The Bible and Eternity

I’ve learned something recently. Do your job and you get paid. Volunteer at your job and you stand a good chance of getting dessert.

We’re getting a Cokesbury bookstore on the Christ Church campus, and instead of paying professionals (people who knew what they were doing) to take up the old brick walkway outside the building where the new store will be housed, the church asked its staff (people who had no idea what they were doing) to get the job done. And so we did, and they thanked us with some Mexican ice cream at this good little place in town.

Piled into the bus on the way there, we passed a church whose marquee read: “The Bible is not antique. It is not modern. It is eternal.”

Later on, when I mentioned this to my friend who is well-read on the Muslim religion, said “That’s Islam.”

He was right. This is no disrespect to Islam, but they hold a view of the Quran that is different from the way Christians think of the Bible. For Christians, to hold such a view of the Bible would be an improper level of devotion to the biblical text itself.

This is seen in the way people mischaracterize Christians as “people of the book.” Though I appreciate the point that it makes, because we do look to the Bible for God’s story, doctrine, stories, etc., Christianity appropriately conceived is adhered to not by people of the book but people of the Person.

Christians are those who are committed to Christ, whether they’ve never encountered a Bible or met Jesus through their reading of a Bible.

Come to think of it, Christianity came before the Bible, and in the new heavens and new earth I’m not sure it’s very important to think of what role the Bible will play.

In this stage of history, it certainly plays an important role. But its role is limited.

The Bible IS antique, and it DOES speak to modern times, but it is not eternal.

Advertisements

Christianity is Public

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek … at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about. And that is where churchmen should be and what churchmen should be about.” –George MacLeod

As quoted by R. Paul Stevens in The Other Six Days: Vocation, Work, and Ministry in Biblical Perspective. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.

Wisdom from The Iron Lady

Many people think Meryl Streep gave a great performance as Margaret Thatcher in a mediocre movie in The Iron Lady, but I actually thought the movie itself was quite good. Informative, thought-provoking, inspiring.

My favorite scene involves the retired Prime Minister of Britain in the doctor’s office. She has been experiencing dementia, and the doctor asks her how she feels. Surely, he says, she is bound to be feeling a certain way.

She responds: “What am I ‘bound’ to be feeling? People don’t think anymore. They feel.’How are you feeling?’ ‘Oh, I don’t feel comfortable.’ ‘Oh I’m so sorry, we the group, we’re feeling …’ Do you know, one of the great problems of our age is that we are governed by people who care more about feelings than they do about thoughts and ideas? Now, thoughts and ideas, that interests me. Ask me what I’m thinking.”

The doctor obliges. “What are you thinking, Margaret?”

I don’t know if the actual Margaret Thatcher said anything like this, but I certainly find myself in solid agreement with her about many of those running the government in this country nowadays.

Aside from that, however, I find myself most readily applying her words to the church. The things on which the church stands on and stands for undoubtedly enlist all of our being, emotions included. I can’t conceive of a Christianity that checks emotions at the door. But, if we could get together and think a bit more than we simply feel I think we could avoid much of the intra-Christian argument and opponent-bashing that is plaguing the relationships that should be defined by what he hold in common in regards to our faith, our belief, and our thoughts.

This text I once got.

Thanks to my friend Sara Stanton who reminded me of this text I once got, apparently by mistake. I had forgotten about this, but I used to quote this all the time. Plus, I had it saved on my old phone and would at random times forward it to her and few others who would get the inside joke.

So a couple years ago I got a message that went like this. It was obviously from a wrong number. This is it, word for word, quoted from memory. The name has been obscured for my own safety.

Why you dint tell me D***** P****** got busted at his job friday. the feds got em and he had 20 yrs left on paper.

I never responded.

Ascension Day

Most of this post originates from a talk I gave at Christ United Methodist Church on July 27, 2011.

At Advent and Christmas we expect and remember the birth of Jesus.

On Good Friday we recognize the death of Jesus.

On Easter Sunday we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

As you can see, our major Christian holidays do a pretty decent job at helping us focus on the major stages of Jesus’s earthly existence.

However, Christians don’t worship a mere earthly Jesus. We worship an exalted Jesus, the one enthroned in the heavenly places.

What we need, then, is a special day to spark our awareness that Jesus has gone from earth to heaven, and therefore the grounding of all Christian hope is that Jesus will return from heaven to earth.

