Saturday, December 26, 2015

Recommitting Ourselves in the New Year

Some of us sorrow because we have failed Jesus.
Some of us don't want to have anything to do with Jesus, because the demands are too difficult.
But most people, even Christians, misunderstand what Jesus calls us to.
When we agree to follow Jesus, we commit to become a student. When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, he was in a centuries-old tradition of calling students to learn and then follow his way.
Jesus' final exam was his arrest in the garden, which all his students failed, because they did not study (pray).
Yet all of his students but one passed the class. This is because Jesus knew that his class continues on for an entire life. The only students who fail are those who drop out.
Following Jesus isn't a commitment to be perfect, or a commitment to reach a certain standard. It is a commitment to learn from Jesus, every day, how to draw on God's resources to love better. As long as we remain on the path, we will still be able to learn. 

And we can't look at another student in the class, demanding that they measure up to our standard. They are just in a different place in the curriculum.

Let us determine not to judge the other students in the class.
Let us not judge ourselves because we haven't learned enough.

But most of all, let us renew our commitment to draw on God's resources
     to love those around us
     to follow Jesus more thoroughly this year. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Gett: The Principle of Patriarchy

Religion is the arena of popular, especially traditional, philosophy and ethics.   Courtroom dramas push the envelope of ethics, displaying where law fails ethics, or the law can uphold ethics, depending on the story.  Gett is the intersection of traditional and modern ethics in the midst of a curious courtroom drama.

The set up sounds like the Iranian drama from a couple years ago, A Separation, in which a woman desires a divorce from her husband, but obtaining that divorce isn’t at all clear cut.  In Gett (which is the Hebrew term for “divorce”) it is clear that the husband is a righteous man, a scholar of Torah, who neither abuses nor cheats on his wife, and although it is clear that their marriage is far from a happy one, he refuses to give her a divorce.  And he has the right to refuse her.

In a secular court, divorce, especially since the 1950’s, has been much easier to get.  The trickiest part is if money or children are involved.  In a religious court, such as Orthodox Jews or Catholics might have, a divorce is much more restrictive, and a level of unfaithfulness must be proven.  Of course, one could always obtain a divorce through the secular court, but not if you want to remarry a Catholic or an Orthodox Jew.  Then the right to remarry a religious must be obtained through religious permission.   Vivian Amsalem is a religious woman, and wants to live her life at peace with a religious man.  Thus, she must have a gett.

The ethical principle primarily being challenged in this film is patriarchy.  Ancient Jewish culture is the oldest patriarchy based on a rule of law that considers all in the society, still in existence.  Many Jewish cultures have set aside patriarchy, but many have not.  Certainly, a strict reading of ancient Jewish law says that a divorce may only be obtained if the husband hands a written divorce to his wife.  Thus, the husband has all the control of a divorce.  A woman might sue for divorce, like Vivian, but she does not have the right to speak for herself, and if the husband refuses to give a divorce, then the judge’s hands are tied.

As a narrative, the great mystery is the marriage itself.  All we see is the speech offered in court and in the anteroom.  We have no idea how they lived or why Viviane is so desperate to get a divorce.  And the courtroom proceedings, for the most part, carefully steps around the marriage, speaking of reputation and the public face of the marriage, only giving us small glimpses of the marriage itself.  So we, along with the judges, are piecing together the truth and the motivations behind Viviane’s desperation and Elisha’s refusal.

While the hesitantly granted details are interesting, what is really on trial is the process itself.  The greatest benefit of modern justice, in the instances when it is allowed, is the ability to speak one’s own perspective.  An older male can never understand what it means to live as a woman.  A wealthy person will never really appreciate the difficulties of being poor.  The sane will never understand the way a mentally ill person undermines themselves without knowing. The white person won’t understand the limitations of being a black American.  We can intellectualize the situations, even appreciate the difficulties, but the life of an oppressed person is much more difficult than any of us realize until we have experienced it ourselves.  The life of a person of power is all the same, but each life of oppression is uniquely different.  Thus, the oppressed must have the opportunity to speak, to explain, to give windows to the difficulties.  And if there is a system in which the weak are not allowed to speak their peace, then no one can say it for them.  No one will give them justice, because no one other than they even know what justice looks like for them.

Everyone must be given an opportunity to speak for themselves, to explain who they are and the difficulties they face.  And people of power must be forced to listen to them or else justice will be thrown out the window.

The film is sparsely decorated, simply scripted, but the cinematography is interesting.  Each scene is uniquely set up, with cameras seeking out different details.  So we look at each time frame with different eyes, even though we are in the same rooms.  It is clever and powerful and strongly reminiscent of 12 Angry Men in it's simplicity and power.

Monday, December 14, 2015

In Opposition to "When Peace Like a River"

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

"It is well, it is well with my soul."

Horatio Spafford, the author of this most famous hymn, had incurred huge financial losses in the Great Chicago Fire.  He sent his four daughters and wife across the Atlantic, and the ship sank, his wife alone of his family surviving.  In his great sorrow, he wrote this hymn, to encourage himself and all of us to consider that our souls are worth more than our sorrows, and retaining a generally optimistic view of life.

Although I appreciate the poetry and the lulling verses, leading to a powerfully climatic chorus, I dislike this song, and refuse to sing it.

It seems to me to stand against the sorrows of Scripture.  Yes, it is true that Jesus told us to "rejoice" in our persecutions, but it is because we are in the place of the prophets who were also persecuted for standing with God.

But Spafford is not speaking about persecution.  He is speaking of the everyday, if terrible, tragic circumstances of life we all must face.  God did not give us these circumstances, or orchestrate them, neither for our understanding, nor for our punishment.  Rather, we obtain assurance of our standing with the prophets because we have stood for God's love and mercy and people have hated us for it.

Scripture gives us example after example of people who suffered terribly in sorrow.  Job, of course, suffering deep depression, but many others as well.  Aaron, who had to hide his sorrow over the loss of his sons for the sake of the community.  David, who wept aloud and fasted over the loss of his children.  Even Jesus, who wept for his own sorrow and for the sorrows of women yet to come.

To set aside horrible circumstance and say, "Well my soul is in good shape" lessens the tragedies of life.  We should weep with those who weep, not tell them, "Buck up! Your spiritual life is great!"  We must allow sorrows, and even encourage them, for it says in Ecclesiastes, "A sad face is good for the heart."

I also question the level of assurance of the man's soul.  I do not know much about Spafford, but I know about myself.  I know that if I assured myself of my own standing before God at all times, then that assurance easily moves toward arrogance and spiritual laziness.  I must be challenged to be a better person, or else I won't be that better person.  

If I am constantly assured, "It is well with my soul," then I will do no work on my soul.  My soul is in good shape, why mess with perfection?

I believe that our spiritual lives are a process that we work on with the Holy Spirit.  A receiving and dispensing of God's grace that we are constantly striving toward.  My soul is not well.  It is sick and weak and must improve, with God's help.  I am but an amateur at love, a beginner at obtaining peace for my fellow human beings.  I will not give myself any false back patting.  I will continue to strive for my soul's health.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Why Is It So Hard to Understand the Bible?

I have a friend who asks that if the Bible is God’s word, God’s communication to humanity, then why is it so hard to understand? 

