Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

From Around the Blogosphere: Good Links

The “new universalism” is given sharp-edged critique by Calvin College philosopher, James K. A. Smith, self-identifying as both Pentecostal and Reformed(!).  Two good rebuttals to Smith are made by Halden Doerge and D. W. Congdon

Bob Cornwell seeks to redeem the “L” word, Liberalism.  Since I consider myself both “evangelical” and “liberal” when proper definituions of each are used, I like such attempts.

Did the Canadian elections, with an unforseen surge in seats picked up by the New Democratic Party just return Steven Harper’s Conservatives to a 3rd term in power as a minority government or will the NDP lead a new Anything-but-Tory coalition with the Liberals and BQ?  If the NDP do move from opposition to a governing coalition, I hope they make wiser choices than UK’s Liberal Democrats have in their minority coalition with the Tories.  I like the NDP and am convinced that if I were ever to become a Canadian, this would be my party–but given the unexpected nature of the results, are they truly PREPARED to govern?

BenMyers has commentary and links to Rowan Williams’ (Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and a fine theologian, in my opinion) three (3) theological lectures on dimensions of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. 

The Women in Theology blog reflects on the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena.

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April 30, 2011 Posted by | blog, blog series | 2 Comments

Resurrection Day: The Heart of Christianity

The Adult Sunday School class at my small church (Jeff Street Baptist Community @ Liberty) has been studying The Meaning of Jesus:  Two Visions by Marcus Borg and N. T. (Tom) Wright.  At no point do these two Jesus scholars disagree more sharply than over the nature and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection.  Wright defends a traditional bodily resurrection in which the dead Jesus is raised to a “transformed form of physical life” by God.  In a fashion similar to Wolfhart Pannenberg’s approach in Jesus–God and Man, Wright argues for the historicity of both the empty tomb and the appearances of the risen Christ–as Wright does at much greater length in The Resurrection of the Son of God. 

By contrast, Borg argues that Jesus’ resurrection appearances, though real, were visions or apparitions. Reading 1 Cor. 15 very differently than Wright, Borg claims that Jesus’ resurrection is in some way spiritual, that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to Paul were not qualitatively different than believers’ experiences with the Risen Christ ever since that day.  He argues that the empty tomb traditions developed separately, that we, today, cannot know the historical reliability of the empty tomb stories and that whether or not the tomb was empty is irrelevant to understanding Jesus’ resurrection.  He sharply contrasts resurrection with the resuscitation of a corpse (a contrast which implicitly mischaracterizes Wright’s view, since he clearly distinguishes Jesus’ resurrection from resuscitation).

I tend to side more with Wright than Borg on the nature of Jesus’ resurrection.  He argues well that spiritual life after death would not be termed “resurrection” by first century Jews and Christians.  Like Karl Barth, however, I’m somewhat more skeptical that historians qua historians can demonstrate the resurrection.

But traditionalists like Wright, though having the better case than liberals like Borg on the bodily nature of the resurrection, are remarkably tongue tied on the tbeological meaning of the resurrection. (Wright does see that it leads Paul and other early Christians to rethink radically traditional Jewish eschatology.) Borg is stronger at this point. He outlines 5 dimensions of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament–or, more accurately, 5 dimensions of the death/resurrection of Jesus considered as one event.  While I am not sure these 5 (or any list) can fully exhaust the meaning of the cross/resurrection, I certainly think that these are important dimensions–and that each point would be strengthened by viewing Christ’s resurrection as a bodily resurrection–though our language, like Paul’s in 1 Cor. 15, strains to the breaking point in attempting to say what kind of bodily resurrection.