As it turns out, we already have such a day! At one time, Ascension Day was one of the most important times on the historic church calendar. In recent times, though, it has become one of the most ignored. Gone are the days of Augustine, for instance, for whom Ascension Day provided the opportunity to deliver brilliant sermons on the doctrine of the ascended Christ.

Today is Ascension Day, which is recognized 40 days after Easter Sunday. This time period comes from the timeline provided by Acts, which states that it was a 40 day period between Jesus’s resurrection and his ascension to heaven.

The ascension of Christ is a uniquely Lukan presentation. A later version of the ending of Mark added by scribes contains an account, but if we define our authoritative canonical New Testament as that which we believe comes from the original authors, then studying the ascension becomes a matter of analyzing Luke’s literary composition.

At the end of Luke, Jesus is resurrected, appears to the disciples, gives them final instructions to wait in the city until they get “what the Father promised” and “clothed with power from on high.”

He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. And they were continuously in the temple praising God (Luke 20:50-53).

Now, at the very beginning of Acts. Luke begins by reviewing what he has written about in Luke and then recounts the ascension one more time.

Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”

Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:1-11)

Taking the same event, Luke renders it in historical prose differently two times―once to display its significance as the final event of Jesus’ life and ministry in his Gospel, and once more to show how it is the beginning of the disciples’ ministry in continuation of Jesus mission in Acts.

Theologically, the ascension is a closure to some aspects of the person of Christ on earth, his work in salvation through his ministry, death and resurrection.

But it also a beginning to some of those aspects as Christ is now heavenly transcendent and the work of his salvation is carried out by his disciples. With genius skill, Luke translates these theological truths into literary terms, in that the closing scene of volume 1 of his entire historical work becomes the opening scene of the second volume. And thus the New Testament’s sole historical account of Jesus and the early church, which spans from Christ’s birth to the message of his salvation being brought to the entire world, is knit together.

First, the ascension as closing scene of the Gospel. The ascension is really the last logical step for Jesus, having died and been resurrected. It is a logical prerequisite for Jesus as someone who was believed to be returning at some later point. But Luke is the only Gospel writer to include the ascension in his story of Jesus’ life. Matthew and John especially presuppose that something like an ascension is going to take place.

Just for a couple of examples. Matthew ends with Jesus’ Great Commission and his promise to be with the disciples always as they go out and spread the good news of salvation. Some sort of heavenly exit is presupposed, but is not narrated. More than any other, John’s Jesus emphasizes over and over how he has come from heaven and is going back. After his resurrection he tells Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It is presupposed, but not narrated.

Why Luke does narrate the ascension in his Gospel is probably due in part that it is the longest and most comprehensive Gospel, but it is due mostly to his second volume, which tells the story of the earliest church. The other Gospels may conclude without it narrated because it is blatantly obvious to the early church to whom they were read that Jesus is not around anymore like he was.

But Luke actually tells the story of the early church, so it would be a blatant missing piece if the means by which Jesus was not around anymore in the way that he once  was was left unnarrated. It is important to note, though, that Luke does not just narrate it, he puts it in the most pivotal place he can―at the connection point between his story of Jesus and his story of Jesus’s followers. This points rather clearly to its significance, and, it was typical for 2-volume Greco Roman works to recap the end of the first volume at the beginning of the second and, importantly as we’ll see, they were free to arrange materials differently in each case.

As the closing scene of Jesus’s life, the ascension completes the arch of the narrative as Jesus is born, i.e., comes into the world, and leaves the world. As the narrator presents it, it appears to happen on the same day as the resurrection after he presents himself alive to the disciples. In this way the Gospel is brought to a swift, concise conclusion. By being carried up into heaven, the portrait of Jesus as an historical figure is fully fleshed out. He is the one whose entire ministry is vindicated by his resurrection, and whose identity is more completely seen in his relocation to where God is. In other words, it is at the ascension (whether narrated or not) that Jesus’s entire earthy life comes full circle and finds its greatest significance. Augustine put it this way: “Unless the Savior had ascended into heaven, his nativity would have come to nothing … and his passion would have borne no fruit for us, and his most holy resurrection would have been useless.”

As much as it functions as an effective conclusion to this narrative, the ascension scene here also sets the reader up for a sequel: Jesus’s last words to his disciples include the instruction to wait in Jerusalem for what the Father has promised. And the closing frame of the Gospel is just that―the disciples are waiting in Jerusalem. We, and presumably they, aren’t told just what they are waiting for.

