Christianity is Far More Radical than You (or I) Think

Not my family. But that food looks good.

I like having my family gathered together around the table, eating together, just being together. I like the puns that banter to and fro, the laughter and groans that ensue. I like the spontaneous singing that erupts, or the complex table rhythms that generate from one person’s tap-tap-tippety-tap. I like the conversations about life and learning and love.

I like having good food to eat, clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe, comfortable clothes to wear. I like having a spacious home, and I like most of the stuff in it: gizmos and gadgets that cook and bake and clean and entertain and inform and communicate. And books, lots of books.

I like being able to live my life relatively free of fear of violence or destitution. I like being able to meet with whomever I want, to do pretty much whatever we want, including worshiping the God we believe in in the way that we want. I like being able to think and speak freely without thinking someone might harm me or my family (well, I guess there were those two times).

In other words, I like my rights and freedoms. I like my safety and security. I like my comforts. And I’m pretty sure most of us white middle-class Christians in North America feel the same way.

But there’s a problem with this: it keeps us from truly hearing and living out the radical message of Jesus, the radical message of the gospel.

Here’s Jesus, giving the “altar call” of his gospel proclamation:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:34-36)

This is no altar call like we might be used to. This is no “pray the Sinner’s Prayer and you’ll be saved,” no “read your Bible and go to church and you’ll get rid of those nasty habits”—but otherwise carry on with your lives, business (and pleasure) as usual.

Every Jew in Jesus’ day knew what it meant to “deny oneself.” They heard it every year in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. “Denying oneself” was equivalent to “fasting” and related to “Sabbath-keeping.” It meant voluntarily giving up your work and your food, giving up the basic necessities and comforts of life and the means by which those are attained, in devotion to God.

And every Jew—indeed, every conquered people in the Roman Empire—knew what it meant to “take up one’s cross.” They saw it with inhuman frequency outside the major cities on the edges of Empire. “Taking up one’s cross” meant carrying a cross-beam to the outskirts of the city, where one would then be suspended from that beam on a post or tree until one died. It meant condemnation and execution. It meant shameful, painful, and certain death.

And “following Jesus”? It soon became clear what that meant, for not too long after Jesus said these words he himself “denied himself”—gave up his rights and privileges in devotion to God—and “took up his cross”—was executed in condemnation and shame and excruciating pain.

This is Jesus’ “altar call.” This is Jesus’ call for response to the gospel of God’s kingdom.

And it is gospel, it is “good news.” I know, it might not sound like it, not to our modern western ears. But Jesus says that if we do this—if we “lose our lives” in this way—we will in fact gain life. And if we don’t do this—if we instead seek to “preserve our lives,” our lives of comfort and security—we will in fact lose our lives in the end.

It’s a paradox, right at the heart of the gospel. Here’s how I understand this.

We naturally and rightly desire justice, peace, health, security, comfort—flourishing life—for ourselves and those close to us. But fulfilling those desires for ourselves often means impeding others from fulfilling those same basic human desires: our peace and security come at the expense of others’ welfare, our comfortable lives are made possible by others’ lives of hardship, and so on.

In our day, these “others” are often outside our immediate vision. They can even be on the other side of the world. Faceless. Nameless. Poor. Not-white. They suffer so that we might have all the comforts of home.

In the long run this system cannot be sustained. Whether on a personal level or a global scale, in the end the comfortable and well-fed will lose their lives of relative abundance. It’s inevitable. And then the scales will tip, the down will move up, the up will move down, and it starts all over again.

Into this never-ending cycle of inequity, even injustice and oppression, Jesus speaks these words: “Deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me. Only if you lose your life in this way will you save it.” It is only if we give up our privileges and comforts for the good of others, only if we let go of our claim to our own rights and freedoms for the good of all, that we can experience the true life God desires for us.

Lentz - Christ of MaryknollIn other words, if we truly want to experience permanent justice, lasting peace, and flourishing life as human individuals, as a human race, and as a planet, the only way forward is to follow the self-denying, self-giving way of love and peace as embodied in Jesus.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, then, we would hold our possessions loosely, living simply. We might even sell all we have and give the money to the poor.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would also hold our rights and privileges loosely, living free of expectation and entitlement. We might even stand up for the rights of others at great cost to ourselves.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would seek out society’s cast-offs, those clinging to the bottom rung, and lift them up alongside us. We might even, if necessary, switch places with them.

