Faithful Disciples

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 18, 2018, based on Acts 9:36-43.

“There was a disciple” who “was always doing good and helping the poor.”

If you only heard that description, you could be forgiven for assuming the biblical author was talking about a man. It is true, after all, that nearly all the New Testament descriptions of a “disciple” are referring to a man—nearly all, but not quite all. This is, in fact, the only clear reference to an individual woman as a “disciple,” the disciple Tabitha, or Dorcas.

This reflects Luke’s special emphasis on the universal impact of the gospel and the democratizing work of the Spirit. The gospel is for all people, the Spirit comes on all believers, regardless of their social status, their ethnic or religious background, their age, or their gender. For many of us today this might seem commonplace. In the first century world, this was radical.

Luke narrates the birth story of Jesus from Mary’s perspective, not Joseph’s (Luke 1-2). He tells not just of Simeon but also the prophetess Anna at Jesus’ purification in the temple (2:36-38). Luke, alone of all the Gospel authors, mentions by name the women who supported Jesus’ ministry (8:1-3). He alone tells of Mary of Bethany’s instruction at the feet of Jesus—the word “disciple” is not used of Mary, but Luke depicts her in the classic posture of a devoted disciple (10:38-42). Luke describes the women at the cross, at the empty tomb, and in the upper room. In Acts he mentions the four prophetess daughters of Philip (21:8-9), and he makes sure to highlight Priscilla’s role in instructing Apollos alongside her husband Aquila (18:24-26).

All this is right in line with Luke’s conviction that the Spirit of God has indeed been “poured out on all flesh,” both “sons and daughters,” both “men and women” (Acts 2:17-18).

I said above that for many of us today this egalitarianism might seem commonplace. But recent events in North American society have exposed how far we really are from seeing the full equality of women promised by Pentecost. Women are paid much less than men for the same work, even with the same expertise and experience. Women experience sexual harassment and violence at rates far higher than men. While there are encouraging steps forward in addressing these and other inequities, there are also discouraging steps back.

As Christians, proclaimers of the universal gospel, empowered by the democratizing Spirit, we should be leading the way in advocating for the full equality of women in every respect. And we can start by recognizing, listening to, and learning from Jesus’ women disciples—both past and present.

The Difference between Gods and God

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 17, 2017, based on Acts 14.

The Bible has a complicated relationship with the “gods” of this world. Some biblical texts suggest that there are in fact other deities beyond the God of Israel. Other texts suggest these other “gods” aren’t true deity at all—there is only one true and living God. Some biblical passages describe other gods as “demons” and call on God’s people to avoid these demonic beings at all costs. Other biblical passages seem to view at least some other gods as reflections, albeit imperfect or incomplete reflections, of the one true and living God.

Ancient peoples tended to name as “gods” those realities which they believed had power over them and so required their passive submission, their pious veneration, or even their total allegiance. We in the modern west might not use the language of “gods” to describe these powerful realities, but they are still with us. Political ideologies, economic systems, nationalism and materialism and racism and more—all with their founding mythologies and sacred rituals and mediating priesthoods—hold sway over us in various ways, calling for our submission, our veneration, and even our allegiance.

Within this matrix of many “gods” and “lords,” whether ancient or modern, stands this word from the Apostle Paul, perhaps reflecting a common early Christian confession: “There is no God but one. Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:4-6).

What might it mean for us today to turn from the “gods” of our day to the one true God, to live as if God alone really is the one “from whom are all things and for whom we exist”? What might it mean for us today to confess that “Jesus is Lord” and no one or nothing else is “lord,” to live as if Jesus alone truly is the one “through whom are all things and through whom we exist”?

And are we willing, like Paul in Lystra, to call the world to allegiance to the one true God and Lord even if it means suffering in the way of Jesus?

Who or What Is in Control?

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 10, 2017, based on Acts 13:1-12.

Acts 13:6-12 is a story of identity and power.

Names are important in the story. There’s Bar-Jesus (“son of Jesus”) also called Elymas (“the sorcerer”), and “Saul also called Paul,” as well as Sergius Paulus (that is, also “Paul”). It can be confusing, but all this narrative naming boils down to this question: which of these is a true “son of Jesus,” and which is actually a “son of the devil”? This is a story of identity.

It’s also a story of power. On the one hand you’ve got Elymas cozying up to the powerful, seeking to use the powers that be (both human and supernatural) for his own ends. On the other hand there’s Paul speaking truth to power, the truth of the gospel, the good news of One who died at the hands of the powers that be to free us from all evil powers (both natural and spiritual).

