Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Flood Story and the Vulnerability of God

This past Sunday I started preaching through the Narrative Lectionary, and we began with the story of Noah and the flood.

Noah’s story is familiar to most of us who grew up hearing the narratives from the Hebrew Bible. As a child, I mostly heard the story about the rainbow God placed in the sky as a sign of God’s promise.

What stands out for me as an adult who reads this text with modern eyes, however, is the unbelievability of this story. Let’s face it, how is it logically possible for a man and his sons to build an ark so big that two of every living creature, as well as Noah’s family, can not only fit on the boat, but live for as long as they did on that boat?

Perhaps it is not our place to read this with modern, scientific minds. Indeed, I think we must read it as the ancients understood it. Regardless of whether the facts of the story are true or not, and I doubt that they are, the story has something to say about the writer(s) understanding of God and God’s relationship to humanity.

There were other flood stories from other peoples of the ancient world. The ancients viewed the world as either ordered or in chaos, and floods of some size would cause them to think that chaos had taken over the ordered world. From an ancient person’s point of view, such chaos must have been caused by a divine force or being.

So, if the writer(s) of Genesis 6-9 are telling their version of a flood story, what are they trying to say about God and humanity through this story?

For one thing, the author(s) view the flood as God’s judgment, but that judgment does not come because God is capricious and loses God’s patience with humanity over petty things. God is not judging the creation over just any sin. Rather, God sees something very specific that causes God to call humanity wicked.

Genesis 6:11-13 tells us that it is humanity’s violence that has brought about God’s judgment. The earth was full of violence. For God, it seems, the wickedness of humanity is most surely seen in the violence humans carry out against other humans and even against creation itself.

The back story of why God sees violence as the grave sin of humanity from Genesis’ perspective is the creation story of Genesis 1-2. The pinnacle of that story is the creation of humans in whom God breathes the breath of life into the man, making him in God’s own image. Being made in the image of God and having received the very breath of God means that human life in the sight of God is valuable.

Violence against other human beings is the most gravest of sins because it mocks the climax of God’s creation and it attacks the very spirit and image of God that exists in every single human being. It is that the earth is full of violence that brings about God’s judgment.

Yet, what does this act of judgment say about the character of God? Does God appear to be a bit capricious in God’s judgment? Are we to view God as angered by the sin of humanity and thus God must carry out retribution against the wicked? This seems not to be the case.

In fact, in Genesis 6:6 we are told that “the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” God was sorry. God grieved.

The word translated as grieved carries the idea of anguish. God grieves over our sinfulness. God anguishes over our rebellion. Our sin is painful to God.

This is not the anger of a parent whose child has disobeyed. This is the disappointed and sadness of a parent over the actions of a rebellious child who is deeply loved by the parent.

But notice something very important in this story. Although the flood is interpreted as God bringing destruction on the earth to rid the earth of the violence, God is not completely starting over as if God is creating a new Garden of Eden and a new Adam and a new Eve.

Yes, Noah can be seen here as a symbolic new Adam, but in finding favor with Noah, God chooses to continue God’s relationship with humanity without completely starting over from scratch.

In fact, in Genesis 8:21, God says,
“I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”

It seems to me that God regrets having done what God has done in destroying the earth, for it seems that in God’s statement to Noah, God has resolved never to destroy again despite the inclination of the human heart toward sin. In a sense, God will not give up on humanity, despite the presence of human sin.

This is the thrust of God’s command to Noah to “be fruitful and multiply,” echoing the command given to Adam and Eve. God is not done with creation and God is not limiting humanity to Noah and his family. God will take a risk with humanity for generations to come, even if the human heart is inclined to sin.

What a powerful message of divine love and vulnerability. God not only grieved over the sin of humanity; God also grieved over the destruction God brought to all of creation. And, instead of wiping out all living creatures, God chose to continue in loving relationship with God’s creation.

