a better word

Preparing for this Sunday’s sermon from Isaiah 35 on Joy, I’ve latched upon Hebrews 12:18-24 as an accompanying epistle text, and will spare my congregation (and burden you with!) this reflection :)

Much like 2 Corinthians 3:7-18 or Galatians 4:21-31, Hebrews 12:18-24 boldly contrasts the ‘old covenant’ with the ‘new covenant’.  Now, I’m somewhat weary of patterns of interpretation that too easily and too carelessly either sweep aside or mis-apply texts from the old testament/covenant.  The relationship between the ‘old’ covenant/testament and the ‘new’ must be characterised by both discontinuity and continuity; and our eagerness or disdain for this or that particular result too often determines which one of those two we hold to.

Having gotten that throat clearing out of the way, this passage is boldly stating the discontinuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant instituted by Christ.  Daringly and provocatively, yet without discarding or discounting the value and role of what had come before, the author describes the ‘old’ in the following ways:

  • undesirable.  The ‘word of God’ through the Mosaic Law were of a nature that “those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them”.  God’s word was so fiery, dark, gloomy and stormy they begged ‘No more!’.  There are a few passages that we can think of as especially ‘harsh’ to say the least.  But the best and strongest sense here, considering the ‘old’ as a whole is that of someone giving a very public and very exhaustive report of all of your deepest darkest failings, to the point where you beg them to stop because the truth hurts so much.
  • unbearable.  The word of God (despite the claim of Deuteronomy 30:11-14!!) ended up being too high of a moral bar, not because the Law failed, but because “they could not bear what was commanded”.  Stop God… please… I simply cannot take this.
  • unapproachable.  Animals stoned, sandals removed.  The Law, which nonetheless had the purpose of instructing in Life and Love, showed how full of death and indifference we are.  It is such a terrifying reality that like Moses we are “trembling with fear”.

By contrast, which couldn’t be any more strongly stated, the new covenant is gob-smackingly glorious and just plain ‘better’.

  • better joy.  The new and living covenant transcends earthly mountains and cities and is characterised by more joy than the image of ‘thousands upon thousands of angels’ can evoke.  Whatever gloomy realities of life, temptation, struggle and pain that still persist, infinite quantity and quality of joy is available for us – even if all we can dare is to peek.  Our guilt under the Law was depressingly accurate, whereas our freedom in Christ from precisely that guilt is shockingly liberating.
  • better transformation.  The Law was well able to declare guilty, but powerless to remove that guilt, at least permanently.  Jesus, however, is more (though not less!) than a Judge, but also the teacher, leader and giver of the Spirit, who helps actually transform and change people, making them ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, one (sometimes tiny) step at a time.
  • better memory.  The blood of Abel – remembered each time an animal sacrifice was made in the temple – reminded people of their lingering sin.  The blood of Jesus – remembered each time the eucharistic Cup is shared – reminds people of his lasting forgiveness.

In addition to being a rather bold statement on the specific topic of covenant theology, this raises interesting questions about how we understand things like revelation and Scripture.  God apparently always planned to reveal himself in a way that was not sudden and fixed from the start, but rather through an unfolding series of events and encounters that would indeed have identifiable and obvious thematic consistency, but nonetheless also very real and at times troubling variation and development.

It was always going to be a spiraling, turning, twisting and evolving story, whose end goal (or ‘telos’) was always going to be the person and work of Christ.  As Hebrews begins, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers though the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

dust in the wind?

“All we are is dust in the wind”, said Socrates.

In reading about sin and human nature for my mini-thesis, I’ve dipped into the nature/nurture and determinism/free-will discussions.  I tend to think that the biblical view of humans takes both sides of these conversations quite seriously.  We are limited by our nature/genetics in what we are capable of, and yet we are capable somehow of transcending our current neuro/bio/physio-logical states.

In other words, the biblical view of humans is that we are continually taken from pretty raw material (the dust of the ground) and formed and freed to be human by the Spirit (the breath of life).  Perhaps Socrates would agree.

jesus within the good samaritan parable?

I’m currently doing a research essay on how the parable of the Good Samaritan has been preached in different times and contexts.  Interpretation and preaching have traditionally centred on how the story presents three characters, one of who is the exemplary Samaritan.

But in the research, I’ve found that some rightly point out that the Innkeeper is a fourth.  Apparently innkeepers were known to at times over-charge, and so the greed of the innkeeper provides another contrast to the generosity of the Samaritan who offers to repay any expense the innkeeper incurs in caring for the man (whose nationality or race are – deliberately? – never revealed).

Now, I’m probably not the first to see yet another person in the story, and I’ll have to check the commentaries, but the following lines suggest it to me:

On the next day [most MSS include ‘when he departed’], he took out two denarii, and gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.”