Even Paul participates in a display of supernatural power, speaking a temporary blindness upon Elymas. Yet notice what wins over the proconsul Paulus in the end: “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13:12). It was the persuasive gospel, not coercive sorcery, that brought about change. It was the strange story of a crucified king, not the sheer force of a supernatural power, that saved the day.

We have many temptations today to seek or maintain worldly power. This is especially so when our lofty plans for bringing about good in the world seem to be thwarted. We can then become frustrated and impatient, and start to look for alternate ways to accomplish those good ends. If only we had some real power on our side, imagine all the good we could do! If only we had political control, judicial authority, economic clout, cultural influence, spiritual dominance, or even just sheer physical force, imagine what we could accomplish for the kingdom!

But this is not the way of Jesus, who deliberately rejected worldly power at both the beginning and end of his career (Matt 4:1-11; 26:36-56). It’s not the way of the gospel, the beautiful good news of a crucified and resurrected king bringing about an upside-down kingdom through patient, persistent, selfless love.

In the end, it is those who trust in and live out this “weak power” of God (1 Cor 1:21-25) who prove themselves to be the true “Bar-Jesus.”

Healing, Proclamation, and Repentance

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 3, 2017, based on Acts 3.

Healing, proclamation, and repentance. These three words are an apt summary of the story found in Acts 3: a miraculous healing leads to the proclamation of the gospel and a call for repentance.

Today I am struck not so much by the healing, nor even by the proclamation, but by the repentance. Specifically, who it was that was called to repent: the people of Jerusalem, those whom Luke in his Gospel often calls “the crowd.” These were the ordinary descendants of ancient Israel, common folk yet devoutly religious—and now, complicit in the murder of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s “Holy and Righteous One” (3:12-15).

This makes me wonder: who are the parallel “crowds” today—devoutly religious with a strong heritage of faith, yet collectively complicit in grave injustice?

On November 20, over 100 American theologians and church leaders released “The Boston Declaration,” a statement in response to systemic racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice within the United States (thebostondeclaration.com). Hundreds more have signed the declaration since. It is a powerful statement: biblically sound, theologically robust, and unflinchingly prophetic.

Among many striking features of the statement is its clear note of repentance. “We acknowledge the manifold and complicated ways we participate in these [racist and patriarchal] systems,” the authors state, “even as we are often complicit in them. We confess that the Church, in a variety of forms, has too often failed to follow the way of Jesus and perform the good news.”

The world needs to see the healing, restorative, transformative power of the gospel among us. As this happens we must be prepared to proclaim that good news of Jesus for the world and to call the “crowds” to repent of their complicity with the death-dealing powers of this age. This is part of our apostolic, prophetic task as God’s people in the world.

However, for us to do this, we must ourselves repent, following the example of the signatories to “The Boston Declaration.” We, the devoutly religious with a strong heritage of faith, have been complicit, knowingly or otherwise, with systemic racism, sexism, nationalism, militarism, and more. May God give us—healed, gospel-proclaimers—the grace also to be among the repentant.

Bishop Curry, Luke and Acts, and “Christianity Lite”

There was a lot of buzz this past weekend about the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, now the Duchess and Duke of Sussex. And a good bit of that buzz was about the sermon by Bishop Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Responses to Bishop Curry’s sermon have ranged from astonishment to amusement, from enthusiastic applause to sharp criticism. Some of that criticism has come from Christians, including a former chaplain to Her Majesty the Queen who claimed that Bishop Curry’s sermon represented a watered down version of Christianity, a kind of “Christianity Lite.” The specific critiques are diverse, but in general they seem to boil down to three things: there was too much love, too much social justice, and not enough cross.

However, if this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then Luke the Evangelist, author of a good 27% of our New Testament, is also implicated.

Yep: Luke and Acts are also “Christianity Lite.”

Consider the cross.

Like Bishop Curry in his sermon, Luke does in fact mention Jesus’ death—dozens of times in the Gospel and Acts. What’s more, Jesus’ death is mentioned at significant points in Luke’s accounts of Jesus and the Apostles: in the Gospel’s creed-like “passion predictions” taken up from Mark’s Gospel, anticipating Jesus’ death yet to come; in the Gospel’s “passion narrative,” as rich in meaning as that of any of the Gospels; and in Acts’ several “evangelistic speeches,” where the saving message about Jesus is proclaimed to those who don’t yet believe. In other words, as with Bishop Curry, the cross is pretty important to Luke’s theology.