The simple answer is that it was written thousands of years ago, to people who don’t exists, giving words to thoughts that rarely anyone thinks anymore.  It was written in genres we don’t read anymore, except in the Bible.  It gives a style of history scholars don’t trust.  A style of storytelling that doesn’t communicate.  It is communicating to people who lived in cultures we just don’t understand most of the time.  Times have changed, people have changed.  The Bible is part of that change, and many of the changes have been for the good.  I am glad, for one, that we don’t stone or crucify people anymore.  I am glad that gentleness can be an acceptable way of life for some.  I am glad that we no longer live in a paternalistic culture (even if the dregs of it still remain)—and the Bible has been significant in helping to make these changes, even as it had been significant in keeping the older cultures alive.  But there have been so many changes in 2000 years, it is difficult to understand the original contexts and cultures that wrote the Bible in the first place.

But his question is less practical and more theological.  If the Bible is the primary mode of communicating to humanity, then why hide that communication in genres and language we cannot understand?  Why not give us a sign, like neon?  Why not send out an update every once in a while?

Of course many believe that God did exactly that.  Some believe that God continues to write books and give messages: through His Spirit, through creation, through His church, through visions, through the imaginations of men.  I cannot deny this, nor can anyone.  If God is alive, and personal, and loves us, then He must communicate to us still.  I think there is clear indication that He does.  Not only through these means, but also through life experiences, through human education, through personal insights… heck, even through blogs.

But the massive number of texts and ideas are like the internet—the truth is out there, but how are we to know what is the true truth? How can we pick and choose?  If it is science, we can experiment, we can go through a rigorous process of understanding.  But we cannot use science for an individual personality.  What evidence is there that my friend Bill exists?  Or that my wife exists?  There are documents, or you can interview them personally, but science can’t do much for you in that regard, other than give you a picture of their DNA.

The Bible, through Jesus’ understanding, doesn’t give us a whole picture of God.  Nor does it tell us who to marry or whether we should quit our job, specifically.  But the Bible, through Jesus, gives us the basic principles.  It doesn’t tell us whether this latest prophecy is from God, but if the prophecy is opposed to Jesus’ principles, then we can say clearly that it isn’t from God.  And knowing what is not from God, gives us a much better shot at trying to determine what IS from God.  Jesus’ Bible is a foundation on which we can build all other communication that we receive from God.

But how do we use the Bible?  How can we get past the shell of thousands of pages and ancient society to get across a real truth?  What about that the Bible says one thing at one time and another at another time?  How can we obtain any meaning from the Bible?

Well, it isn’t easy.  It takes work.  We can do this task ourselves, or we can let others do it for us.  But even if others tell us what the Bible says, that doesn’t mean that we can’t ourselves go back and see if it is true.  This is why I will try my best to give verses and links so you can check what I say for yourselves.  I’m just a guy who’s done his own studies and wants to share his thoughts.  It’s up to you to decide what is true.

But this is what I’ve found to be the best ways to understand the Bible:

1.  Discover themes that develop through the Bible
A graph of connections between Bible books
This is easier than it sounds.  It requires one first step—read the whole book.  Not something you can do in one sitting, but it is a fair thing for every literate person to do.  We should all have a reading of the Bible, even if we don’t believe in it, because the Bible is a foundation for much of our society and thought.  Once you’ve read it through, you will see similar themes, or perhaps contrary ideas or the development of ideas.  Spend a little bit of time thinking about these things, write them down.  The Bible is all about themes and how they develop, ideas that begin as a seed and grow.  They may be communicated in different ways, but the same ideas are there, and that is where the power of the Bible really is.

2.  Apply Jesus’ principles and actions to the whole of the Bible
If you are only reading through the Bible once, I’m going to give you a strange idea: begin at the middle.  The Bible is not a novel that must be read from beginning to end.  Rather it is a collection of stories and books that have a purpose in its order, but can be read out of order.  My suggestion is this: begin with the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Then go to the beginning and start again.  If, as I hypothesize, the entire Bible is about Jesus, then it will only make sense if Jesus is kept in mind from the very beginning.   You will see that Jesus’ ideas and actions are right there in the first chapter of the Bible, and it only grows from there.  You will see actions and ideas that Jesus seems to oppose, and that he approves.  But the Bible will make more sense if you keep him in mind as you read it.

3. Create cultural bridges from Bible themes to our lives
The Bible will use similar ideas that we use, but communicate them differently.  For instance, the Bible speaks about widows and orphans as objects of pity.  But what is the reason for this pity?  Because in the firmly patriarchal society, those who were not citizens nor without connection to citizens had no legal standing, and so could not worship, go to court, or have justice in any way.  They were vulnerable and dependent on mercy.  So we apply such ideas to today: who are the ones who have no legal standing today, who cannot get justice, have a fair standing in court or be welcome at church?  Perhaps the extremely poor, the illegal immigrant, the “sinner”?  We take the ancient ideas and apply them today and thus give the Bible a place in our lives.

4. Interpret the Bible as a Third World Refugee
Almost every part of the Bible was written to people who were poor, were vulnerable and who often were not in their homeland.  Those desperate to follow God's will aren't the secure, the settled, or the satisfied.  The Bible was written to those desperate to have their needs met, and who daily face danger and loss.  When we read it, we need to understand it from the perspective of those in need, and apply it in our lives that way.

The purpose of the Bible isn’t to give us a bunch of stories.  Nor is it to give us theology.  It is there to change our lives, to help us consider a better way to live, and a better way to connect with God.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Be Not Afraid

I'm not afraid of black men.
I'm not afraid of refugees from the middle east.
I'm not afraid of white men.
I'm not afraid of the homeless.
I'm not afraid of Muslims.

They are all people.

And, generally, if you treat them with love, then they'll be kind to you in return.
Sure, there are always the exceptions, but who wants to live afraid that this one person might be the exception to the rule?
I don't  because if I live out of fear of the exceptions, the violent, the thief, the liar
then I lose out on the chance to love.

There are two ways to make the world more secure:
Be kind.
Build community.
Nothing else really works.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Progress of Shalom

Without exception, everyone has done wrong before God and become offensive to Him.  But we all have been given the opportunity to be right before God through the deliverance from the slavery to sin and death which can be found in the Messiah Jesus.  When the Father raised Jesus from an official execution, he showed him to be the path to be forgiven of our sins and to have a relationship with God.  God proved his justice—which was called into question by him overlooking sins in the past and because of his patience—by making acceptable the one who enters into the devotion of Jesus, and so He proved his actions just….Jesus was given to the authorities to be punished because of our wrongs before God and Jesus was raised from his execution so that we could be made acceptable before God.  Therefore, since we have been made acceptable by committed devotion, we have the shalom of God through our King, Messiah Jesus.  It is because of Him that we have the right to speak to God and receive the blessings of God, on which we depend on for our very well-being.  We boast in our confidence in being a part of God’s glory.  You see, we can boast in the sufferings we receive—even as Jesus did—because we know that our suffering gives us the opportunity to stick with God.  And sticking with God in the midst of suffering—even as Jesus did— is the test of our true devotion to God.  And if our devotion is tested, then we have confidence—because if Jesus was raised by His enduring devotion, so will we.  And this confidence will never be dashed because God’s love fills us through the Holy Spirit, given by God, to help us endure in the midst of our struggles. (Romans 3:23-26; 4:25-5:5)

Got World Peace?
Peace, according to the Bible is not just an absence of violence or a peaceful, easy feeling, but it is well-being in a community.  When the Bible promises “peace on earth to those obtaining grace”, it is not speaking of a lack of war, but of a ruling principle and nation who would provide for all in need and offer justice and peace to everyone, without exclusion.  This well-being and justice is called “shalom” in the Bible.

