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.

You Know, “Love One Another” Really Is Enough

The 4th-century theologian Jerome tells a story about the Apostle John. John was old and frail, unable to walk, so his disciples would carry him into the gathering of believers on the Lord’s Day. Every week these were his words to the congregation: “Little children, love one another.”

This went on week after week, until at last, more than a little weary of these repeated words, his disciples asked him, “Master, why do you always say this?”

“Because,” John replied, “it is the Lord’s command, and if this only is done, it is enough.”

We have no way of verifying Jerome’s story, but it certainly sounds like John—that is, the author of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Those writings are filled with exhortations to love.

I can sympathize with John in this story. I, too, feel the pressure of this regular question: “Michael, why do you always talk about ‘love’?” Sometimes this is simple curiosity, but often the criticism is plain: this teaching, that we are to “love one another,” is somehow seen as insufficient.

That’s odd, quite frankly. After all, Jesus was emphatic about what the greatest commandments of God were: love God and love others, and you can’t have one without the other. In fact, Jesus says, this love of God/others sums up everything else God commands. All Scripture hangs like a seamless coat on this single hook: love God by loving others.

And Jesus’ first followers were equally clear on this. Loving others is the benchmark of genuine faith, they said—if you don’t love others you’re not a true disciple of Jesusyou don’t even truly know God. You want to fulfill God’s Law? Love others, they said, simple as that. The only thing that matters, in fact, is a faith that works itself out in love. Love is the virtue that binds together all other virtues. It is the most excellent way to live. It’s the one thing that remains always and forever.

According to both Jesus and the Apostles, love is it.

So it’s more than a little odd when Christians, whether back in John’s day or our own, get impatient with those of us who emphasize love above all else.

But why do some Christians react this way? Why is a simple insistence on loving others so wearisome, even so aggravating, to some?

Some insist that “love one another” is too wishy-washy. It’s too soft on sin, not strong enough on holiness. What about God’s judgment of sin seen throughout the Bible, after all, even in Jesus’ own teaching?

Others say that “love one another” is too simplistic, too impractical. The world is far too complicated for mere love, especially once we get beyond one-on-one relationships. What place does “love one another” have in the worlds of bottom-line business or high-stakes politics, or in sovereign countries defending their national interests?

These sound like the criticisms Jesus received, come to think of it. “Soft on sin, weak on holiness,” some of the most religious folks muttered around Jesus. “He sets aside God’s commands!” others among them frowned. “Love our enemies? That will only get us crucified by them!” all the “Make Israel Great Again” zealots exclaimed.

Yes, indeed.

I think much of the problem is that we don’t really know the love that Jesus taught, the love that Jesus lived. And if we know this love, we don’t really trust in this love, not really. This can be true of both “sides,” it seems to me, both those who think love alone is the stairway to a heaven of harmonious society, and those who think “love alone” is the highway to a hell of moral relativism.

Many imagine this love to be mere tolerance. They imagine “love one another” to mean “live and let live,” a sort of “Whatever floats your boat, as long as you let me float mine.”

Others imagine this love to be a kind of affection, good feelings toward others. “Love one another,” then, means “Get rid of all that negativity—good vibes for everyone!”

Still others imagine this love to be basic decency. “Be nice to each other, use your manners, be polite”—this is what “Love one another” means.

Now there’s nothing wrong with tolerance, or affection, or basic decency. In fact, these are a bare minimum for being human together, I would think. They’re bottom-line attitudes and behaviours for a functioning human society.

But these, in themselves, are not the love that Jesus taught, the love he lived. Jesus’ love transcends mere feelings of affection, and it’s exponentially harder than simple kindness or even basic tolerance. People don’t get crucified for being nice.

So what is this love that Jesus says is the be-all and end-all of human living? Thankfully we’ve got a lot to go on in the Gospels, both from Jesus’ teaching and from the way he lived.

Love starts with a stance of openness toward another person. It’s like a father scanning the horizon for a long-lost son. It’s like a holy man embracing a lowly child. It’s like a busy healer stopping in a crowd to find the ill woman who touched him.

Love is freely given, expecting nothing in return. It’s like patiently healing crowds of the world’s poorest, no cost to user. It’s like forgiving the sins of society’s worst offenders, no blood sacrifice required.

