Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Jesus (Page 2 of 10)

On fearing God

FearToday I’d like to talk a little bit about God and fear. Specifically, about how the two are often deeply intertwined in our thinking.

It seems to me that fear is closely associated with our default understanding of God. Indeed, we might even say that for many people, fear is the instinctive emotional response to thoughts of God. Long-established expressions like “to put the fear of God into someone” illustrate just how intimately the emotion of fear is connected with the idea of God.

And, of course, those wishing to draw on the Bible to support the notion that fear is an appropriate response to God can do so with ease. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”, we are told in Proverbs 9:10. And there’s no shortage of accounts throughout the text of scripture where God or his angels appear to strike fear into people’s hearts.

So, fear is typically quite ingrained in our psyche as a response to God, and many assume that the Bible validates its appropriateness.

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Everything has changed: an Easter Sunday meditation

This post was first published on Easter Sunday 2013. It follows on from my Holy Saturday meditation here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo much has happened in the past week. It seems like only yesterday that we walked triumphantly into Jerusalem on a carpet of palm leaves, our emotions high as the crowd chanted “Hosanna!” None of us could have predicted what would unfold only a few hours later. And yet, looking back, it all seems so clear, and I wonder how I could have failed to see everything he so carefully explained and warned us about. I suppose there are some things you have to experience before you can really understand them. I tried so hard to understand – I wanted to be the one who understood better than anyone – but, as so often, it was in my head that I tried to work it all out and put it all together; it took the furnace of experience to shatter my delusions and finally allow my stubborn, wavering heart to see what had been in front of me all along.

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Never has a sabbath night been so long and so bleak. After he finally let go of life – from the set of his jaw and the look in his eyes, it was almost as though he and he alone decided exactly when it should end – I could not bring myself to stay and watch the morbid proceedings that would inevitably follow. I left that hill in a daze, not knowing who or where I was any more, and not even thinking about where I was going. I stumbled in the darkness of my thoughts even as the sky blackened and the heavens opened; it was as if heaven itself was appalled at the events of that day, and the great drops that fell to the baked earth were the very tears of God.

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Sacrificing God

Darkness cross

“From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ […] Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.” (Matt 27:45-50)

At the cross, humanity demonstrated its supreme reliance on violent power as the ultimate solution to every problem. The world’s most sophisticated religion combined with its most highly developed civilisation, and together they conspired to do the unthinkable: murder God incarnate.

The event of the cross proved two things beyond the slightest doubt. First, it proved that even the most enlightened and pious human societies are quite willing to soak themselves in innocent blood in order to preserve social cohesion. And second, it proved that God is not like us, and is not as we thought he was. Jesus’ submission to the cross demonstrated once and for all that God will go to any lengths – including his own death – to avoid exercising violent power. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “God allowed himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross.”

Make no mistake: before it was anything else, the cross event was a catastrophe, a calamity, a cataclysm. And yet, beneath its appalling ugliness, it was also a thing of great and resplendent beauty. This is the paradox of the cross: as humanity displayed the depths of its depravity by sacrificing God himself, God submitted to humanity’s bloody demands and, in so doing, revealed with utmost clarity the blazing white heart of love that beats at the centre of all that is.

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Just another victim

10703329555_5d6256a382_hTomorrow is Good Friday, the day when Christians the world over commemorate the unique, saving death of Jesus. But I think it’s worth taking a moment to pause and ask just what is unique about this death.

If we consider Jesus’ death unusual – and if we believe that its salvific benefits are linked to this unusualness – we would do well to stop and ask what, precisely, was unusual about it.

Death by crucifixion may have been a particularly excruciating and shameful demise, but it was certainly nothing unusual in first century Palestine. Famed Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus made several references to the widespread occurrence of this gruesome practice in his Antiquities. Indeed, according to Josephus, the Romans routinely crucified hundreds and even thousands of victims at the first sign of revolt. We cannot say, then, that there was anything particularly unique about the physical nature of Jesus’ death, however grisly it may appear to our modern sensibilities.

You might advance that Jesus’ death was unique by virtue of his absolute innocence. But again, I would say history is against you. If the Roman occupiers crucified two thousand people in one day on charges of insurrection, it’s a racing certainty that a good number of those strung up were either absolutely innocent or, at the very least, completely justified in their revolt against a wholly unjust oppressor.

We can thus conclude that whatever may have been unique about Jesus’ death, it was neither the appalling mechanics of it nor the fact of Jesus’ innocence.

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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.

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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 in our own image

CrucifiedIf you’ve been reading along here for any length of time, you’ll know that I major quite heavily on the idea that God is like Jesus. (For example, see here, here and here.)

Let me sum it up: I believe that Jesus, and specifically Jesus on the cross, is the definitive revelation of who God is. If we start our quest to understand God anywhere else, we are liable to end up – as history attests – with all kinds of grotesque distortions of what God is actually like. Some of these distortions we see in the pages of the Old Testament, where God is said to have not only sanctioned but commanded ethnic cleansing and other moral atrocities.

In short, I believe that we need to forget whatever we thought we knew about God – whether it’s from philosophy, family lore, popular culture, or even the Old Testament – and instead sit at the foot of the cross and let Jesus show us what God is really like.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the view I have set out above often meets objections from Christians. One of the most frequent objections is along these lines: “But if you focus solely on Jesus and ignore all the other stuff in the Bible about God – you know, all the passages about punishment and vengeance – all you’re doing is creating God in your own image”.

Basically, the idea that we should let our understanding of God be shaped by Jesus is often characterised as a cop-out, a way of sweeping potentially more troublesome aspects of God under the carpet.

Let’s try to dispense with that objection today.

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