Unworthy Ministers of a Liberating Gospel

ChristCleansing

Christ cleansing a leper by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864.

Days come when I wake up in the morning and cannot talk myself into feeling worthy to lead any ministry in any capacity. Weeks of fighting hard against your own sinful habits and tendencies mean next to nothing to you in the hours and the days following a massive, messy collapse. Those are the moments in which you will want to give up – to throw your hands in the air and say, “I’ve always known I wasn’t cut out for this, and here is the proof.”

So you’ll probably do something incredibly unhealthy. If you’re like me, you’ll employ the fake-it-till-you-make-it method of dealing with your own unworthiness. Rather than allowing yourself to feel the weight of your sin and then allowing yourself to be healed by the grace of God, you will suppress both the pangs of crushing guilt and the peace of experiencing God’s ongoing forgiveness. Rather than offering yourself freshly to Jesus, you’ll ‘give God a few days to cool down’. And if you’re in any sort of leadership position in the Church, you’ll put on your best “I’m doing fine” face and carry on doing the work of God without the Spirit’s guidance.

I remember just how messed up I am every time I speak condescendingly to my girlfriend and watch the sense of security with me disappear from her eyes. It is crushing to realize that you are the kind of person that makes others feel unsafe. I remember just how not-holier-than-anybody I am every time I make the conscious decision to take the easy rather than the ethical course of action when nobody is watching. And if the conversations I’ve had with other believers are an accurate representation of the norm, everyone is like me.

Not everybody’s sins are the same, but everybody’s sins are equally crippling. Whether you’re a porn addict or an emotional terrorist or just kind of a jerk, your sins are crippling. And if, like me, you’re tasked with leading others in ministry on a regular basis, the crippling effects of your constant moral failure can eat you alive.

The lie that we believe, that dominates our lives, is that we are uniquely jacked up. Because we can only know other people to a certain degree, it’s an easy lie for the enemy to sell. While I can’t plumb the depths of anyone else’s depravity, I know my own far too well to trust myself with anything. And so it goes with everyone.

But the gospel poses an uncompromising challenge to the pervasive lie. Namely, that everyone, everywhere, is supremely, nauseatingly jacked up. If the Biblical narrative is true, then I can assume with confidence upon meeting anyone that somewhere beneath the human face they put on, a terrifying darkness is present. We just domesticate our actual-jacked-up-ness well. At our best, we are all one push away from collapsing back into utter debauchery.

Let me put it another way. Nobody is that well adjusted. Time and intimacy reveal the cracks in the asphalt of everyone, and all it takes is to look closely at someone for a moment to see how remarkably fragile they are. We have a threadbare righteousness.

That means you don’t have to feel like damaged goods when your actual-jacked-up-ness shows its ugly face. And if you’re someone tasked with leading others as a minister of the gospel, it should remind you that you’re leading a flock of jacked-up redeemed people as one after their own heart. You’re going to sin, and then you’re going to be numb for a while, and then you’re going to be hit like a train with the fact that you’re completely unqualified for the job of “spiritual guru”. In that moment, cling to that conviction. Because it’s true. Your real-life depravity completely disqualifies you from wearing the “spiritual guru” hat. But understand that it’s a joyous disqualification, because ‘spiritual gurus’ have nothing to offer people who are ‘crooked deep down’.

Instead, be a ‘wounded shepherd’, selling a story of good news for criminals like yourself.

Paul of Tarsus vs. Jesus of Nazareth?

Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_Project

Saint Paul by Bartolomeo Montagna, 1481

It’s been in vogue for the last 300 years to say that Paul crafted his own Jesus and used Him as a springboard for His own essentially Platonic philosophy. The argument goes that Paul, good Hellenistic Jew that he was, was influenced by Gnostic Redeemer myths. Rudolf Bultmann, who is a contender for the most-influential-theologian-of-the-20th-century title, was 50 shades of convinced. Today, however, this idea is losing ground as we struggle to actually locate specific examples of the elusive gnostic redeemer myths. But even as the academic community leaves behind the Gnostic-influence theory, the assumption that Paul distorted the original message of Jesus in order to turn Him into a cult god refuses to die. Scholars who hold this position draw a divide between “the Jesus of History” and the “Christ of faith.” The former was the poor and itinerant preacher/carpenter who left everything to preach an apocalyptic message to the poor in Palestine. The latter is essentially a Pauline invention that grafts outside ideas onto the Jesus character and adds depth and clarity to what Paul claimed was the meaning of His life, death, and purported resurrection.

