Confusion over the cross

Lately I’ve been confused by the cross, and confused about why I’m confused.  As I went through Easter this year I still was moved by the idea that God somehow loved us enough to die – but I couldn’t explain what it all means, and I couldn’t verbalise what it was about the traditional explanation that made me so uneasy.

So I watched a few lectures online, including this one by Tom Wright, and have picked up a copy of his book “The Day The Revolution Began” and started reading it, hoping to learn more.

I haven’t made it past the first chapter yet, but by setting apart time to think about this, I think I finally (subconsciously?) was able to piece together what I want to believe, in a way that draws contrast to my understanding growing up.

My understanding growing up:

God is love, and he loves you, but he’s also “just”, “righteous” or “perfect”, and can’t stomach your disobedience (sin), it’s because he’s perfect, and that perfection just doesn’t mix with sinfulness, and a blood sacrifice was needed to make things right for some reason.  Animals weren’t enough.  Jesus died so it didn’t have to be you.  That was enough for God the Father.  Now when he looks at you he doesn’t see sin, he’s just full of love again.

What I don’t like:

If Jesus is the image of the invisible God, then we should get a good idea of what God is like by looking at what Jesus is like.  A person with uncontrollable anger problems that needs satiating when people don’t do what they want… is not at all the type of person we see in Jesus.

Most (admittedly not all) of the anger I see the bible describe God as having, is the same kind of thing you see Jesus get angry over: injustice, caused by some humans, that crushes other humans.  This pattern seems to be well in place by the time you get to the prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  The “lash out” kind of anger is admittedly seems to be more present in earlier books like Joshua, and occasionally in later places like Ananias and Sapphira… but it seems the overall thrust is that God’s anger / anguish is about humans hurting each other, rather than about us offending his righteousness.

What I finally realised I want to believe:

Jesus was killed by humans.  It wasn’t God’s anger that put him there, it was ours.  We have the human condition, a tendency to lash out, to scapegoat, to viciously attack anything that exposes our frailty, futility or hollowness.  Jesus exposed how hollow the power structures of the day were, and showed very clearly how the actions of the religious powers and the actions of the political powers were not the actions of God – these people did not represent God.  He exposed the leaders, and like most humans, they lashed out.

But rather than fighting back and perpetuating the sinful violence of humanity, he took it and did not return it, in fact, while they were still killing him, expressed forgiveness and love.  To apply MLK’s famous truth: Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

On a physical level, the power-structures of Rome and of 1st century religious leaders killed him, because he threatened them.  On a sociological level, his non-violent response changed the game in a way where his followers continued to subvert the brutal power of Rome despite intense persecution.

What about theologically or spiritually?  Is there any meaning to it?

If Jesus really is God-incarnate, God-as-a-regular-human-being, (which I should clarify I want to believe), then him suffering the same wrath of humans as the rest of us shows that that wrath is from humans, not from God.  The angry and violent human condition that causes us to crush each other (which I feel sums up most of the concept of sin) is actually from us, not from an angry God.

In other words, what I want to believe: God was never angry that we’re not perfect.  That anger was always ours, that violence was always ours.  It took God himself suffering under that violence, as Jesus on the cross, for us to understand that the violence wasn’t coming from God.  The anger was never his.

So in a bizarre way, the cross is a sign that God is not angry: it shows me that he always loved and was not the one who was angrily lashing out.  And it is a sign that God is not leaving us to suffer alone: that God himself would suffer under our angry violence, it shows he knows our suffering and is not keeping his distance.  And it is a sign that God is working at a rescue plan: that he overcame hatred with love, darkness with light.  This is the butterfly effect – where one small act of love overcoming hatred is cascading and rippling outwards until hatred, violence and even death is overcome by love, and that the God of the universe is putting his full weight and power behind this plan.

And so, when I look at the cross, I do realise that God loves me and is not angry.  And I do realise that he loves me enough to enter into that suffering.  And I do realise that he has a plan for salvation, the rescue of the world – to transform this suffering through redemptive love.

Just because I want it doesn’t mean it’s true.

So that’s what I want to believe, I can finally articulate it.

But I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Tom Wright’s book, because admittedly: this is just the worldview that sits well with me, given what I’ve experienced and what I’ve learned and the cultural leanings that go with that.