Stuck With Whirled Peas?
If there is one thing the world lacks, it is peace, meaning shalom.  If shalom is a world-wide community in which everyone experiences well-being, acceptance, mutual assistance, and equal justice for all, then we have never experienced it.  In every nation, in every era, the poor have been oppressed. The outcast have been thrown out because of arbitrary cultural mores.  The religious have judged and rejected all people who did not accept their narrow guidelines.  The non-religious have judged and rejected the religious because of their devotion to God.  And all people purpose to harm all people who stand in the way of their culture controlling and manipulating all others. 

Life on earth is not shalom.  It is anti-peace.

Everyone wants peace.  Most of us in the world recognize that we are all in trouble, that we don’t have peace, and all of us want to obtain it.  Or create it.  Or force it on others.  To create shalom where there is no shalom is what the Bible calls “salvation.”  Frankly, it is a utopian ideal, just like democracy is, just like capitalism is, just like communism.  The difference is that the Bible claims that salvation—the creation of shalom in the world—is something that only God can do.  Peace and justice cannot come simply from human effort or from anarchy.  It must be a work of God that humans join with.  But it is initiated by God.

Getting Better All The Time
The first step of God’s shalom-making was creation.  God saw the chaos, the pointlessness of the world and made it again.  And, according to Scripture, after God’s peace-making, He established humanity to rule over His creation and to keep it in shalom.  This plan failed when humanity chose rebellion and chaos instead of God’s shalom.

Another step in God’s shalom-making was choosing Abraham.  Abraham was not a perfect man, but he was a person who sought God alone, being faithful to Him, and trusting in Him when all else seemed chaotic.  God chose Abraham because of his trust in God and said that whoever would obtain shalom, in all the world, they must be like Abraham and choose his path of trust.  This plan failed because people thought that following the ritual of Abraham or being born into the family of Abraham obtained this shalom.

Another step in God’s shalom-making was to create a community of shalom with very specific rules.  He chose for His people a nation in slavery—the outcast—so they would know how to treat those who were outcast.  And He taught them His ways of love and shalom for all his people.  This experiment failed in different ways, over the years.  First, the people didn’t believe that God could really give them shalom.  Then, they sought out other spiritual powers to grant them shalom.  Then, they oppressed the poor, forgetting that they were once poor themselves.  And finally, they took God’s rules and make them so burdensome that it became impossible to live them out.

Love Reign O’er Me
Finally, after all of these temporary experiments, God began his final plan for shalom.  He sent his Son to be emperor of the world, ruler of his people.  First, Jesus displayed shalom by setting people free from spiritual judgment, offering them freedom from diseases and mental illnesses and offering them a new life in God.  Then he told the people the life of shalom in God, living by the principles of shalom.  Then, finally, he allowed the rulers of God’s people—the priests and elders—to kill him, treating him as an outcast of God’s people.  But God vindicated his Son as the only way to God’s shalom, the great Truth-teller.  And a new people was created under Jesus, living Jesus’ shalom-principles and testing the world with their message of destruction of the anti-shalom and the establishment of God’s shalom.

Underground Revolution
Through Jesus, God is continually creating communities of shalom—some big and some small.  These communities are made up of those who were rejected by the world and who are baptized in Jesus—namely, those who have committed themselves to being citizens of Jesus’ new nation of shalom.  These baptized are committed to Jesus’ principles of peace and justice.  But these principles are not enough in and of themselves, because we all are too weak, as humans, to maintain shalom.  So the Emperor has allowed us to receive the Holy Spirit, who helps us in our weakness to maintain shalom, even when we do not have the strength to live it out. 

            Then God sent these Jesus communities out into the world.  They preached the kingdom— the nation of shalom—and displayed the power of the Spirit.  Communities were in this way tested—would they accept the good proclamation of shalom through Jesus, or would they reject God’s shalom?  Would they practice shalom with the needy of Jesus, or would they reject them?

This time of testing continues on even today.  Many communities of the world—even many who claim Jesus to be Lord—reject Jesus’ principles of shalom.  Many in Jesus’ name harm and kill others.  Many in Jesus’ name refuse to help the needy.  Many in Jesus’ name even reject the true God and seek a distant Spirit who is unobtrusive and will never give anything, let alone shalom.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Recommendations for Your Holiday Meal

When you host a feast this Thanksgiving or Christmas, don't invite your friends or family. They will expect to do the dishes, or to bring something, or invite you back to their place next year. Instead, invite the homeless, the refugees, those in nursing homes, the mentally ill, because the only reward you could expect then would be from God.

And when you go to a feast, don't boast about all the things you did this last year, your great accomplishments, and don't expect to be honored. If you insist upon yourself, you will be a boor, and everyone will ignore you and try to interrupt you. Instead, sit in the corner and say nothing. Then your host will note your silence and ask you, "What do you have to be thankful for this year?" and you will be given honor.

Don't demand respect, or else you will be rejected. Be humble and you will be given greater respect.


(Luke 14:8-14)

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Practice of Shalom

Because of God’s tremendous compassion for everyone, I beg you, my dear family, to put your congregations on the altar, as a still living but holy sacrifice to God.  This is what is acceptable to God, your sincere act of loving devotion among your congregation.  Don’t be formed by the thinking of this era—that of stereotypes and judgment— but be re-created, having your minds rebooted to the will of God, and so proving by your actions what the good and pleasing and complete will of God is.  I was given a message from the Lord to share with all of you: Don’t consider yourself to be better than others in everything.  Be sensible, and admit that each one of you has granted each one of you a measure of faith, even if that faith looks differently….Our congregations are to be characterized by sincere love for one another.  We are all to be rid of the evil in our congregations, but to grasp onto the good.  We are to have affectionate love for each other.  We are to be diligent without procrastination.  We are to be enthusiastic in character.  We serve the Lord.  We rejoice in hope.  We endure in suffering.  We persist in prayer.  We are to give to the needs of the saints.  We are to practice hospitality.  As the representatives of Jesus, you know already that we are to bless those who persecute us—we speak well of them and do not verbally destroy them.  As Jesus, we rejoice with the joyful and mourn with the weeping.  Well, this is how we should behave to other groups of Christians, as well as those outside the faith.  We aren’t to be arrogant over other Christians, but we are to associate with the lowly and the weak among us.  Don’t be self-important.  Just because you’ve got the money, don’t think that you can tell the others what to do.  Just because you’ve got the word of God, that doesn’t mean that you can order others around.  Just because you’ve proven your faith, it doesn’t mean that everyone has to listen to your opinions.  Nor does it give anyone the right to attack others, no matter what they’ve done to you.  If someone does something evil to you, don’t act immorally back to them.  Instead, spend time thinking ahead of time about how you can do good to everyone.  With all of your ability, live in peace and community with ALL people—even fellow Christians who disagree with you. 

We Got to Start Somewhere, But There’s Just So Far To Go
What can we do?  We live in a world rejecting shalom, pursuing materialism, sexual gratification and false philosophies and calling it happiness.  In the midst of their self- authentication, self-actualization and self-gratification, the people of the world has destroyed well-being for others around them.  The world ignores the needs of those around them, they avoid thinking of the harm they have caused others and they do all they can to shore up their hope that someday, somehow, their lives will be okay.
This wouldn’t be so bad if the church was really any different.  Instead, we live in a church that has bought what the world had to say about truth and joy for 1800 years.  The church flies on a pendulum which swings from a drive to punish all those irresponsible and filled with self-interest to being wholly accepting and supporting people even in their drive to destroy themselves and others.
The answer to this is the shalom of Jesus.  Jesus calls us to communities of shalom—a disciplined grace which leads to peace on earth.  But how can we—when all the governments and churches and non-profits in the world have failed—succeed in creating peace where only chaos and hatred has reigned?

