The Continuing Presence of Jesus in the World

I read today a quotation emphasizing that Jesus has taken up residence in the human heart. I get it and I don’t think it’s wrong. The language of abiding in the gospel of John would indicate that Jesus continues to be present to his followers through a mutual indwelling. The problem, though, with the “Jesus in my heart” language is that we can internalize the saving work of God in the world. This turns salvation into a “Jesus and me” thing, and misses the larger social and material significance of the kingdom of God.

So, Jesus goes from being the marginal peasant who walked the dusty of roads of first century Palestine, embodying the kingdom of God, proclaiming a way of non-violence, creating new social arrangements by welcoming the unclean and sinners and tax collectors, providing space for women and children in the welcome of God, to living in the hearts of individuals. Jesus in the heart, in an age of expressive individualism, becomes a therapeutic presence, inspiring peace and tranquility, and personal, moral improvement. These are hardly things to put anyone to death over.

I guess if I were to play the other side, defend the “Jesus in my heart” expression of much of contemporary Christianity, I would have so say that God’s plan is to make the world better one heart at a time. But then I would have to explain how this expression of Christianity carries little of the radical social and material nature of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. I think at many churches you’re more likely to hear a sermon extolling the virtues of personal responsibility than you are to hear one on sharing possessions or turning the other cheek.

While I think I have something of Jesus in my heart, I think it is more in keeping with the incarnation, with the life that Jesus actually lived in the world, to think of his continuing presence as being with the prisoner, the hungry, the naked, the abandoned, the overlooked, the refugee, the poor and marginal, all those excluded in other realms of significance and power.

I was asked by a student a few years ago why incarnation isn’t a bigger theological warrant in our program. That seemed to him to be a pretty big oversight for a program emphasizing God’s mission. But our program does emphasize incarnation plenty if what counts is the life Jesus actually lived and the kingdom he actually proclaimed.

I know this is a grumpy old man kind of post. I have mounted a blatantly obvious soapbox. I’m not asking anyone to ask Jesus to please vacate their heart. If he’s there, that’s great. What I’m trying to suggest is that Jesus’ actual, ongoing presence in the world is bigger than your heart. In fact, you might want to see if the Jesus in your heart looks like the one who continues to be present in the world.

Ok, next post will have less snark.

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Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Some Observations

Twice in Matthew’s gospel, nearly complete verbatim agreement with Mark’s account is expanded to include a line from the prophets: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (9:13, 12:7). In the first instance, Jesus invites the Pharisees to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” I heard Andre Resner once refer to this as the first great commission in Matthew, which I have come to accept as gospel. In the second, the phrase points to the different approaches taken by Jesus and the Pharisees to the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath. In this instance, Jesus says, “If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”

I won’t take the time here to trace the enormously important theme of mercy in Matthew, but will just make the observation that this line from the prophet seems to serve as an interpretative approach to the law taken by Jesus in Matthew. This is not only how Jesus interprets Scripture, but how he interprets situations, and who he believes God to be. I think it is the clarion call of Jesus in Matthew to learn what it means to desire mercy, and not sacrifice.

So, what does it mean? Clearly in its original settings (Hosea with similar sentiments in Micah and Amos), it has some reference to the offering of sacrifices in the temple. The prophets indicate that God is not pleased with “thousands of rams or 10,000 rivers of oil.” Rather, the Lord requires justice, mercy, and humility (Micah 6:6-9). So at one level the saying has to do with not expecting favor with God through religious performance, but through a life that honors what God values.

In Matthew, the Pharisees have little or no interest in what is happening in the temple. They agree with Jesus that temple practice has been corrupted, and they view keeping favor with God as a matter of Torah observance. They share this value with Jesus who proclaims, “think not that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Mt 6:17). So, Jesus and the Pharisees share an emphasis on the proper performance of the law and the prophets, but they differ in approach. That difference in approach is encapsulated in the line, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

So, if sacrifice is the interpretative path the Pharisees take in Matthew, and temple observance is not in view, what is being indicated? I think the word that typifies this approach is the word “purity.” Matthew’s Pharisees are interested in observable aspects of the law that keep them pure or clean (sabbath, circumcision, diet, etc), not contaminated or unclean. It’s not hard to imagine that maintaining a reality through an appeal to purity would run headlong into conflict with an appeal to mercy. It’s not that purity is unimportant to Jesus, but if it becomes the primary way you understand God’s presence in the world, then you’ve misunderstood God. Mercy is the big umbrella category for understanding the way of the “kingdom of heaven.” And if there’s a conflict between mercy and purity, mercy wins.

