who do we identify with in the gospel narratives?

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed by demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Mark 1:29-34; NRSVue

I’m in a devotional time where we’re working through the gospel according to Mark. As we go into it, and consider this writing, I was thinking who I identify with. We’re to be followers of Christ, so one might think we ought to identify ourselves with him. And in a sense, that’s so true. Christ fully identified himself with us, so that we might fully identity ourselves in him, find our true identity in him. But none of us in this life gets everything right the way he did. We have to be far more humble knowing that we simply can’t have the same assurance he did. We not only won’t get everything right, but there probably is some measure of wrong or mistakenness in all we do, everything. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t in it as we depend on Christ and seek to be led by the Spirit.

This makes me think I identify more with Jesus’s disciples, bumbling and slow as they were. I have no problem connecting myself with that. I almost always am struggling over something or another. But I can also identify well with bystanders in the story so to speak, participants like the man whose son was suffering terribly from a demon which Jesus’s disciples couldn’t cast out. Jesus comes, and asks if the man believes he can do this. He says I believe, help my unbelief! Yes, I can identify with that. And with the disciples at what’s called “the Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s gospel account, when they worshiped him, but as the NRSVue renders it, doubted as well (“they doubted” not just “some doubted”) which might be a better rendering from the Greek.

People in Mark’s gospel account are in a position of receiving from Jesus. And as followers of Jesus we’re meant to be those who can bless others, mostly through our prayers and simply being available to them, hopefully being led by the Spirit to help them in anyway we can, whatever God gives us. At the same time I often feel like I’m the one in need of Jesus’s touch, of his cure and healing.

We are part of the ongoing story. Jesus is ascended, we fast as the Bridegroom is gone, at least in our attitude, though Christ is very near us by the Spirit. But the Spirit was with Jesus’s followers when he was present. How can you beat that? Yet Jesus said it was better that he depart so that the Comforter could come, the Spirit in whom he would be present. So the story continues.

As we read and work through such gospel accounts, may God help us to find our footing, where we fit. And to go on, seeking to follow Jesus entirely in every way to the very end.

In and through Jesus.

scripture does not interpret scripture, but Christ interprets scripture (when it’s all said and done)

The Diatessaron by Tatian is at least the best-known earliest attempt to harmonize the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I think it was the evangelical scholar Mark Strauss who wrote that all attempts to harmonize the gospels are uninspired, unlike each of the four gospels which indeed are inspired by God.

That thought should help us begin to understand the importance of letting each passage and book of scripture be read as is, to stand on its own, to get the message it’s conveying before comparing it with any other passage or book. Bibles which have heavy cross references are helpful only if you keep this in mind and put it into practice, otherwise I think they’re unhelpful. The NRSVue at least in the electronic version now available (before hard copies are available hopefully by mid-August) have nice cross references added, but only to the extent that it helps one with the present passage, proper background for that at least so far in what I’ve seen.

Some like to say that the Bible is 66 books in perfect harmony, and that only God could have done that. What instead ought to be said is something like the Bible is 66 books (and I would like to add the apocrypha/ deuterocanonical books to at least be read seriously alongside it) that are disparate and often contradictory, but find their fulfillment, correction, and final meaning in God’s revelation in the good news in Jesus. Also some like to say that Genesis 1 and 2 are one creation account, and the NIV translates it so that it appears to be the case. But a more literal translation helps us see that we are likely looking at two creation accounts, each written to bring out something important, and not meant to be meshed together.

The point here is that we need to let each passage and book stand on its own, turn it over and over again in its own context. And do the same with the rest of the Bible. In the end I’m thinking that what we find is God helping many disparate strands somehow come together in Jesus and the fulfillment Jesus brings. Every single passage and book of the Bible is inspired on its own, telling us something important for us, for our understanding. In the end every part is to be seen in the light of Christ, his coming and all involved in that, his death and his resurrection, and all that follows.

So be careful with the idea that scripture interprets scripture. Only Christ interprets scripture, and we need to let each passage say precisely what it’s saying on its own and let the light of Christ shine on that. In and through Jesus.

in the midst of all the din- the continuous noise, follow the good Shepherd

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.

