Sunday, September 30, 2012

Jesus Christ Is Risen

If you are a Christian, you probably agree with the title of this post. After all, there is an Easter tradition that when one Christian says, “Jesus Christ is risen,” everyone else is supposed to respond, “He is risen, indeed!” Traditions like this do more than just express a truth that we Christians happen to believe. By setting aside every Sunday as the day that we celebrate the resurrection, by centering the liturgical calendar around this day, and by proclaiming the resurrection of Christ as a community, we are doing more than reporting a fact. We are suggesting that the resurrection was the event on which all of human history hinges. It is the foundation and distinction of the Christian faith. It is the source of salvation.

I have to admit that I did not always see it this way. When I was a teenager – a Christian teenager, mind you – I believed that someone must have made a mistake. After all, I had always been taught that it was through his death that Jesus Christ brought salvation to the human race, not through his resurrection. Thus, it seemed like it would have been more appropriate to have church on Fridays, to celebrate Good Friday as the pinnacle Christian holiday, and to say, “Jesus died for our sins,” with the reply, “Jesus died for our sins, indeed!” Don’t get me wrong, I always believed in the resurrection, but I saw it merely as the epilogue to the story that climaxed with the crucifixion.

However, after a long and difficult theological journey, I have come to see that I was gravely mistaken. I would now say that any account of Christianity that can present the gospel without reference to the resurrection – ranging from the social gospel of liberal Christianity to the Four Spiritual Laws of conservative Christianity – is deficient. The resurrection is not merely evidence in the case for Christ or a 30-second ending to a story about how much Jesus suffered. It is the basis of the Christian faith. According to Paul, “if Christ has not been raised, our peaching is useless and so is your faith.” [E1] But we have gotten so used to a death-centered Christianity, that it sounds heretical even to suggest that it may not be the most central component of our faith.  We have to do the hard work of re-reading Scripture if we are to take the resurrection seriously.

The best place to begin is with the gospels. According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke [E2], Jesus’ message at the beginning of his ministry could be summarized in the phrase, “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news!” [E3] This summary is disturbingly unrelated to what I thought “the gospel” meant in my teenage years. First of all, it doesn’t say anything about having a personal relationship with God, which is what Evangelical Christianity taught me that salvation meant. Second, although “believing the good news” uses the same terms as Evangelicalism, it’s talking about a different good news. The good news that Jesus introduces is, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” not, “I am about to die on the cross for your sins.” Of course, you can argue that these mean the same by suggesting that “the kingdom of God” should be understood as a spiritual experience that results from inviting Jesus into your heart. But then you might as well say that "the kingdom of God" is just another phrase for the principle of karma or the invention of the steam engine. Instead of imposing what we want into the text, we should turn to the Biblical context to get a sense of what this phrase means there.

The Old Testament teaches us that the Jews had been living in political subjugation for centuries prior to Jesus’ arrival. Many of them were fundamentally dissatisfied with this situation because it contradicted the call that God had given their ancestor Abraham that they would be God's nation. David represented this nation at its best, when it had political independence and the worship of God was built into its laws. The prophets looked forward to the restoration of this kind of Davidic reign. Although the specific visions varied a bit, most Jews were waiting for God to intervene not just in their spiritual lives but in the social order.

When Jesus came, he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah [E4], which implied that he would meet these social expectations. Everything he said and did had a strong political flavor to it. Both “the kingdom of God” and “the good news” were loaded political terms, he appointed twelve disciples, implying one would lead each of the twelve tribes of Israel, and he baptized people and told them that they needed to prepare for the revolution that was about to occur. All of this was politically subversive, which is why the Roman government executed him. Think about it, the Romans didn’t kill people for teaching spiritual principles!

This may seem to favor a kind of social gospel, but before my liberal Christian friends get too excited with me, I have to point out one other aspect of Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. Jesus made it clear that this kingdom would not come about by political lobbying or even by caring for the poor but through a dramatic apocalyptic event: the Son of Man’s descent from heaven. You see, Jesus believed that he knew how the world would end. All of his teaching about how people should behave was based on this knowledge. He told people to repent lest they end up on the wrong side at the end of history. He tried to teach them what the new social order would look like so that they could begin to prepare for it ahead of time. And what did he think it would happen? Every human who has ever lived would be raised from the dead and the lives they lived would be determined by whom they chose to follow before death.