I’ve had occasion to think about this more of late, especially as it comes to relationships. I’ve run afoul of this principle myself thinking that if certain things can be avoided, that if somehow purity or rightness can be achieved through strict observance, then the outcomes will be good. When we do this, we’re setting up everyone involved for failure, for resentment and shame.

I know Christians who are brutally hard on themselves and highly anxious because they have high standards of performance and I wonder if this isn’t evidence that purity, and not mercy, is piping the tune. In my students, I know some feel pressure to perform in systems that are high on demand and low on tolerance. I wonder if this isn’t evidence of valuing sacrifice, not mercy.

I know churches who are clearly more interested in keeping their precincts pure, whether morally or doctrinally, than they are modeling the way of mercy.

Here’s the rub, I think Jesus actually thinks you get more out of people through mercy, not sacrifice. I think Jesus is serious when he says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 5:20). I think that valuing mercy over sacrifice produces this exceeding righteousness. Mercy is an expansive way of being in the world. It often requires more of us in living it out than the quick drawing of lines enabled by the way of sacrifice. It can be a more rigorous “yoke.” But it is also the light burden. It is rest for the soul. Mercy creates possibility and it mitigates the debilitating effects of scolding and shaming. It recognizes our limitations and refuses to assess value in light of those. Mercy creates environments for flourishing and ultimately produces better, more productive people. Most importantly, mercy frees us toward God. Freed from guilt and shame, we can pursue God without fear.

I hope you can see that just as sacrifice is more than what you do in the temple, so mercy is more than just overlooking wrongdoing. It is a large organizing perspective on life. There are certainly times to establish boundaries and expectations. To use Miroslav Volf’s language, there are times to exclude and not embrace. But these should take place under the overall desire for mercy. In light of this, I’m mindful of Ubuntu, an African perspective on life that understands the self only in its relatedness to others. “I am, because we are.” Built into this way of being are empathy and trust. I’ve been told that Ubuntu is manifest in ways of dealing with people who have violated community standards. Instead of retribution, the way of sacrifice, offenders are surrounded by the community and reminded of all the positive things that person contributes to their collective life. Justice here is restorative, not retributive. The way of mercy. I wonder which produces better outcomes.

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Dave Grohl’s Rock Calling

I did the pilgrimage to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this week. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long given the fact that it’s only a three hour drive from where I’ve lived the past twelve years. It was a great experience, marred only slightly by the lack of attention given to Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. I mean, c’mon.

The main exhibit area is on the first floor where you find storytelling by memorabilia, large display windows with items like John Lennon’s guitar played in the Get Back documentary, or Mick Jagger’s football pants that he performed in one tour, or Little Richard’s sequined jumpsuit. The higher floors featured smaller exhibits, with the fourth floor displaying hall of fame inductees including the class of 2021. In one corner of a large display were instruments from the band, Foo Fighters. I had seen the HBO airing of the 2021 induction ceremony and loved the Foo Fighters part of the evening. They were inducted by Paul McCartney and played a Beatles’ song with him at the conclusion of the festivities.

That night, as with other times I’ve witnessed him, I’ve been impressed with Dave Grohl, the former Nirvana drummer, and now guitarist and frontman for Foo Fighters. He’s thoughtful about what he does. He seems grounded in family, and he is clearly loved by his bandmates. My middle daughter gave me, Dave Grohl the Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, for Christmas this year, and I’ve been savoring the reading.

I was struck by one of the opening chapters in which Grohl talks about the inevitability of his becoming a musician. “I was blessed with a genetic symphony,” he says, something in his DNA that needed only a “spark” to kindle it into existence. It was something given, less a decision or outcome of a series of decisions and more of a genetic destiny.

Two floors above the Foo Fighters’ exhibit was a small room with video pieces on rock guitar legends. One of them featured Keith Richards, the leather faced guitarist for the Rolling Stones. He began by saying that he had attended art school to be a painter, but came out a guitar player. This was not a choice, Richards says. It was given to him. The guitar chose him.

Nearly the exact same thing was conveyed by Tom Morello, guitar player for Rage Against the Machine. He took up the guitar at the age of 17, later than most accomplished musicians. Yet, once he had one in his hands, he knew this would become his way of life. The guitar chose him.

As someone who teaches theology at a Christian university, I recognize these as “calling” stories. As a university, we spend hours helping students explore their developing sense of vocation, or calling. While we attribute calling to God, at its most basic element calling has an external source and involves a pull into something greater than yourself, a pull into some purpose that makes your life meaningful. Grohl, Richards, and Morello all have a profound sense of this.