If we were to take Jesus’ call seriously, we would forgive, forgive, and forgive again. We might even walk the extra mile and do good things for those who hate us, even our outright enemies.

I’ll be honest: I don’t think I can do this. We all—myself included—are pretty good at justifying our comfortable existence. And we all—myself included—are pretty well attached to our life of relative ease.

I like my coffee, my housecoat, my family gathered around, my home and clothes and food and drink and health and safety and security and freedom.

Yet Jesus’ gospel call always stands before me. It calls me perpetually to repentance, my self-justified selfishness laid bare. It summons me always, over and over again, to a better way, a better way to be human in the world. It beckons me onward to a life of devoted faith in God, selfless love for others, and enduring hope for justice and peace and abundant life for all.

The Bible as Witness to Jesus (2)

The New Testament claims that the Author of it all, the God who has shaped humans out of the stuff of earth and breathed life into them, the God who has taken up the writings of Scripture and “breathed” life-giving power into them—this God has entered the human story in Jesus.

Take a look at the opening words of Hebrews, for example: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” Jesus is this “Son” who is the very voice of God in “these last days,” this time in which God is bringing to completion God’s purposes for human history. The passage goes on to say this about God’s Son, Jesus: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:1-3).

Rouault Christ DisciplesIt’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways—through creation, through each other, through many surprising ways, and yes, through Scripture, written by many different prophets and apostles in the past. But Scripture is no longer the best voice of God we have. We now have a better Voice of God, an exact imprint of God: Jesus.

This idea is expressed in a variety of ways throughout the New Testament. Colossians describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” the one in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” and thus the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 1:15-18; 2:3, 9). Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus saying this: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”—in other words, the authority of God (Matt 28:18-20). Revelation describes Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”—that is, the one who brings together the whole of human history (Rev 22:13).

But there’s one passage that highlights this truth in an especially profound way: the opening to John’s Gospel. Take a fresh look at some of those most familiar statements.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Jesus is the eternal, divine “Word”; Jesus is God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth… From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:14-17). The eternal, divine “Word,” God’s eternal message, the message God has been speaking from eternity past, has become human and lived among us in Jesus of Nazareth. This Living Word, this living message of God, is connected to the messages God has given before, like the Law of Moses, but it’s also different: it is the embodied message of God’s grace and truth, the enfleshed glory of God.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus of Nazareth, God’s unique Son, the eternal, living message of God, has made the invisible God visible to us.

Again, it’s quite the statement. Jesus has come, and everything has changed. God still speaks to us in many different ways, including Scriptures like the Law of Moses. But these other “words” of God, including Scripture, are at best echoes of the eternal “Word” of God. We now have a better Voice of God, the eternal message of God come in the flesh, showing the world the fully embodied grace and truth of God: Jesus.

Jesus is the Voice of God we have been searching for. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, not Scripture, whether Old Testament or New. Jesus is the fullest and clearest picture of God we have.

So if we want to hear God’s Voice most clearly, most fully, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—through the Bible’s many voices, through the Bible’s mixed messages, through the Bible’s diverse genres in different eras, to the Jesus who lived and taught and healed and died and rose again, who lives among us still by his Spirit.

If we want to know who God is, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find an eternal Creator who comes near to us, who becomes one of us, who lives among us, who loves us deeply and wants us to experience full and flourishing life.

If we want to know the way God works in the world, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find God doing surprising things, working through the humble and lowly, through suffering and weakness, always to bring about good for humanity and all creation.

If we want to know what God values, the things God thinks are important, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we see that God values people, and the earth, and self-giving love and loyal faith, and repentant sinners and joyful parties and little children and telling stories.

If we want to know what God requires of us and desires for creation, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus—and we find that God wants us to love, to care for each other even when it hurts, to show compassion even to an enemy, to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

If we want to know God and do God’s will, we need to look through Scripture to Jesus. In other words, we need to read the Bible to follow Jesus.

And that’s the final surprise in all this: Jesus invites us to continue the story. Jesus calls us to take his yoke upon us and learn from him. Jesus calls us to take up our own cross and follow him. Jesus calls us to come out of our tombs, and live. Jesus calls us to continue the story, our story set within his story, his story set within the story of Israel, the universal human story, the story of God.