Creating Shalom
  1. Understand our baptism
First, we must understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  To be baptized is to die, to have our old life, with its philosophies and materialism cast aside, no longer living in it.  And we must live the principles of Jesus.  Jesus is faithful, and we can live in that faithfulness.  We must realize that being a follower of Jesus isn’t a matter of belief, but of lifestyle.  So we must pursue Jesus—the real Jesus as presented in the gospels—surrender our lives and live for Him.

  1. Live the principles of shalom
Then, as Jesus teaches us, we understand more and more the principles of peace that he taught us.  We will learn his principles of purity, of faithfulness, of devotion to God and love of others.  In all this, we will become more like the people who can create shalom in the world because we will embody shalom.

  1. Accept the Anawim
As we learn Jesus’ way, we find that so many of the world’s categories no longer apply.  Those which the world rejects—even for good reason!—we will welcome and offer God’s love and peace.  Those who are blamed because of their poverty we will receive and share with.  Those who are hated we will love and offer hope and community through Jesus.

  1. Join a community of shalom
It is not enough for us to enact shalom as individuals, we must be in a community of shalom.  This means participating in a group of baptized faithful in Jesus who are allowing God to transform them into shalom-makers.  This must be a community welcoming to the outcast and a community ready to participate in koinonia

  1. Speak prophetically
As we live out Jesus’ life and community of shalom, then we must share with others the principles of shalom as we live them out.  We cannot speak them if we do not live them, but we must share what Jesus has taught us and we do live out.  We do not speak this in order to judge others, but in reality to warn them of Jesus’ judgment against those who oppose shalom.

  1. Live in trust and patience
It is easy to get discouraged.  We can look at the world and see what a big task it is to transform it.  We can look at the church and see how faithless and fear-peddling it is.  We can look at our failures to live out shalom, and throw up our hands in despair.  But this is where the faith of Abraham (and of Jesus) comes in.  Abraham, despite his own failures and weaknesses, despite the impossibilities of the promise God gave him, Abraham trusted that God could and would do it.  He never forsook God, but continued in patience, even as he suffered for those who suffered due to their rejection of shalom.  Even so, when it looks like all has failed and God is no where to be found, we need to be patient, and give room for God to work in His own time.

  1. Pray for God’s shalom

Finally, Jesus tells us to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for the shalom to happen on earth.  Ultimately, if peace and justice are to rule the earth, if shalom is to break into anyone’s life, it must be done by God’s work.  If that is the case, then our main task is that of asking God to cause shalom to come.  Pray for others, that they may experience God’s full shalom.  Pray for the church, that they may understand and live out God’s full shalom.  And pray for the world that it might be transformed into God’s kingdom.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Principles of Shalom

So if there’s anyone listening, let me say this to you:  Have compassion on the bad guys of your life.  Be nice to the mean ones.  Answer well those who cuss you out.  Pray blessings on those who insult and abuse you.  If a cop pushes you, give him the opportunity to beat you up.  If a creditor steals money from you, offer him the rest of your account.  If the government demands something from you, give it freely.  And if a cop steals what is yours, don’t demand it back.  In whatever good way you want people to treat you, treat them that way, no matter how badly treat you. 
            Look, if you only feel good about those who feel good about you, do you think God will bless you for that?  Everyone, no matter how bad they are, love those who love them.  If you do good things only to those who do good to you, do you think God will bless you for that?  Everyone, no matter how evil, does the same.  If you loan out money only to people who will pay you back, do you think God will bless you for that?  Evil people loan out money for a return, plus interest. 
            You can do better than that.  Love the people you find most unlovable.  Act with compassion toward them and lend them money—yes, I know you won’t get the money back.  Just do it, knowing that you won’t get anything back for it, not even a thanks.  But you will get more back than you would ever expect, but that from God.  If you do this, you will be acting like God, the Lord of the Universe—because He, too, does compassionate acts for those who never thank Him and who do the very worst acts on earth.  So be compassionate to the same extent God is.
            Don’t condemn others and you won’t be condemned by God.  Don’t punish for punishment’s sake and you won’t be punished by God, either.  If you release someone from a grudge, God will release you.  Give freely to those in need—no matter who they are—and God will give freely to you.  It’s kinda like a keg party.  Take, let’s say a third of keg of beer and give it to your friends.  They will take it, shake it up until it fills the keg and then pour it all over you—much more than you gave them!  Even so, the amount of compassion you give to those who don’t deserve it will be poured right back on you!
Luke 6:25-38, SKV

Jesus is the Prince of shalom, the emperor through which peace and justice comes.  Not only does he bring it physically, among his people, but Jesus also has given some principles upon which shalom can be built among his people. 

Jesus didn’t come to deliver individuals into shalom, but to create a nation of shalom.  We cannot see the grace of God as only visiting individuals, but God is creating a community through Jesus who will be able to make a community of peace and justice among themselves.

Be ready
The people of God are to keep one eye on this world and one eye on the world that is to come.  The meeting point between these two worlds is the judgment of God.  Those who showed themselves faithful to Jesus and God will be delivered into God’s kingdom of shalom.  So to be ready, we must follow the other principles of shalom to show that we are ready to be a part of God’s shalom.

The first principle of life is faithfulness to God.  If we live with our eyes on God, always concerned with our faithfulness and devotion to Him in all aspects of our lives, then we will be ready to experience God’s shalom, instead of the shalom of the world.  We also maintain faithfulness to others—our spouses, friends, family and all others.  Whatever promises or commitments we have made to them, in our relationship with them, we keep.

Do not harm
We make a point not to do anything hateful to another, with a purpose to harm them.  No matter what they have done to us, we do not do harm in return.  This may put us in a position of vulnerability, but we must trust that God will care for us and avenge us when necessary, not taking such actions on ourselves.

Treating others with respect
Some we are obligated to respect—our betters, our leaders.  But we are also to respect those whom the world does not respect, the outcast and shamed.  If we provide respect to all, then all will receive welcome and hope and shalom.

Meeting other’s needs
We are not just to not give harm, but to offer respect to others, but we must also give compassion to others when they are in need.  We need to feel their pain and seek to do what we can to help.  Then, we should share what resources we have to help others.  This empathy and open handedness is summarized in the Greek word, koinonia.

Equality of justice
Finally, Jesus emphasizes that these community principles—faithfulness, no harm, respect and koinonia—are not just for those like us, but for everyone, even if some fail, even if some are irritating, act hatefully occasionally and are occasionally faithless.  Respect and assistance is to be granted to everyone without exception.

If we are in Jesus, we are to live out these principles, create communities that live these principles out and teach it to others.  In this way, we are to accomplish God’s shalom for ourselves, our communities and, eventually, the entire world

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Why I Mourn and Pray

Why do terrorists keep terrorizing? Because it works.
The 9/11 attack was utterly successful. It horrified the world to such a degree that they were ready to attack innocent parties to sate their lust of vengeance. This caused many to shift their ideals, to become more revolutionary, and so more suicide bombers were recruited. The ideal revolutionary act is to create a world in which violent revolution thrives.
If we want peace, we need to create peaceful solutions to terrorists acts, because violence only breeds violence.