I’ve read similar things from and about other musicians. Willie Nelson claims no real gifts on his part as a songwriter, but something of a divine inspiration. Songs just come to him, fully formed. Anyone who has seen the documentary by Peter Jackson, Get Back, on the Beatles, is stunned by how things come to McCartney in particular. He’ll leave for the day and come back the next day with a song that he heard in a dream that night. This kind of genius seems otherworldly, mysterious both to us mere Muggles, and to the artists themselves.

Grohl is something of an exception here. He claims no divine source for his gift, but neither is it merely science, a set of genetic factors that produced a music making machine. He acknowledges that, genetics aside, it also requires a spark of some sort, something that ignites latent possibilities and fans them into flame.

Todd Schultz (my cousin’s husband), a respected and well published psychologist, has devoted his career to studying the “mind of the artist.” In his recent book, The Mind of the Artist: Personality and the Drive to Create, he suggests that artistry may be complex, but it is not mysterious. It is largely attributable to personality, and specifically to one personality trait among five identified by psychologists: the trait of openness. The other personality traits might vary among artists, but openness is nearly always determinative. These traits are largely inherited, part of Grohl’s “genetic symphony.”

I’m also reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, and his observation that genius typically requires 10,000 hours of “practice,” or performance. The Beatles we see in Get Back are not the Beatles who performed in the Cavern in 1960. By the time we find them in the documentary (1969), they had played thousands of hours in a strip club in Hamburg, and then years after that as a band writing and recording their own music. McCartney’s dreams were fueled by hours of playing other people’s songs, and by hours of collaboration with John, George, and Ringo. He was manifesting, among other things, his broad experience with a tradition and a community of collaborators.

Surely, Dave Grohl’s “genetic symphony” is part of his “rock calling,” but he was also consciously traditioned by his mother into the world of music and found an amazing community of collaborator’s along the way. He undoubtedly has an artist’s personality, but he also has an account of his being in the world that provides meaning. He has stories.

Back to Schultz. The “top floor of the personality system” consists of stories. “The function of the story,” he writes, “is to explain yourself to yourself and to others.” Importantly, Schultz suggests “we don’t introspect and locate traits.” They are abstract, not internally evident. We see the “visible manifestations” of these traits through our participation in the world, and through the subsequent weaving of a sense-making narrative. The title of Grohl’s book is telling: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music. He conveys to us his sense of calling as a musician in a series of tales. He tells not so much a chronological narrative from beginning to end, but a series of stories that tie his past and present together.

I can’t imagine a world without the music of Dave Grohl, or Keith Richards and Tom Morello. I have no doubt that they found what they were meant to do, what they were called to do and to be. And to them, at the user end of calling, lies a sense of wonderment, or forgetfulness, even of mystery as to how the rock gods deposited all of this in one place. But this mystery is also the alchemy of personality, tradition, and community, the elements of all callings. I am agnostic concerning calling by lightning bolt, where the threads of community, tradition, and personality are bypassed completely. Calling by lightning bolt has great appeal to many who need to believe in God’s agency in the world. I do believe that there are catalytic moments, “sparks” to use Grohl’s term, that make things more or less clear. I have greater belief, however, that God must be involved in all these seemingly mundane aspects of our being in the world (community, tradition, personality), making God all the more present and mysterious.

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How not to pick a church fight

I spent time recently with a fried who leads a Church of Christ as a minister. He told me that the elders of his congregation had hired a consulting group to come in and help them determine a strategic direction for their church. This process included a congregational survey with a follow-up consultation Zoom meeting and subsequent visit to the congregation.

I’m a big fan of having someone from the outside come in and help congregations gain perspective on their direction. I also know that elders in Churches of Christ have a near impossible role. They feel uber responsibility for the wellbeing of the congregation, while at the same time feeling underprepared to lead. So, the offer of help in setting direction is tantalizing. I’m all for giving them help.

But I’m afraid the experience of this congregation offers little in the way of real help for the issues that confront them. First, the survey measured congregational satisfaction across a broad spectrum of congregational activities or services. Worship, preaching, youth and children’s ministry, etc. The problems with this approach are manifold. First, you’re raising congregational expectations for improvement in these areas, expectations which are often disappointed. You’re setting people up for resentment, or worse cynicism regarding the ability of leadership to move them in positive directions.