Indeed, in Genesis 9:8-17, God enters into a covenant with Noah, his family, his descendants, and all living things to never bring destruction again. This covenant is not an agreement between two parties, as if God is agreeing not to destroy the earth again if humanity keeps its side of the covenant.

No, God establishes this covenant with Noah and all of creation solely by God’s choosing, and despite the sinfulness of humanity, God will never again bring this kind of destruction on the earth.

Of course, one of the more familiar bits of this story has to do with the sign of the covenant that God sets in the sky- the bow. Our traditional interpretation of this passage is that when we see a rainbow in the sky we are to think of God’s covenant with humanity promised to Noah. But that’s not how the text reads.

The bow in the sky is not to remind us; it is to remind God. The bow reminds God of God’s promise to Noah, his descendants, and all living things. The sign of the bow in the sky, which may be symbolic of a warrior putting away his bow, reminds God of the promise God made to never destroy creation again.

Yet, I don’t think this is God resolving to the fact that humans are evil and God must live with it. I think it is perhaps that God has faith in us; faith and long-suffering through which God is patient with humanity.

This means that God has chosen to be vulnerable and suffer through our rebelliousness and sin, but God will never give up on us. God will continue to open the divine heart of love toward all humanity.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Jesus’ Vocation as the One sent from God

In a previous post, I discussed Jesus’ own experience of God through the baptism as we find it in Mark’s Gospel. In my view, it was this experience of God which led Jesus to take on the vocation of God. We might see this even more clearly by understanding that Mark presents Jesus’ own understanding of himself as the one sent from God.
Jesus implies that he has been sent from God in three different statements, in all of which he identifies the purpose for which he has come. Moreover, Jesus defines these purposes in terms the audience would recognize as a divine mission. 
In response to the opponents’ question put to Jesus’ disciples on why he eats with sinners and tax collectors in Mark 2:15-17, Jesus responds by analogously portraying his mission as a physician healing the sick and stating, “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” In declaring his mission in terms of calling sinners, as well as serving as a doctor for the sick, the Markan narrative reflects the events that had taken place earlier in the narrative regarding the paralytic in Mark 2:1-12. 
In that scene, a paralytic is brought to Jesus by his friends. Jesus pronounces that the man’s sins are forgiven. The result, after some debate with the opponents, is that the man is healed. Thus the audience is prepared to link together the idea of healing and forgiveness, which is common in the Old Testament (See for example 2 Chr 7:14; Ps 41:4; 103:3; Isa 57:18-19; Jer3:22; Hos 14:4). Only God heals and forgives.
Later in the narrative, this same idea is expressed in Jesus’ ransom saying in Mark 10:45. This saying follows a conversation with James and John concerning seats of authority. Although in the context the saying sets Jesus as the ultimate example of true service, Jesus sees his mission as one of service and his death as a ransom for many.
His statement employs an infinitive in which the purpose for Jesus’ coming is clearly articulated; he has come to serve and give his life. The image is from Isaiah 53 where we read about the suffering servant of God. Jesus has taken on the role of God’s servant and ransom.
One other statement made by Jesus regarding his coming and the purpose of his coming is not as clear-cut as these previous two, but it does seem probable that it contains the same basic idea.
In Mark 1:38 Jesus tells his disciples, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 
At first glance, we may suppose that this is a reference to his coming from Capernaum, where he went in Mark 1:21. Yet, it may also be possible to understand Jesus as referring to his coming from God. Indeed, we find here in 1:38 Jesus express the very purpose for his coming, to proclaim the gospel of God. 
The idea of Jesus being the one sent from God is also expressed in Mark9:37. In seeking to make his point concerning the true meaning of discipleship and service, Jesus takes to himself a child. He then states, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever, welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” 
Again, the audience is fully aware who Jesus has in mind when he speaks about the one who sent him. Clearly it is God. Jesus’ statement, however, makes clear that he himself serves as representative for God, for in welcoming him, true disciples also welcome God, the one who has sent Jesus. The person, who then encounters Jesus as the one sent from God, encounters also the God who has sent Jesus.    
This is illustrated through the parable of the Wicked Tenants in Mark 12:1-12, when the audience understands the “owner” of the vineyard as God and the “son” of the owner as Jesus.  After sending several servants, the owner decides to send his beloved son. In sending the son, then, the owner sends his authoritative representative. What is interesting is that when the son is killed, there are no more servants or sons to send, so the owner himself (God) will come and destroy the tenants.
Through his story, Mark portrays Jesus as the one sent from God. In doing so, he sets Jesus in relation to God as the one who represents God on earth. As God’s son and envoy, who carries God’s authority, Jesus takes on the vocation that is only meant for God. Thus, what Jesus does on earth is to be viewed as God’s actions; actions done for God.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Greed Prevents Generosity and Community

