential to what it means to be human. This suggests that, if God wanted to create human beings and raise them to communion with the divine life, then it was necessary to create them as part of an unfolding, historical process rather than in an immediate state of static perfection. And that only after becoming the kinds of beings we are can we be raised to communion with the divine life. And it may further be that such a process inherently involves the possibility of suffering, death, and sin.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Our Part in Unifying Humanity

I was impressed by the way Charles H. Talbert integrated Ephesians 5:8-14 in the letter as a whole and much of the following as well as quotations marked CT are from his Ephesians and Colossians (Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007). FT refers to Frank Thielman, Ephesians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010).

We live in a fractured world and this is evident both in hostile events such as the Westminster attack last Wednesday which nevertheless also create unity at least for a moment in a solidarity with victims, and in peaceful celebrations of unity such as the marking of the 60th anniversary of the treaty of Rome and the march in London in support of the EU which are of course over against those who cponsider the EU a wrong sort of unity.

Many of us long for a unity that does not compromise our diversity, or at least does not threaten our liberty, but we are struggling to discover how this can work. Some push the unity, arguing that we must be less tolerant of those who threaten it. In this way we buy our unity at the expense of deeper divisions with others and may seek to strengthen unity by enforcing greater uniformity. Others stress that we must now be extra careful to remain inclusive rather than shutting out others. In this way, we risk the stability of unity, as we are unsure how to restrain the forces that push us apart without forcing uniformity.

The church wrestles with the same issues. The latest attempts within the CofE to safeguard our unity in diversity run under the banner of “good disagreement” and “radical inclusion” but what do these phrases mean? It’s hard to tell. Does it mean that it is quite all right for Christians to completely disagree on something as long as they are nice to each other?

Is “good disagreement,” as someone commented, “only a different way of saying we should tolerate and respect one another’s beliefs because there is no such thing as truth, only what we believe to be true.” And does the call for “radical inclusion” take the place of the traditional call to repentance? Does it mean that we must not challenge immoral behaviour but celebrate different lifestyles? If so, is this Christian unity? Most certainly not.

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is about “the plan of God to unify the cosmos through Christ.” Two “important pieces of the plan” are “reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in a new humanity and concord in the Christian household.” (CT) And Ephesians 5:8-14 belongs with this plan.

Dio Chrysostom, a famous Greek orator, writer, philosopher and historian of the Roman Empire in the 1st century, had this to say:
“Only by getting rid of the vices that excite and disturb men, the vices of envy, greed, contentiousness, the striving in each case to promote one’s own welfare at the expense of both one’s native land and the common weal—only so, I repeat, is it possible ever to breathe the breath of harmony in full strength and vigor and to unite upon a common policy.” (Or. 34.19)
I think the apostle agrees, except for adding that ultimately this is only possible in and through Christ.

Let me underline this because so often we believe that what we really need is to find and stress the common ground and that this is where we find unity. But to pursue such a line single-mindedly what we hold in common must be valued more highly than what divides us and this means that the question which values and ideas trump others becomes hugely important and necessarily contentious.

And problematic. Because what we hold in common, probably a longing for peace and justice, possibly values such as “individual liberty” and “the rule of law” need to be supported and defined by a greater vision, a world-view which brings us to the kind of stuff on which we disagree. In addition, some of the values apparently are in conflict with each other, e.g., “democracy” which encourages short-termism (and selfishness?) and “sustainability” which requires long-term thinking and planning (and sacrifice?). Again, we need a greater vision to arbitrate.

Against this mistaken belief that unity is basically a matter of finding and stressing our common ground, ancient wisdom inside and outside the Bible points us to the need to get rid of the vices that threaten our unity.

It is a question of light and darkness, again both outside and inside the Bible. But what the apostle reminds us of here is that we are unable to move from darkness to light (and of course unable to move others from darkness to light). In the Lord you are light. Live as children of light!” This is how we come into God’s project of unifying the cosmos through Christ. “The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” and the fruit is to be found in us.

The word for “good” here means benevolent – doing good to others in practical ways. Interestingly, these three words, “good and forthright and honest” are often found in ancient Jewish and Christian literature to describe the character of God (FT). The choice of these three virtues seems deliberate. After all, just a few sentences earlier the apostle has called us to be “imitators of God” (Galatians 5:1).