Second, when you’re inquiring into preferences over the direction of the congregation, you’re picking a fight. As soon as you ask five persons how to improve worship, you will have five different opinions. Now leadership finds themselves in the task of being a referee for competing visions of church life. There are simply better ways for getting at God’s preferred future for their shared life. Instead of inquiring around satisfaction, I find it far more productive to inquire around people’s perceptions of God’s involvement in their lives. The answers may not be terribly sophisticated, but at least you’re drawing the focus related to the future of the congregation around participation in the life of God.

Third, the short time frame for determining possible future pathways implies that the change needed is already in present in congregational capacity. It assumes technical change, that is a change that is in keeping within the capacities already present in the congregation. But for my money, the problems faced by most congregations are not primarily technical, but adaptive. Adaptive challenges require new skills and practices which lead to a new imagination about what it means to be a church in the first place.

Adaptive work is not fast work. It can’t be done around a survey and follow-up consultation or two. It is patient work which requires experimentation and deep reflection. Even if the insight gained by the survey and consultation lead to improvements in the congregation’s life, the congregation is only a slightly better version of what it already was. File cabinet drawers in congregations are full of plans that didn’t deliver on the hopeful outcomes they promised. Patient processes that take into account the complexity of congregational cultures typically promise less and deliver more.

Obviously, I have a dog in this hunt. I work as a consultant for Church Innovations and lead groups of congregations through a three year journey of spiritual discernment around the question of God’s preferred future for their collective life. This process is called Partnership for Missional Church, and obviously I’d be happy to tell you more about it. The point of this blog, however, is more to create awareness around some of the drawbacks of quicker, more technical approaches to the issues facing congregations today.

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The church as a public companion in grief

A few months ago, a group hosted by Church Innovations, gathered in Yellowstone for a little fly fishing and theology. Well, a lot of fly fishing and some theology. In the evenings, we would turn our attention to the past two years and ask, “What if anything is God calling us to be or to do?” We learned a lot.

The big thing we learned is that we were angry. Very angry. And this surprised me. Of course we were disappointed and had suffered real losses and would be impacted by all of that. But we were more than sad or disappointed. We were angry. We were angry about George Floyd, we were angry about about Jan 6, we were angry about masks and vaccines. We were just plain angry. This struck me because I always thought of the other side as the angry ones. I wasn’t angry, they were angry. I was thoughtful and reasonable, not reactionary and ill-tempered. But here we all were, both sides on all of these issues, angry.

And while anger can be fuel for some short term gains, anger only serves to make the lines that divide us sharper and clearer. It deepens the “us and them.” And I think some of that work might be necessary, to make the stakes clear, but ultimately there’s no way forward around anger. 

But is also became clear to me that we were angry around what we’d lost, and that others were also angry about what they were experiencing as loss. And loss is the occasion for grief.

Grief is hard work. We’d rather try to win back what we’ve lost than grieve the loss. And we’re conditioned to deny death, to minimize our losses and pretend everything is ok. Grief makes us face reality, to name our pain and even admit things will never be again what they once were.

But grief also allows things that anger can’t. Anger puffs us up, makes us big, pretends to invulnerability. Grief brings us low and makes us vulnerable to others, and subsequently to a new future. Anger pits us against things or others, it divides us. Grief, in contrast, is a leveler. We’re all on the same side of loss, even if those losses are different or experienced differently. Grief marks our common humanity in a way that anger doesn’t or can’t. Anger and grief are obviously not mutually exclusive. Anger is a part of grief. But grief is larger than anger. And grief allows the possibility of vulnerability and mutual understanding in ways that anger doesn’t.

Through our discussions at Yellowstone, it also became obvious to me that we don’t grieve well publicly. There is no room in our shared political life to grieve, and fundraising in politics is dependent on keeping the base angry. Politicians have an incentive to stoke our sense of grievance. We do have people who can help us grieve our private losses, but we have little capacity for public grief. We lack spaces in which that work can occur.

And so we were wondering whether or not this might be something Church Innovations can help churches with. To discover as part of their missional vocation providing space for us to grieve collectively. I’m currently working with a church who is pursuing that very question,

Here’s the reason we need help. We’re not generally speaking good at this. We no how to praise, but not lament. We don’t provide much space for listening and storytelling. We lack some of the key capacities we would need to take up this work. For years, the church has imagined her work as supporting the private aspirations of members, and anything as public as grief for things like George Floyd or the Jan 6 assault on the capitol are deemed too controversial for church work. As a result we have little experience and have developed few practices or habits that would enable public grief.