However, the cross isn’t talked about by Luke in the way at least some of Bishop Curry’s detractors call for. There’s no “You’re a sinner and you’re going to hell, but—good news!—Jesus has died to pay the penalty for your sins” in Luke or Acts—not even in the Apostles’ evangelistic speeches. In fact, “penal substitution” is entirely absent from Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ death—there is nothing in Luke or Acts indicating that Jesus is punished on the cross for our sins, paying a penalty that should be ours to pay.

For Luke, that “Christ died for our sins” means that “Christ died because of our sins,” and “Christ died to show us the way out of our sins.”

The most common interpretation of Jesus’ death by Luke is this stark contrast: human powers have killed Jesus, but God has raised Jesus from the dead. This idea is found in both the Gospel and Acts, explicitly and repeatedly. This refrain fits a Christus victor view of atonement: God has resurrected the crucified Jesus, thus declaring him to be Lord over all powers. The necessary response? Repentance of our collaboration with the evil powers of this world—rulers and idols alike—and walking in the Way in full allegiance to Jesus, Messiah and Lord. And this, of course, is where the gospel preaching of Acts always goes.

The next most common interpretation of Jesus’ death in Luke-Acts is that of Jesus as example to follow: Jesus has taught the way of nonviolent, self-giving love for both neighbours and enemies, and in his own suffering and death he exemplifies this teaching. This is “the way of peace” anticipated by John the Baptist’s father. These are “the things that make for peace” that Jesus laments the people of Jerusalem have missed. Jesus’ followers are to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him” in these very ways—following Jesus in bringing about peace through nonviolent, self-giving love.

That’s the cross in Luke’s writings—unlikely to pass inspection from at least some of Bishop Curry’s critics. How about love?

Luke’s Gospel, of course, has the same key references to love found in Mark’s Gospel (which Luke almost certainly used) and Matthew’s (which Luke probably used). Love as the Greatest Commandment that sums up the whole Law of Moses: loving God with our whole being, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Love of enemy as a distinctive hallmark of Jesus-followers.

But Luke also blends in a good-sized helping of other sayings and stories of Jesus about love.

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

It is Luke’s Gospel that fleshes out love of neighbour by telling the story of the Good Samaritan—shockingly making a despised foreigner the epitome of neighbour love. It is Luke’s Gospel that has all three stories of lostness: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In this last story the father’s love for his prodigal son is particularly scandalous: generous from start to finish, watching for the prodigal and running for him without care for propriety, welcoming him home without any amends made or demanded.

Luke’s Gospel has more than the normal quota of stories of Jesus healing people and sharing meals with them, crossing bounds of purity and propriety to do so. He also tells his share of stories about Jesus forgiving sins on God’s behalf—sometimes in response to repentance, sometimes not. And it is Luke’s Gospel (or some manuscripts of it) that has Jesus calling on God to forgive his executioners even as he hangs on the cross, even while they remain ignorant of their heinous sin.

I suspect, then, that Luke’s Gospel has far too much emphasis on love for some—which brings us right to social justice.

One of the strangest criticisms of Bishop Curry’s sermon I’ve seen is that it focused too much on things like racial justice and poverty and the like. The thinking goes like this: the goal of Jesus’ ministry was to bring people into “the kingdom of heaven” (by which is meant simply “heaven,” or “an eternal, spiritual afterlife with God”). His ministry was “spiritual,” not “political”—and, in any case, things like sexism or racism or poverty aren’t really going to change in this world (you know, “the poor you will always have with you”).

But Luke the Evangelist will have none of this.

Leave aside the fact that “kingdom of heaven” is parallel to “kingdom of God,” and that the Jewish expectation of “God’s kingdom” was very much a this-earthly reality. Leave aside the fact that “give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and give to God that which belongs to God” would make any devout Jew think, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” And leave aside the fact that “the poor you will always have with you” is an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:11 where Moses is in fact urging generosity toward the poor.

Quite apart from these things, Luke’s Gospel is explicit in promoting what we today call “social justice,” even specifically along the lines of sex, race, and economics. There’s far too much to mention, so let’s just consider the issue of poverty.

James Tissot, Le magnificat

It is Luke’s Gospel that has Mary sing these words in anticipation of Jesus’ birth: “The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

It is Luke that makes Isaiah 61 into Jesus’ personal mission statement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (in other words, Jubilee—look it up).

It is Luke that presents Jesus’ beatitudes this way: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” And he includes some accompanying woes in case we’re tempted to spiritualize this: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” And just to hammer this home, these are among his following words: “Give to everyone who begs from you.”