  1. Resurrection/Vindication.  The Domination System ( a term Borg borrows from Walter Wink) rejected and killed Jesus.  The resurrection is God’s vindication of Jesus. “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made both Lord and Christ.”
  2. Defeat of the Powers.  This is the story of God’s victory over Pharoah in the Exodus now projected on a cosmic screen.  God in Christ, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
  3. Revelation of the Way.  Because of the resurrection, early Christians concluded that following Jesus is the way to God.  “I am crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  They remembered Jesus’ saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and takeup their cross and follow me.”  In his life and ministry, Jesus and his prophetic renewal movement within Judaism, tried to teach the Way to and with God.  Now, the early Christians conclude that not only are Jesus’ teaching and example the Way, but Jesus himself is the Way.
  4. Revelation of the Love of God.  The New Testament writers also see the Good Friday/Easter pattern as revealing the depth of God’s love for us. As Borg notes, this interpretation depends on developing the completed Christian story–in which Jesus is seen as God’s only and beloved Son.  Within this framework, the death of Jesus is not simply the execution of a prophet or the rejection of Jesus’ message by the rulers of this world.  It is also God’s giving up of that which is most precious to God–namely, Jesus as God’s only Son. John 3:16; Rom. 5.
  5. Jesus as sacrifice for sin.  Borg describes this dimension in greater length because it is central to many versions of Christianity–but some in ways that he believes are not helpful.  When Borg is asked, “Do you believe that Jesus died for your sins?” he answers “no and yes.”  If the questioners mean “Do you think that Jesus saw his own death as a sacrifice for sin?” He answers “No.” (Here I side with Wright who argues strongly that many would-be 1st C. Messiahs saw their impending deaths as redemptive for Israel and there is no reason why Jesus wouldn’t view his death similarly.) If the questioners mean “Do you think that God can forgive sins only because of Jesus’ sacrifice?” Borg also answers “no.” (Here I agree. I find it strange that conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians, many claiming to believe in biblical inerrancy, can so quickly throw out all of the First Testament examples of God’s forgiveness!) But if the questioners mean, “Is the statement that Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins a powerfully true metaphor for the grace of God,” Borg answers “yes.”

What would it mean in a 1st C. Jewish context to say, “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins?”  Borg notes that there is both a negative and positive meaning and both are strikingly radical. 

Negative:  In the temple theology, the temple claimed a monopoly on forgiveness of sins–and, thus, an institutional monopoly on access to God.  So, negatively, the statement “Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins” is a subversion of the temple.  “You don’t need the temple; you have access to God apart from the temple.” “Jesus is our sacrifice” is an anti-temple statement.

Positive: “Jesus is our sacrifice” is a metaphorical proclamation of the radical grace of God and our unconditional acceptance.  To say, as the letter of Hebrews does, that Jesus is the “once for all” sacrifice for sin means that God has already taken care of whatever it is that we think separates us from God.  If our own sense of sin and guilt, or unworthiness or failure, makes us feel unacceptable to God, then we simply have not understood that God has already taken care of it.  Borg asserts that this is also what Paul is getting at by saying that “Christ is the end of the Law.” (I think I hear Borg’s Lutheran childhood coming out here.)

April 24, 2011 Posted by | Biblical interpretation, Christology, Easter, eschatology, hermeneutics, resurrection, salvation | 2 Comments

Holy Week Meditation

Inspired by a Palm Sunday sermon given by Rev. Cindy Weber to the saints at Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty.

Sunday is for praise.  At one end of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, Roman procurator, front man for Imperial Might, comes in with full military escourt, himself riding a white war horse.  He brings extra troops from the Syrian legate because these @#5! “Hebrews” or “Jews” are likely to rebel any time they gather in their capital with one of their weird religious/political holy days. And Rome, in her wisdom, has chosen him to keep order in this backwater of the empire.  But at the opposite gate of the city, Jesus of Nazareth and some of his followers engage in a little street theatre based on the prophet Zechariah:  Jesus enters Jerusalem not on a warhorse, but, in contrast both to Pilate and to David, on the colt of a donkey.  The disciples and crowds spread their cloaks on the ground in royal tribute and the crowds sing praises and wave palm branches.  The Pharisees and the temple elites, terrified that the Imperial Delegation will notice this royal tribute (that no one is giving Pilate!), try to quiet things down. Jesus laughs at them: If the crowds were to be silent, the very rocks would cry out! Sunday is for praise.

