Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Gospel (Page 1 of 4)

The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?

3832056730_e1775658e2_oMost Christians agree that the central, defining feature of Christianity is the cross. I think it’s fair to say that no other religion has such a universally recognised identifying symbol.

However, when it comes to what we understand the cross to mean, things get more complicated. And what we understand the cross to mean is of huge importance, because it shapes our entire understanding of God and what it means to be a Christian.

If I were to put it to a roomful of Christians that God is most perfectly revealed in the crucified Christ, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot of hearty amens. But the fact that we could all agree that God is most perfectly revealed in Christ upon the cross emphatically does not mean that we have a shared understanding of the cross or what it tells us about God and our relationship to him.

Let’s try to unpack this a bit by exploring two alternative understandings of the cross.

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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.

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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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God’s new world

The message of Easter is that God’s new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that you’re now invited to belong to it.

— N. T. Wright

The powers exposed

Crucifixion lightningSacrificial religion and violent power have been close allies since time immemorial.

By sacrificial religion, I mean the belief that God must be appeased through blood sacrifices. And by violent power, I mean the enforcement of one’s will through coercive means. Each of these on its own is problematic; put them together and place them in the hands not only of individuals but of nations and empires, and they wreak havoc.

In the Bible, we first see them come together when Cain kills Abel. The same old story is then re-enacted in myriad ways and forms down the centuries: violent power is used to impose the will of a people group, a nation or an empire on others, and sacrifices are offered to various gods – including Israel’s God Yahweh – to keep them happy.

Fast-forward to first century Palestine. The ingredients are in place: a religious machine geared towards maintaining an almost unending flow of blood to keep God happy, and a mighty occupying force determined to keep the people under its heel. And notice how the occupying power is quite happy to collude with the religious system, and vice versa, if it is expedient for both of them to do so.

And so we have it: sacrificial religion sentences Jesus to death, and violent power supplies the apparatus of execution and supervises the gruesome proceedings. It’s the perfect marriage: Caiaphas and Pilate working together to murder the Son of God. No doubt they congratulated themselves on the neatness of their solution: for Caiaphas, it was expedient that one man should die for the people, and for Pilate, the life of one wandering Galilean was an inconsequential price to pay to keep those troublesome Jews from rising up and making trouble. Job done, everyone happy, the world rolls on.

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Only one cross

CrucifixionThere are so many gospels out there.

But surely, I hear you object, there’s only one gospel?

Well, yes, there is only one actual, true gospel, but there are many false gospels masquerading as truth, often in perfectly respectable churches. Some of them are quite obvious – the health, wealth and prosperity gospel, perhaps, being the most blatant example – while others are much more subtle.

One thing these false gospels all have in common is that those who embrace them do not think of them as gospels at all. Indeed, most churches and Christians who embrace false gospels would very likely agree among themselves that “the gospel” is the message that if you pray the sinner’s prayer and do your best to live a life that honours God, Jesus will save you and you will go to heaven when you die. Most would agree that Jesus is the only way to salvation. However, while most churches may profess that belief, many have functional gospels that are quite different.

You see, I’m using the word gospel here to mean anything that promises life. I think this is justified. We live in a world of death, manifested in many forms: sickness, war, famine, poverty, slavery, relationship breakdown, stress, depression, and so on. In this world of death, “good news” is the word of life.

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A dramatic announcement

The events surrounding Augustus’s coming to power are […] ‘good news’, euangelia, a word virtually always in the plural in such contexts, though, interestingly, always in the singular in the New Testament. This ‘good news’ is not merely a nice piece of information to cheer you up on a bad day, but the public, dramatic announcement that something has happened through which the world has changed for ever and much for the better.

— N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God

A shocking gospel

There’s no way of preaching the gospel of forgiveness without shocking people with what seems to be the indiscriminateness of it.

— Robert Farrar Capon

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