Findings by E. Earle Ellis have made that a profoundly unlikely scenario. Ellis identified pre-Pauline creedal material embedded within numerous Apostolic writings. Notably, nearly all of Paul’s epistles contain some form of quotation from what is presumably an early hymn, creed, or prophecy. These quotations contain material that paint Jesus in the kind of exalted light that scholars often attribute to the creative additions of Paul, but which inevitably emanate from a tradition that pre-dates Paul. To illustrate, I have stitched together several of these pre-Pauline creedal quotations found in the Pastoral Epistles* to reconstruct what one of the early creeds might have looked like:

“Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.
He is the blessed and only sovereign,
The King of kings,
The Lord of lords,
The only one who has immortality,
Dwelling in unapproachable light;
No one has seen or can see Him,
To Him be honor and eternal might.
But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared,
He saved us —
Not by works of righteous that we had done,
But according to His mercy,
Through the washing of regeneration
And renewal by the Holy Spirit.
He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly
Through Jesus Christ our savior,
So that having been justified by His grace,
We may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.
For if we have died with Him,
We will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He will also deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful,
For He cannot deny Himself.
For there is one God,
And one mediator between God and humanity,
Christ Jesus, Himself human,
Who gave Himself — a ransom for all,
A testimony at the proper time.
Amen.”

What makes these findings significant is that they render much of the speculation about Paul’s role in the development of early Christian theology obsolete. Far from ‘inventing’ a whole slew of new ideas, he largely worked with the faith that he himself inherited from the earliest believers. It also demonstrates that the first century Christians were not so ‘primitive’ after all.

With this in mind, we’re in a good place to (finally) call the oft-purported chasm between Pauline-soteriological thought and Jesus’s ethical and eschatological teaching into question. Free from the modern orthodoxy’s insistence that Paul and Jesus taught competing worldviews, it quickly becomes apparent that, despite contrary claims by some, Paul and Jesus aren’t so different.

Not least among their similarities is that their teachings are often hyper-existentialized at the expense of preserving their common ethical commission. Bultmann and others helped to set this precedent, which ironically Evangelicalism now keeps alive. Whether it’s reducing repentance to feeling bad about sinning or reinterpreting the Sermon on the Mount as ‘high ideals’ to live up to, it has often been the case that western Evangelicals in the last few centuries have blunted the transformative force of the New Testament proclamation.

Baptist Ethicist Glen Stassen spent decades calling for a “thicker Jesus” amongst his Evangelical colleagues and brethren. It should come as no surprise, because the bulk of his research was oriented around the Sermon on the Mount. His work delves deeply into the radical social significance of Jesus’s life and teaching, and, in doing so, illustrates the heavy continuity between the life of Jesus and the ministry of Paul. Over against the disintegrating tendencies of both conservative and liberal scholars who hold the two at arms length, good hermeneutics (and faithful obedience to Jesus) demands that we recouple the two central voices of the New Testament. And that means that, in addition to Glen Stassen’s thicker Jesus, we need a thicker Paul.

And we’re in luck. Because as we are forced to lean into Paul more deeply and more sustainedly than before, we inevitably find that he only actually makes any sense in light of the life and teaching of Jesus. It is common and correct to read his work from the vantage point of Jesus’s death and resurrection, as Bultmann advocates. But it is incomplete to do only that. Every bit as much as Paul writes out of the overflow of the resurrection of Christ, he writes in the footsteps of His teaching and in imitation of His life. John Dominic Crossan once said, “If you read Jesus after reading Paul, you’ll read Jesus wrong. But if you read Paul after reading Jesus, you’ll read Paul differently.” I’m certain that Crossan would say that I read both Jesus and Paul wrong, but his point stands. The more deeply we entrench ourselves in the Gospel recollections of Jesus’s pre-Passion ministry, the more clearly we are able to hear Paul speaking. It is true that Paul can often be confusing. I say that in the company of his friend and occasional sparring partner, Peter (2 Pet. 3:16). But from the vantage point of the life and teaching and cross/resurrection of Jesus, Paul often speaks quite plainly.