Now, we come to the ascension as opening scene. Whereas the Gospel account reads as if the ascension is the same day as the resurrection, in 1:3 Luke adds the detail that Jesus appeared to the disciples over 40 days convincing people he was alive. The wording here is significant, for it says not that Jesus lived in Jerusalem or anything like that―it says that he made appearances over a period of 40 days―the Greek indicating scattered events.

This is a major clue to me that the ascension as narrated by Luke is not necessarily Jesus’s first transition to heaven, but his final transition to heaven.

It’s important to mention here that there does appear to be some overlap with the concepts of resurrection/ascension/exaltation. There are many indications in Scripture that at his resurrection Christ was exalted, that is, enthroned in heaven. And, of course, being exalted to heaven is a lot like an ascension. The best way to view the ascension event in Luke-Acts, then, is as the final concrete picture of Jesus’s exaltation. At his resurrection Jesus immediately inhabited the realms of both heaven and earth, which explains his strange abilities to appear and disappear. And it would also explain why Luke says he made appearances over a period of 40 days instead of saying that he stayed with them for these 40 days.

Having said that, what is this 40 days all about? It could be a reference to an actual 40 day period, (which would fit the chronology, because Pentecost is 50 days after Passover), or could be a conventional number (Jewish traditions about Ezra and Baruch have them giving 40 days of final words before ascending). But why is it not in the Gospel? Why does the ascension in the Gospel seemingly occur on the same day as the resurrection? Is this contradiction? I hardly think it could be contradiction, being such a unique detail coming from the same author. This is an example of how Luke has shaped the same historical event in different ways according to his literary objectives. He has condensed the ascension at the end of his Gospel to conclude it as a life of Jesus, and presented a fuller version for Jesus to appear to disciples as he gets ready to write a long book about disciples.

So, this is one major difference between the accounts. Another difference is that we find out that what the Father has promised is (1:5, 8) the Holy Spirit. That is what delivers the power from on high. Having set the reader up for a sequel about receiving what was promised at the end of the Gospel, at the beginning of Acts he sets the reader up by naming who is really the key player throughout the entire book. There’s a reason why people have recommended a title change to “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 1:8, which gives us the actual words of what was only referred to as a “blessing” in the Gospel account then sets the theological and literary paradigm for the book, and it sets the paradigm for the rest of the history of the church in which we find ourselves. It is the ascension that marks the importance of Jesus’s final words to us.

Here, therefore, we hit on the chief theological significance of the ascension. And this is not unique to Luke―it’s an important theme in John as well. Whereas the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in the next chapter is often given proper recognition in the church, it is often forgotten that is at Jesus’s physical absence and enthronement that he has the ability and authority to send the Holy Spirit.

In this same way the ascension is now the basis by which the whole idea of the church as the body of Christ makes sense. It would be quite weird if Jesus’s body was physically present but yet we were still considered his body. Christ ascends so we can make up for his absence and things can go according to plan – not that Christ would single handedly take care of everything, but that he would work in and through his people. Christ’s body leaves earth, but comes to it in a much more special way―through those who follow in his footsteps enlivened by his Spirit.

There is the important idea, then, of passing on the mantle to disciples in Jesus’ ascension. Another aspect to studying the ascension is to realize that it has many parallels within both the Greco Roman and Jewish worlds. For neither Greco Romans nor Jews was there much to be said for “going to heaven” at death. For the Greco Romans someone would typically go to heaven to become a god, and this is probably most relevant in the Imperial Cult during the NT era.

For the Jews, even in the OT, going to heaven at death is not that prevalent a theme in their literature. In Jewish literature closer to the time around the NT, interest in going to heaven explodes, but it has to do with going there to receive visions, not somewhere to go after death. In the OT itself there is surprisingly small precedent for Jesus’s ascension. The only examples are possibly Enoch, and clearly Elijah. And among the parallels between Elijah’s ascension in 2 Kings 2 and Jesus’s as it is here in Acts is the fact that it as at the ascension of Elijah that his disciple Elisha is then able to follow in his footsteps.

Having looked at both accounts of the ascension of Christ, I would like to flesh out some more theological significances of the ascension. Continuing in the whole idea of following in Jesus’s footsteps in his bodily absence, I want to put on the table how the ascension relates to Jesus’s return.

There are several ways in which Jesus’s life is the paradigm for believers. Not only his devotion to God’s kingdom, his selflessness, his ethics, his teachings, etc. But also the fact that just as he died, there is a sense in which believers must die. Just as he was resurrected, we will be resurrected. A lot of the time the ascension has been treated in the same way―he went to heaven, so that tells us that we are going to go to heaven. Is this right?