Any casual reader of the Gospels will know that Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper response to them. In fact, he had more to say about the subject of money and care for the poor than any other subject.

Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions; ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether. But, at the heart of his message was a strong warning against greed.

Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So, a clear definition of the term greed is quite difficult to pin down.

But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept of greed from the point of view of Jesus. To do so, we need to see greed along two intersecting planes: The vertical and the horizontal.

The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy toward God, that is, when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God.

We make wealth an idol and we serve mammon as our god. This is what Jesus warns us against when he states that we cannot serve both God and wealth (Luke16:13) , for one will always come before the other in receiving our devotion. It is this kind of greed that most Christians associate with sin; greed is putting material things before God.

But, although we might find this vertical plane of greed convicting, we also believe it to be manageable. We believe this kind of greed is more easily overcome through our words that convince us that we are not guilty of the sin of greed.

The remedy we have for greed against God is just to say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol. After all, many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy? And those Christians who are wealthy simply argue that they have been blessed by God with their wealth.

Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things, and here is the big one, we tithe, perhaps even more than 10%. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.

The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. And this is perhaps why Jesus has more to say about our holding possessions in light of the plight of the poor. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings.

Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments, to love both God and our neighbors, are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also, and perhaps an even greater sin, because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need.

As John rightly asks, “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” John’s rhetorical question implies that one cannot logically say they love God and also withhold aid from those in need.

So, although we can rationalize that we are not greedy because we do not put possessions in the place reserved for God, our hoarding and not sharing with others reveals our true spirit of greed toward others and toward God.

When we hoard our wealth and possessions, however large or small that amount is, we neglect the needs of those who are in great need. Doing this is the tell-tale sign of where our hearts really are.

Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more, and then desiring more.

But if we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to. Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.

Moreover, if we change our perspective of possessions to be the things that meet our basic needs, we can also act more generously toward those who are in much greater need than we are. We can share our money and possessions with the hurting in our neighborhoods, our communities, and indeed across the globe.

I once preached at a church in which the following served as the Prayer of Confession:

O God, Source of all that makes life possible, Giver of all that makes life good, we gather to give you our thanks. Yet we confess that we have often failed to live thankful lives: What we have we take for granted, and we grumble about what we lack. We have squandered your bounty with little thought for those who will come after us. We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.

What struck me the most about this prayer was the last sentence: “We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.” Unfortunately, in the current economic state of our nation, the latter group is growing larger and is increasingly being neglected.
Greed is a desire to have what others have. When we cannot, we become jealous of their riches. But Jesus calls us to reverse our gaze by turning from our desire to have what others have, to notice and serve those who have less. In doing so, we will not only find healing from greed; we will also become more generous towards and find community with the people with whom Jesus found community.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Jesus' Experience of God and his Vocation as God's Agent

In recent post I wrote about the importance of Jesus’ own faith in God. The question that might follow up this post concerns the origin of Jesus’ faith in God.

Did Jesus have an innate faith in God or did Jesus come to faith in God?

Of course, if we consider the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus as being God in human flesh, then the question might be easier to answer: Jesus was God, and thus any faith in God flowed from his own knowledge of his being God. Yet, this seems too easy of a step, and makes it more difficult to affirm Jesus’ own monotheism or his submission to God.