For example, upon a close reading of his epistle to the Romans, it becomes clear that Paul had more in mind when writing the iconic epistle than simply imparting doctrinal knowledge. Evidently, his motivation was largely to repair the fragile and strained relations between the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome and, by extension, throughout the Empire. He therefore crafts his entire theological argument around the movements of Israel’s history in such a way that God’s redemptive intentions toward the Gentiles is front and center – and in doing so, he illustrates that the unity between the two bodies is the inevitable outworking of God’s cosmic redemption. In the most immediate sense, he hoped to include the predominately Gentile Churches of Rome in the collection that he was taking up for the impoverished and persecuted churches in Jerusalem—most of whom were predominately Jewish. Paul was here putting a transforming initiative of Jesus into practice as a means of reconciliation in the Church. He seems to have been working off of Luke 14:12-14:

“He said also to the man who had invited him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.'”

By indebting the Jewish churches—who largely looked down on their Gentile brothers and sisters—Paul would kick open the door for the Holy Spirit who indwelt both parties to smash the pretensions of the Jewish believers toward their Gentile brothers benefactors. Through including the Gentile believers in an act of holy love toward their Jewish brothers and sisters, Paul would make space for the Holy Spirit to fill them with the sort of love it requires for two groups who have long been in contention to be brought together under a common Messiah and in a common Spirit. This is only one example, but once you catch one, you begin to see them everywhere.

Given both a thicker Jesus and a Thicker Paul, the exegetical obstacles that have frozen New Testament scholarship in awkward limbo for centuries begin to melt away. In retrospect, there isn’t much of a dichotomy to be found between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” But there are certainly irreconcilable differences between the Jesus-soaked Paul of history and the neo-Platonist Paul that emerged in the writings of the post-Schleiermacher scholars. What we’re facing is not struggle between theological conservatism and theological liberalism, but a failure on the part of both conservative and liberal New Testament scholars to adequately synthesize the non-competing teachings found within the epistles of Paul and the canonical  Jesus tradition of the four gospels. When approached honestly, it is apparent that Paul of Tarsus only really makes sense in light of Jesus of Nazareth. Paul did not hijack Jesus in order to build a theology; Paul was hijacked by Jesus in order to build a Church.

 

 

 

*Note: The Pastoral Epistles consist of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. I am aware that they are often assumed to be inauthentic by scholars both conservative and liberal for a number of reasons. However, the arguments for their inauthenticity are bad. Like, really bad. I’m willing to bet that within a decade or so, we’ll have outgrown the notion that somebody else forged the documents in Paul’s name. I’ll probably write about this in the near future.

God Gets His Hands Dirty

Martin,_John_-_The_Seventh_Plague_-_1823

The Seventh Plague: John Martin’s painting of the plague of hail and fire (1823)

“Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.'”  So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men, and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said.” (Exodus 7: 8-13)

A consistent, though rarely dealt with, theme throughout the Pentateuch  is that, for the sake of redemption, God gets His hands dirty.

The Hebrew scholars tell me that the word used for ‘serpent’ in this passage is tannin, which is interesting because it differs from the word nachash used in Exodus 4:2-5 when God initially explains the signs to Moses. The significance lies in the connotations that each of the terms carry. Nachash is the term used in Genesis 3:1 in reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Tannin, on the other hand, was more commonly used in reference to the sea monsters that pervaded ancient Canaanite, Phoenician, and Hebrew mythology. More specifically, the sea dwelling tannin were (generally) understood as the creaturely personification of chaos and evil.

Aaron’s staff is turned into a serpent (tannin), a feat that is then copied by Pharaoh’s magicians, and the serpent (tannin) that God produced out of Aaron’s staff devours the serpent (tannin) produced by the magicians. If the tannin described in this passage elsewhere refers almost universally to the anti-creational forces of chaos that oppose the rule of God, then it’s unlikely that the passage at hand is an exception. The initial showdown described in Exodus 7:8-13 is not, theologian Peter Enns has pointed out, merely a showdown between Pharaoh and Moses/Aaron. Nor is it a showdown between Pharaoh and Israel. At one level, it is a showdown between Pharaoh and Yahweh. But even that is too myopic a reading. What we witness in this passage is foreshadowing of the drama that will ensue throughout the rest of the Pentateuch, and the rest of the Biblical narrative as a whole: the Creator of the universe overcomes the chaotic forces of darkness (tannin) that have usurped the world on their own terms. He will overcome tannin, sometimes, inevitably, by employing tannin.