This is, in the end, spiritual warfare.

Satan is a liar and a murderer.  The evil spirits tell lies to humans so that they would fear the innocent and kill them.  As many as participate in the system of violence and judgment are judged by that same system.  Thus does Satan kill all humanity.  By our own hands. 

Muslims are not the enemy. Nor are immigrants or refugees. 

The enemy is the violence we force down the throat of other nations.

It is not enough for us to stop bringing violence against the good guys. All violence must stop.

It is not enough to give human rights to those who deserve it. We must give human rights to everyone, without exception.

It is not enough to give peace to the peaceful. We must give peace to everyone to teach them how to live in peace.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Futility of Shalom

At the birth of Jesus, the angels sang this to the shepherds:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.

This sounds like a promise to me, especially at the coming of Jesus.  A promise we can expect to unfold and be revealed by God, and soon at that.  A peace that the poor will be given what they need, oppression is not known, conflict is resolved in hope, and we all live in communities that comfort our sorrows.

But if there is one thing we can be guaranteed: there is no peace on earth.  And we have no real hope that there will be peace.

  • Billions live with hunger every day
  • In the wealthiest nation on earth, one percent of their population live on the street.
  • War will never end, and with it the famine and horrors that the oppressed live with daily.
  • Even those who have riches live with sorrow and dissatisfaction daily.

Why no shalom?
Why is the greatest desire of humanity thwarted? Why can we not find peace?

The common Christian answer is sin. Sin has so warped the world that we cannot even recognize the peace that God originally created.  If that is the case, which sin?  The “Pat Robertson” sins of homosexuality and public lust? Are they the sins that cause wars and hatred?  What about the sins of not going to church or tithing?  Are they the causes of poverty and homelessness?

It is interesting that there is a book in the Bible whose main subject is just this: why is there no peace on earth, why can we not achieve shalom? It is the little-read book of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes is a short book, full of pithy, but depressing wisdom.  It’s main theme is the pointlessness of existence on earth, how it achieves nothing.  In the middle of a canon of scripture which has as its main theme the salvation of God, this seems like a strange inclusion. On the other hand, those who preach the Bible seem strangely optimistic in the midst of a world that does not reach its goals.  There should be a firm text in this huge variety of books that explains exactly why the salvation we seek is so far from our grasp.

There are many smaller lessons, but I want to expound on four in particular that explain why we do not have peace on earth:

1.       We seek the wrong answers
The teacher of Ecclesiastes said that he tested himself, giving himself over to the extremes of different pursuits of humanity.  For a time, he pursued drink to overcome his depression. The gave himself over to sex and lust.  He worked and toiled hard.  He sought entertainment and pleasures.  And in none of these things did he find any hope or peace.  Drunkenness leads to depression, lust leads to heartache, work ultimately leads to futility, and a life of laughter is just empty.  All the things we do to fill our lives, to make them less pointless, to bring us peace in our hearts, all end up causing no peace.  And which of these things brings peace to the world, assists the hungry and homeless?  The common ways of seeking a life of joy ends up with us on our heads.

2.       Society works against peace
In considering the plight of the poor, the teacher tells us: “If you see the poor oppressed, the rights of the needy denied, don’t be shocked.  Every minor leader has their supervisor and a lord is over them. And the man at top will demand his profit, and everyone in between.”  Every person wants to profit from what they do, and if they can’t profit from their own work, they will take advantage of those under them.

Our whole society is a pyramid scheme, and the poor are at the bottom, whom everyone takes advantage of.  And even when the poor do something amazing… “There was a poor man who delivered the city with his wisdom. But when the task was finished, no one remembered him.” The poor and needy, even when they could help society, because of the nature of their position, they will not be remembered.  While the powerful and foolish will be remembered and listened to for centuries, despite their idiocy.

3.       Greed
Yes, says the teacher, sin is the cause of our lack of peace. But is sexual lust our main problem?  It might be a personal difficulty.  But the sin that destroys societies is greed.  “The one who loves wealth never has enough.”  Those who accumulate possessions or wealth finds themselves addicted to a lifestyle of collecting.  However, when God established the world, he set an ample of items that would be shared with all creation—but not enough for all to have too much.  Even as God provided food in the wilderness, everyone had just enough, but no one had extra.  So those who collect excess wealth are actually stealing from those who do not have enough.  If some have excess, others have less.

And excess wealth doesn’t even help the one who collects it.  The greater number of possessions, the more one has to spend caring for and securing them.  This creates more labor.  But the teacher lets us know that the one who spends all their time collecting and caring for their wealth, then no longer has time to care for others.  He ends up asking himself, “For whom am I depriving myself pleasure for all this toil?” He obtains nothing for himself, because he spends so much time on obtaining, and he has no relationships to give his reward to.

4.       We place all our eggs in the future
One of the main points of the teacher of Ecclesiastes is that we all work for a future that we do not obtain.  A person works for a good life, but that life is passed onto his children, not for him.  Another works hard all her life for justice, but never has peace herself.  In the end, life is full of striving and it ends in death, which is the end of all we have and accomplished.  Death is a sudden, solid, solitary end, beyond which no one really knows.

We like to think there is justice after death, some measure of peace, but in reality we don’t know.  All we know for certain is that there is no justice on earth. “The good receive what the wicked deserve, and the greedy receive what the merciful deserve.” 

If you thought the idea of no peace on earth was hard to hear, the teacher has a lot of fun facts like these.

He does make some suggestions about how to live in a world lacking hope or peace.  First of all, obey the government, because that just makes your life easier.  Also, serve God, because he has the only hope for a future beyond this world.  But he also says, take time in your relationships.  Take joy in the people around you—your spouse, your children, your friends.  Enjoy them, appreciate them.  Because that is the closest we will ever come to having peace on earth.  Take time with them now, because we do not know if any other peace will be afforded us. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Promise of Shalom

Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And He will delight in the fear of the LORD, And He will not judge by what His eyes see, Nor make a decision by what His ears hear; But with righteousness He will judge the poor, And decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth; And He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, And with the breath of His lips He will slay the wicked. Also righteousness will be the belt about His loins, And faithfulness the belt about His waist. And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze, Their young will lie down together, And the lion will eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper's den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD As the waters cover the sea. Then in that day The nations will resort to the root of Jesse, Who will stand as a signal for the peoples; And His resting place will be glorious. Then it will happen on that day that the Lord Will again recover the second time with His hand The remnant of His people, who will remain, From Assyria, Egypt, Pathros, Cush, Elam, Shinar, Hamath, And from the islands of the sea. And He will lift up a standard for the nations And assemble the banished ones of Israel, And will gather the dispersed of Judah From the four corners of the earth. Then the jealousy of Ephraim will depart, And those who harass Judah will be cut off; Ephraim will not be jealous of Judah, And Judah will not harass Ephraim. (Isaiah 11:1-13)

A Really BIG Idea
The Hebrew word for “peace” is “shalom”.  Shalom is used most often as a greeting in Hebrew culture, even as its equivalent “salaam” is the greeting in Arabic.  To express “peace” to someone is to express one’s intent to not do violence and to give peace of mind to another.  However, “shalom” in the Hebrew sense is much more than what “peace” means in English.