John 10:2-5

I am amazed today at how caught up Christians are in the political mess. It’s like we’re taken up into the maelstrom and chaos, and we become part of it, frankly part of the problem, at least all too often. We can see this on media networks such as Facebook. And it’s not like I’m immune to this. Given the fact that I have a teaching bent, and tend to confront what I consider wrong, I am definitely vulnerable to getting caught up in this myself in ways that are not healthy, or even helpful. That’s a struggle for me. Maybe in my case it’s more a matter of how I do it, rather than wondering if I should do it at all. But regardless of who we are with our differences, we as followers of Christ need to do precisely that, endeavor to be following him.

To do that we need to be listening to his voice. And with other sheep. That is a challenge during this time of pandemic. It’s always been a challenge, and from what I’ve seen and experienced, Christians overall are not that good at this. We often don’t listen well, nor do so together. And when we do listen, we fail to keep all of Jesus’s words in front of us. Our mistaken theology might keep us from considering passages like Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). If we’re to follow Jesus then we need to be in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John along with the rest of the New Testament, and then seeking to read the rest of the Bible in light of that.

We must leave the noisy din of this world behind us. It’s not like we should withdraw and not be involved at all. But at times we indeed should shut the noise off and take a break from it all. It ends up being a matter of just how we engage. Are we doing so intent on continuing to hear the good Shepherd’s voice? And ready at a moment’s notice to take a different path?

Just because something has some value doesn’t mean we’re to give ourselves to it. Instead we need to listen to the one voice, and set ourselves to be followers of the good Shepherd. Along with other sheep. In and through Jesus.

what difference is there in Christianity???

I’ve been wondering lately about the Christian presence in the world. It’s in the headlines quite often lately, evangelical Christian leaders speaking out on politics. There’s much astir. You start to wonder if being a Christian involves a big emphasis on a particular brand of politics. And what you see and hear from political leaders seems to be the same air these Christians breathe.

I’ve also been wondering lately just where the Jesus community really is? You can go to any number of places and hear a good sermon, message, conversation, whatever they call it. And with worship music skillfully done. But is what’s being formed there Christian? What difference does it make? Is there any distinction between that and what we might find elsewhere in the world. Sometimes I’ve honestly wondered.

When Christians seem to indicate that everything is at stake like in the upcoming election, then I’m not seeing any difference. Christians seem to be just another power player. But if I can see people humbly trying to follow Christ, his words and example, if I see something of that, that’s when my despair begins to lift, and a little hope sets in.

The church is not supposed to be a power player in the world. It should be sensitive to issues especially when the lives and good of people are at stake. To speak up humbly yet firmly and resolutely on issues like racism along with other issues is certainly more than fine, but necessary. And there is rightfully what’s called “the politics of Jesus” (see Matthew 5-7, etc.).

There’s only one difference in Christianity, one and really no more. And if other things become prominent, then that’s a sign that difference might be all but lost. That one difference is Christ. Not just Christ and Christ alone as in saving us. But Christ present with us in all of our humility and brokenness. Christ present to us for each other in the church, and for the blessing of the world in doing good works of love. Jesus. Read the gospel accounts along with the rest of the New Testament, and this will become clear.

Christ is the difference. Period. Nothing more, nothing less. Along with the distinctions that will follow. There might be plenty of rubbish to clear out of the way.

the foundation of the reality in which we live

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…

1 Peter 1

I recently wrote about how faith is not psychological, but embedded in reality, and how this is a breakthrough for me. I was certainly referring to reality, but in terms of spiritual, and actually, the result of what happened materially, as well as spiritually: Jesus’s resurrection from the dead.

The main point of this post is that Jesus actually rose from the dead into a new state of spiritual, material embodiment. Our faith is grounded in Christ’s resurrection, after he had died for our sins. Paul said that if the resurrection of Jesus is untrue, than our faith is worthless (1 Corinthians 15). For skeptics who want proof, the four gospel accounts weighed together: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, have pushed many a doubter or skeptic into acceptance of the possibility, and probability. And into belief of the same, which can lead to a living faith.

Our faith in Jesus is based on what happened in history with many eyewitnesses who saw him, and knew that while he still shared in their humanity, there was something markedly different. They knew he had died, and was buried, and lo and behold, that he was now alive, breaking bread with them, eating fish, but also disappearing before their very eyes. Not a ghost, since he indeed had flesh and bone. But somehow not a mortal any longer, either.