It is Luke’s Gospel that says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” It is Luke that tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, making sure his hearers know the rich man was being judged for his callous disregard of poor Lazarus at his very gate. It is Luke that tells the story of Zacchaeus, declaring, once Zacchaeus had promised to give half his wealth to the poor and make restitution to any he had defrauded, that “Today salvation has come to this house.”

It is Luke that tells of the early Christians selling their property and giving to the poor among them, even holding all their possessions in common. It is Luke that describes the Apostles’ concern for widows in need, ensuring all received sufficient help regardless of cultural background. It is Luke that mentions the concern of believers in Antioch to provide aid for the poor in Jerusalem affected by famine.

If this is “Christianity Lite”—showing compassionate love for all including the unrighteous and unrepentant, seeking equitable justice for all and especially the vulnerable and marginalized and oppressed, and all this without a strong penal substitutionary view of Jesus’ death—then it’s not just Bishop Curry who is guilty of it. That’s Luke the Evangelist implicated as well, and—at least according to Luke—even Jesus himself.

Not bad company, I’d say.

Not the Gospel

Last week our kids took the dogs for a walk (bless them). Along the way they encountered a couple of friendly folks handing out free fire insurance and a ticket to heaven, otherwise known as a “gospel tract.”

Not the gospel.

You know what I mean. Maybe you’ve had someone stop by your house with a “gospel tract,” or you’ve seen one left on a restaurant table or in a public bathroom (yes, people do that). Maybe you’ve even handed them out yourself at some point (full disclosure: I have).

A “gospel tract” is a small pamphlet that tells people how to get to heaven. There are many different versions, but that’s the gist of it. They offer, as I said above, a kind of “fire insurance and a ticket to heaven”—salvation from eternal torture in hell, to eternal bliss with God beyond this earthly life.

The tract my kids brought home is entitled, “Heaven: How Do I Get There?” It assures its reader that they can “KNOW how to get to Heaven” based on “the very Word of God,” by which is meant the Bible. Quoting Bible verses, then, the tract proceeds to outline the gospel in four points: i) “We are all sinners.” ii) “There is a penalty for our sin,” described as “death in Hell.” iii) “Jesus Christ paid that penalty for us.” And, iv) “Trust and take Jesus as your personal Saviour.” The tract then gives a prayer the reader can pray, affirming these four things, and it declares that if you have prayed this prayer “You will go to Heaven, not by what man teaches, but by God’s Word.”

It’s a nice tract: attractive, simple, clear, and confident. There’s only one problem with it: it doesn’t actually present the gospel. This “gospel tract” my kids brought home is, in fact, not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now, this is a bit of a touchy topic. Most Christians likely believe some form of the message found in this “gospel tract”: we all sin, and so we all deserve God’s penalty for our sin; but Jesus has died to pay the penalty for our sin and so, if we believe this, we will go to heaven when we die. Even more, most Christians likely believe this “gospel” is clearly taught in the Bible, and that it is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. So, when someone questions this, accusations of “rejecting the Bible” and “denying the gospel” and “not believing in heaven” and “not believing in Jesus” and “not being a true Christian” fly fast and furious.

That is ironic, and terribly tragic, given that it is actually the “gospel” of these “gospel tracts” that is not the biblical gospel.

I’d encourage anyone who doubts this to do some simple Bible study. Go to all the places in the New Testament where “gospel” or “good news” is mentioned, and read around those verses to see how this “gospel” is described. Then read through the evangelistic speeches in the book of Acts, all those places where the Apostles preach a message of salvation to people. Take some notes on what the gospel is, what the message of salvation is, what is included—and not included—in the true “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

If you do that, here are just two of the surprising things you’ll discover.

First, the gospel is not about us leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven. It’s about God’s kingdom coming near, God’s reign of justice and peace and life being established on earth. None of the New Testament descriptions of the gospel even mentions “hell,” and any time “heaven” is mentioned it’s talking about blessings coming from heaven to earth.

Mark’s Gospel says this quite directly: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.’” In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus states what this “come near” means: it means God’s kingdom coming “on earth.” This was the Jewish expectation of God’s kingdom: however the reign of God would come about, it would come about on earth, bringing true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life. This was in fact the “gospel” promised by the Prophet Isaiah: that God would come and establish God’s reign on earth, a reign of liberation for the captives and justice for the oppressed.

Also not the gospel.

