Archive for December, 2008

Christmas is not Jesus’ Birthday

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

A growing number of churches have begun the practice of using Christmas as a time to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. They do this by singing Happy Birthday to Jesus (even in worship services) and having birthday parties for Jesus. Trouble is, Christmas is not Jesus’ birthday. It is the celebration of the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity; it is the celebration of the birth of the Son of God. But it is not Jesus’ birthday.

I think I grasp the motive behind this trend: including children in Christmas and making Jesus seem like one of us/them (children). But even from this perspective, is there any child who is not already spellbound by the Christmas story told in Scripture, with its array of interesting characters, its tension and intrigue, its sheer beauty?

The theological and spiritual dangers of trivializing and sentimentalizing the incarnation—and Jesus—are far greater than any supposed benefits of further including children and making them feel part of the celebration.

Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus would not seem to engender devotion to the One we are called to follow so fully that it might lead to death—yet the Church remembers Stephen, the first martyr, on December 26, the day after Christmas. Singing Happy Birthday to Jesus reflects an understanding of Jesus as a cute little baby or little boy who could cause no trouble and do no harm. But that is not what Herod thought, so the Church remembers his slaughter of the innocents on December 28. In other words, the shadow of the cross is present in the Scriptural Christmas narrative, and in the Church’s way of framing its celebration, but it is absent from the “Happy Birthday, Jesus” mindset.

We do not need any more Christmas customs that further divorce Christmas from discipleship. Let’s get rid of this theological error before it does more spiritual harm.

Some Fundamental Features of Salvation in the NT (1)

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Advent is the season of preparation for our salvation. With that in mind, I begin today a short series on salvation in the New Testament. The first two posts will be seven theses that serve as prolegomena to a series of  propositions on the actual substance of  salvation in the New Testament. These theses will be more full developed in my forthcoming article on salvation in volume 5 of the New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.

   1. Salvation in the NT is thoroughly Christocentric. The NT knows of salvation only in and through Jesus Christ. The Johannine statement  “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) is not an exceptional and narrow perspective within the NT. Rather, it encapsulates the entire NT’s view of salvation.
   2. Because NT salvation is Christocentric, it is constituted by the narrative of Christ from incarnation and ministry to death and resurrection to parousia. Each part of this narrative has a function in salvation, and different NT texts focus on different parts of the story. But the NT’s most distinctive internal dynamic of salvation is that of death and resurrection, both Christ’s and ours.
   3. At the same time, salvation in the NT is thoroughly theocentric. For the NT writers it is the God of Israel, the one true God, who saves in and through Jesus Christ.
   4. NT soteriology is therefore biblical, meaning that the NT writers see salvation in Jesus Christ as a continuation of God’s activity in and for Israel as recounted in the Scriptures as a whole and especially as promised in the prophets. Throughout the NT, salvation is depicted both explicitly and implicitly as new creation, new humanity, new exodus, new covenant, and the like. This newness suggests both continuity and discontinuity with God’s past dealings with Israel.
   5. NT soteriology is, therefore, a narrative soteriology. Not only is it constituted by the story of Christ, but the story of Christ is part of a larger narrative from creation to Israel to Christ to church to new creation.

(Theses six and seven will follow.)

Some Thoughts About Singing…

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Methodists are singing people. Charles Wesley wrote more than 5,000 hymns. We sing whenever we gather for worship, and often at other times. If singing is so central to what we do, it might be valuable to think a bit about what we are actually doing.

St. Augustine (354-430) said famously that “to sing is to pray twice.” Another ancient church saying went like this: “lex orandi, lex credendi,” meaning “the law of praying is the law of believing,” or “our prayers reveal what we really believe.”

If our prayers reveal our deepest beliefs, and if singing is praying twice, then it follows that what and how we sing is extraordinarily important. (Perhaps that’s why John Wesley gives us instructions; see the front of our hymnals.) In fact, what we sing not only reveals our beliefs and attitudes, it shapes them. The more you sing Christian songs or hymns, the more their theology and spirituality becomes part of you—for better or worse, since not all Christian music has good theology and spirituality in it!

When we sing, it can do something to us, often something that mere speech, even speech that is prayer, does not and cannot do. We own the prayer-song, and it owns us. It becomes embedded in us, and we may draw on that music in times of great joy or sorrow.

As we sing and listen to sacred music, whether traditional or contemporary, we are being changed, molded, transformed. That is why the temple had musicians, why the Bible has 150 psalms (songs), why St. Paul told his churches to sing (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19), and why the apostle even includes some verses of hymns or poems in his letters (Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20).

For all these reasons, it is crucial that musicians select music that reflects good theology and spirituality, and why we should all consider the words of Wesley:

• Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.
• Sing modestly. Do not bawl, as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
• Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.

Let us continue to “make a joyful noise to the Lord,” in every season of the church year.

Ann Jervis on suffering

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

My friend and colleague in Pauline studies, the Rev’d Ann Jervis of Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, has recorded a very fine interview with an Australian journalist on the topic of her book on suffering in Pauline perspective entitled At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message (http://www.amazon.com/At-Heart-Gospel-Suffering-Christian/dp/0802839932). She can be heard for a few weeks at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/spiritofthings/, under the date of Nov 30, 2008. The program can also be downloaded; her interview is the first half of the 55-minute program.


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