“Deciding what is benevolent, right, honest, and therefore pleasing to the Lord in any given situation is often complicated, and Paul recognizes this by” (FT) adding “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”

But note: the challenge is to be different for the sake of unityWe are to be “a contrast society” (Gerhard Lohfink), “a body of Christians whose common life and practice stand as a sharp yet appealing alternative to the surrounding world” (CT) and so exposes the deeds of the world.

Verse 11: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”

Exposing the unfruitful works of darkness not by harassing people but by living alternative lives that show up the deficiencies of a life without Christ, revealing how shallow, futile, sterile, and shameful the life choices of many are, and inconsistent with their own convictions. It means “stripping sexual immorality and greed of the attractive veneer placed over these activities by those who practice them and revealing their true colors” (FT).

In other words, this is not so much a matter of condemning others for sleeping around or cheating on insurance claims or pursuing a favourable deal regardless of the costs to others but of demonstrating through our lives
  • that true, faithful love is so much more attractive than cheap sex;
  • that honesty in all our dealings is so much more rewarding than single-minded pursuit for gain;
  • that concern for others is so much more truly human than a life of greed.
The challenge to the church is to stand as an appealing alternative to the world.” BUT this appeal does “not lie primarily in the moral superiority of Christians” (CT) to other people. Rather, it lies in the contrast between the unfruitful, unprofitable works of darkness and the “purposeful, goal-oriented existence that characterizes the believing community because of its union with Christ” (FT) and “in the manner in which believers confront their sins, seek and offer forgiveness, and live reconciled and reconciling lives.” (CT)

Verse 13: “everything exposed by the light becomes visible”.

In John 16:8 Jesus promised his disciples that the coming Advocate will “prove wrong” or “expose [same word as here in Ephesians 5] the world with regard to sin, righteousness, and judgement.” The Christian community appears to be the place where the Holy Spirit does this and “the vehicle through which the Spirit plays that role.” (CT)

And by the grace of God in Christ such exposure is the way to transformation, “for everything that becomes visible is light” (verse 14) and the apostle seems to quote an early Jewish-Christian liturgy to make the point: Where “unbelievers awake to the truth of the gospel and rise from their former lives of sin,” (FT), where in other words someone rises from death to life, you know that Christ shines “his powerful light on them” (FT).

How do we know this can happen? Hopefully because we have experienced it ourselves. The light of Christ has shone upon us; it has enabled us to be open and honest about our own sin and awakened us to a life in imitation of God’s goodness, justice and integrity.

This is the way God makes us one in Christ, children of our heavenly Father. And this is how we play a part in God’s plan of unifying the cosmos, as the light of Christ chases away the evil works of darkness that cause our divisions.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Hilasterion: Propitiation or Expiation?

"C. K. Barrett is a balanced and judicious interpreter who thinks that the idea of propitiation plays an important role because of its link to the wrath of God, even if (as he recommends) the word "expiation" is used in translations.In an oft-quoted passage from his commentary on Romans, Barrett says, "WE can hardly doubt that expiation rather than propitiation is in his [Paul's] mind," because there is no trace of a suggestion that God is the object rather than the subject. However, Barrett continues, "it would be wrong to neglect the fact that expiation has, as it were, the effect of propitiation: the sin that might have excited God's wrath is expiated (at God's will) and therefore no longer does so." Cousar summarizes Barrett's argument: "The propitiation is a secondary result rather than a primary cause of the atonement." That, in one sentence, tells us what we need to know at the conclusion of the debate.

God is not divided against himself. When we see Jesus, we see the Father (John 14:7). The Father did not look at Jesus on the cross and suddenly have a change of heart. The purpose of the atonement was not to bring about a change in God's attitude towards his rebellious creatures. God's attitude towards us has always and ever been the same. Judgment against sin is preceded, accompanied, and followed by God's mercy. There was never a time when God was against us. Even in his wrath he is for us. Yet at the same time he is not for us without wrath, because his will is to destroy all that is hostile to perfecting his world. The paradox of the cross demonstrates the victorious love of God for us at the same time that it shows forth his judgment upon sin."

Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 281-282.