In various ways the rest of the New Testament affirms this. Every time Jesus is called “Christ” or “Messiah,” for example, it is like a mini-statement of faith: Jesus is the promised king bringing in God’s kingdom on earth. To say that the gospel is a story about “Jesus Christ” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ whole life and ministry. To say that “Christ died for our sins,” or to “preach Christ crucified,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ death. To say that “Christ was raised on the third day,” that by resurrecting him from the dead “God has made this Jesus both Lord and Messiah,” means that God’s kingdom is brought about on earth through Jesus’ resurrection.

This leads right into the second thing: the gospel doesn’t just focus on Jesus’ death, but as much or more on Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, the gospel encompasses Jesus’ whole life and ministry. There are only a couple of places in the New Testament where Jesus’ death is the sole focus of the gospel being described. Most often there are other things about Jesus also mentioned, and sometimes Jesus’ death isn’t even in the picture.

Jesus’ lineage, being in the family line of David, is gospel—because it gives credence to the claim that he is indeed the promised Messiah come to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Jesus’ teaching is gospel—because it teaches how we can participate in bringing about justice and peace on earth. Jesus’ miracles are gospel—because they are signs that God’s kingdom has come near, bringing flourishing life where there was none before.

Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion are gospel—because by bearing the sins of others and resisting evil powers nonviolently, even out of love, even unto death, Jesus has overcome those powers and delivered us from sin. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are gospel—because they are God’s declaration that Jesus is indeed the Messiah bringing about God’s kingdom through self-giving love, that he is even the true Lord over all, including any and all powers of this world.

So, when we make the gospel about leaving earth and escaping hell and going to heaven, we are proclaiming a false gospel. When we focus our attention solely on Jesus’ death in a way that doesn’t mesh with Jesus’ life, teachings, and especially his resurrection, we are proclaiming a false gospel. Sounds harsh, I know, but these popular understandings of the gospel are simply not biblical. They are not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Yes, the Bible emphasizes that sin is a reality—all those ways we cause harm through our attitudes, words, and actions. And yes, the Bible underscores that when we sin there are consequences—we experience “death,” all that is not-life, including guilt and shame and hostility and pain and even physical death. And so, yes, the Bible points us to the need to be “saved” from our sins, delivered from our harmful ways. But the gospel is not merely a private transaction between me and God, the problem solved by praying a prayer.

And yes, the Bible teaches that Jesus’ death on a cross was “for us,” “for our sins.” But Jesus’ death is not the whole of the gospel, and when that is divorced from the larger story of Jesus the Messiah bringing in God’s kingdom on earth, we can even end up with a distortion of the gospel.

And yes, the Bible assures believers that we will be “with the Lord” after death. But that is not the gospel. In fact, it’s not even the end of the story: the New Testament affirms that at the end of all things we will be resurrected to a transformed bodily existence on a renewed earth. In the end, heaven, in all its fullness, will come to earth.

All this has made me wonder: what might a true “gospel tract” look like, one that is based on the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus and his Apostles in the Bible?

[Update: Here’s a follow-up post on creating a gospel tract, and here’s the tract I’ve created!]

#MLK50

It was 50 years ago today that the “shot rang out in the Memphis sky,” and Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I learned about MLK, of course, but growing up in Canada I didn’t learn a lot. And coming of age in the early ’90s as a white Evangelical, what I did learn was that Martin Luther King was one of those “iffy” Christians, one of those “social justice” Christians who didn’t preach the true gospel and whose salvation status was uncertain.

My perspective has changed a great deal in the last 25 years, of course, and over the last 10 years I have deliberately engaged MLK’s writing and preaching, learning from his life and legacy. He was a flawed man, no question, but he was just as certainly one of the great lights of the twentieth century, even of all human history.

Martin Luther King, Jr., has appeared in my preaching several times over the past few years. Here are the times he also made it into my blogging. Rest in peace, MLK, until the coming of our Lord and the renewal of all things, and the dream is fully realized.

Fifteen Lessons I Learned (or Learned Again) in Teaching on the Cross this Lent

Through Lent this year I taught a Bible study on “The Meaning of the Cross.” We packed a lot into four weeks! We talked about crucifixion in the ancient world and the specific circumstances surrounding Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross. We talked about the theological puzzle this created for the early Christians (“Christ crucified by humans, yet raised from the dead by God—what?!”). We talked about various explanations Christians have given through history of the saving significance of Jesus’ death (“atonement models” or “theories”). This included a particular focus on (and critique of) the dominant model in modern western Protestant circles, Penal Substitution—that on the cross Jesus took our place, taking God’s punishment for our sin and appeasing God’s wrath against us for our sin.