It is the phrase “when I come again” that tipped me off.  Was that a glimpse of the parousia just there tucked away?  I wonder it we glimpse Jesus himself in the person of the Samaritan; and by implication the church in the Innkeeper.  The ministry of the church is indeed (among other things) to welcome the lonely, to clothe the naked, to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, to visit the imprisoned.  Do we glimpse Jesus here, equipping the Church (giving of the Spirit?) to do their work, and promise a ‘repayment’ (reward according to deeds?) for how much extra they do?

full gospel

Some presentations and presenters of Christianity are, in my view, overly obsessed with the Death of Jesus such that they over-emphasise it, and end up marginalising the Incarnation of Jesus, the Ministry of Jesus, the Resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit of Jesus.  It probably wouldn’t be fair to use any label for the flavour of Christianity I inherited in my early years as a Christian.  Whatever label is used, this version of Christianity is too prevalent.

In this version I inherited, the only reason Jesus was born was to die for our sins.  His ministry seemed like just some time-filling activity before he died.  The Resurrection is like icing on the cake after the ‘main event’, his Atoning death.  The Ascension is basically ignored altogether.  And the gift of the Spirit is basically about empowering people to tell others that Jesus died for their sins.  The New Testament, and the study and explanation of it over Church History, however, contains a Gospel that is much fuller than this version I inherited (and which most of our modern and quite a few of our older worship songs tend to focus on).

The Incarnation of Jesus is not a mere stepping stone to the Cross (though it is not less than that).  It is the Creator entering and uniting to the Creation in general, and human nature in particular.  This, the Eastern Orthodox rightly emphasise, is itself a saving act.  All creation participates in the salvation that Christ effects.

The Ministry of Jesus does not merely fill time until the Cross.  Jesus life and ministry is an enactment and fulfillment of genuine humanness.  Everything that humans were meant to be and do, which was focused in the call of Abraham and his people ‘Israel’, Jesus achieved and demonstrated in his life.  He finishes the race we could not.  This is a saving act.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not a mere happy ending to the Cross.  Whereas the Cross entails Jesus taking Death (and Evil and Sin) onto himself and extinguishing it, the bodily transformation and translation of Jesus, the Resurrection, enacts and achieves the defeat of Death (and Evil and Sin).  It also achieves a kind of ‘beachhead’ (or ‘first-fruits’) into New Creation, the ultimate destiny and intended goal for all Creation.  This is a saving act – for all creation – including humans.

The Ascension of Jesus is not an undoing of the Incarnation (which would be a huge heresy), where the Son of God strips off his humanity and reports back to the Father that the atoning death was accomplished (and thus the body no longer needed!).  It is about the enthronement of Jesus to the place of ultimate authority – which among other things, entails a denial of any other entities claiming such ultimate authority.  This is a saving act, saving us from false authorities.

The Giving of the Spirit of Jesus is not simply a bit of personal motivation to tell people about Jesus dying for us (though it is not less than that!).  It is the gift of the ongoing personal spiritual presence of Jesus, enabling us, correcting us, leading us, empowering us, shaping us to become more like Jesus.  It’s not just about ‘evangelism’ (or exciting private experiences), but about becoming more human – more like the true human, Jesus.  The Spirit of the true human, Jesus, makes us truly human.  This ‘humanisation’ (or ‘re-humanisation’) is a saving act; it’s what salvation is all about.

And that’s the “full gospel” that the New Testament communicates.

praying with jesus

Kim Fabricus recently offered twelve ripostes for ‘militant atheists’, one of which was about prayer.

—Prayer plainly doesn’t work.
—Thank God! ((Garth Brooks had a similar insight: “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”))

On a spectrum of immature to mature, understandings of Christian prayer will range from the anthropocentric and mechanistic ((not to mention idolatrous and pagan – I even hear pantheist types talk about putting thoughts ‘out there’ to the universe)) notion that prayer is about us invoking God to do something we want for our world, to the more theocentric and relational conviction that prayer is about God involving us in what God wants to do for God’s world.

On this note, I wanted to post an example of this I heard last night in the last Romans lecture at Carey Baptist.

There are three agents ‘groaning’ in Romans 8:18-27; a) creation groaning as with birth pangs, b) the church groaning awaiting redemption, and c) the Spirit groaning in intercession for us and the world.

The world is not as it should be (creation groaning).  God grieves that this is so (the Spirit groaning), and moves us to grief (church groaning) and action.

This parallels a scene from the Gospels.

Jesus’ groaning prayer in the Garden, overcome with grief.  The triune God involved in groaning prayer – the Son praying to the Father in the power of the Spirit.  Jesus’ words ‘not my will but Thy will’ reflects that his prayer is about the divine will for the world and Jesus’ human obedience to it.

And Jesus also had invited his disciples to ‘watch and pray’ with him.  As George Wieland said last night, “To pray is to keep Jesus company as he agonises in the garden.”