This doesn’t mean we learn the words of the story and repeat them by rote. It doesn’t mean we learn the precise movements of its characters and act them out over and over. In other words, it doesn’t mean we treat the Bible—Old Testament or New—like an owner’s manual or a rule book, prescribing once and for all our every move for every time and place.

It means entering Jesus’ story ourselves, soaking Jesus’ story into ourselves, his teachings and actions, his attitudes and values, his character and virtues—living in the Spirit of Jesus. And then it means stepping out in faith and hope and love, improvising our parts together within the drama of life as we respond to the always-fresh, always-surprising movement of the Spirit of Jesus among us.

Kierkegaard Scripture Christ

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published in 2014.

The Bible as Witness to Jesus (1)

Imagine that you’re reading a really good story. It’s the kind of story you hate to put down and you can’t wait to get back to. It’s got an interesting premise, a believable world, compelling characters, and a riveting plot. It’s enlightening and challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing.

Now imagine that you’re reading along in this story, you finish a chapter, you turn the page—and it’s blank. The story just ends, abruptly. “Wait a minute,” you think, “that can’t be it. There must be more!”

So you talk with others who have read the same book, and you find they feel the same way. There are too many expectations unfulfilled, too many questions unanswered, too many tensions left unresolved, too many characters undeveloped, too many loose ends. The story is terrific—it’s just incomplete. It needs a sequel.

van Gogh - BibleAs you talk with other fans of the story, though, you realize everyone has different views on how the story should end. You argue back and forth, and different camps emerge: some say the story would best be completed in one way, others say, “No, it has to finish this way!” and still others think they alone have the best ending to the story.

This was the way it was for the people of Israel after the time of the Old Testament, after the ancient kingdoms had fallen, after the exiles to Assyria and Babylon and beyond, after some had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild a city, a temple, and a way of life. In those centuries, the Jewish people read their Bible just like this story: it’s compelling, it’s enlightening, it’s challenging—but it’s incomplete. There was something more to come. There just had to be.

The Jewish Scriptures presented a story in search of an ending. But Jews of that day disagreed about how the biblical story should end, and different views emerged.

Some expected God to come in a mighty supernatural act to overthrow God’s enemies and establish God’s kingdom on earth. Others longed for that same result, but thought God would only act if everyone followed the Law of Moses the way they were supposed to. Still others thought God would not act supernaturally, but God would only act through God’s people, so the Jews needed to be prepared to fight God’s enemies when God came. Some thought they needed to begin the fight right now. And still others thought all this was nonsense: God comes among us now when we worship in the Temple, they said, or when we study the Law of Moses.

Today we know of these different groups as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots—and there were others, and factions within them. Each of these groups saw Scripture as a story in search of an ending, and they each offered a different ending to the story.

For the first followers of Jesus, the earliest Christians, nearly all of them Jews, Jesus was the proper end to the biblical story. To use the Apostle Paul’s words, Jesus is the “end” of the Law of Moses—he is its telos, its “completion,” its purpose and goal, its fitting conclusion (Rom 10:4). To use language especially loved by Matthew, Jesus “fulfills” the Scriptures (e.g. Matt 5:17-18). All those biblical expectations of God coming to God’s people, of God acting on behalf of God’s people, of God bringing in God’s kingdom on earth—Jesus fulfills these expectations. All throughout the New Testament, this same idea comes through in different ways (e.g. Luke 24:13-27; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 2 Tim 3:15-171 Pet 1:10-11).

The Jewish Scriptures—the Christian Old Testament—present a story in search of an ending. And, for Christians, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.

To say that is an act of faith, of course. Not everyone in Jesus’ day agreed with this, and not everyone agrees with it today. But one of the earliest and most basic confessions of Christian faith is “Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah,” and to confess that is to say exactly this: we believe Jesus is the promised king in the line of David, the one who will bring in God’s kingdom on earth and fulfill God’s purposes for Israel and all humanity. In other words, Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story.

We also, of course, need to be careful how we say this. We must not devalue the Old Testament in its own right. These are the sacred Scriptures of Judaism, the Tanakh, and they are challenging and entertaining and disturbing and refreshing and enlightening—through the many voices of these Scriptures one can still hear the voice of God. But even Jews today acknowledge in some sense the “incompleteness” of these Scriptures, and so they look to a long line of interpretive traditions, most significantly the Talmud, to complete them through explanation or expansion. Many Jews await a completion still to come.