This is not to suggest that earliest Christians did not affirmed him as God, for, as my Ph.D. mentor, Larry Hurtado has argued, earliest Christian worship of Jesus was incorporated into their worship of God, which is evidence that they believed something about Jesus’ divine nature. (See Hurtado's How on Earth Did Jesus Become God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.) 

But, we would be hard pressed to find clear evidence of Jesus directly referring to himself as God. Indeed, Jesus seems to affirm his humanity as the Son of Man who has the power to do what God can do.

So, the question might be how the human Jesus found his faith in God and not only where his faith came from, but how he knew the will of God for himself.

There are many things we could say about Jesus, but one significant point that is certain was that Jesus was a first century Jew. Most Christians, of course, might know that Jesus was Jewish, but they may see Jesus’ Jewish faith and identity only as a precursor to his founding of the Christian faith. Yet, Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and remained so throughout his life.

As a Jew, Jesus held in common with other Jews that the God of Israel was the supreme God who had chosen Israel and had redeemed them out of Egypt. Jesus, like many of the Jews of his day, was looking for God’s new redemption of Israel from the chains of their oppressors. He was looking for a New Exodus, not from the enemies in Egypt, but from the power of Rome.

He accepted the traditions passed down through Israel’s history that God had set Israel apart as God’s people and had made a covenant with them to be their God. He also believed that Israel had lost her way, as the prophets testified, and that Israel’s current plight would only be ended by an act of God.
So, at one level Jesus’ consciousness of God was influenced by his own religious tradition.

Yet, we also must consider that Jesus’ awareness of God, and thus his own faith in God, was also greatly informed by his own experience of God. Indeed, though he, like many Jews of his day, believed God would redeem Israel from Roman oppression, it seems that through his own personal experience of God, Jesus took on this vocation as his very own mission.

While we can point to various events in the life of Jesus that shaped his experience and understanding of God, as well as his own understanding of himself, including his upbringing under the weight of poverty and injustice and his constant encounter with the suffering of his own people, the Gospels suggest that one specific event seems to have played a particular role in forming his own vocation as God’s envoyThe baptism by John that is found in the Synoptic Gospels is that event.

In his own baptism, Jesus witnessed the opening of heaven and heard God’s affirmation that he was God’s beloved son. Perhaps in hearing this declaration from God, Jesus interpreted this as God’s commission for him to live out his identity as God’s chosen agent, the one sent to bring judgment on God’s enemies of unjust power and oppression, and restoration to God’s people.

It is hard to say exactly what happened at the baptism of Jesus, but it does seem that he had some sort of experience of God, whether we can corroborate this or not. This religious experience perhaps gave affirmation to Jesus about who he needed to be and what he needed to do.

But, in his experience of God, Jesus became cognizant of a God that could not be strictly defined by his Jewish tradition. While he accepted the traditional Jewish views of God (e.g. monotheism and covenant), he also gained through his own experience of God an alternative to the tradition.

So what did Jesus believe about God?  

Of course, there may be many things he believed about God, but foremost in Jesus’ mind was the belief that God was presently acting in the world to bring about something new that would radically shift the Judaism of his day.

Nothing clarifies this more than Jesus’ announcement that the kingdom of God had come near.Jesus believed that God was not simply the God of Israel’s historyRather, Jesus’ God was now present in 
the world, working outside the religious establishment of Judaism, overthrowing the powers of evil, and establishing God’s own rule.

Jesus believed that God was inaugurating a new order in the world, one that reversed the oppressive power of injustice and inaugurated a world of compassion, justice, and peace. Jesus acted on this understanding of God by taking on this vocation.

His miracles serve as vivid metaphors of God’s power to release the captives and to overthrow the powers of the world, and his teachings proclaimed a new ethic that he believed would continue to bring order and justice to creation through the living of his followers.

