Archive for March, 2010

On Holy Saturday

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Halden Doerge at Inhabitatio Dei has posted a great quote from Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 431.

It is a very different God, and a very different power, that we have discovered in the story of divine self-emptying, God’s capacity for weakness, the ability – without loss of Godness – to suffer and perhaps to die. This is the triune God of Jesus, fulfilled, majestic, glorified through self-expenditure in the lowly ignominy of our farthest country. There is power here, resurrecting, death-destroying, Devil-defeating; but it is the power of love, defying human expectation, which flowers in contradiction and negation, allowing sin its increase and giving death its day of victory, but only the more abundantly to outstrip both in the fecundity of grace and life. To live in the face of death an Easter Saturday existence, trusting in the weak but powerful love of the crucified and buried God, is itself to be objective, turned outward, away from self-reliance and self-preoccupation, away from our own determination to conquer death, which is in fact self-defeating and destructive. Instead, we are invited bravely and with frankness to admit or own defenselessness against the foe and entrust our self and destiny to the love of God which in its defenselessness proves creative and victorious.

Palm/Passion Sunday (reprise)

Friday, March 26th, 2010

First published March 31, 2009:

Not everyone knows that many parts of the Christian tradition have renamed “Palm” Sunday, “Passion” Sunday, referring to the passion, or suffering, of our Lord in the week to come. Some churches and traditions currently use both names (“Palm/Passion Sunday”–a bit odd-looking), perhaps thinking of this time as a transition period between the old name and the new. Most of us probably have an intuitive preference for “Palm” over “Passion.” We like the palm-waving, the acclamations, maybe even a parade with a real donkey. It’s a festive occasion, a chance to celebrate a little Easter and Ascension before the doom and gloom of Holy Week–a brief respite from Lent before Lent hits one last time, hits like a ton of bricks.

That might be part of the problem, and the reason for a need to change the name. The “triumphal entry” is full of paradoxes, some of which are obvious (a king on a donkey), while others are not. It is too easy to forget that this king embodies a countercultural kind of royalty, a kingship not of traditional power and glory but one of self-giving and suffering. It is too easy to separate the Palm-Sunday Jesus from the Good-Friday Jesus and then to conclude that somehow the Good-Friday Jesus is only a temporary figure between the Palm-Sunday Jesus and the Easter Jesus. 

Nothing could be further from the truth about Jesus. He is king and lord, not in spite of Good Friday, but because of Good Friday. He reigns from the cross, as the Gospel-writers each tell us in their own way. We give him “all glory, laud, and honor” as our king and lord because his cross reveals the true nature of his kingship and of God: self-giving, forgiving, powerful-in-powerlessness love. Palm Sunday is Passion Sunday, and vice versa. The “Palm/Passion” people have it right, as odd as it may look.

Philippians 2 and the Story we tell this Sunday

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

As we approach Palm/Passion Sunday, I want to offer some reflections on Philippians 2 from my forthcoming article on this text, which is called “The Apologetic and Missional Impulse of Phil 2:6-11 in the Context of the Letter.” Philippians 2:5(6)-11 is the epistle reading in the lectionary for this Sunday. Non-lectionary-based churches should feel free to use it, too!

I would like to reflect directly, theologically and missionally, on our own context for reading Phil 2:6-11. I have suggested that it is the church’s master story that it recites in some form, as creed or poem or hymn, when it gathers for worship. The story’s immediate context suggests that the story it tells is inextricably connected both to its larger life together as koin?nia in the Spirit (2:1-4) and to its mission in the world (2:12-16).

Thus to recite the story liturgically is to remember the narrative shape of the One who, by the power of the Spirit, lives among us (and within whom we live) to form and re-form us into his image such that our individual and corporate narratives more faithfully resemble his. Worship of this God as Father, Son, and Spirit is therefore an exercise in spiritual formation for faithful living—for ethics and mission, if you will.