So the Old Testament is a story in search of an ending. And by faith we as Christians say that Jesus is the fitting ending to the Old Testament story. But what difference does this make for how we should read the Old Testament? Let’s go back to that picture we started with: reading the story that ends abruptly.

Let’s say that in talking with others about this unfinished story, someone shares an ending to the story that is so compelling you can’t help but wonder if they are reading the author’s mind. All those unfinished plot threads are woven together. Characters are developed in believable ways. The questions are answered, the problems are resolved, the expectations are fulfilled. It’s a fitting ending to the story.

But let’s say this ending is surprising. We’ve all read books or watched movies that have a surprise ending. It’s still a fitting ending to the story, it makes sense of the story and brings everything to a satisfactory conclusion, but it’s different than anyone could have guessed.

What do you do with that book or movie? Well, the next time you read that book or watch that movie you’ll read or watch it differently, won’t you? The story is the same as it has always been, and much of it won’t seem any different. But you’ll see hints of that surprise ending that you never noticed before. Some of those things that seemed odd now make sense. Whole sections of the story take on new significance. You might even reconsider what the story’s really all about, now that you know how it ends.

That’s what it’s like for us reading the Old Testament, confessing that Jesus is its fitting ending. Because Jesus certainly is, in many ways, a surprise ending to the story.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected a Messiah, but no one expected a Messiah like Jesus: a Messiah who fed the poor and healed the sick and touched the lepers and ate with outcasts and forgave sinners.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to bring in God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom of peace and justice, but no one expected the kingdom to come about like Jesus did it: not with an army but with a dozen straggling followers, not with swords but with words of truth and deeds of love, not with power and might but in weakness and self-sacrifice.

Most Jews in Jesus’ day expected God to act on behalf of Israel, but no one expected God to act like Jesus did: born into poverty, living in utter humility, utter humanity, suffering and dying in shame and disgrace.

Jesus is a fitting ending to the biblical story, but he is also a surprise ending to the story.

So what do we do with that surprise ending? We re-read the story in light of it.

Rembrandt EmmausThis is just what the Apostles and the earliest Christians did, and we follow in their footsteps left for us in our New Testament. They proclaimed Jesus, they explained Jesus, and they did this in large part by re-reading their Scriptures in light of Jesus, the completion to the story.

This doesn’t mean we try to find Jesus explicitly on every page of the Old Testament. No, the plural “Let us make” in Genesis 1 is not a reference to the Trinity. No, the “angel of God” that appears to Abraham is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. No, there is no secret Bible code in the patterns of Hebrew words that spells out “Jesus” (not even ישוע). We still need to read the Old Testament in light of its genres, its different kinds of writing. We still need to hear the different voices of the various Old Testament writings.

Rather, it’s more that Jesus answers questions that are raised in the Old Testament. Jesus solves problems that are posed in the Old Testament. Jesus resolves tensions that are presented in the Old Testament. Jesus fulfills expectations that are prompted in the Old Testament. Jesus lives out values and virtues that are affirmed in the Old Testament. Jesus brings together important ideas that are highlighted in the Old Testament.

So, for example, we see in Jesus an emphasis on love, that God loves us deeply, that the most important thing we can do is love God and love other people—and so we read the Old Testament as Jesus did and find running through it streams of hesed and tsadiq, loyal love and covenant faithfulness.

We see in Jesus a rejection of physical violence, a refusal to repeat the cycle of violence, a willingness to absorb violence himself in order to spare others that fate—and so we see in the violence of the Old Testament something less than God’s ideal, and we highlight the Old Testament calls for forgiveness and mercy and enemy love.

We see in Jesus God bringing about healing for broken people, even a broken creation—and so we find in the Old Testament a recurring pattern of God creating something good, then humans distorting that good thing through sin, and God never giving up, always responding with forgiveness and restoration.

So as Christians we read the Old Testament as if Jesus is the fitting ending, yet the surprise ending, to the Old Testament story. We read the Old Testament in light of Jesus, and we see in the Old Testament all those threads that are woven together in Jesus—threads of peace and justice, repentance and forgiveness, liberation and healing, suffering and joy, love and life, death and resurrection in the kingdom of God.

Kierkegaard Scripture Christ

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as two separate posts in 2014.