Christ’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new creation into which all who have faith in Christ, all who are in Christ partake. To be fully experienced of course, at the resurrection when all things are made new. But begun now even in this life, even during the days of our humiliation as mortals here on earth. By faith we hope in the sense of anticipation in God’s promise of the new world to come, the Spirit within us being the guarantee, and assurance of what’s to come for us as God’s children, as well as for all creation. In and through Jesus.

understanding scripture’s story

One of my favorite biblical scholars and theologians, N. T. Wright has explained scripture in terms of a five part story:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Israel
  • Jesus
  • Church

I would like to add a sixth part which would would have to do with Jesus’s return, sometimes called the Second Coming, and maybe a seventh part could be added (to make it seven parts in all?) which would have to do with the final outcome, the eternal state.

To understand any part of scripture, one needs to see it in context, its immediate context, certainly, but also in the context of the whole, the entire Bible and witness of scripture.

I am leery of simply writing off any scripture as completely irrelevant for us today, since the New Testament, including the letters written to the churches clearly suggest otherwise. At the same time, we obviously don’t read the story well when we read it in what has been called a flat way, as if all of it has precisely the same application as when it was written. For example the rules in Leviticus 14 about mold in homes certainly do no apply in the same way for us today.

The cross, Jesus’s death is certainly a “game changer”, but what leads up to it does impact what follows. For our application today, we may need to especially emphasize what follows, but to understand that well, we need to see what preceded it. There is so much here that Christians don’t quite see or apply in the same way. But it’s a grave mistake on the one hand to think for example that the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t have profound meaning for our understanding of the faith today, and even how we understand the letters written to the churches. Jesus was speaking mainly to Israel, but he was pointing out to them just what kind of kingdom he was bringing, certainly clearly anticipating what was to follow. On the other hand, it’s also a grave mistake to think that the cross in Jesus’s death did not make a profound difference in what followed: no less than the beginning of the new covenant of course in Jesus’s blood.

We have to keep working at, which means taking it all seriously, but seeing it in the context of the whole. The fulfillment coming, of course, in and through Jesus and through his death, the resurrection following.

keeping hold of the gospel

The gospel is at the heart of our faith, and therefore central to the well being, not only of us, but of the world. Faith, hope, and love depend on it. No wonder then, when it can become such a point of contention. I commend N. T. Wright and his writings, along with other writers and teachers such as Scot McKnight and Craig Blomberg, and many others.

The gospel essentially is the Jesus revealed in scripture, and all the truth that surrounds him in his person, life, teaching, works, death and resurrection, ascension, and the promise of his return. 1 Corinthians 15 is a key passage, but actually Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are all accounts of the gospel. The good news in Jesus in which scripture is fulfilled.

It is imperative for us to hold on the gospel, not simply because of the life it promises after death, but also because of the life that is promised to us here and now. It is a life in God, one of no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because of Christ’s redemptive work of the cross, and the freeing activity of the Spirit (Romans 8). I find that we have to hold on to faith to get out of survival mode, though in spiritual warfare, simply to stand our ground is all that’s required (Ephesians 6:10-20). This is all about the gospel: the good news in Jesus, and holding on to that.

God wants us in Jesus to be more than conquerors, actually in him we already are (Romans 8), victorious (Revelation 2-3) in and through Jesus by the good news, regardless of what we face, or our past, as well as present. It may be in the midst of much weakness, and fallout. Nevertheless God wants the truth of that gospel in Jesus stamped onto our lives, so that it defines and centers us in all of life. The good news, by the way, is as big as all of life, if one reads the pages of scripture in full. It is no less than new creation, God making all things new. It is not a matter of hiding in a cave somewhere with bread and water. At the same time, though, it does involve a following with others of Christ in identification with him, which in this life can spell trouble, even death. But in the midst of that, we know from the good news that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We need to pray and ask God to help us grasp and hold on to this good news in Jesus. That it might correct us where need be, and set us on the path of life, even of immortality, the eternal life and everlasting way in and through Jesus.

