Archive for December, 2009

A Blessing for the New Year

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

A Franciscan Benediction (anonymous), courtesy of Christian Peace Witness:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Intersection: Christmas and the New Year in Divine Perspective

Monday, December 28th, 2009

These words from my friend Margo, an Orthodox Christian, are worth bearing in mind at this time of year:

Ah, the intersection we celebrate today—the intersection of Divine Glory with humankind for all time and all peoples. Imagine—that once upon a time, the God of the universe looked out on all the celestial galaxies he had created and chose, of them all, one of the smallest planets, and one of the smallest nations, one of the smallest towns, one of the smallest inn-side stables—there to be born as a tiny, helpless babe. Is it any wonder the whole earth sings today? And so may we, and may you too, join in this universal song: “Joy, joy, joy!”

We wish you a blessed intersection this year—a transforming moment in time, when God and you intersect again, anew, for a truly blessed new year.

Christmas vs. Civil Religion

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

Over at Restoring Shalom, Brian Gorman (no relation :-) ; just kidding) has a post on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation with excellent insights about Christmas and civil religion. (True confessions: he wanted us to watch the movie before church on Christmas Eve; I said I did not think it was much of a Christmas-Eve film, but he [again] proved me wrong.)

Also, in contrast to that kind of civil religion, here is a favorite poem of mine, which I read at Christmas dinner:

The Risk of Birth

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And, by a comet the sky is torn—
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

—Madeleine L’Engle

A Blessing for Christmas Eve and Day

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

Christ, who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly, grant you the fullness of inward peace and goodwill, and make you partakers of the divine nature; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always.

—Concluding blessing from the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, Kings College, Cambridge

Joyous Christmas to All!

(Faithful readers: note the theme of theosis!)

The Virginal Conception of Jesus

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Jason Goroncy offers some helpful words about this subject, which puzzles many:

The miracle of the virgin conception is a judgement against the possibility of the creature producing its own word of revelation and reconciliation. It is a judgement against us thinking that we can know God apart from God’s initiative, and that we might save ourselves apart from God’s bloody intrusion into our situation. It is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to be God for us, to unveil for us, to reconcile us. And it is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to save us, and that by becoming personally involved – literally enfleshed – in the deepest depths of creaturely experience. This is why it is Good News. In PT Forsyth’s words, ‘The Virgin birth is not a necessity created by the integrity and infallibility of the Bible; it is a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the Gospel, and by the requirements of grace’. (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 14).

As others have pointed out, both Forsyth (pre-Barth) and Goroncy (post-Barth) sound a lot like Karl Barth himself on this subject.

Once Again: Christmas is NOT Jesus’ Birthday

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

(First posted last year [12/28/08], and now the subject of a skit in a local church [is there a movie in the offing?], this popular reflection seems timely once again. I am posting it before Christmas this year in the hope that some churches may do something with it.)

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.

Audio of Biblical Lectures and Courses Online

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

Over at Text, Community & Mission, Daniel has posted a very nice set of links to audio courses (some) and lectures (many) in the area of biblical studies. The majority of the lectures are by prominent American and British evangelical scholars, but there are others, too. Among those you can listen to are Dale Allison, Richard Bauckham, Greg Beale, Walter Brueggemann, Jimmy Dunn, Bart Ehrman, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Beverly Roberts Gaventa [under "R"], Justo Gonzalez, Christine Hayes, Richard Hays, Larry Hurtado, Bob Jewett, Craig Koester, Juergen Moltmann, John Polkinghone, Peter Stuhlmacher, Chris Seitz, Kevin Vanhoozer, Francis Watson, John Webster, Ben Witherington, and N.T. Wright.

Update: Daniel informs me that he also has a Biblical Studies on iTunes page. These are courses (mainly) and some other lectures from various seminaries and universities.

Lots to listen to with free time during the Christmas season!

Advent IV

Monday, December 21st, 2009

The text for reflection is Revelation 3:20.