Love is given whether we feel the recipient deserves it or notneighbours, strangers, sinners, even enemies. It’s like someone welcoming the least among us: clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick. It’s like a despised enemy-of-us compassionately tending the wounds of one-of-us.

Love is giving one’s very self for the other, even when it hurts the giver. It’s like someone standing up to injustice on behalf of the over-burdened, shifting the target to their own back. It’s like a king giving himself to be crucified by an oppressive power in order to save his people from annihilation.

The goal of this love is mutual flourishing: giver and receiver, all people, experiencing abundant life together. It’s like a final banquet where the lost and found, the last and first, the least and greatest, all feast together with food enough for all who want to be there.

This is the love Jesus taught. This is the love Jesus lived, all the way to the cross. This is love: freely giving ourselves for others so that they might experience flourishing life together with us, even if we feel they don’t deserve it, even when it hurts us to do so.

Make no mistake: there’s nothing wishy-washy about this love. It’s damned hard (sorry, but it is). Seriously, think about the people you know. Think about the people you fear. Think about the people you despise. Think about the people you condemn. Then imagine loving them like that.

This love is in no way soft on sin—but it can turn our “sin lists” upside down. Yes, Jesus speaks God’s judgment on human sin. But it is the most religious who earn Jesus’ harshest criticism, especially religious people with power, because they wield their religion like a club instead of spreading it like a salve. Injustice of all kinds gets roundly condemned by Jesus, including injustice masquerading as justice. Jesus stands alongside the most vulnerable in society: the poor, children, foreigners in an ethnocentric world, women in a patriarchal world. Those who abuse their religion, or abuse their power, or otherwise cause harm to the vulnerable—these are the ones who get threatened by Jesus with divine judgment.

In a world of Jesus-love, then, sin and evil still exist—if anything they are even sharper, more pungent. In a world of Jesus-love, sin and evil are things to be actively, albeit non-violently, resisted, even if this demands your very life. In a world of Jesus-love, your own personal sins are for you to repent of, others’ personal sins are for you to forgive, and the world’s public sins are for you to resist.

This love is, in fact, what holiness is really all about. Jesus overturns common conceptions of “clean” and “unclean,” “pure” and “impure,” “holy” and “profane.” Compassion trumps purity, every time. Heal on a holy day? Touch an unclean leper? Share a meal with impure sinners? In all these ways and more, Jesus agrees with the more liberal of his fellow Jews—liberal with love, that is. Mercy is the new holiness.

And this love is the most practical, the most necessary thing in the world.Eye for an eye” is still the norm in our world, whether in our private vendettas, our societal notions of justice, or our national defense strategies. In fact, “eye for an eye” might actually be better than what we often see, which is more about “pre-emptive strikes” and “total war”—both as nations and as individuals (think about that a moment). How long until the whole world is blind?

I’m reminded here of a quote by G. K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” That’s how I hear criticisms that love is simplistic or impractical. We prefer our sanctified greed and justified violence to the narrow path of loving in the way of Jesus. How long until we’re really willing to trust in Jesus alone for our salvation?

I’m with the Apostle John in this: “love one another” really is enough. Who’s with me?

“The Word Made Flesh”: On Doing Theology Afresh

A Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church. No joke.

Imagine it: a Jew, a Greek, and a Roman walk into a church, back in the first century. Let’s say it’s a gathering of believers in Ephesus. And imagine that they happen to do this on the day a brand-new opening to John’s Gospel is debuted. They hear, for the first time ever, these words:

In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

How would each one hear this?

Our first-century Jew might hear this as being about God’s creative command, the “word” God spoke at creation. They might hear this as being about God’s perfect wisdom, by which God created all things. They might hear this as being about God’s prophetic message, the essential “word” God has been communicating since the beginning of time.

Our Greek, however, would hear something different. They might hear this language of “word” or logos, and understand it as referring to the logical principle that under girds the whole universal order, the clear light of reason that holds everything together.

And our Roman? Well, they’d probably hear this along the lines of our Greek. But it’s possible they might hear this language of “word” or logos as the underlying rational law, the binding covenant among people, that keeps society from falling into disorder and chaos. Romans, after all, were big on law on order.