            “Shalom” in the Hebrew Bible is used for the well-being of all of one’s physical needs, such as having sufficient food, rest, shelter, health, longevity, and even a good death, without pain.  Shalom also reflects one’s social needs, such as participating in a supportive community and being accepted by that community.  Shalom also has to do with one’s relationship with God, such as God approving of one’s actions and of God forgiving our sins.  Shalom also has to do with the well-being of a community, such as security, justice, a lack of disasters and reconciliation between those separated by anger.  And lastly, shalom applies to the destruction of all those who want to destroy shalom.  So when we speak of “peace” biblically, it means a complete well-being, physically, mentally, socially and spiritually and justice within one’s community.

            And where does shalom come from?  People can create some aspects of shalom, but ultimately, shalom comes from God.  As it says in Judges 6:24: “Yahweh IS shalom”.   In the New Testament, we find that the peace and justice of God is found through Jesus alone.  God gives this shalom to his people, yet we must enact this peace in the world through these gifts of God:

  • through the faith of Jesus (Romans 5:1)
  • through the Spirit (John 14:26-27),
  • through the word of Jesus (John 16:33),
  • through prayer (Philippians 4:6-7),
  • and through his people (I Thessalonians 5:13)

Promise of Shalom
Yet it seems that God has withheld his peace from the world.  The world is filled with disease and destruction and mental illness and hatred.  If the source of peace is God, why has he withheld it?

            First of all, God did promise shalom very specifically:

Psalm 37:11-- the Anawim will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant shalom
Psalm 119:165-- Those who love the law have great shalom
Isaiah 9:6-7-- The coming king will be the Prince of Shalom, there will be no end of the shalom he brings
Isaiah 57:19-21-- Peace to him who is far and near, but no shalom for the wicked
Luke 2:14-- Glory to God in the highest and upon earth peace among men who are favored

            From these verses we can see a few things:  First, that God doesn’t provide peace immediately.  He doesn’t wave a magic wand and amazingly peace appears.  Rather, God’s people have to go through a period of waiting in trials without peace before He gives shalom.  Secondly, God, in these promises, say that his peace will come through one individual—His emperor who will establish shalom among his people. 

And lastly, we see that shalom is not offered to everyone in the world.  We quote the passage, “Peace on earth” as God’s promise, yet that promise is not to everyone, but those who are given God’s grace.  Frankly, not everyone is ready for God’s peace.  The people who are opposed to peace for some of the world cannot have peace.  Nor can the people who are opposed to God, since the Lord is central to God’s shalom.  And those who are opposed to God’s king, the Prince of Shalom—Jesus— will also not be able to experience God’s peace, for they reject God’s means of bringing shalom.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Why Did Jesus Die?

Is there any reason for good person to die young?  Why should someone be sentenced to death when they were declared innocent? Why should one dedicated to doing good suddenly have their life cut short?  And how can it be declared God’s will for such to happen?

            And yet, this is exactly the scenario that the New Testament proposes.  Jesus was a man who did good, who healed many and taught thousands to change from doing evil to doing good.  He claimed as a basic principle never to harm another.  But the authorities of Jerusalem branded him a rebel whose goal was to overturn their authority.  And because of his rebellion, he was killed.  And yet, all of this was, according to the New Testament, God’s plan and desire—the God of mercy and justice.  How could this be?

            We need to understand the underlying reasons for Jesus’ death—which from our perspective is insanity and injustice, but for the purposes of God it is right and good.

I. Historic Reasons for Jesus’ death

Jesus died because he threatened the temple of God.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  (John 2:19) Jesus made this statement publicly, right after he cleansed the temple of the impurity of buying and selling.  Jesus never said that he would destroy the temple himself, but he did declare it impure, and he said that it would be destroyed by God (Mark 11:11-20; Mark 13:1-2).  But the temple was the center of Jewish religion in that day, and the leaders of Jerusalem needed it to remain that way.  The temple was the center of the authority of the priesthood and the ruling Council of the Jews.  If it was destroyed, then their power would be wiped away immediately.  Jesus seemed to threaten the temple (Mark 14:55-58), and so, in the mind of the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem, he must be stopped (John 11:47-57).

Jesus died because he claimed to replace the government of God’s people.
Jesus entered into Jerusalem as a great ruler, which was questioned by the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem (Matthew 21:1-9, 23-27).  When they questioned him directly about his claims to authority, he agreed that he was the one whom God established as king over God’s people and that he would reign over the priesthood and the ruling Council.  That a borderline heretic could rule over them was unacceptable to the Council and they made a final determination that he should die. (Mark 14:55-61).

Jesus died because justice was replaced by mob rule.
Because the Council was under the thumb of the Roman government, they had to ask permission to kill Jesus.  They presented Jesus to the Roman governor of Jerusalem as a rebel wanting to replace Caesar as lord of the earth.  Pilate questioned Jesus, and while Jesus declared himself to be king, it was clear that he was not king as Caesar was (John 18:29-38).  Because he had done nothing rebellious, the governor declared him innocent.  But the Jerusalemites listening to this trial demanded that Jesus be killed for sedition.  Finally, Pilate was swayed by the crowds, and allowed Jesus to be killed. (Mark 15:12-15).

II. Jesus’ Own Reasons for Dying

Jesus died because he chose to.
But Jesus did not die simply because of the injustice of the Jewish and Roman governments.  Jesus declared many times ahead of time that it was God’s plan for him to die at the hands of these governments (Matthew 20:18-19) and he accepted the will of God in this (Mark 14:36).  He could have escaped at his arrest, but chose not to (Matthew 26:50-56).  He could have phrased his answers to be more acceptable to the Council or to Pilate, but he was being deliberately unhelpful toward his release (John 19:9-10).  Jesus was prepared for his death and he did what he could to make sure it happened, even though the final decision was Pilate’s.

Jesus died to make himself king over God’s people.
Why did Jesus make that choice? Why did he act in agreement with his own death?  Because he saw his death as a means to an end.  He determined that he needed to rule over God’s people.  But to be a ruler under God, he couldn’t just be at the head of an army or gain the acclamation of the people.  Rather, he had to be appointed by God.  To do this, Jesus had to prove to be a perfectly righteous ruler, one who would do God’s will rather than act for his own benefit.  Also, Jesus needed to be oppressed by the ruling governments, to prove that they were unworthy to rule.  This would cause God himself to act, to put down the unrighteous who raise themselves to power and to raise up the righteous who lowered their own desires (Luke 14:11).  In this way, Jesus allowed himself to die to allow God to act for his ambition to rule.

Jesus died to free people from oppressive rule.
But Jesus didn’t want to rule from his own ambition alone.  Rather, he desired to rule, because he saw God’s people as being without decent leadership (Mark 6:34).  Jesus saw the people as under Satan, needing deliverance from his rule of misery and death (Matthew 12:43-45).  Jesus saw the teachers of God’s people as being too ready to judge, and unlearned in the ways of God’s mercy (Matthew 12:7).  And Jesus saw the whole priesthood and temple system as impure and idolatrous (Mark 11:15-17).  Jesus desired to sacrifice himself for the sake of all those who truly desired to worship and follow God, but had no way to do it (Mark 10:45).

III. What Jesus’ death shows us

Jesus died to display the way of faith.
Jesus knew that the one whom God was pleased with is the one who is so faithful to God that he is willing to sacrifice everything he is and everything he has for him (Luke 14:33).  Jesus determined to be a man so wholly devoted to God that he would die.  And he also said that anyone who would gain the life that God has to offer must be so completely devoted (Mark 8:31-38).  And so Jesus showed—not just taught—that the one who loves God most is the one who would obey God to the very end (Mark 13:13).

