Holy Week recounts the story of Jesus’ march to Jerusalem, his teachings and disruptive actions in the Temple, his arrest, trial, and execution. And on Easter Sunday, we hear of his resurrection from the dead as a vindication by God of his life and message. On Easter, we celebrate the uprising of Jesus, an uprising that has the power to transform lives and the course of history.
According to the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), sometime in his third year of healing and teaching in Galilee, after building the core of his movement, Jesus set his sights on Jerusalem in Judea. He decided to go here to confront the Sadducees—the rich and powerful rulers of the people—at their symbolic seat of power. He entered the city in a noisy act of political street theater and then interrupted the operations of the Jerusalem Temple with a demonstration for economic justice.
Jesus clearly understood that imprisonment, torture, and death are always potential and likely consequences of the pursuit of justice in an unjust society. He cautioned his followers that in order to follow him, they must be willing to risk public execution on a cross—the Roman penalty for civil disobedience and insurrection by impoverished and dispossessed people. It was a time requiring courageous decision. Jesus was heading towards a confrontation with power that risked his life and the lives of his followers. Continue reading
Many Christians believe that Jesus was born primarily to die for the sinful nature of humanity. This is standard Christian theology that proclaims that a sacrificial death was the central purpose of Jesus’ life on earth—essentially thirty-three years of marking time until he could die on a cross—enabling us to join him and our loved ones in heaven. For these Christians, this is the essence of the gospel. In fact, the historic Apostles’ Creed takes us immediately from Jesus’ miraculous birth to his agonizing death with nothing in between:
He [Jesus] was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
This is sometimes referred to as the creed with the empty center. Nothing about the life and teachings of Jesus is considered consequential to Christian faith.
But there is another gospel message found in the writings of the New Testament. As one reads the four gospels and the letters of Paul, it becomes evident that there are two distinctly different messages of good news proclaimed in those ancient writings—two contrasting narratives at the heart of Christianity. The first message of good news that we encounter in the New Testament is presented in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke: the good news announced by Jesus. The second and contrasting gospel is the good news announced by Paul in his letters or epistles, and in the gospel of John. To clarify the difference, we might say that the first is the gospel of Jesus, while the second is a gospel about Jesus. Continue reading
(Note: This was written during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.)
A number of commentators have mentioned the impracticality of Bernie Sanders’ ideas and objectives for change in American society—an American revolution fueled by an animated and passionate young electorate. Given the intransigence of Republicans in Congress—these commentators often state—there is no hope that any of his radical ideas (breaking up the big banks, reversing the decline of the middle class, a living minimum wage, health care for all, free college education, addressing climate change, and making the wealthy pay their fair share) will become a reality. The commentators state that Hillary Clinton, being more practical and realistic, has a better chance to accomplish her more modest objectives. Frankly, I think that this viewpoint is as out of touch with reality as Sanders’ objectives may seem. The only difference is that if expectations are lowered, our disappointment will also be lower when Republicans inevitably continue to obstruct the plans of any Democratic president. If the Republicans hate anyone more than Barack Obama, it’s Hillary Clinton. But if all we want to accomplish is to not rock the boat of establishment politics and maintain the status quo of income inequality, then Hillary Clinton is the ideal candidate.
Change, however, requires a vision, often an extraordinary vision. Visionary leaders like Gandhi and King were able to mobilize dedicated movements for change because they each held out a vision of a better and more just society based on the impracticalities of love and nonviolence. They were widely criticized for being too ambitious, too radical, and much too impractical. Jesus was also an impractical visionary. Who would give any credibility to his vision of the kingdom of God that proposed a new community based on loving your neighbor and enemies, forgiving offenses repeatedly, lending to those in need without expectation of return, welcoming the immigrant, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, being compassionate toward prisoners, and turning the other cheek? Continue reading
This post is a response to a recent article on Tony Robert’s blog by guest blogger Lenora Rand, titled “New Communion Words.”
Rand reflects on her experience distributing communion at the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering that focuses on justice, spirituality, music and the arts. The festival is “rooted in the Christian tradition” and is popular among progressive Christians and many involved with the emerging church movement. The name Wild Goose comes from a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit.
I was . . . suddenly so uncomfortable with the words I have always known to say during communion. As they were coming out of my mouth, my head was swirling with questions about whether these particular words adequately reflected my beliefs anymore.
The body of Christ, broken for you.