I may create some posts from all this down the road, we’ll see. For now, though, here are fifteen lessons I learned (or learned again) in teaching on the cross through Lent (and yes, these are tweetable!):

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #1: All atonement metaphors and models reflect the culture in which they were developed. Yes, this includes Penal Substitution. Yes, it also includes recent nonviolent models. It even includes biblical metaphors.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #2: How we understand the problem determines how we understand the solution. In the NT the root problem is not “hell” or “guilt” but “sin,” all the ways we harm others/creation. The solution? Rescue from harm, restoration to wholeness.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #3: In the OT there are many bases for God’s forgiveness of sins/appeasement of God’s wrath: remorse (Ps 32), persuasion (Num 14), repentance (Jon 3), animal sacrifice (Lev 4-6), and even killing someone with proper zeal (Num 25).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #4: There are many different kinds of blood sacrifices in the OT. Several of them had nothing to do with sin—ritual purification, thanksgiving gift, and covenant ratification, for instance.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #5: *God did not kill Jesus.* In fact, the NT consistently, emphatically declares that *humans* killed Jesus—*God* raised Jesus from the dead.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #6: Rarely if ever does the NT clearly, directly say that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wrath, or took our punishment, or paid our penalty. One might develop a model that logically requires this, but it’s not stated.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #7: The gospel preaching of Acts describes Jesus’ death as something humans did to Jesus, not something Jesus did for us. Forgiveness of sins in Acts is dependent on our repentance, and is based on Jesus’ exaltation not his death.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #8: The gospel tradition of 1 Cor 15:3-4, including “Christ died for our sins,” was a kind of “preaching summary” of the apostolic gospel—not a full-blown theology of salvation.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #9: In the NT Jesus’ death “for us” or “for our sins” most often simply means “for our benefit” or “in relation to our sins.” Anything more is implied from its context—or read into from our context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #10: The NT uses many different metaphors to describe Jesus’ death. All of them relate Jesus’ death to “our sins” in some way. Most of them, however, don’t do this in a “sacrifice for sins” kind of way.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #11: The Gospels don’t give much basis for Penal Substitution: Jesus rejected lethal violence and punitive justice, he agreed with the prophetic rebuke of blood sacrifice, and he forgave sins freely on God’s behalf—even his own murder!

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #12: Some Jews in Jesus’ day disputed the legitimacy of the Temple and its sacrifices. All Jews soon after Jesus’ day saw repentance and acts of mercy as “atoning,” no blood sacrifice required. Jesus fits right within this context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #13: The dominant metaphors used by Jesus in the Gospels for interpreting his death were related to liberation from oppressive powers (Passover, Exodus, “ransom/redemption,” “new covenant”).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #14: The dominant imagery used by Jesus in the Gospels for applying his death is “identification/participation”: Jesus stands with the sinned-against, and Jesus calls us to follow him in taking up our cross.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #15: The dominant interpretation of Jesus’ death in the NT is that it is a revelation of love: it shows God’s (and Jesus’) love for us, and it compels us to respond with love for God and for others—neighbours, strangers, even enemies.

How to put this all together? Well, I do have a few thoughts on that. As I said, I might get to developing some blog posts along those lines. In the meantime, however, you can check out a couple of past posts of mine on the cross: “The Foolishness of the Cross” and “‘Jesus Died for Our Sins’: Sketching Out Atonement.”

Blessed Are the Outliers

Our lives in the modern west are greatly affected by statistics. Everything from medical research to political polling relies on statistical analysis. (I’m sure there’s a statistic out there somewhere to prove it.)

One of the realities of statistical analysis is something known as an “outlier.” An outlier is a data point, a recorded observation, that sits outside the mainstream of data. It’s an oddity, an anomaly.

This has nothing to do with coffee.

Say, for example, you’re conducting a poll to see what time of day people in your neighbourhood drink their coffee. Your survey gets 100 responses from coffee drinkers: 52 in the early morning, 28 in the mid-afternoon, 19 in evening after dinner—and 1 in the middle of the night, at 3 a.m. That one data point, that 3 a.m. coffee, is an outlier—it’s outside the mainstream.

What do you do with this outlier?

You might decide that the person probably made a mistake, incorrectly indicating “a.m.” instead of “p.m.” in their response. In that case, you determine the outlier doesn’t reflect reality, and you set it aside (though you might, in your head, include it among the mid-afternoon coffee drinkers).