Part of that worship—its high point if we follow the trajectory of the story—is confessing “Jesus is Lord.” To confess Jesus as Lord, to the glory of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Spirit is relatively easy to do in the safety of a community of the like-minded. But as a group of Christians makes this confession week in and week out, or (better) day in and day out, and as it keeps that confession connected to the larger story, it becomes empowered to live and proclaim that story faithfully outside of its own walls.

Here the insights of Aristotle and Thomas on virtue are worth considering. We become what we practice. Our liturgical habits make it possible, or not, to live and tell the story faithfully, even naturally, over time. Churches that dispense with the telling of the story, perhaps in the interest of sensitivity to “seekers,” will eventually have nothing identifiably Christian to say, either to themselves or to those seekers. But since everyone, and every community, needs a master story, a new one will fill the void, and the new master story will carry with it a new, and most likely alien, ethic and mission. The final consequence of this creedal amnesia will be that the church has nothing left to live for or, if necessary, to die for, that faithfully embodies the story of Jesus. (Parenthetically, this same consequence is likely for those with sacramental amnesia, though we learn that from the Corinthians [1 Cor 11:17-34] rather than the Philippians.) The church will, instead, call on its children to live and die (and even kill) for some allegedly noble cause, almost certainly one that is ethnic or nationalistic in nature. It will have come, thereby, full circle, reaping the whirlwind of its fear of confession. By neglecting the story and confession of Jesus as universal Lord, the Lord who rules as Suffering Servant, the church will substitute the universal Lord for a tribal deity and the Suffering Servant for a conquering king. Sadly, this has too often been the pattern of the church throughout its history, especially in its mission.

I would submit that the intrusion of an alien master story, and the ongoing re-conversion of the church to that pseudo-gospel, is the greatest and most persistent sin of the church, at least in the United States, today. From presidential claims, both Democrat and Republican, that the United States is the light of the world and the hope for human freedom, to the language of “mission” that permeates military discourse, to talk of “redemptive violence,” to the incorporation of nationalistic holidays and devotion into the liturgical life of the church, the church is constantly bombarded with temptations to honor an alien Lord with an alien mission in the world.

By telling and re-telling the church’s true master story, however, the church is empowered to cast off this alien master story and is prepared to live the story missionally and faithfully.

Wouldn’t Palm/Passion Sunday take on new meaning if we really understood, preached, and lived Philippians 2 as our master story and—most importantly—allowed it to challenge those alien master stories that seek to replace it?

Crossquotes (4): Cruciform Hope

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Cruciform hope implies a mission, not an eschatological daydream.

Mother Teresa on Peace

Friday, March 19th, 2010

“If everyone were capable of discovering the image of God in their neighbors, do you think that we would still need tanks and generals?”

—Mother Teresa, No Greater Love, pp. 47-48

Kavin Rowe’s “World Upside Down”

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I have just finished writing a brief book review of Kavin Rowe’s 2009 book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age. Kavin is a young and exciting New Testament scholar at Duke Divinity School, and the book is a fantastic exegetical and theological treatment of Acts.

Here is the beginning of the forthcoming review:

Few books are truly paradigm-shifting or landscape-altering. Yet this new book from Kavin Rowe has the potential to be such a book, to, in effect, turn the world of scholarship on Acts upside down. (Or, better, rightside up.) More importantly, it is a book that can reinvigorate the contemporary church as we corporately continue the world-changing narrative begun at Pentecost, recounted in Luke’s second volume, and deftly interpreted by Rowe.

Rowe’s objective, then, is twofold. First, he seeks to overturn, through careful exegesis, what he takes to be a fundamental misinterpretation of Acts that has reigned for nearly 300 years. This misreading claims that Acts is an apology for Christianity’s harmlessness toward Rome and thus a rationale for the harmonious coexistence of church and empire. Second, Rowe wishes simultaneously to read Acts as “lively political theology” (p. 7) and a “culture-forming narrative” (p. 4) that can provide both a theological framework and various theological resources for issues we face in the 21st century.