The blood of Christ, shed for you.
I started thinking about it afterwards though. Wondering, what do I really believe about atonement? And about this sacrament? What else could I say with conviction during communion?
Rand is raising the issue of how the ancient practice of the eucharist is being impacted by the postmodern world in which many traditional doctrines of the church are being questioned and reevaluated. Continue reading
I heard a contemporary hymn on Sunday morning during the Eucharist and fell in love with the melody. It was the “Untitled Hymn (Come to Jesus)” by Chris Rice. It reminded me of Randy Newman’s music—a soft and gentle melody with simple lyrics that draws forth a deep emotional response. Unlike many contemporary praise songs that often seem quickly thrown together, Chris Rice’s lyrics are well crafted, with each verse building in a progression about a journey of faith with Jesus. Yet the theology is that of an intensely personal and private faith. It addresses a personal relationship with Jesus amid life’s struggles. The song begins with these words:
Weak and wounded sinner
Lost and left to die
O, raise your head for love is passing by
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus
Come to Jesus and live
Other verses invite the listener to “cry to Jesus” in times of need and to “fall on Jesus” when we stumble. The last verse is focused on an eternal destiny with Jesus in heaven with the refrain “fly to Jesus.”
And with your final heartbeat
Kiss the world goodbye
Then go in peace, and laugh on glory’s side
And fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus
Fly to Jesus and live
(You can hear the complete song and read the lyrics at this link. A choral arrangement can be found here.)
Rice’s theology represents the traditional beliefs of many, many devoted Christians. Yet for me, the faith to which we are called is much more than this. In the gospels, Jesus calls us to a life of compassion and service to others, rather than a self-centered seeking of our own personal comfort and security. In his final days of life, German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer declared that “the church is the church only when it exists for others . . . helping and serving.” All too often churches spend the majority of their resources simply serving themselves. And those that focus on charity and service are often afraid of dealing with the fundamental causes of suffering in the world—systems of economic and social injustice.
I wanted to see a new set of lyrics to Chris Rice’s song that would convey an alternative kind of faith—not about a Jesus who comforts us in pain and sorrow, but about a Jesus who challenges us to make a difference in the world. I awoke early Tuesday morning with new lyrics in my head and decided to put them on paper. Continue reading
There is an old joke that asks, “What do you call a man who loves another man?” The answer: “a Christian.” It is ironic, isn’t it, that Christians are foremost among those who object to a man loving another man and a woman loving another woman?
By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, deciding whether gay marriage should be legal across the country—a decision that will alter the social fabric of the nation. Such a decision will be a huge win for gay marriage advocates, but the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community will continue to fight legal battles over equal rights for decades. And they will continue to struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the church.
A majority of American voters say they support a Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex couples the constitutional right to marry, but the issue remains far from settled among socially conservative religious communities that have repeatedly proclaimed biblical support for human injustice. Christine Smith writes:
Through its theologies, biblical interpretations, and sexual ethics, the Christian church is one of the primary institutions that provide a foundation for social and ecclesiastical oppression of lesbians and gay men.
(Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance)
Yet a growing number of other Christians are challenging traditional religious thinking, rejecting homophobia and heterosexism because of a different set of theological and biblical perspectives. The result has been enormous conflict in the church. Sexual issues are tearing churches apart today as never before. The issue of homosexuality threatens to fracture whole denominations, as the issue of slavery did a hundred and fifty years ago. Long after this matter is settled in secular society, churches will continue to argue over the struggle between ancient revealed truth and contemporary human justice. Continue reading
In an earlier post, I countered the frequent contention that Jesus claimed to be the ‘son of God.’ The titles of ‘son of God’ and ‘messiah’ (or Christ) were similar references to a military conqueror and ruler. The human Jesus refused that role. He also never spoke of himself as the divine logos (log’-ohs). These were all titles created by others for him. According to the gospels, the only ‘title’ he used for himself was ‘the son of man.’ No one else calls Jesus by this term. It was an image he apparently claimed for himself, but which the church has generally dropped in favor of ‘son of God.’ However, where the phrase ‘son of man’ is used in the gospel accounts, modern English translators often capitalize it as ‘Son of Man’ to ensure that we will understand the use of the term in a very specific context—as a reference to a seemingly supernatural figure found in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In Daniel’s dream, this figure comes before God on the clouds of heaven and is given dominion over a never-ending empire on earth. The Son of Man fits nicely with the exalted image of Jesus in that other apocalyptic New Testament book—Revelation. But the phrase ‘son of man’ has other connotations in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Ezekiel proposes a very different meaning for the idiom. Continue reading
Their relationship remains unclear.