Some have called this event,“The Rapture,” but most Christians have understood this term to have exactly the opposite meaning that it really does. According to Jesus, God will not pull humans away from the earth and funnel them off into the spiritual spheres of “heaven” or “hell” at the final judgment. On the contrary, the judgment is precisely the moment when God brings everyone who has ever died back to the world. The resurrection that the Bible speaks of is a PHYSICAL resurrection, one that occurs on EARTH. When Jesus predicts the coming of the Son of Man, this figure comes DOWN to earth, he doesn’t bring us up to him. In Revelation, that beautiful city with streets of gold and pearly gates comes DOWN from heaven; we don’t go up to it. This is why Paul says that “the whole of creation has been groaning… as we wait eagerly for our adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies.” [E5] After all, if God made creation and said it was “very good,” why would he ultimately abandon it? [E6]

Truthfully, this kind of end-times talk makes liberals and conservatives equally uncomfortable. One cannot deny that there is a certain similarity between Jesus and end-times preachers like Harold Camping, who tell people to make radical changes to their lives on the basis of some foreseen apocalyptic event. [E7] But there is one crucial difference between Jesus and everyone else who has predicted the end of the world: Jesus rose from the dead.

The resurrection is, of course, the ultimate validation of Jesus’ teaching. But more than that, the resurrection inaugurated a new stage in history. Christians believe that the resurrection broke the bonds of death and set the kingdom of God in motion. Because Jesus rose, we have reason to believe that there will be a time when every other human will come back to life. Because Jesus rose, we know what the kingdom of God will look like and how to live into it already. Because Jesus rose, we are no longer enslaved to the powers that threaten us with death. Because Jesus rose, the Holy Spirit has come, the Church has taken root, and salvation made available for all.

I hope to unpack these comments more more in later posts, but for now let me dwell on that first point: If it were not for the resurrection, I would not believe in the afterlife. The vision of heaven that is populated by books like 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven is For Real is not only philosophically inconceivable to me,  it’s utterly unappealing. Honestly, how many of us can say we’d rather be floating around in a disembodied heaven than living out life on earth? Our distaste for heaven doesn't mean we're too "worldly." It means that we were designed for embodied life on earth. And according to the Bible and the Apostle's Creed, that's exactly what the afterlife will be. We believe in the resurrection of the body. But if that’s true, if we aren't going to end up in otherworldly spheres, what are we to make of heaven and hell? That’s the point I will consider in my next post.       


Endnotes (You don’t have to read these unless you want further information)

[E1] 1 Corinthians 15:14

[E2] I am temporarily setting aside the gospel of John as I make a case for a resurrection-centered Christian faith. This is not because I disagree with John, but because it gets disproportionate emphasis in Western Christianity in general and Evangelicalism in particular. Origen of Alexandria, a third century theologian, argued that John could not be understood properly until you first understood the rest of the Bible. I have come to agree with him, and I would challenge those who disagree with me to try not appeal to gospel of John to make their case. I will come back to this important gospel in later posts.

[E3] Mark 1:14-15, Matthew 4:17, Luke 4:43. Luke even spells out the social implications in greater detail in Luke 4:17-21.

[E4] Even the term “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus the Messiah.” He saw himself first and foremost as the Messiah for the Jews. Cf. Romans 1:16, Matthew 15:24.

[E5] Matthew 24:30-31; Revelation 21:1-2; Romans 8:22-23.

[E6] For a good book that argues for a bodily resurrection, see N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.

[E7] I don’t want to overstress this analogy. First of all, Jesus specifically taught his followers not to look for a certain time or date of his return (Mark 13:32 and parallels), and so Camping made his predictions in defiance of Jesus’ teaching. Second, the basis of his predictions was not very sophisticated. He simply assigned certain numerical values to different concepts (for example, atonement = 5 and heaven = 17), and used those to create an equation for the end of the world. By contrast, Jesus’ view of the end is based on his assessment of the evil in the world and the inevitable clash which he believed must result from those powers which rebelled against God. Nevertheless, there is a similarity insofar as both people called their followers to make radical changes on their lives in anticipation of the final outcome. But for Jesus’ instructions (in contrast to Camping), they have generally found the lifestyle to which he calls them in preparation for the end is intrinsically rewarding, as it happens to be the way that God designed for humans to live all along.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Time to Speak

Just over two years ago, I decided to go on a blogging hiatus while I attended seminary. One of the reasons for this was because I knew that my belief system had some holes in it, and I needed to be quicker to listen and slower to speak while I addressed them. This proved to be a good idea. As it turned out, I am more capable of admitting that I am wrong and changing my opinions when I am not publicly committing myself to a particular view. Of course, this is NOT to say that it is wrong to proclaim our views publicly or that it is impossible to admit fault when we make public mistakes. It’s simply to appreciate the wisdom in Ecclesiastes 3:7, that there is “a time to be silent and a time to speak.” Now, I believe that it’s time for me to speak again.