Three different people, hearing the exact same words, but hearing different things.

And all three would be right.

That’s the astonishing beauty of John’s opening prologue: the author has taken something so simple, the basic Greek word for “word,” logos, and used it in a way that makes sense in all those different ways, maybe more.

God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message. The logical principle that holds together all reality. The rational law that keeps us from chaos. All these things are the Word, the Logos, that John is talking about.

And this is what makes the sudden turn at verse 14 so dramatic: This Logos, this Word, “became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Mic drop. Stunned silence. Then a flurry of questions.

Really? This man Jesus—the one that was crucified as a lawbreaker—he embodies the law that keeps us from social chaos? This Jew from backwoods Galilee embodies the underlying logic of all reality? Jesus of Nazareth embodies God’s creative command, God’s perfect wisdom, God’s prophetic message? Really?

We’re so used to this passage we don’t even blink when we hear it. But trust me, to anyone hearing this at the end of the first century—Jew, Greek, or Roman—this would have been shocking, even scandalous. It was cutting edge theology, outside the box of any faith tradition passed on by mothers or fathers.

In a moment of creative inspiration, the author of John’s prologue has hit upon this idea of Jesus as the “Word,” the Logos. It’s such a simple thought—a common, everyday word for “word.” But it taps into the complexity of the author’s world—Jews, Greeks, Romans, and more all could hear different nuances of the word logos, and so glimpse something of the full significance of what God has done for us in Jesus.

The author of these words has used his God-given imagination to tap into ideas from the culture of his day and talk in fresh ways about God and creation, Jesus and our world—to do theology, in other words.

And it’s not just John. In fact, the Bible from cover to cover models exactly this kind of “creatively imagining God in fresh ways by tapping into the culture around us.” From Genesis to Revelation, the biblical authors all follow the same pattern.

The two creation stories that start off the Bible draw on language and ideas from other ancient creation stories—like those from Egypt or Mesopotamia—to describe what it means to say that the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the Creator of the world.

The Law of Moses draws on language and ideas from other ancient law codes—like the Babylonian Law of Hammurabi—to shape the distinctive terms of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel.

The Hebrew prophets draw on the patterns of poetry and prophecy from the world around them, in order to call the people of Israel back to Yahweh and point them to God’s future salvation in God’s coming kingdom.

The Gospels took a fairly recent genre of literature in the Roman world—the biography—and used it to create their own kind of story—a Gospel, a presentation of the good news of God’s kingdom drawing near in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus himself took a common technique of Jewish Rabbis—the parable story—along with the stuff of everyday life—farmers and seeds, kings and banquets—and used them to describe God and God’s kingdom.

God did not merely plant the exact words of the Bible into the minds of the biblical authors, and then they wrote them down. God worked through their creative imaginations as they drew on all kinds of things from the culture around them to make sense of what it meant for them at that moment to live in faithfulness to God.

Of course, we’re not prophets or apostles. We don’t claim any special inspiration by God. We’re not Jesus. We don’t claim to uniquely embody God.

But we are called to look to these inspired prophets and apostles in order to figure out how to faithfully follow Jesus—including how we think and speak about God and our world, how we do theology. The biblical authors and Jesus himself model for us how to do theology in our own day and age: using our imaginations to draw on all kinds of things from our culture to think and speak about God and creation, Jesus and our world—and then to live in faithfulness to the God whom we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths.

This, you could say, is how the Word is made flesh in every generation, incarnated in every culture around the globe—including right here among us in Morden, Manitoba.

Adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on October 16, 2016, part of a series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Trust in God, Love One Another

One of my parishioners in a former church used to say that preachers really only have two or maybe three different sermons. “Every sermon they preach—doesn’t matter the text or the title—is really just a variation of one of those two or three sermons,” he’d say.

I’m not quite that cynical about the average pastor’s ability to navigate through a wide terrain of topics and Biblical texts. But I do think my friend was on to something. In fact, as I’ve been reflecting back on three years of preaching here at Morden Mennonite, I think pretty much all of my sermons—along with my pastoral counsel—can be boiled down to one of these two basic exhortations:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Exploring the mystery of the divine? Trust in God.

