Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Simply Jesus (Page 2 of 3)

Calling Jesus lord in the real world

Jesus is Lord bumper stickerToday we continue with our overview of the final two chapters of Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus (full review here).

What does the lordship of Jesus look like in practice in the world where we bail out the big banks when they suddenly run out of cash, but don’t lift a finger to help the poorest of the poor who are paying the banks interest so the banks can get rich again?

[…]

Most Christians in today’s world have not even begun to think how calling Jesus ‘Lord’ might affect the real world.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

Well, this is a tough one.

I have a hard enough time thinking about how calling Jesus “lord” might affect the very small real world of my household and family. I’m happy to call him “lord” on Sundays and when I pray or read the Bible in my private devotions. But when it comes to changing my behaviour, curbing my impatience or my temper, being generous with my time and money… suddenly, Jesus’ lordship is something I’d rather keep in the spiritual realm, thank you very much.

The challenge, of course, is that there’s no authentic and honest way to read the New Testament without coming to the conclusion that how we live is much more important to God than what we say we believe. If you’re in the slightest doubt about that, go and read Jesus’ words in John 14:15 and the whole of 1 Corinthians 13 (or you could read my remix here).

So, the prayer “Let your kingdom come” is not first and foremost a prayer for communities or nations to adopt a certain doctrinal creed; it’s a prayer for the world to become a place where people stop acting out of selfish desire and ambition and begin to embody the other-centred love that was fleshed out for us by Jesus. And before I start showing others how their behaviour needs to change, I should get my own house in order first. That ought to keep me busy for a while…

But Tom is alluding here to the implications of Jesus’ lordship for society as a whole, and this is where it gets even more difficult. When I have such a hard time living a godly life as an individual, how can I possibly begin to deal with societal injustice on the level of bank bailouts, structural poverty or sex trafficking?

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Victory through suffering

CrucifixIt’s Friday evening, and what finer way to wrap up the week than with the next instalment in our survey of the final two key chapters in Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus. (For a review of the book, go here; for all related posts, go here.)

Without further ado, here’s today’s excerpt (emphasis added):

Jesus is the Lord, but it’s the crucified Jesus who is Lord — precisely because it’s his crucifixion that has won the victory over all the other powers that think of themselves as in charge of the world. But that means that his followers, charged with implementing his victory in the world, will themselves have to do so by the same method. One of the most striking things about some of (what we normally see as) the later material in the New Testament is the constant theme of suffering, suffering not as something merely to be bravely borne for Jesus’ sake, but as something that is mysteriously taken up into the redemptive suffering of Jesus himself. He won his victory through suffering; his followers win theirs through sharing in his.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

Suffering is often a dirty word in the western church. I think we often read about it in the New Testament, and somehow we rationalise that some people are called to “suffer for Jesus” – you know, missionaries, Chinese and Korean pastors, Christians in the Sudan, people like that. For the rest of us, we believe and hope that suffering will be a minor part of our Christian experience at worst.

Surely the New Testament writers didn’t mean we should all expect to suffer?

Tom Wright beautifully and concisely bursts that bubble in this one paragraph. The argument is easy to follow: the way Jesus defeated the world’s ruling powers was through self-sacrifice; therefore, the way he calls his followers to propagate his kingdom in the earth is through that same method. Simple, right?

Trouble is, most Christians like the bit about Jesus winning the victory and then calling his people to implement his victory in the world. Victory sounds great. Who doesn’t want to be a winner? Unfortunately, many stop there and completely fail to understand or accept why suffering needs to enter the picture.

There are two problems with this kind of belief in victory without suffering:

1. It misunderstands exactly what Jesus’ victory on the cross consisted of. I suspect many Christians think Jesus’ victory was some kind of cosmic affair whereby he did what the Father told him to do, and the Father then said, “There, I now declare the devil, death and sin defeated!”, and hey presto, the job was done.

I admit that I’m being slightly flippant, but only slightly. Until relatively recently, I never gave much thought myself to just how and why Jesus secured victory on the cross.

The first thing we have to ask ourselves is, what did Jesus gain the victory over? You can try to answer in generalities like “sin” or “the works of the evil one”, but we’re going to need to get more specific than that. What are the works of the evil one? Well, they’re things like selfishness, pride, jealousy, covetousness, anger, violence, manipulation, and so on. How do you defeat things like that? The whole thrust of Jesus’ teaching, summed up in his death on the cross, is that the way to defeat these “works of the evil one” is to opt out of the world’s game altogether by meeting love with evil, patience with impatience, by turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. These are not quaint teachings about being nice to people – they go the heart of what it means to be a citizen of the kingdom.

Jesus made a spectacle of the world’s ruling paradigms. He did so by refusing to engage in the cycle of self-aggrandisement and self-protection, which ultimately always leads to manipulation and oppression of the other. You simply cannot defeat violence with violence; that would just lead to greater violence – which is exactly how the world rolls. Similarly, you can’t defeat manipulation with greater manipulation or anger with greater anger.

And so this is how you defeat violence, aggression and manipulation: you lay down your life.

Of course, this doesn’t always mean literally dying like Jesus did. But it always means metaphorically dying: dying to our rights, our personal preferences, our demands and wishes.

So, to repeat, Jesus won the victory over the works of the evil one by laying down his life. And this is the victory he asks us to implement in our homes, neighbourhoods, schools, workplaces and towns. We do it in a thousand ways both large and small. But it always involves the death of something precious to our flesh.

If the victory you’re seeking doesn’t involve the death of something that’s precious to you, it’s not the kind of victory Jesus is inviting you to participate in.

2. The other problem with being all about victory but turning a blind eye to suffering is that it means we dissociate Jesus’ victory on the cross with what it means to be a victorious Christian. If you think victorious living means being entitled to perfect health, unstoppable career success and unlimited financial blessing, can you explain to me how Jesus’ death on the cross won that victory for you? Do you see the disconnect?

The victorious life that Jesus invites us into is directly connected to the victorious life he himself lived and the victory he secured in his death at Calvary. His victory is over the way of the world. And the only way to participate in that victory is to give up our claim to everything the world holds dear. I think that’s the underlying emphasis of the notion of “suffering” in the New Testament.

There are many cases in which this kind of sacrificial suffering will involve real persecution, deprivation and even death. But not usually here in the comfortable West. However, that doesn’t mean we are not required to suffer.

Let me leave with you with this. Which of these scenarios would look more like God’s kingdom come on earth: millions of Christians who succeed in being richer, healthier and more successful than everyone else, or millions of Christians who lay down their lives, both metaphorically and, when necessary, literally, for others?

[ Image: Jan Paul Yap © Some rights reserved ]

Jesus’ kind of love

Jesus loves youIt must be, oh, at least a day since I posted anything from Tom Wright, so here’s today’s instalment from his Simply Jesus:

Think back over the last twenty-four hours or the last seven days. Suppose Jesus had been there, physically present beside you, throughout that time. Would you have been happy to have him see what you did? Hear what you said? Know what you thought? When he comes, as the New Testament insists, he will bring to light all the hidden things that are now in darkness and expose the thoughts and intentions of the heart. He comes, of course, as the one who died for us; there is no doubting his love. But his love is the love that wants the very best for us and from us, not the sentimental kind that doesn’t want to make a fuss and so refuses to confront the thing that’s actually wrong. He loves in the way a doctor or surgeon loves, wanting the best, working for life, dealing powerfully and drastically with the cancer or the blocked artery.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

I used to really worry about what’s expressed in the first part of this excerpt – you know, the fact that Jesus knows what we’re doing and even what we’re thinking all the time, and that he’ll bring it all to light at the final judgement. I mean, how could that not be utterly humiliating? To be honest, I’ve even wondered whether deceased loved ones can see what we’re doing and watch us making stupid decisions and fooling around with sin. I don’t know. But I know Jesus can.

So what do you do with that? Here’s what a lot of people have done with it down the ages: built an entire religion around guilt-tripping people into compliance.  If Jesus is set on making a public show of all our faulty actions, from the smallest, most inadvertent mistake to the grossest, most wilful sin, then we’d better be on our best behaviour and make sure we don’t put a foot out of line.

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Present everywhere

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenAnd He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God.

— Luke 24: 50-53

We tend to interpret the ascension as Jesus’ going up into a literal heaven that is located somewhere “up above”, beyond our physical reach. Why do we interpret it this way? Clearly, it’s partly because scripture says he was “carried up to heaven”.

However, such an interpretation also has another rather convenient effect: it bolsters the dualist worldview that many modern-day Christians espouse, whereby God and Jesus are “up there” somewhere ruling the world in a very remote, hands-off kind of way, while we are “down here” scrabbling around in the muck trying to survive and maybe get a few more people into the boat before we die.

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Jesus’ new world

A couple of months ago I read Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus. (You can read my review here.) I highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to make sense of how the historical reality of Jesus in his cultural, political, social and religious context fits into God’s eternal plan to call out a redeemed people for Himself and to restore and renew all of creation. In this blogger’s not humble opinion, it is without a doubt one of the most important books on Jesus in recent years.

I’ve already published a few posts based on excerpts from Simply Jesus. (To make these posts easier to find, I’ve created a new category called Simply Jesus.) However, I got a bit sidetracked by Advent (which is, after all, something worth being sidetracked by). As a result, I didn’t get as far as blogging about the final two chapters of the book, which are the culmination of everything that has gone before. For me, these two chapters, titled Under new management: Easter and beyond and Jesus: the ruler of the world, are worth their weight in gold. The basic question they seek to answer is, So what? In other words, if Jesus was who he said he was and did the things that the Bible ascribes to him, what were the implications for his contemporaries, and what are the implications for us today?

Over the coming days and weeks, I plan to publish a number of posts based on excerpts from the final two chapters. I make no apology for this; the source material is so good that I feel confident you won’t be disappointed.

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Tuesday Review: Simply Jesus by Tom Wright

Wright Simply JesusI know it’s usual to review books shortly after they’re published. Given that Simply Jesus was published in 2011, I’ve missed the boat by a good couple of years. I only read it recently myself, and I have two good reasons for posting this late review:

1. I think this is a book most Christians, and certain all pastors/ministers and preachers/teachers, should read.
2. This is a book that people will hopefully still be reading years from now.

For those don’t know, Tom Wright was Bishop of Durham from 2003 to 2010. Prior to that, he held a variety of academic posts in both the UK and the USA. He retired from his church position in 2010 at age 62 to return to academic life, feeling that he still had a number of major books in him that he needed time to work on. He is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College, St Andrews, Scotland. He has scores of published works to his credit, and writes both scholarly works (as N. T. Wright) and popular-level books (as Tom Wright).

Wright is one of the most highly regarded New Testament scholars alive today. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of his. But I’m not a fan because of his pedigree or reputation: I’m a fan because what I’ve read of his so far has been profoundly helpful to me.

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What heaven is not

‘Heaven’ is never in fact used in the Bible for the destination of the dying: it stands for the dwelling place of God and of Christ and of those who even now share his eternal life.

— John A. T. Robinson, In the End God

[…] it will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people ‘how to get to heaven’. That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’ public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave ‘earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on ‘earth’; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognise, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed,nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is in your midst.

— Jesus of Nazareth, Luke 17:20-21

Discuss.

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