Thusfrom his own experience of God, which precipitated his own faith in God, Jesus worked outside the religious establishment of Jerusalem, and lived out his vocation as the envoy of God’s rule.

Perhaps viewing Jesus as taking on the vocation of God through his experience of God is a better way to talk about Jesus as God.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Jesus Defined Life as Living in the Presence of the Living God

Jesus consistently engaged in debate with Israel’s two main religious-political parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These two groups, both important to first century Judaism, were similar in many aspects, but they did differ on several issues. One crucial theological point on which they certainly disagreed was the idea of resurrection. While the Pharisees did hold to a belief in the resurrection of the dead, the Sadducees did not believe that such a resurrection would occur.

In Mark 12:18-27 we are specifically told that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in being told this, we know exactly why this group of religious leaders come to debate theology with Jesus. They come to argue with Jesus not in an attempt to discover theological truth.  They come to Jesus for the sole purpose of entrapping Jesus by forcing him to answer a conundrum about brothers, marriage, death, and resurrection.

When I read about these encounters Jesus has with religious leaders, encounters he surely knows are motivated by aims of trickery, I often wonder why he would even give them the time of day. After all, was his mission as the one sent from God to waste time debating with theologians who remained embedded in their traditions and who refused to believe that God could speak and work outside of those traditions? Was not his mission toward the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the oppressed, and if so, why does he spend any time debating and arguing with either the Sadducees or Pharisees?

There is a fundamental question that underlies every debate Jesus had with any group of religious leaders. Every discussion, every debate, every argument, whether instigated by Jesus or the religious leaders, centers on this one question: Who speaks with the authority of Israel’s God? And over and over, every one of the debates raises the next logical question concerning the nature of God. Whether the debate is over the Sabbath, purity laws, or paying taxes to Caesar, the underlying argument is over who speaks for God and who defines the nature and purposes of God.

I think this helps us see why Jesus engages in debates and arguments with these religious leaders when he certainly had better and more important things to do with his time. He argues with them about the nature of God, because for him, God is the ultimate reality that gives meaning to human existence, and he understood this not simply because of his place among the people of Israel, but perhaps more fully through his own experience of God.

Let’s suppose Jesus did not believe God to be the ultimate reality that defines human existence. Suppose he was just another good person with certain powers to heal people, which he chose to do frequently. Yet, in healing these people, what life would he be offering to them if he was not also offering them the essence of what it means to be human? 

In other words, while his healings would have been physically beneficial to those who were sick, if such physical healings did not also encompass the reality of God as the one who gives, sustains, and blesses life, such healings would fall short of the restoration to full humanity. Healing is not simply the absence of physical amelioration. Healing is the holistic union of a person’s body, mind, and soul that returns them to the unity and peace of the original creation. Healing involves the whole of a person restored to wholeness.

And this is why this particular debate between Jesus and the Sadducees is so important. They have not come to discover theological truth from Jesus. Nor have they come with open hearts and open minds. Indeed, they have come only to trap Jesus into admitting there is no resurrection. Yet, in a turn of events even Jesus’ interrogators could not foresee, Jesus offers a rebuttal to which they have no answer, and which defines the true meaning of life.

The problem in this debate is a disagreement over definition. While the Sadducees defined life as living as flesh and blood humans in this world until death ends this life, Jesus defined life in terms of relationship to God. For the Sadducees, life ends at death. But in their preoccupation with the dead, they have missed the theological truth that God is not the God of the dead; God is the God of the living.

When Jesus says that God is not the God of the dead, he is not saying that God has stopped being God to those who have experienced physical death. He is saying that God cannot be God of that which is dead, for God is not dead; God is living. Likewise, God is not the God of the living because the living are alive. God is the God of the living because God is the living God.

Jesus once stated that he had come to give life more abundantly. In other words, he defined his mission not only as imparting life to all who believed, but also as imparting a life of fullness and wholeness. And for Jesus, who believed and followed the God of the living, this meant not only the absence of death, but the presence of the living God in the life of the believer.