God is not Deistically removed from the plight of creation, looking down in stoic disapproval at the mess we’ve made; He is Theistically active in the redemption of creation, to the point that He will work within the bounds of the fallenness of the world to rescue it. Hence, God will spill blood in the process of bringing about the end of blood-spilling. God will bring about an end to human violence, sometimes, inevitably, through Divine violence. Throughout the scriptures, and especially the Old Testament, God wears the warrior hat, not because He is fond of violence, but because He is bringing about its end. In the pages of the Torah we watch Yahweh crush a thousand Pharaohs in order that one day the may never be another Lamech. (Gen. 4:23-24)

That is why the satisfied God, who created all things to share in His own satisfaction, will enact plagues on Egypt (Ex. 7:14-11:10, 12:29-32): in order to further His redemptive operation. It is true that Egypt was met with the consequences of their communal oppression of the Israelites. But at a more foundational level, God’s act of vengeance on Egypt was driven by His love for the world – a love that moved Him to get His hands dirty. I’m about to cross the line with some people’s patience here: this is why the same God revealed in Jesus Christ (Col. 1:15; John 1:18; Heb. 1:3), the God who is Love (1 John 4:8,16), ordered the slaughtering of the Canaanites and others (Deut. 20:17; Josh. 6:21). This is why the God who “desires that all would repent and be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9) would harden the heart of Pharaoh and bring him to his knees (Ex. 11:8-10).

The horrific violence performed and sanctioned by God throughout the biblical narrative, far from being a break from character, emanates from His own faithfulness to His promise to bring about redemption to a sin-shattered world. It is, in fact, a deeper, warmer love than is intelligible to us that prevents Yahweh from being deterred from His project of reconciling the world to Himself by His own innate desire to preserve the lives of those who would prevent Him. In the endeavor to bring about a kingdom that operates on love, He cannot tolerate those who persist in hate. What the story of the Torah teaches us, amongst other things, is that God so loved the world that He was willing to work within the bounds of its fallenness to rescue it.

There Are No Magic Jesus Powers

Francisco_de_Solís_-_Annunciation_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

“And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. And he asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ And someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.’ … And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.’ And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, ‘Why could we not cast it out?’ And he said to them, ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.'” (Mark 9:14-29)

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” means that there are no magic Jesus powers. His healing ministry was not from His own power. He was not a magician. Contrary to popular misconceptions that assume that Jesus came to earth as some sort of Superhuman, Mark finds it very important to show us that Jesus’s miraculous exploits were the product of His being in step with the Holy Spirit through prayer. It is essential to historic Christian theology that when God the Son came to earth, He did so without any special advantages. He was a regular Jew with a 9 to 5 and a mom. All of the miraculous feats He performed, all of the counter-cultural teaching that He espoused, His supernatural compassion and concern for the outcast, His boldness, were all the product of His submission to and communion with God the Spirit, who indwelt Him.

This is important to grasp, in no small part because it clears the confusion that Jesus stirs up when He says to the original gathered Church, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) He really meant that we would do more than He did, not because we would be more powerful, but because as the Church multiplies and lost sinners are transformed into Spirit-filled believers, the ministry of Jesus itself multiplies and expands. Before His crucifixion, there was one Jesus who made disciples and incarnated the kingdom of God in the midst of a  broken world. Today, 2000 years after His resurrection, it is as though there are approximately 2.2 billion Jesuses walking the earth.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” also means that our ability to do anything spiritual, be it cast out demons (yeah, that actually happens), win souls for Christ, or overcome the darkness in us, comes from helpless dependence on God. We are not prayer warriors; the Holy Spirit is a prayer warrior. When we pray for ourselves, whether it’s for a greater love for the Father, a greater freedom from sin, a more obedient heart, etc., we are echoing the Holy Spirit’s earnest prayers on our behalf (Rom. 8:23, 26-27). Jesus walked in utter dependence on the Holy Spirit’s guidance as an incarnated human. We are no less dependent now that He indwells us. Every Christian believes in the Holy Spirit, but ‘believing’ in Him in any meaningful sense means living in a ‘dethroning’ submission to His lead. The person who believes in the Holy Spirit is always in prayer to seek His guidance. She is always communing with Him in prayer to know the Father more intimately. She is always laying down what remains of her stubborn will in prayer to let Him mold her into the image of Christ.

“This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” because we can only “do greater things than these” as people who are pathetic, weak, and like Jesus, are desperately dependent on the Spirit of God to enable us to find and carry out the will of God.

Sunday Sermon: Feeding The Multitudes

Ryan Ellington

FeedingMultitudes_Bernardo Feeding the multitudes by Bernardo Strozzi

“Now [the disciples]  had forgotten to bring  bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And [Jesus] cautioned them, saying, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread and Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see or having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to Him, “twelve.” [And He continued,] “and when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken…

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