Or, you might decide that there really is a person who likes a cup of coffee at 3 a.m., but that datum is still statistically irrelevant—it doesn’t reflect the norm. That’s especially helpful if you’re using this poll to start a coffee delivery business—there’s no way you’re getting up at 3 a.m. to bring a coffee to this one person (that is, if they even exist).

But let’s say you expand this research beyond your neighbourhood. The larger your data set, the more varied the responses—and the more outliers you’ll find. While the largest numbers might still clump together around early morning, mid-afternoon, and after dinner, you’d probably discover that there are people drinking coffee at all hours of the day. You might even discover that there is a coterie of 3 a.m. coffee drinkers you’d never considered—night shift workers needing that jolt of caffeine to keep going, perhaps.

This is another reality of statistical analysis: in order for data to be useful, it often needs to be aggregated, lumped together into larger, identifiable groups. It’s not all that useful in politics or marketing, for example, to focus on the individual or the outlier. Whether you’re selling legislation or LEGO, it’s the mainstream, the norm, the aggregate groups, that really matter.

Unfortunately, however, many Christians have bought into this notion, that “it’s the mainstream, the norm, the aggregate groups, that really matter.” I say “unfortunately” because that’s not the way of Jesus.

Jesus taught that God was the kind of shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep to go searching for the one, wounded, lost sheep. He taught that in God’s economy the last one was just as important as the first. He held up the very least among us—the forgotten poor, the irrelevant outsider—as the one in whom we could see his reflection. Time after time he engaged the individual where they were at—a Samaritan woman, a Roman centurion, a Jewish leper, a man blind from birth, a high-ranking Pharisee, a rich young ruler, a “sinful woman”—their proximity to the aggregate norm irrelevant.

In other words, Jesus saw not just those who fit the norm. He saw the oddities, the anomalies, the statistically irrelevant.

Jesus saw the outliers—and loved them.

This isn’t the way many people think. It’s not the way many Christians think. We often determine the “norm”—both what’s “typical” and what’s “right”—based on aggregate data, and then we either ignore or dismiss all deviations from the norm, all those oddities or anomalies, all those outliers.

Take current debates over sexuality, for example.

We rightly determine that most people are born either biologically male or biologically female—but then we decide this means there are only biologically male or biologically female people. We either remain ignorant (willfully?) of the very existence of intersex persons or we dismiss them as anomalies, the result of sin affecting human genes.

Read this book.

But nothing can change the simple fact that somewhere around 15 out of every 1000 people are born neither fully or exclusively “male” nor fully or exclusively “female,” whether that’s hidden in their DNA or internal sex organs, or that’s obvious from external genitalia. And nothing can change the fact that each one of these persons is created in God’s image, and that they, too, are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God.

Or, we correctly ascertain that most people are other-sex oriented, that most biologically male humans are sexually attracted to biologically female humans and vice versa—but then we decide this means other sexual orientations are unnatural and willful, even if the person never acts on that attraction. We either pretend gay Christians don’t exist or we dismiss them as anomalies, the result of sin affecting human desires.

But nothing can change the simple fact that through history and across cultures there has always been a small percentage of people, roughly 5% of any given human population, who are same- or bi-sex attracted. Nothing can change the fact that none of us, gay or straight, chooses our sexual orientation. And nothing can change the fact that lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians do indeed exist—experiencing same-sex attraction, some choosing celibacy and others not, but all also experiencing the presence of God’s Spirit in their lives, shaping them toward Christlikeness.

This is just one example of the way Christians buy into the dominant cultural narrative of “natural normativity.” In this narrative there are observable norms in nature or society (what’s “typical”) that reflect God’s norms (what’s “right”). These norms can be determined by simple observation, even by statistical analysis, by aggregating the observed data into identifiable groups, even at times clear binaries. These norms of nature or society are then to be defended or even demanded as God’s clear will. All kinds of social distinctions, based on ethnicity, wealth, gender, class, and more, have been justified through human history by this narrative of “natural normativity.” (Did you know Aristotle believed some people were “slaves by nature”?)

As Christians we should be wary of this. Too often these norms don’t reflect real biblical values, let alone actual Christian values based on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Too often they merely reflect some idealized utopia a generation or two back, when everything was good and everyone was godly—even though that utopia never really existed. Too often these norms only reflect the power structures of a particular society—they’re good for the many, but not for the few, or they’re good for the powerful few, but not for the powerless many.

In so many ways in his own day, Jesus broke through the norms of nature and society, including those that were attributed to God. “Righteous” and “sinners,” men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor—in each of these categories and more Jesus looked past the aggregate groups and engaged with individuals. Provocatively, even scandalously, Jesus went looking for the oddities, the anomalies, the outliers, and brought them into God’s flourishing life of holy love.