Before we answer that, let’s consider the question: Does Jesus belong in heaven? In one sense, yes. He is divine. He is enthroned. But that’s not where he will stay if what we’re talking about is a heaven separated from earth. In Acts 3:21 Peter says that Jesus “must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration.”

This universal restoration is the biblical vision of a new heaven and a new earth by the fusion of both, and Jesus does indeed belong right in the middle of this, for he is the means by which the new heaven and new earth come together. Through his ascension from earth to heaven, his return involves bringing heaven to earth. And what this means for us is not that we get to go to heaven but that we are resurrected into God’s newly restored earth where heaven is no longer separated.

We aren’t seeing the ascension for what it is if we think it’s merely a picture of what we are going to do. Even in Philippians 3:20 Paul says “Our citizenship is in heaven,” but he says “it is from there that we are expecting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The angels who appear after he ascends don’t say “and you will go in the same way,” but “he will come back in the same way.”

So, Christ died and so we die. Christ was resurrected, and so we will be resurrected. But only Christ ascends to heaven as an embodied person.

Related to this is that the ascension is the greatest biblical illustration of the goodness of physicality. Christianity has long had to deal with the falsehood that the physical is bad. The Gospel account makes so clear Jesus’s physicality by having him show his wounds and eat fish. It is as this embodied human that Jesus goes to heaven, not as a disembodied soul. The entire human being is therefore granted heavenly status with Jesus as its representative.

The 5th century archbishop Nestorius said it was the “Lord’s ascension by which he has placed our nature in the heavenlies.” It is in this way that we become who we are meant to be, reigning, shining people reflecting the image of God. J.G. Davies writing in the 1950’s in one of the few book-length treatments about the ascension: “”It consummates the reconciliation between man and God which is effected by God putting himself in man’s place at the incarnation and by man being put in God’s place at the ascension.”

The goodness of the whole physical creation is affirmed and restored through the taking up of Jesus’ resurrected body into heaven and his return from there, and he brings all of the glory of God’s redemption with him. This is the hope of the gospel. It is this ascended Lord that we worship and look forward to, who is no longer is asleep in the boat when a storm is coming but is always and everywhere present, and who we encounter when we take the bread and wine as his body to remember his first coming and look forward to and in our living, serving, and working, anticipate his return.

What if Christians were known for our belief in resurrection?

“We believe that a person without a body is incomplete. Salvation involves the renewal of a person’s life in a resurrection body.”

“A body?”

“Yes.”

“An actual body?”

“Yes.”

“So … reincarnation …?”

I witnessed a conversation like this take place a few days ago at a Greek Orthodox church in town. I was there for the annual Greek Festival. Greek food, Greek drink, Greek dancing, Greek jewelry.

And Greek rock walls and Greek bouncy things.

Oh, and of course, Greek Orthodoxy as well. A priest offered tours of the sanctuary, and he explained in detail why the architecture is designed as it is, why icons (images of Christ and the saints) are so important. He even took questions, and one of them led him to this discussion, with this woman in the front row who seemed baffled that Eastern Orthodox Christians keep as central to their idea of salvation the idea of resurrection into an actual body.

The priest gave a fine explanation of what resurrection is, particularly as opposed to reincarnation. Reincarnation is the idea of a soul transferring from body to body over time with no real memory of previous incarnations. Resurrection, on the other hand, is the belief that a person is created and possesses only one body. Death separates a person from his or her body but God will in the age of salvation reconstitute that person to an embodied existence. I leaned over to my Episcopalian friend and whispered “Protestants often forget this.” She nodded in agreement.

I don’t know whether or not this woman was herself a Christian. If she was, I doubt I would be any more surprised by the fact that she found the Christian doctrine of resurrection so foreign to her perception.

Christians have not been known for their belief and hope in resurrection for a long time. We have instead been known for many other things, such as the majority stance on marriage, praiseworthy things such as our commitment to charity, or not so praiseworthy things such as our frequent hypocrisy.

When it comes to the idea of Christian salvation itself, if those outside the Church know anything about it, they probably are familiar with the idea that Christ died for sins. And they probably are aware as well that the majority view among Christians is that salvation is found in Christ alone. And what that salvation probably seems to entail is a disembodied ethereal existence “in” some sort of non-place called “heaven.”