Tom’s book looks like it will go through it in a more rigorous, systematic way: examining early evidence and early texts, examining the changing understanding of the crucifixion event by two millennia of theologians, and generally being a little more grounded than my “this is what I want to believe” write-up.

But, it’s good to be able to write down, as a product of my life and culture and upbringing and current understanding, what it is that I most want to believe about a loving God who had to die.

I’m looking forward to seeing where I land.  If you’re wondering any of the same things, asking the same questions, or exploring the same topics – I would love to hear about it in the comments!

 

Is God so angry that he has to kill his child? Probably not.

It’s Good Friday, and my faith is changing.

One key thing that’s changing: my view around why Jesus died. There’s a cognitive dissonance when you speak of a “God of love” who loves you so much that he will punish another to satisfy his own rage, or to satiate his sense of honour. We condemn honour killings, but it’s okay for God?

I still believe in God (though, what I mean by that statement, is also something that is changing). But if it’s Jesus that I’m attracted to, and it’s Jesus that showed us what the god behind the universe is really like as a person, then I don’t think God is the sort that wants to kill people to defend his sense of honour and justice. In fact, one of the stories I like most is of Jesus non-violently de-escalating a situation, saving a woman from being the victim of an honour killing.

So what did Jesus death on the cross mean?  It’s something I want to learn more about.  I want to read NT Wright and I want to hear about the “new perspective on Paul” that is actually decades old.  But I read an article today that had good food for thought.

He became the lightning rod where the pent up oppositional energy of the powers that be (the world) became focused. In bearing the hate, evil and animosity of the world, he exposed it and exhausted it, thus overcoming it..

We, too, are called, on behalf of the kingdom of God, on behalf of mercy and justice, on behalf of what is good, right, true and just, to be lightning rods, to bear the hate of the world without returning it, so that it might be exposed and so that forgiveness is given a chance.

Here it is:

It’s time to end the hands-off attitude to substitionary atonement

 

Preaching about the undead

Preaching about a man who died and then began showing up again, evidently no longer dead, with a new evolution of the human body, and claiming this resurrection as validation of his claims to be king of his nation, saviour of humanity, and founder of a new world order where humans live empowered by a supernatural spirit to live an entirely different style of life which occasionally ignores the realities of physics or biology or politics…. I feel it should carry a whole different level of energy, challenge, hope, discomfort and urgency than it normally does.

And yet if I was preaching, I have no idea what that would look like.

Maybe I need to explore the reality (or unreality) of this story in my own existence first.

My Life’s Work

Here is my servant whom I have chosen
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he leads justice to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.

Matthew 12:18-21

—–

my servant

Jesus was a servant, and as his disciples, we are his.  Have no illusions, we are here to serve, not to be served.

I have chosen

Each person chosen and assigned their role in ushering in God’s Kingdom, according to their unique God-given skills, strengths and gifts.

I love

Our strength and courage draws on this love God has for us.

in whom I delight

Our motivation is his delight.  Not to earn it, but to revel in it and enjoy it and immerse ourselves in it.

my Spirit on him

This isn’t merely natural work and effort, this is work empowered and affirmed by God’s Holy Spirit.

proclaim justice

Equality, fairness, hope, safety, opportunity

will not quarrel or cry out

It’s not about the sport, spectacle or stardom of society’s idea of success.

no one will hear his voice

Less talk, more action.  Less brand and perception and posturing, more life change.

bruised reed… smoldering wick

The hurt, oppressed, poor, hopeless and helpless, sick, overlooked.

till

Mercy is the strategy and the game plan.  We hold to the strategy until the end.

leads justice to victory

Justice will win out, but it’s slow and requires action, leadership.

In his name the nations will put their hope

This is my life’s work:

to offer Jesus’ hope to all that you can,
to work as he did,
empowered as he was,
with the values he carried
and the strategy he adopted
to the same end he strived for:
   the victory of justice,
   the hope of the nations,
   the delight of the Father.

Cowards

“All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.

I used to notice 3 groups here: the accusers, the accused, the defender. I had a hard time imagining which group I would realistically fall into.

I’m not often confronted and threatened for my errors, I’m not the sort to condemn others for theirs either. Yet I usually lack the courage to defend the accused and stand up to the crowd, so I can’t honestly group myself with Jesus in this story.