Christ is still knocking. It is not yet Christmas. But it is also not the great final Advent, the final coming of Christ. Through all the Advents of our life that we celebrate goes the longing for the final Advent, where it says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). Advent is a time of waiting, Our whole life, however, is Advent—that is, a time of waiting for the ultimate, for the time when there be a new heaven and a new earth, when all people are brothers and sisters and one rejoices in the words of the angels: “On earth, peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” Learn to wait, because he has promised to come. “I stand at the door…” We however call to him: “Yes, come soon, Lord Jesus!” Amen.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst”

(I beg my readers not to complain that waiting sounds passive and that the promise sounds individualistic. This is Dietrich Bonhoeffer [no passive-ist he], and this text is far from an individualistic hope.)

Obama’s Oslo Speech

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

Like many other theologians and church leaders, I had some real difficulties with (a) Obama’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize and (b) Obama’s discourse on just-war theory and “realism” as his acceptance speech. I’ve not had the time to read many of the responses, but my friend Brian McLaren has a very good one. (I found another friend’s, Stanley Hauerwas’s, perhaps equally insightful but not as clearly written.)

Paul and the Incarnation

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

We students of Paul tend to be rather myopic about the role of the cross in his theology and spirituality. Some of us have begun to broaden a bit to grant the resurrection a more significant role. But few of us have sufficiently listened to Paul on the subject of incarnation.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me, at least, that for Paul incarnation is as inseparable from the cross as is resurrection. A few texts to keep in mind:

Phil 2:5-8

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Note here that there are no fewer than four phrases that express incarnation—(1) emptied himself, (2) taking the form of a slave, (3) being born in human likeness, (4) being found in human form—to anticipate and complement the subsequent stress on the cross. To have the mind of Christ is to be incarnational as well as cruciform, and the two realities, both Christologically and practically, are mutually interpreting.

2 Corinthians 8:9

9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

Here Paul grounds his plea for generosity on the part of the Corinthians in the incarnation. This is one of Paul’s “interchange” texts that connects his Christology to his soteriology: Christ became what we are so that we might become what he is, as the early Fathers put it. But also, as in Philippians 2, this text is not only about Christology and incarnation, but also about the mind of Christ and ethics.

Romans 8:3-4

3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

This is another kind of “interchange” text, with the emphasis on God’s initiative (rather than Christ’s), but again with a combination of soteriology and ethics. There is also a very evident Trinitarian theology here. (2 Corinthians 9:15 is also more theocentric, balancing 2 Corinthians 8:9: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” 2 Corinthians 5:21 is similar in structure to Romans 8:3-4, but its emphasis is on the cross.)

Galatians 4:4-6

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

This is perhaps the first text people think of when they say “incarnation” and “Paul” in the same breath. Like Romans 8:3-4, here there is a Trinitarian theology expressed in the parallelism between God’s sending of the Son and God’s sending of the Spirit. The soteriology is expressed as redemption and adoption (see also Romans 3:21-26, with emphasis on the cross, and Romans 8:1-17, with similar emphasis on the experience of adoption and knowing God as Father).

With these texts in mind, we can draw five very significant conclusions:

1. Incarnation and cross are inseparable.
2. Both incarnation and cross are necessary for our salvation.
3. Both incarnation and cross express the self-giving love of God in Christ.
4. Both incarnation and cross should narratively shape the Christian believer and community into the image of Christ, decisively affecting Christian praxis in multiple ways and in all areas of life.
5. A Pauline theology/spirituality of theosis (becoming like God, in Christ, by the Spirit) is able to hold incarnation and cross together. And with that link, incarnation, cross, and resurrection/exaltation are all tied together in Paul.

(In addition, at least implicitly, the parousia may be parallel to the incarnation. But that’s for another day. Now we only need to discern how aspects of the “life of Christ”—or at least his teachings—fit into Paul’s narrative theology from incarnation to exaltation. Not enough work has been done here, either.)