I’d like to share what I’ve come to believe with you. Moreover, I’d like to invite you to dialogue with me, ESPECIALLY if you disagree with what I say. Often times, I hear people bemoan the fact that there is no “civil conversation” in society today. Culture wars dominate the media, between liberals and conservatives, Evangelicals and homosexual rights advocates, religious believers and atheists, etc. We all know it, we all hate it, and yet we all make it worse. How do we do this? By responding in one of two ways: (1) by casting the opposing view as ridiculous, which we do because we have no idea how to have a productive conversation with its adherents and so we depict them as “irrational,” or (2) by not telling our friends that we disagree with them when we do. But if we don’t tell our own friends about these things, then “friendly” conversation is literally impossible!

Contrary to our instincts, I believe that the LACK of friendly criticism actually contributes to “the culture wars.” When you actually talk to people who hold opposing views in a constructive way, it becomes much harder to see them as morons or monsters, even if you continue to disagree with them. So, I am inviting you to counter this trend by expressing your disagreement with me. (Of course, your agreement is also welcome!) On my part, I will try to accept your criticism in any form that it’s offered, but let me offer the following suggestions for those of you who want to have civil disagreements over the next few weeks:

(1) Try not to make any blanket comments about “conservatives,” “liberals,” “Evangelicals,” “homosexuals,” etc. You’re welcomed to make specific critiques of any ideology, and even express grave concern over particular points, but that’s different from making blanket statements about how all (fill-in-the-blank)’s are. Also keep in mind that I have dear friends who are conservative, liberal, Evangelical, homosexual, atheist, Muslim, etc., so if you make a stereotyping comment, there’s a decent chance that they will read it, and I will be inclined to defend them.

(2) Ask questions. It’s generally a better (and more honest) way of expressing disagreement than making an argument. For example, asking, “How did you come to this conclusion from this principle?” is preferable to saying, “You’re making a logical fallacy here. This principle doesn’t lead to this conclusion.” These two responses make the same point, but the former does so in a posture of humility, which is the prerequisite of honesty.

(3) For my Facebook friends, don’t pay any attention to how well you know me “in real life.” It may be that we haven’t really been friends for ten years and you feel awkward coming out of the blue with a response to one of my posts. I welcome that. After all, that’s how Facebook works. We all have at least one friend whom we haven’t spoken to in years and yet whom we know quite a bit about because he/she posts on Facebook all the time. That’s the risk you run when you post things on Facebook. Let’s stop pretending we don’t do that and just start talking to each other.

(4) For my friends who have been trained in an academic setting, I'm going request that you cite your sources in endnotes [E1]. I know that you feel like you’re plagiarizing when you don’t cite your sources. From the scholarly perspective, it feels humble and honest to acknowledge that you got an insight from Ricoeur or Barth rather than to present it as your own. But from the perspective of those who haven’t shared your training, it feels like intellectual bullying, as it doesn’t give them way to respond to you if they haven't read the same things. Besides, we should be able to express our views clearly without appealing to someone else’s work, even if we derived it from them.

(5) Don’t be afraid of sounding stupid. I have generally found that most “stupid” comments actually have some significant insight in them. Sometimes, we don’t know how to articulate those insights very well, but if we at least put it out there, we get the conversation rolling. On my part, I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are saying something significant if you attempt to say it. After all, I have quite a few friends on Facebook who are former professors and top-notch scholars who are smarter than me, and who may or may not be reading my posts. I know the risks involved in putting your thoughts out there, but I think the possibility of productive conversation is worth the risk. I invite you to take this risk with me.

I eventually plan to address to the “hot” topics, like politics, abortion, homosexuality, foreign policy, etc. But I am first and foremost a Christian, and to be more specific, I have landed pretty firmly in a Mennonite understanding of what being a Christian means. So I must begin by expressing my faith, because all of my other beliefs are unintelligible outside of this. Note: This doesn’t mean that posts about my faith are off limits! Please, tell me when you disagree with my religious perspective, although I would prefer it if you did it respectfully. Bring on the friendly criticism! If we are too afraid to dialogue even in this context, when and where is it EVER appropriate to talk about religion?



[E1] For example, this would be appropriate place to say something about an important theologian like St. Augustine, who didn't have much interest in preserving intellectual property because he believed that all truth belongs to God, not the scholar accredited with saying it. As he writes in Sermon 254, “…nothing [really belongs to human beings] – except perhaps sin and lies, because whoever utters a lie speaks from what is his own… But when it comes to truth, if he wants to be truthful, it won’t be from his own.”:)