How about us as followers of this Jesus? Are we willing to look past the aggregate statistics to the individual person? Are we willing to engage each person regardless of how they fit with the “norm,” and see in them the image of God and the person of Jesus, and share the feast of God’s life and love together with them?

Blessed are the outliers, you might even say, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

The Great Commission: Make Decisions? Make Converts? Or Make Disciples?

I literally cannot count the number of times (bad memory? too few fingers?) I heard sermons on Matthew 28:18-20 in my early adulthood. Every missions conference, every year, there was at least one urgent exhortation to “Go—go, don’t stay!—and make disciples of all nations!”

James Tissot, Christ Sends Out the Seventy

I remember, too, some more nuanced conversations around this “Great Commission” given by Jesus. Did the “go” mean “go!” as in a command to get off your duff and head out into the hinterlands to make disciples? Or did the “go” mean “as you go,” meaning “as you go about your daily lives” make disciples? In other words, do we all have to be missionaries in Africa, or can I stay home?

I also remember some conversations around how exactly we were to “make disciples.” The general gist?

We make disciples by sharing the gospel with people, that is, sharing the good news that Jesus died to take the punishment for their sins and so, if they simply confess their sins and believe Jesus died for them in this way, they can be forgiven by God and have the assurance of eternal life in heaven. This would be followed at some point by baptism, of course—the “baptizing them” clause of the Great Commission.

And then there is to be some “follow-up” to this evangelism. After they’ve made a decision for Jesus, after they have accepted Jesus into their hearts, they should go to church and read their Bibles and pray and strive to live a godly life by God’s grace and power. Ideally someone mentors them in all this. This is the “teaching them” clause of the Great Commission.

At some point, however, this way of understanding the Great Commission didn’t cut it for me. I read and studied the Gospel of Matthew as a whole, and I realized Matthew’s Great Commission didn’t mean what my evangelical guides had taught me it meant.

If sharing that particular version of the gospel is so important for fulfilling the Great Commission, why isn’t that actually stated? (And while we’re on the topic, why isn’t that “penal substitution” version of the gospel found in any of the evangelistic sermons in Acts? or in any of the summary descriptions of the “gospel” anywhere in the New Testament, for that matter?)

What makes baptism the important marker for new Christ-followers in Matthew’s Gospel and not a “decision” or “conversion”? (Pro tip: go back to Matthew’s account of John’s baptism, including John’s baptism of Jesus, and see how that shapes what “baptism” signifies in Matthew’s Gospel. One hint: “repentance” is different than mere “confession.”)

The “teaching them” is qualified by “to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Sure, in Matthew’s Gospel this includes church participation (yes, “church”), prayer, and living in righteousness. But what about all the other things Jesus teaches in Matthew, that are all part of the “everything” Jesus commanded? (Like those uncomfortable bits about hungering for justice, showing mercy, building peace, not retaliating, loving enemies, not serving wealth, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and generally seeking God’s kingdom and justice first.)

And, most importantly, how does this understanding of the Great Commission fit with what Jesus has to say in Matthew’s Gospel about being a “disciple”? (Like that bit about denying yourself and taking up your cross and following Jesus if you want to be his disciple…)

As I asked and answered these questions for myself, I came to the conclusion that modern Christians—and especially evangelical, evangelizing Christians—had made the Great Commission into their own image. The Great Commission means “go and make modern evangelical Christians who will make more evangelical Christians, thus perpetuating evangelicalism unto the end of the age.”

Okay, maybe that’s a bit cynical. But you get my drift.

The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “make decisions for Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t care if we say the right words in the right way—many call him “Lord” but don’t do what he says, or they babble senselessly in prayer. “Decisions for Jesus” and “sinner’s prayers” are meaningless markers, in and of themselves. Stop counting “decisions.”

The Great Commission doesn’t call us to “make converts to Christianity.” Jesus doesn’t care if we call ourselves “Christians” and fit into the religion we call “Christianity”—or “Evangelicals” or “Anabaptists” or “Catholics” or “Mennonites” or whatever. He himself was a practicing Jew. He didn’t come to found a new religion. Stop making converts to your special version of religion.

Rather, the Great Commission calls us to “make disciples of Jesus,” people who will follow the resurrected Jesus in his cross-shaped footsteps, expressing their devoted love of God through their committed, compassionate, peacemaking, justice-seeking love of others—neighbours, strangers, and enemies alike, and especially the last, the least, and the lost in our world.