I guess I fit with the group I never noticed before today: the onlookers. The crowd, drawn into the drama, not sure of what they think, but afraid to speak up, lest they say something wrong and find themselves the new target of the accusers.

If you’re poor, today is a good day.

Imagine your head of state getting up to make a speech.  Our own Julia Gillard isn’t the most inspiring, so I’ll imagine Barack Obama – who at least can give a moving speech.  He gets up on the podium, pauses while the photographers and journalists snap some pictures of him, waits for a quiet to descend, and addresses the nation.

Today is a good day if you are poor – this nation is yours, and today this nation commits to looking after you.

Today is a good day if you are too poor to keep the fridge stocked – from today onwards there will be plenty of food for you and for your family.

Today is a good day if you’re one of the people who quietly goes about your work diligently, and are sick of being trampled on by people louder, richer or more powerful than you.  From today onwards, your hard work will no longer be overlooked, you’ll be recognised, rewarded and given more opportunities for great things.

Today is a good day for those who feel like they’re fighting a losing battle to remain a good person.  Today we say this country values and rewards faithfulness, generosity and a good heart, rather than those who cheat, lie and abuse to get ahead.  You protect your motives and stay true to all that is pure and good about humanity.  Your life will be rich as a result.

Today is a good day if your life has been filled with sadness and grief.  As a country, a community and a family today we recognise your suffering, and say we will be there for you, and do everything we can to give you a brighter future.

Today is a good day for those of you who aren’t always hard-lined, but show mercy and give a second chance.  This is not weakness, but a strength and grace that can turn a fellow human being’s life around.  From today onwards, we are a country that promotes mercy over strict adherence to rules and punishments.  If you’re willing to give people who hurt you a second chance, recognising their humanity, we’re willing to give you a second chance too – and this takes effect in all our policies.  Mercy begets mercy, love begets love.

Today is a good day for everyone who has stood between two fighting parties, and brought calm and understanding, peace and unity.  Because of your commitment to us, to all of us – the worldwide family of humanity – we celebrate you, honour you, and publicly say that this world is better because of you, and because of the risky stand you have taken.

Today is a good day for all of those who have been punished for doing what is right.  Those who have been arrested for peaceful demonstrations, those who have been insulted for standing up for minorities, those who have been fired or sued or sidelined for choosing to do what is right, rather than do what they’re told.  To those who do the right thing, rather than the easy thing – we see you, we acknowledge you, and change our rhetoric.  You’re not a “rebel” or “lawbreaker” or “dissident”.  You are one of the greats, one whose conviction challenges our society and grows us.  You are in good company with the great men and women of history.  As a nation, we will no longer fight you, but recognise you and reward you and support you in every way that we can.  We need more people like you.

When a leader makes a public address like this, it isn’t just more campaigning, an attempt at securing more votes or support.  A speech like this is a turning point.  It says that as a nation we acted one way, now we’re going to act another.  It’s a statement of what’s important to the new leader, what their season of leadership is going to be focused on, and what people can expect to change.  One group of people was previously neglected, now they will not be.  It gives both a change of policy (what the leadership is doing to support the neglected) and a change of culture (as a people, we are now to think differently, act differently, treat people differently).

This is my re-imaging of “The Beatitudes”, part of a sermon Jesus delivered that can be looked at as his inauguration speech.  The crowds recognised that this man was a leader, pronouncing a new Kingdom, and with thousands of people gathering to listen to him, here is what he has to say:

Blessed are the poor,
for theirs is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are the hungry,
for they shall be filled.
Blessed are the meek,
for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they shall see God.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they shall be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they are the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness and justice,
for great is their reward.
(Common Prayer, adapted from texts in Matthew 5 and Luke 6)

This isn’t about an normal country or community or kingdom.  This about the Kingdom of Heaven – the group of people throughout the world who recognise Jesus as the Son of God, and choose to live under his leadership rather than that of their geographic/economic leaders.  The people who submit to his way of doing things even over their own wants and desires.  Jesus is their leader, and this is his inauguration speech.

Part of it is encouragement – what he, as God and as King, is going to do for them.  Part of it is direction – how we, as his people, should change our attitudes, thought patterns, behaviours and processes to adapt to this new form of government, of kingdom.