Are Christians ever known for their belief in resurrection? Perhaps that of Jesus alone … I do hear “Happy Zombie Jesus Day” at least once every Easter Sunday. But the fault is our own that we are not known for our belief in resurrection–not just “the resurrection of Christ,” but, properly represented, the resurrection of essentially the world.

The Christian doctrine of resurrection became central after the singular resurrection of Jesus himself. But resurrection formerly conceived in the Jewish thought world was a broad concept. Snippets of the Old Testament (e.g., Isaiah 65) and early Jewish sources indicate a view that God’s salvation at a certain point in the future would consist of him renewing and recreating the physical world–and physical human bodies as part of that world.

Though we can find clear traces of such a belief, it was not nearly as central to Jewish teaching as it would become in early Christianity. After Jesus’s resurrection, hopeful expectation in a renewal of the rest of the world became the cornerstone for the entire doctrine of salvation.

The Nicene Creed, which (whether your church has anything to do with it or not) for over 1.5 millennia has helped provide a canon for what is seen as orthodox, historical, Christian belief, holds to belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Salvation in an actual, physical body? Sounds more like reincarnation to those who have been accustomed to Christian salvation being concerned with disembodied souls making their way through pearly gates.

This is the way Christians for the past couple centuries or so have articulated what they look forward to, and the wider world has gone along with it. There is no room for belief in a renewed physical existence in this world within this system, and so biblical texts that plainly teach resurrection such as 1 Corinthians 15 are simply not seen for what they are vividly attesting.

So what is the harm of not having a belief in resurrection?

Simply put, the harm is that the physical world proclaimed by God as “good” and even “very good”in Genesis is seen as that which God is seeking to save his people from. The value and beauty of the “stuffness” of the earth and our bodies are diminished. And it is tragic.

It is a distortion. It is twisted. And it makes us friends with death, when death is rather the last enemy to be defeated (see the great resurrection chapter of 1 Corinthians 15). The truth is not that death is good because with it we are finally separated from our bodies; the truth is death is bad because it means our end. Unless we are saved.

Thank God we have such a savior.

What if Christians were known for our hope in the divine redemption instead of the world instead of the divine rejection of the world? What if Christians were known for holding steadfast to the goodness of the world we live in instead of looking forward to an escape from it?

What if Christians were known for our belief in resurrection?

For a very readable, concise introduction to Christian theology that retains the centrality of resurrection, buy the great little book From Resurrection to New Creation: A First Journey in Christian Theology by Michael W. Pahl.

Learning to Look from Maurice Sendak

I’m pretty sure I could count on asking anyone my age if they read Where the Wild Things Are when they were young and they’d probably look at me funny.

Everyone read this book. And I bought a copy for my niece a few years ago to make sure she would.

Its author, Maurice Sendak, died yesterday. He was 83.

On Fresh Air with Terry Gross last night, they aired segments of his interviews that they had broadcast over the past couple of decades.

Sendak was ethnically Jewish, but not so much in the religious sense. When Terry asked him if he ever wishes he had faith, he quickly responded, “No. I don’t need it.”

He went on:

“I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets. The war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I — it made no sense to me. It made no sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish. … You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she’s probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life.”

And so faith in God, for this remarkable, sensitive, thoughtful, artistic man, is equated with a need for something to get through life.

With that definition of “God,” I might have to say I don’t need faith either. If I wasn’t a theist, what could otherwise get me “through the narrow straits of life” are those things that I, as a believer, must sometimes call idols in my own life if I were to name them for what they are.

In other words, I don’t believe in God because I don’t love art. I don’t believe in God because I don’t depend on beauty. I don’t believe in God because music does nothing for me, or reading does not satisfy me, or nature or exquisite architecture does not give me peace.

I believe in God not because he is about “getting me through the narrow straits of life.” I could do this with my own Melvilles, Dickinsons, and Mozarts. I believe in God, and I have a choice for faith, because not only of what I believe God is but because of what I believe God is not.

That is, he is beautiful, but he is not the beauty found in one mere sonnet. He is just, but he is not the totality of a righteous decision made the courts. He is love,but he extends way beyond the love that we are capable of demonstrating, or even imagining. He is the creator, but his creative power is not wholly enveloped in these small vessels.

These things, while meaningful in themselves, are pointers to some(thing/one) else. I think I could instruct Sendak on one simple point. But, like all good teachers, I would need to learn my own lesson first. I think we all, for that matter, could learn to do one thing better and better when we are enjoying these things I’ve called “pointers” — LOOK.