Jesus died to demonstrate the result of faith.
Jesus knew that if he died that God would act in certain ways.  Whoever, in God’s name, destroyed God’s obedient servant, would be destroyed by God (Mark 12:1-9).  Whoever lowered themselves for God’s sake and God’s people would be raised by God to rule (Luke 14:11).  And whoever died because of their devotion to God, would be raised from the dead (Mark 8:35).  Three days after Jesus’ death, God raised him from the dead to prove the third principle.  After showing himself to the disciples for many days, God rose Jesus up to political authority over heaven, under the Father.  And in 70AD, the temple and the priesthood and the ruling Council of the Jews were destroyed, even as Jesus predicted. 

The power of faith is self-sacrifice for others.

This is the way of freedom.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Story of Stories

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
A rather dense paragraph of an ancient theological treatise, also known as Romans 3:23-26

A long time ago in a land far, far away there was a story.  It was, so to speak, the greatest story ever told, and best of all, it was true.  It was politically and culturally subversive, and explained much of what was wrong with the world, and pointed toward a solution that could really work.  It was told in many ways and many languages and thousands of people believed in this story.  It was beautiful, and the reception of this subversive story by so many was marvelous.

            But there was a problem.  This story was translated into many languages, and crossed many cultures and so it wasn’t as clearly understood by later generations as it was the first.  The story was still openly received, and was clearly subversive, and it was still beautiful.  But there was some disagreement about the point of the story.  Some people thought it was judicial, some thought it was religious, and some thought it was ethical. That’s often the way of stories.  They get over-analyzed and the further from the original cultural context it gets, the harder it is to say what the story is really about.

It was as if the story of “Little Red Riding Hood” was told in the context of a culture in which red hoods was a clear symbol of radical communism.  The details of the story would still remain the same, but the point of the story could be radically different.   Suddenly, Red becomes a na├»ve socialist activist, the wolf is the capitalist system, the grandmother is the helpless proletariat and the hunter is the Revolution.  Or, if someone is a capitalist sympathizer, the whole story turns upside-down and the wolf is the victim and the hunter the evil Red Army.

This is what happened to the story of the cross.4

In different contexts the story of Jesus became a variety of things that wasn’t intended by the original storytellers.5  To be honest, the original point was SO subversive, SO radical that it couldn’t be understood at all by those not trained to look for it.  Thus, the greatest minds in each culture set about deciphering the meaning of the Code of the Cross.  And many of these meanings continue to have significance to today.

In the Ancient world, only a hundred years or so lived a Christian named Alexander.6  Alexander was a Gentile convert from paganism.  And frankly, he understood paganism pretty well.  Gods in the heavens controlled armies and major events on earth, creating chaos.   Gods need to be placated and appeased in order to reduce that chaos to a minimum.  However, many of these gods are capricious and just evil-minded, so pain, suffering, disease and death exist.  Alexander then heard the gospel and realized that all of these gods are actually under the control of this mojo-evil god named Satan.  And there is only one God in heaven, the Father, who has mercy on humanity, and who rules over Satan and all these evil gods.  Jesus died to save us from our sins, which we committed under the rule of these gods.  Alexander believed this wonderful story, and became a Christian—a completely subversive act in his day.

But he was still confused about one thing—how could Jesus dying actually save us from our sins?  Yes, Alexander believed it was true, but it was all a little confusing.  The sacrifices were used to placate these evil gods—what could Jesus’ sacrifice do to deliver us from sins?  Alexander read most of the New Testament, but he was still confused.  Then, in prayer one day, it was revealed to him what the story actually meant.

The real enemy of the story is Satan, the king of the gods, himself.  Although the devil appears in the gospels rarely, all the evil characters were ultimately representing him.  It is clear that all of these people, except Jesus himself, were enslaved to Satan— trapped, tortured and lied to.  How did they get trapped?  By their sin, of course!  People’s sin against God transferred the rule under which they live from God to Satan.  This is because Satan is the Father’s prosecuting attorney and executioner.  Since sin results in death, God has the responsibility to take all of sinful humanity—all of humanity, in fact—and give them over to Satan. 

But God was not content to leave humanity in this place, because he loved them so.  He wanted them to not be under Satan, but under His own rule, His kingdom.  But what could he do?  Satan had legal rule over humanity, due to their sin.  Ah, says God the Father, I know!  The only way to release the captive is to placate the evil god, to offer him a ransom for the captives.  What price would be equivalent for all humanity?  Why, the death of his son, of course.  And so God sent his son to die to pay the price to Satan to release humanity from captivity.  And since Satan actually arranged Jesus’ death, he was ultimately defeated as ruler of humanity.  Thus, through Jesus’ death, all of the pagan gods are defeated.  And because Jesus willingly died, he becomes the Lord of all heavens at the side of God the Father.7

This is a great interpretation, and very attractive to those who were released from pagan beliefs.  Alexander passed this understanding of Jesus’ death on.  It moved like wildfire among the second century churches.  Alexander never wrote this story down because the most effective means of communication in his day was not books, but oratory.  So the story was passed on word of mouth.  It wasn’t until Ignatius and Tertullian and others that this understanding was placed in a book.  And by then, it so represented the meaning of the “gospel” that it was never actually explained, just referred to.

Many, many years later it was felt that Alexander’s explanation was inadequate.  It was okay, in the eyes of many, but it had some holes in it.  Over the years the story was revised and changed and adjusted and tweaked in such minor ways, that no one really thought they were changing it at all.  Just making an adjustment.  Finally, a guy named Anselm realized that the explanation of Jesus sacrifice was really quite different from what the early Christian writers understood.   So he thought he would put it all down in one full story, along with all necessary explanations. 

The story Anselm told had quite a different beginning point from Alexander’s.  The significant figure that was harming humanity was not seen as Satan, as much as God the Father.  This is not because God the Father hated humanity, on the contrary, he had a real emotional attachment to humanity.  But, you see, God is a judge, and his hands are tied by the laws of the universe.  The law of the universe is that if anyone acts in rebellion against the judge—God himself—then they must die.  It is as simple as that.  It is an automatic judicial process.  God the Father would like to change the rules, but he can’t.  Death must be paid for sin.

However, God also knew that the law had a loophole.  You see, the way the law was worded—Death is the penalty for sin—doesn’t clearly say whose death was required.  Ah ha! says God.  This means that another can die for humanity.  But who would pay this ultimate price?  It must be someone innocent—someone who doesn’t have to pay for their own death.  And it must be someone powerful—powerful enough that the one death would be payment enough for all of humanity.  Who would do?  Well, actually, thinks God—it must be Me.  No one else can pay the price required.

 Of course, God the Father can’t die—he’s awful busy judging and sustaining the universe. So it conveniently works that God actually has three persons—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  So the Father caused the Son to become a human and to die, so that all of humanity might be delivered from death, the penalty for their sin.9

This is a powerful story, and one that took the Christian world on fire—even as Alexander’s did—and endures as the most popular understanding of Jesus’ death to this very day.  This story became so significant culturally that it has been forgotten by the masses of believers in it that as an interpretation, it is not actually found in the New Testament. 