And the vision laid out is still as confronting, appealing and diametrically opposed to it’s surrounding culture, as it was when Jesus first announced it on the hills of Palestine two thousand years ago.

An old article, but a sad one

This post left me sad:

Pastor supporter of gay marriage out in the cold.

After affirming same sex marriage in an online post, his church met together (without telling him) and decided they didn’t want him any more.  They didn’t even give him the chance to talk over his view point.  Because his house was tied to the job with the church, him and his family were faced with having to find new accommodation on such short notice.

Rodney Croome, whose Australian Marriage Equality website ran Mr Glover’s statement affirming same-sex marriage, said two gay groups would try to provide financial support.

When a church can’t love their own, and the community they condemn as “sinful” steps in with love… I get sad at what the church is supposed to be and the ugly reality of what it sometimes is instead.

Note to self: act the way I think the church should.  If our love isn’t the most extravagant going around, we’re not doing enough.  If we’re too concerned about the purity of our doctrine, and forget to love, we’re not so different from those Jesus was so infuriated by.  I wonder what would have happened if he rocked up at this impromptu meeting.

Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.  He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.

Sad…

 

When you do good things and others see it

In the same address, Jesus is talking to the crowd and seems to offer two contradictory pieces of wisdom:

You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Matthew 5:14-16

 

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

Matthew 6:1-2

There are plenty of people in the world who want to do good.  But often if someone asks you for a favour, or you see an opportunity to help, your response is “what’s in this for me?”  You might not ask it out loud, but your mind is scouting out potential benefits for doing this: this person now owes you a favour, while you’re doing it that girl you think is cute might see you and be impressed, doing this might be able to go on your résumé when you begin your job search later this month, your company could really use a PR boost and this donation could be just the thing…  You wouldn’t be so rude to ask it, but secretly, you’re weighing up if it’s worth your time, effort or money to help out in this situation.

Jesus says that if you’re just helping out for the reward you can imagine just around the corner, then when you get that reward, you’re paid in full.  Even though the work you’re doing is good, you’ve done it more as a business transaction than as an act of love.  I’ll help you with this… and I’ll get this (from you or someone else) in return.

A truly transformed life, the kind of “kingdom” life Jesus is encouraging people to step into, will sooner or later result in the person wanting to do good… and not just as part of a business transaction.  When a life is transformed by receiving grace, it goes on to want to give grace – you want to give to people who don’t deserve it, people who’ll never be able to pay you back.

Once this grace overtakes you and motivates you, it’s no longer about what you will get out of it.  And you’ll start doing things and helping people where “the deal” clearly isn’t worth it for you – you’re giving a lot more than you’re getting.  Perhaps you’re getting nothing, no one will even know.  Jesus is saying that God loves it when we do this.  When we give with no expectation of reward – at least not in any way we can imagine.  When we do this – God promises to reward us generously later.

Ironically enough, it’s the person that cares least about public approval (and doesn’t give for that reason at all) that God wants to show off to the world.  You see, people doing good is nothing to write home about.  People do good all the time – most business deals are essentially someone helping someone else and being rewarded in return.

It’s the people who give and give with no expectation of repayment or reward – whose lives have been transformed by grace – that God wants to show off to the world.  Their lives Jesus calls “light”, it contrasts the give/take nature of the world, and forces people to see that these people live life differently: they are no longer driven by what they get out of something, they are driven by love and by grace.

When people see this, they can’t help but glorify God in Heaven, whose undeserved love changes a life so radically that the person lives, gives and works because it’s right and because it’s good, not because of expected returns.

If most of the good you do will pay off, in recognition, in returned favours, in some round-a-bout way, then maybe you haven’t let your life be transformed enough yet.  This is me at the moment.  The cure then, is to deliberately try to do good, but in secret – not thinking about how you will be repaid for this, but focusing on the grace you’ve already received.  And as you do this (and as I do), hopefully our attitude will change and the grace we’ve received will overflow into grace we give out.

And most things will remain under the surface – no one but you and God need to know about them.  But a few will float to the top – like an iceberg, the majority of what you do will be unseen, but a small fraction pokes out above the water.  When people see these, they’ll see that it’s different.  These are not good things done for an expected return, these are good things done as an act of love – and that realisation will help them see God’s grace at work in your life, and lead them to glorify him.