Monday is for anger.  After Sunday’s street theatre, Jesus takes nonviolent direct action campaign to the symbolic center of the Domination System:  The Temple.  He looks around the Court of the Gentiles and sees that what was intended as a “house of prayer for all nations” (“nations” and “gentiles” are the same word in Koine Greek) has been defiled as a place exploitive commerce.  The Torah laws specify what must be sacrificed “without blemish,” and the priests are the final arbiters of whether the offerings of the poor pure enough or not. If the answer is “no,” as it almost always is, they can buy a “pure and spotless” offering here in the temple–at extremely inflated prices. A single dove–the prescribed offering for the poor for most sacrifices–costs 20 days wages.  Jesus is pissed off!  He is furious at the exploitation of the poor and the complete disregard for the Gentiles, both.  He makes a whip of cords and uses it to drive out the cattle and oxen; he overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and frees the doves.  In horror, the merchants follow their wares out of the temple.  Jesus has challenged the entire temple system–judged it and found it wanting (“You see these great stones? I tell you not one will remain on another.”) .  Most New Testament scholars agree that it was Jesus’ temple action that led directly to his death at the hands of Powers That Be–But Jesus was furious at the system’s abuse of the poor and outsider. Monday is for anger.

Tuesday is for teaching and for speaking truth to power.  On Tuesday, Jesus returned to the Temple and taught the crowds. He could have used this time to attempt to patch things up with the authorities.  Instead, he confronts every power group in Jerusalem, confounding them all and leaving them speechless.  Powers and Authorities hate it when individuals or groups engage them in propheting truthtelling, saying, like Nathan to David, “Thou are the man!” You’re the one–you are the guilty parties.  Like Jesus and the prophets before us, the Church must boldly speak truth to power.” Tuesday is for teaching and speaking truth to power!

Wednesday is a day for listening. On Wednesday, Mary poured oil on Jesus’ head, anointing him for his burial.  He’d been telling his followers for some time that this trip to Jerusalem would end in his violent death. Most seemed to ignore him or not understand. But Mary had been listening–and her symbolic action showed that of all Jesus’ disciples, she got it.  Wednesday is a day for listening.

Thursday is a day for communing.  We all know the story of Maunday Thursday.  According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus holds a “Last Supper,” transforming the Passover Seder and reorganizing its symbols to become the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper.  According to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus girded himself with a towel and washed his disciples’ feet–performing the work of a servant.  These actions were taken in deep communion with his closest followers.  Thursday is a day for communing.

Friday is a day for despair.  Thursday ended with Jesus’ betrayal and arrest.  In the wee hours of Friday, some mock trials–full of illegalities–were held by the Sanhedrin, by Pilate, and by Herod.  Then Jesus’ was scourged and crucified between two rebel terrorists (ληστης, NOT κλεπτοι), crushing the hopes of all who followed him.  Friday is a day for despair.

Saturday is a day for hiding and mourning. The disciples scattered and fled at Jesus’ arrest lest the authorities arrest and execute them, too.  Today we mourn.  Any end to that grief will have to await another day–another week.  Saturday is a day for hiding and mourning.

April 23, 2011 Posted by | Lent, liturgy | Leave a comment

R. I. P.: Marie Deans–Victims’ Advocate and Death Penalty Foe

I have just learned the sad news of the passing of Marie Deans on 15 April 2011.  Marie Deans, whose mother-in-law was slain by an ex-convict, hated the way that pro-death penalty zealots used the pain of victims’ survivors to justify the death penalty.  As other rationales for the death penalty (deterrance of violent crime; retribution) became more publicly suspect, prosecutors came more and more to beg juries to execute prisoners in order for victims’ families to “gain closure.” New studies have shown that victims’ family members do NOT gain “closure” through the death penalty system and resent being used this way.  Marie Deans knew that years ago from personal experience and she founded Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation in 1976 as a safe space for victims’ families to speak out against the death penalty.  (Today, there is also the related group, Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.)

Although today the tide seems turning against the death penalty in America, Marie Deans struggled against it during the decades when support gained every year and opponents were often lonely and frustrated.  She was a self-taught mitigation expert who testified repeatedly in sentencing hearings against the death penalty.  As a result of her efforts, only 2 of the 200 people she represented at sentencing hearings were ultimately executed.  Her greatest triumph was the exoneration of Earl Washington, Jr., a Virginia death row inmate with mental disabilities whose false confession was the result of police coercion and intimidation.  Washington was awarded more than $2 million in damages in a lawsuit against the police. 

Marie Deans showed that one can seek compassionate justice for victims–without creating new victims.  Rest in peace, faithful witness.

April 20, 2011 Posted by | capital punishment, ethics, heroes, human rights, nonviolence, obituary | Leave a comment