Dealing with the latest hot issue? Love one another.

Facing a financial crunch? Trust in God.

Wondering how to strengthen your marriage? Love one another.

Grieving the loss of a loved one? Trust in God.

Got a difficult situation with a co-worker? Love one another.

Needing to make a major decision? Trust in God.

Your son has just come out as gay? Love one another.

The Return of the Prodigal SonOf course, by themselves these refrains—“Trust in God” and “Love one another”—can sound trite. They can be trite: overly simplistic, pat answers, bumper sticker slogans empty of any real meaning or usefulness. Life is complicated, and these statements need to be nuanced and explained, their significance teased out in practical ways.

And in my preaching and teaching and pastoral guidance I certainly say a whole lot more than just “Trust in God” and “Love one another.” I attempt to set biblical texts within their ancient context, and then try to let them speak to us in our current context. I invite us to enter into the theological and moral imagination of Jesus and his first followers. I talk about what this “faith” and “love” looked like when Jesus did them, and what they might look like for us today, in our particular circumstances.

And yet, distilled to their most concentrated form, my sermons and conversations always seem to be some version of these two simple appeals:

Trust in God.

Love one another.

I’ve been reflecting again on the Gospel of John lately. It’s curious how I keep coming back to that Gospel, or maybe more that John’s Gospel keeps coming back to me. I gravitate toward the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—and the letters that bear Paul’s name. And yet every time I attempt to articulate the core message of these other writings, or the heart of my Christian faith, I seem to end up using John’s language to do so. So it is once again.

Because in the living waters of John’s Gospel two verbs keep rising to the surface, over and over again: “believe” and “love.”

The first one, “believe,” is pisteuō in Greek. This word is not as narrow as the English word “believe.” We tend to use “believe” as “I believe x to be true,” where x is some statement or claim. Or we simply say “Just believe!” or (same thing) “Believe in yourself!”—be authentic to who you are, trust your instincts, your own inner resources. In John’s Gospel, though, as throughout the New Testament, “believe” is more the idea of “I trust in, I rely upon, I am committed to God/Jesus.” It’s a personal thing, an interpersonal thing, our dependence upon and fidelity to the God embodied in Jesus of Nazareth.

The Good SamaritanThe second verb, “love,” is John’s comprehensive ethic: it’s every good thing that anyone does for anyone else. God loves Jesus. God loves the world. Jesus loves his disciples. Jesus’ disciples love Jesus, and love God, and love each other. This love is not about natural attraction or permissive tolerance, but rather selfless giving: a Father giving his beloved Son for the world, a Son giving his life for his disciples, his disciples giving themselves for one another and the world.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Simple, isn’t it? Maybe. But it’s certainly not easy. In fact, these are the most difficult things we can do.

Trust in God—even when the whole world seems paralyzed by fear of the unknown other, the unknown future.

Love one another—even when the whole world seems caught up in a self-righteous cycle of harm and offense, hostility and retaliation.

Trust in God—right at that moment when your resources are low and your worry is high and you can’t see a way out of this mess.

Love one another—yes, even that person, the most unlovable, annoying, strange, disturbing, [insert negative adjective here] person you know.

Trust in God—cry out to God with your anger, your fear, your unbearable sadness, your overwhelming loneliness, and then look for God’s presence right where you least expect it, right where you most need it.

Love one another—hold that hand in awkward silence, listen to that wounded heart, speak up for that voiceless person, give that fifty bucks, change that flat tire, celebrate that achievement, learn about that culture, learn that child’s name.

Trust in God—pray and worship, weep and lament, sing and rejoice, question and complain, contemplate and meditate, explore with raw wonder the transcendent mystery and immanent presence that is God.

Love one another—be kind, be generous, show compassion, show respect, speak truth, seek justice, be patient, be gentle, be humble, be delighted, be encouraging, forgive, forgive, and forgive again.

Simple, but not easy.

Hard, but necessary.

The essence of Christianity, the essence of human life—and, apparently, the only two sermons I ever preach. No coincidence there—they’re also the two things I most need to be reminded of myself.

Trust in God.

Love one another.

Images: Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son; Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl