Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Cross (Page 3 of 7)

Magic blood

Thorns bloodIt has often been said that Christians have a vocabulary all their own that is rather baffling to non-Christians. In particular, phrases involving “the blood” must be particularly disturbing to non-initiates. While the idea of being “washed in the blood”, “cleansed by the blood” or even “sprinkled by the blood” might be common currency to those of us who have been in and around churches for decades, it’s not hard to see how they might at the very least raise an eyebrow or two among thoughtful outsiders.

Yet there’s no denying that the blood of Jesus is central to Christian belief. Both the Old and the New Testament are replete with references to blood. And Jesus’ death, however you understand it, was undeniably a bloody event.

The question remains: how should we understand the blood of Jesus and its import for our salvation? Allow me to offer a brief perspective.

Being a Pentecostal of thirty years’ standing, I’ve heard and read more than my fair share of references to Jesus’ blood. I’ve sat under speakers who’ve railed that I need to be washed in the blood lest I perish; I’ve been assured – and have myself assured others – that “Jesus’ blood never fails me”; and I’ve lustily sung good old Pentecostal hymns proclaiming that “There’s power in the blood”.

My experience leads me to conclude that for many Christians, Jesus’ blood (like his cross) is little more than a talisman, a magical potion that bestows forgiveness, healing, power… in fact, any number of supernatural benefits. And all these benefits come irrespective of whether or not we actually allow ourselves to be changed as a result of understanding Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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A revolutionary meal

EucharistToday’s post is a response to theologian Michael Hardin‘s five-part series on the Eucharist. I first read it about a year ago, and found it world-tilting in its implications. You can read the entire series here. Michael asked me if, in this run-up to Easter, I would share some reflections by way of a response to this series. I’m honoured and delighted to do so.


There are vast divergences of corporate practice within the established church in its manifold forms. The Eastern Orthodox have their icons, bells and smells; the Roman Catholics have their confession and absolution; the charismatics and Pentecostals raise their hands and speak in tongues… In short, we have a multitude of different ways of expressing ourselves in corporate worship.

Yet there is one piece of liturgical practice that is common to every single Christian denomination. It goes by different names – the Eucharist, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of Bread – but while its format and presentation may vary slightly from one church to another (hosts/wafers versus bread, wine versus juice, open versus closed communion), it is instantly recognisable as the centrepiece of collective Christian practice across the denominational map.

As a Christian of thirty years, the Eucharist had become very familiar to me. Like every other believer, I knew it was to be revered and treated with great solemnity. And I knew it was representative, in some mysterious way, of profound truths about Jesus’ death and what it accomplished for us.

But can I be brutally honest? While many other believers appeared to swoon with heartfelt devotion over the bread and the wine, I would often feel I was doing little more than going through the religious motions, performing a ritual which, in spite of its familiarity, largely remained strange and inexplicable to me.

Then, about a year or so ago, I read Michael’s posts about the Eucharist. This was in the midst of a time when my theology had already undergone major tectonic shifts, so I guess you could say I was ripe for a new understanding of this most central Christian practice. Suddenly, lights went on, pieces fell into place, and the Eucharist began to make sense in a way it never had before.

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Rejecting the magical cross

Cross necklaceThe cross is, of course, central to the Christian faith. That we should devote much thought to it, especially during this period of Lent, is only appropriate.

However, I’d like to take a few moments to challenge quite how we think about it.

One of the ways I believe we often get the cross wrong is to see it as the symbol of the satisfaction of God’s retributive justice upon an innocent victim in our place. I’ve written about this on a number of previous occasions, most recently here.

But there’s another way we routinely misunderstand and mistreat the cross, and it’s this: by treating it as a metaphysical reality to be believed in rather than the sign and the symbol of something much deeper.

Let me unpack that a bit.

If we see the cross as first and foremost the fulcrum of a legal transaction in which we exchange our sins for Jesus’ innocence, there’s a strong tendency for us to put our faith (in other words our belief or trust) in the event of the cross, which was over and done with some two thousand years ago. Of course, we might express our gratitude to Jesus, the one who suffered that event, and we might say we love him for it. But the fact remains that it’s a done deal. The work was done for us at Calvary; all we need do is accept our role in the transaction (by “repenting” and professing belief in Jesus) and hey presto, we have our golden ticket (the knowledge of forgiveness of sins and entrance to “eternal life”).

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That you would bear my cross

SONY DSCFrom time to time, for the sake of something a little different, I like to take a lyric from a popular worship song and critique it. (A couple of previous examples are here and here.)

The reason I do this is not because I’m a terrible cynic and a curmudgeon who likes to split hairs and find fault. It’s because, as one who was involved in leading worship for twenty-five plus years, I believe that the words we sing matter very greatly. And they matter not only as an expression of what we believe, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a powerful vehicle in forming what we believe. I’m not the first person to suggest that the songs we sing are often more formative for our theology than the sermons we listen to.

So, with that preamble out of the way, I’d like to spend a few moments considering the implications of two lines from the song This Is Amazing Grace by Phil Wickham. If you don’t know it, take a moment to listen as you watch the video below:

I’d like to hone in on two lines from the chorus, highlighted below:

This is amazing grace
This is unfailing love
That You would take my place
That You would bear my cross
You lay down Your life
That I would be set free
Oh, Jesus, I sing for
All that You’ve done for me

Now, the highlighted words and the ideas they convey are hardly unusual in contemporary Christianity. Indeed, many Christians would say that to speak of Jesus taking our place on the cross is to express the very heart of our faith. In that sense, I’m not really going to critique this song so much as I’m going to use it as a vehicle to ask, and attempt to answer, a crucial question: what do we mean when we say that Jesus took our place on the cross?

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Humanity at the crossroads (2)

Crossroad tracksIn the first post in this two-part series, I gave a brief overview of René Girard’s mimetic theory, focusing on the scapegoating mechanism and its central role in helping societies maintain a semblance of peace by transferring their aggression onto a chosen victim. I concluded by noting that Jesus, by dying as an indisputably innocent victim and returning from the grave announcing not vengeance but peace, exposed the scapegoating mechanism and thus irreparably jammed up its ability to create social cohesion by mythologising the violence that fuelled it.

If you haven’t yet read the first part, please do so before continuing: we have more ground to cover, and I simply don’t have the space to bring you up to speed first.

In short, the Gospel has been permeating societies for the past two centuries, undoing the power of sacred violence and the scapegoating mechanism by increasingly giving voice to victims at all levels. (For those who have ears to hear, the voice of the victim first made itself heard in the Hebrew scriptures that we now know as the Old Testament.)

Think about it: rare is the television or radio news bulletin that doesn’t include a story about victims seeking and/or being granted redress because of their suffering. The reason we find ourselves increasingly awash with abuse scandals that have lain dormant for decades is that what Girard calls “the modern concern for victims” [1] has, in fact, become the overriding concern by which social progress is measured. Girard’s contention is that, whether irreligious moderns are aware of it or not, this concern for victims has its roots in the Gospel revelation that originally exposed and undid the victimage mechanism.

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Humanity at the crossroads (1)

CrossroadsThis post is the first in a two-part series. A link to part two can be found at the bottom of the post.

For the past two days, the world has looked on in horror and alarm as French security forces have hunted down radical Islamist terrorists who had murdered twelve people at the offices of a satirical news magazine in Paris. As I write this post, there have been a number of further connected incidents, culminating in the “neutralisation” of the three men believed to be involved in the attack.

But my purpose is not to tell you the news.

Shortly after the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo took place, I shared the following thoughts on my Facebook timeline:

Anyone who thinks the threat of apocalyptic violence is not real need only watch today’s news.

Once again, we see violence used as a means to attempt to defeat an opposing ideology and generate support and solidarity among the community of the perpetrators. The ironic thing is that that last sentence could just as well have been applied to the West’s violent intervention in the Middle East as it can to today’s events in Paris.

I tend to eschew alarmist thinking. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that humanity is faced with an increasingly stark choice: either learn the way of forgiveness, reconciliation and tolerance, or risk self-destruction.

I must emphasise that as a rule, I am not someone who buys into alarmist thinking. The world can be an alarming enough place as it is without pouring oil on the fire. However, I really do feel that humanity is at a crossroads in history where the stakes are frighteningly high – and where most of the western world is happily sleepwalking towards its fate.

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My thoughts on the “Monster god” debate

Monster god debateTwo days ago, International House of Prayer (IHOP) in Kansas City, USA hosted a debate titled “Monster God or Monster Man”. On one side, Dr Michael Brown ably explained and defended the widely accepted penal substitution theory of the atonement; on the other hand, Pastor Brian Zahnd skilfully refuted this theory and put forward an alternative view of what happened at the cross and why.

Having watched the video of the debate earlier today, I’d like to offer some thoughts.

First, I commend IHOP and its leaders for their courage in hosting a public debate on such a central and potentially controversial topic, and their willingness in making the audio and video publicly available free of charge. (To go to the full audio and video, just click on the screenshot above.)

Second, if you believe that the penal substitution view (on which more below) is the only viable view of what happened at the cross, or if you are desperately seeking a meaningful, biblically concordant alternative to penal substitution, I urge you very strongly to watch the video from the debate. In it, you will see and hear a crystal clear presentation and defence of penal substitutionary atonement (which I will henceforth call PSA), together with what I believe is a far more compelling view of Christ’s work on the cross that is far more honouring and glorifying of the true nature of God.

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