That may sound like a typical, rather facile political reading of a New Testament book: “critique of empire.” But it is not. Rather, Rowe offers a carefully nuanced, dialectical, and theologically rich analysis of the narrative texture of Acts that he summarizes in the phrase “New culture, yes—coup, no” (pp. 5, 91, 150). That is, the apocalypse of God in the life, death, and especially resurrection of Jesus offers humanity the culture of God—a whole new, integrated, theocentric way of believing and living—that destabilizes the existing culture, even as it is not in the least seditious or interested in political power.

One thing (among many) I really like about this book is Kavin’s careful attention to both the narrative of Acts and Luke’s “cultural encyclopedia”—the cultural intertexts, the social world reflected in the text, etc. Few scholars are as attentive to both as he is, and my appreciation for both is always strengthened when I read Acts (as I did last month) with students on-site in Turkey and Greece.

This book has many implications, not only for the study of Acts, but also for the church. Kavin does not spell all of these out, though he does devote a chapter to hermeneutical issues and the book is implicitly theological throughout. The gospel he finds narrated in Acts is one that both undermines fundamental aspects of existing culture and offers a new culture—more than beliefs, a worldview, or practices, but encompassing all of the above in an integrated Way that first de-stabilizes and then re-creates religion, philosophy, economics, politics, and more.

Highly recommended.

Brian McLaren (not) at Southern Seminary and at St. Mary’s

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Brian McLaren, the sometimes controversial emergent-church leader whose new book, A New Kind of Christianity, is really stirring up some elements of the church, will be speaking at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology of St. Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, my institution, this coming Monday.

He will be giving an all-day seminar entitled “Worship as Spiritual Formation and Preparation for Mission” and then, at 7:30 in the evening, a free public lecture entitled “The Gospel, the Postmodern Conversation, and the Church that is Emerging.” The seminar is quite full (on-site registration is possible, but it will not include lunch), but there should be plenty of room Monday evening.

Brian McLaren is a friend of mine, and he comes at my invitation. That does not mean I agree with everything he says. (I don’t agree with everything anyone says.) I have not yet read his new book, and I may find it troubling. I don’t know. But Brian is nothing if not two things: sensitive to postmodern culture and serious about understanding the meaning and consequences of the gospel.

Is he a theologian? Technically, no. Does he need some theological guidance? Probably. (We all do.) Does that make him a heretic?

Yesterday the President and four faculty members from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary held a critical discussion of the book. Whatever you think of Brian McLaren, if you watch this video, you might want to ponder some questions about the nature of a panel book review (this one or any other):

1. Do the panelists attempt to summarize the content, argument, and purpose of the book objectively?

2. Is there diversity of perspective among the panelists?

3. Does the moderator moderate or dominate?

4. Is the tone of the panel appropriate to its context and function?

In any event, if you are in the Baltimore area, come on out Monday night!

Crossquotes (3)

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

Paul’s mission was to seek to “order the lives of Christian congregations by pulling everything into the tremendous gravitational field of the cross.” (Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul, p. 93)

(During Lent I will be posting some well-known and lesser known quotations about the cross. If their source is not indicated, then the author of this blog post is the source. I invite any reflections or observations about them.)

Paul and the Gospel of Thomas

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Over at peje iesous, Chris Skinner is doing an interesting series of posts on Paul and the Gospel of Thomas, with the first three as follows:

1. Introduction
2. Three introductory issues
3. GosThom 3 and Rom 10:5-8

Crossquotes (2)

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

“Those who bear crosses work with the grain of the universe.” (John Howard Yoder)

“The cross is not only the source, but also the shape, of our salvation.”

(During Lent I will be posting some well-known and lesser known quotations about the cross. If their source is not indicated, then the author of this blog post is the source. I invite any reflections or observations about them.)