They may be unlikely brothers,
or perhaps like Oscar and Felix,
they are simply an odd couple
sharing the same high rise apartment.
But Elohim and Yahweh—
the two gods of Genesis—
have competing stories
about how they did it,
how they created all that is,
each one claiming the honor
and vying for our adoration and worship.
Elohim, a man of few words,
created the heavens and the earth
by the power of the spoken command.
“Let there be light,” he said
and there was light.
I imagine him seated in a director’s chair,
gesturing broadly with his hands
as he speaks clear and simple instructions
to the dark and formless void.
A firm believer in evolution,
Elohim has watched his simple creation
of a flat earth covered with a dome
become a vast expanding universe
of stellar clouds and dark matter.
Yahweh, in contrast,
always prefers a hands-on style,
sculpting creatures from the earth,
breathing life into muddy forms,
and evicting disobedient tenants.
Elohim prefers the big picture,
the grand scheme,
the massive expanse of the untamed cosmos.
Yahweh, on the other hand,
believes that god is in the details.
A micro-manager of earthly affairs,
Yahweh spent centuries on a singular project
and controlling the destiny
of the Hebrew people
like tokens on a game board.
Today, many years later,
I imagine them in their retirement,
Elohim sitting at his telescope
watching the movement of the heavens
and Yahweh in his basement workshop
crafting a new species or two.
At the end of the day,
they sit together side by side,
Yahweh with his knitting,
and Elohim reading Carl Sagan,
bickering over the remote control.
(copyright © 2014 Kurt Struckmeyer)
the gods of the Hebrew Bible
The God revealed in the Hebrew bible is an integration of several different cultural traditions in the ancient Middle East. As the tribes of Israel established themselves as a distinct culture among the peoples of Canaan, differing images of God were eventually integrated into the oral and written traditions that shaped the Old Testament. Continue reading
On Palm (or Passion) Sunday, my church presented a play in which the congregation took the part of a jury in a trial in which Jesus stood accused before the high priest Caiaphas of acting with demonic power in transformational miracles involving a herd of pigs, celebratory wine, and the resuscitation of a corpse. It ended with Jesus being asked the question, “Are you the son of God?” Jesus answered, “I am.” Then he adds, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
But did Jesus ever make this claim? Did he consider himself the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and the Son of Man?
The text that makes this claim is Mark 14:60-62.
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,” and “coming with the clouds of heaven.”’
(Note that Jesus’ response contains two quotations)
So Jesus answers in the affirmative to two political titles—Messiah and son of God (the Blessed One)—both of which refer to the anointed king of Israel (or king of “the Jews”) or to a military leader who wants to take the kingship by force. In the context of a nation controlled by Rome, it is a title of revolution and rebellion. Continue reading
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– The prophet Micah (NRSV)
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Can kindness save the world? That is the question I posed as I reflected on the theme of ‘transforming the world through loving kindness.’ Are we really talking about changing the world through small acts of kindness, perhaps from one stranger to another? If so, are we discussing a movement like London’s ‘Kindness Offensive,’ known for orchestrating large-scale ‘random acts of kindness?’ Although kindness is an important virtue, and the world is all the better for it, can friendly, gentle, caring, considerate, and helpful people change the entrenched systems of domination, poverty, and violence that we face in our neighborhoods, nation, and the global community? Kindness may give pleasure to others and make us feel better in return, but I suspect that transforming the world will require more than simple acts of kindness that lift someone’s spirits.
Perhaps the answer to my question can be found by exploring the meaning of the phrase ‘loving kindness.’ That intriguing expression offers new insights. There are two ways of looking at this phrase and it turns out they are interconnected. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is in reference to the poetry of Micah 6:8 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation—“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this context, it is important to grasp what it means to ‘love kindness,’ (a verb with an objective noun), particularly in partnership with such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘humility.’ A second way of looking at the phrase is by examining the peculiar hyphenated word ‘loving-kindness’ (a compound noun), invented by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) when he created the first English translation of the Bible in 1535. If this is the case, one wonders why ‘kindness’ needs a modifier. Is there any other kind of kindness than the loving kind? Continue reading