 

what the rich young ruler missed

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

This is an interesting story, told in the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. A ruler falls on his knees before Jesus and asks what good thing he should do to inherit eternal life. I take the words of Jesus as well as that of the ruler here at face value. I don’t import on them my understanding of what an evangelistic gospel presentation should look like. The summons here is to a king and a kingdom come in him. A completely different kingdom than those of the world or what Israel anticipated. Of course more needed to take place, namely Jesus’ death and resurrection followed by his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit along with the promise of his return. But what is in the gospels is essential to understanding the agenda which is set. Which has been all but lost by the church at large through the centuries. Evident in that the creeds make no passing mention of it.

Yes, Jesus’ call was costly. Sell everything, all his vast wealth and give to the poor. The giving to the poor is not at all surprising, but as we gather from Jesus’ own disciples from what they said afterward and Jesus’ follow up to that, the idea that a rich person should give up their wealth, or at least the idea that it is hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven because they are so tied to their wealth, as if material prosperity could be antithetical to the kingdom of God did not ring true to the disciples themselves.

The young man’s face fell. He went away deeply sad, since he had great possessions. Doing what Jesus said for him was not an option. Impossible. An illustration of Jesus’ words that it is indeed hard for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven. As Jesus intimates, impossible apart from God.

But think of what this ruler missed: Besides the treasure in heaven, actually being a follower on the ground of Jesus himself. Becoming one who could learn what it means to live in the new way in him, the way of the cross, the way of resurrection life. Above all to know Jesus, and to know God through Jesus which amounts to eternal life (John 17). He missed so much. And for what? What ends up being a mess of pottage when it’s all said and done. Maybe worldly glory which comes and goes. But not the glory which comes from God. We don’t want glory to ourselves, indeed that is not fitting. What is meant here is to live in God’s favor by his grace, completely a gift in and through Jesus.

May we have ears to hear the call and a heart to follow.

 

 

the strange world of the gospels

In the Great Tradition and in Anglicanism as part of the worship service the reading of the gospels is considered the climax of the readings of scripture which begins with an Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) reading and a New Testament reading (one of the letters, Acts or the Revelation).

It is well and good, indeed necessary to think in terms of our own world and culture. Of course critically, but not simply dismissing all that is distinctive about it. But we need to enter in and imbibe something of the world of the gospels, particularly of the kingdom that Jesus declares is near or present in him.

The way of the cross in the death and resurrection of Jesus both in terms of salvation for us and for the world and as the way for all of life for the followers of Jesus is at the heart of what runs against the grain, being deeply counterintuitive to the world as is and how life is navigated here and now.

Yes we need to be in all of scripture (2 Timothy 3) and we must take care not to avoid the strange world of the gospels. That world, specifically God’s kingdom come in Jesus is the heart from which the rest of the New Testament comes even as the revelation of the gospel in its fulfillment and outworking is further spelled out.

So let’s make it our practice to regularly read and meditate on the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Reading the rest of scripture as well.

looking to Jesus (during the season of Lent)

Lent is a season to look to Jesus anew and afresh particularly in his sufferings and death in God’s love for us as seen in him. It is easy for us to get our eyes off of that, off of Jesus as we go through the wear and tear, indeed even the trauma of life. Of a heart broken by a wayward, indifferent child. Of the stress and strain of financial difficulties. The everyday challenges of work. Etc.

It is even possible not to focus well on our Lord, even while we are in scripture. We have to remember that even the parts which don’t speak directly of him (the book of James might be a good case in point) are fulfilled only in and through Jesus. I am nearly done reading through the Revelation and it presents an entirely different challenge. It gives us a portrait of final judgment and salvation in vivid, descriptive metaphor, images which point to the end of the world as we know it and the bringing in of an entirely new world through judgment and salvation, creation renewed and restored in the new creation. We need to see Jesus in terms of that as well. But we do well to reflect on his suffering and God’s love to us and to the world in view of that. Which is why, after I am done with the Revelation, I will turn to the gospels: Matthew,  Mark, Luke and John, and begin to work through the narratives of Jesus’ suffering and death (Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 18-19).

The story doesn’t end there, but we do well to pay attention to that part of the story, a major part of each of the four gospels. As we reflect on God’s love seen in the sufferings of Jesus for us and for the world.