And the story has been deemed inadequate by many Christians over the years.10  They do not like the image of God as judge, enforcing the ultimate death and torture of every human being.  They do not like the fact that believing in Jesus’ death as the substitution for their penalty of sin doesn’t change people to be any better than before they believed in it.  In other words, it speaks of how the penalty for sin is set aside, but not sin itself.  So much of this story—as powerful as it is—seems so inadequate.

Abelard was a teacher and monk who didn’t live too many years apart from Anselm.  He had a pretty spicy personal life that was told all throughout the medieval world—he and his girl Heloise—a nun— really had the hots for each other and wanted to get married.  They chose to remain faithful to their vows of chastity, rather than break their covenant with God.  Heloise was never completely satisfied with this solution, but Abelard—so deeply involved in theological circles—became as content as a cow in a field of clover and a nice looking bull just across the way. 

Perhaps because he was trying so hard to forget Heloise, or perhaps his love for her colored all of his theology, Abelard took his frustrations out on Anselm’s understanding of Jesus’ death.  Every time he read it, it made him upset.  Where, Abelard complained, is the love?  Isn’t God love?  God is full of mercy and forgiveness and redemption—so why does Anselm’s story of atonement so lacking in love?  It is a story of judicial wisdom, perhaps, and of theological mysticism, but there is no passion, no emotion.  Also, Abelard says, everyone who believes in this story is grateful to such a God, but they remain in their sin.  They have received an unbelievable grace, but there is no requirement to do anything different, to act as God desires us to act.

And so, Abelard wrote in Latin to his other companions in theology, let us set aside the myth of God’s jurisprudence.  God’s desire is not so much that we have a penalty paid, but that we change behavior.  Jesus’ primary message is not “receive grace” but “repent”.  Jesus was sent, not as a scapegoat, a sacrifice for someone else’s sin—after all, sacrifices really did nothing in reality.  Rather, Jesus was sent as the ultimate example.  The ultimate example of love.  Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself to show humanity that we need to live for others, not for ourselves.  Jesus’ example is so extreme that anyone who desires to be like him even to the smallest degree would so love others that their lives would be changed.  Jesus’ example was so powerful, that many saints lived their lives according to his principles and they showed others how the Christian life should be lived.11 Abelard was seen to be a heretic by many.12 

And the debate rages on, for centuries, for millennia, as to the real meaning of Jesus’ death.  One story gets passed for another which is revised for another.  But the truth is so hard to find.  Unless, of course, one looks at the gospels. 

The “gospel” is often understood to be whatever interpretation of Jesus’ death is accepted by those who speak of it.  Proof texts are pulled out, the more vague the better.  And, somehow, those who believe in that interpretation are considered to be “saved”.  Not, God forbid, if they just believe in Jesus himself, but in penal substitution, or Christus victor or ethical example atonement.  As if often the case, Jesus is often traded in for the latest fad “gospel” that is to preached, enforced and sold. 

The gospels are left behind.  The first, best communication of Jesus is not understood, and so deemed inadequate.  Few recommend the open reading of the gospels themselves without a guide to interpret it in accordance with the “right” interpretation.  Why is this?  Because the gospels do not clearly communicate any of these atonement theories that have been described above.  Satan, in the gospels, is a minor character, who seems to take even more of a back seat during the passion of Christ than even the small role he plays during Jesus’ ministry.  In the gospels, God is not represented as needing to punish, but as forgiving—and angry against some groups, but not humanity as a whole.  In the gospels, love is a central theme of ethics, but it is rarely mentioned in conjunction with Jesus’ death—and there is certainly something else going on besides a debate about ethics at the heart of Jesus’ death.  As it has often been stated, who would kill a guy who just said “wouldn’t it be nice if we loved each other more?” 

There has got to be something more.  Something we’ve been missing.  Something subversive—because Jesus was killed as a rebel.  Something radical—because Jesus had to die for it.  Something beautiful—because Jesus’ death was meant to deliver us.  And there is.  

4.            Well, actually, the story of Jesus never did become the story of the socialists. Depending on how you want to define "socialist", anyway.  Jesus’ story could never be the story of the radical communists without some serious rewrite because he willingly submitted to his enemies.  Marxism, Leninism, Maoism—they needed to promote the action of a violent, end-of-the-world-like revolution.  Thus, while quietly denying the passiveness of Jesus, there were some who would uphold the story of the Exodus, especially in Latin America.  Moses becomes the great leader and the violent themes become the revolution itself.  Thus was Liberation Theology born.

5.            Some would say that the New Testament clearly describes the purpose of Jesus’ death.  That may be true, but most theologians, when describing the theology of Jesus’ death, ends up describing in detail a certain word or two that isn’t understood well.  Or they focus on one word that has many meanings—whether in Greek or in English—and then demands that the word have one meaning.  It is problematic when theology sounds like a used car salesman, highlighting certain aspects so we don’t notice others.

6.            This isn’t his real name.  Frankly, we don’t know what his real name is, or if it was a single person.  However, we are going to use the name Alexander because it’s convenient for us.  Also, because we like the alliteration. Sorry.  I assume you’re reading this book because you like your theology covered with a good dollop of entertaining fiction.  That’s what I like, anyway.

7.            This interpretation of Jesus’ death is called the Christus Victor argument, and some form of it is usually understood to be the common interpretation of Jesus death from at least the time of the second century AD.  Passages that confirm this view are: Genesis 3; Colossians 2:13-15; I John 3:8; Ephesians 2:1-7; Matt 5:25-26; Matt 12:29; Hebrews 2:14.

8.            Anselm was a real person, in case you were wondering.  And he really wrote a book.  It’s called “Why Did God Become A Man” He wrote other books as well, but that’s the important one here.

9.            Verses for Anselm’s view: Anselm’s view is the most prevalent view among Protestants today, and the most heard in “gospel presentations”.   II Corinthians 5:21; Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17; I John 2:2; 4:10.  Many use half of Paul’s letter to the Romans to support this view: a. God’s wrath is against the whole world—Gentiles and Jews—because of their sin (Romans 1-3); Through faith in Jesus’ death, God has established a means of salvation (Romans 4-5);  Because of faith in Jesus’ death, God has given everyone the ability to live rightly before God (Romans 6-8). 

10.          The largest theological difficulty with Anselm’s interpretation is the wrath of God that demands the destruction of every single individual without hope of God’s forgiveness without a sacrifice—it proposes an “Old Testament God” that the Hebrew Scriptures don’t propose.  Another difficulty is the acceptance of human sacrifice.  But biblically, the difficulty with the view is the assumptions that get put with certain words.  The term “for our sin” is assumed to mean “in place of us”, as if an exchange of punishments is assumed, when a more natural reading would be “because of our sin”.  Another problem is the Greek word ilastrarios which is commonly translated “propitiation”, which is usually understood as a sacrifice to appease a god’s wrath.  However, the word, in a general sense, means “the means to forgiveness” (see Louw and Nida, and the UBS lexicon).   Thus, the passages are seeing Jesus’ death, in a general sense, being the means of forgiveness, but they don’t explain how that is done.

11.          Some verses for Abelard’s view: John 15:13; Mark 8:34; Phil 2:3-11; I Peter 2:19-24.  One of the main difficulties with Abelard’s view is that he is saying that Jesus’ death teaches us how to love, while these verses all promote Jesus’ death as an example for sacrifice and humility.

12.          One of the main critiques of Abelard’s view is that it doesn’t really discuss past sin, or how Jesus obtains us freedom from that.  Abelard’s view seems most separated from a Scriptural discussion of the atonement, except that it does express a theme of imitation that is discussed in the New Testament.