But we can learn these practices and habits. The primary skill necessary for leaders is creating safe spaces in which persons can express their loss. Heifetz and Linski, in Leadership on the Line, refer to this as creating holding spaces which allow people to take up painful or conflicted work without flying apart. Holding spaces are created by things like naming our shared values, creating guidelines for discussion, strengthening “lateral bonds of affection,” to name just a few.

Church Innovations often hosts “timeline” events in which persons can post sticky notes to a congregational timeline that names members’ experience of joy, pain, and hope. This is “public” work in the sense that everyone’s experience is considered. But it is also anonymous work in that no one’s name is attached to a memory. “Narration events” like these help us express things, name our grief publicly in the presence of others, and give us a picture of where we are as a group.

I am convinced that during the pandemic too many lives have gone unobserved, making our losses largely unnoticed. I am also observing that many churches are rushing back to business as usual without marking the depth of congregational loss, without listening, and without asking the question anew, “What might God be calling us to do or to be?”

The truly difficult thing here will be the capacity of a congregation to hear all experiences of grief. Some churches are angry about their perceived loss of religious liberty, their sense of an America built on personal responsibility and not on systemic injustice. Others, clearly are angry about what they deem as systemic racial violence, or the lack of concern to take measures that would mitigate the impact of the pandemic. These are not neutral issues, things about which we can simply hold private opinions. And part of being a public companion will require that the church speak to matters of justice and Christian commitments within a shared public life. These are matters of legitimate conflict about which the church should not be neutral.

I am convinced, however, that churches can create spaces that allow for both assertion and dissent, spaces in which all voices are respected and heard. I am also convinced that within these spaces the goal of mutual understanding will narrow the gap between groups and will change persons more than yelling at each other will. And given the increasing polarization within our shared public life, the church may have no more public vocation than being companions in grief.

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Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark? A Review

In the late 80’s, I was part of a quartet who began the journal, Leaven. One of the co-founders was a brilliant theologian who taught at Rice University, Lynn “Butch” Mitchell. Lynn had been my favorite writer for Mission Journal, which preceded Leaven, and I interviewed way back in the day for the Youth Minister position at Bering Drive Church of Christ in Houston where Lynn was an elder. During the interview, I was asked what I thought of a class Lynn taught the teens on God and science. They had Lynn teach the class because most Bering students went to public universities and they wanted their kids to be open to science. I thought it was one of the coolest things I had ever heard.

At the time, I had just finished an MA at Abilene Christian University, where I had also attended as an undergraduate. One of my undergraduate classmates was Janet Kellog Ray whose uncle, unbeknownst to me, was Lynn Mitchell. It is fitting that Ray has written a book on faith and science that her uncle would be proud of. Baby Dinosaurs on the Ark? The Bible and Modern Science and the Trouble of Making it all Fit, is a most helpful and delightful read. Janet is a first rate scientist and storyteller. She makes the biology and geology around evolution understandable for a non-scientist like me. And she takes seriously the claims of people she disagrees with, creationists like Ken Hamm, and Intelligent Design theorists like Michael Behe. While she treats them with respect, fairly representing their positions, she is also convincing as she challenges their work piece by piece. It would be hard to be as fair-minded as Ray is and not be convinced by her evidence.

She makes a compelling case for evolution, and along the way for science, while maintaining her faith. The burden here is to account for faith, which she does more fully at the end of the book. She focuses more on what to do with Genesis 1-2, as these passages are the battle ground over which origins are fought. I like her metaphor of science talking about the house, but Genesis being more interested in the home. Still, more could have been done with this section. The issue, as I see it, is less with Genesis per se, and more with faulty views of the Bible. The issue is even less about faith and science, and more about faith and the bible.

I think Uncle Lynn might have pointed more to the bible as an anthology of diverse literary genres, each genre to be interpreted according to the type of literature it represents. Moreover, beyond genre, the bible represents great diversity in themes and theological perspectives. The bible feels no need to apologize for this variety, and in fact, one might argue that this diversity is necessary for God to remain holy, i.e. not captured by a single perspective, always avoiding a complete identification of God with our ideas about God. This diversity also wreaks havoc on fundamentalist notions of Scripture that insist on literal readings and no errors of any kind.

The irony here is that the type of inerrantist positions taken by many creationists is the opposite side of the modernist coin that accepts as truth only what is factual. It makes the bible play according to rules it could never satisfy. And there are simply better options that are truer to the phenomenon of Scripture. Ray likely has a sense of all of this, but has chosen to stay in her lane, which is the beginning of wisdom.

I was also struck at a few places that she grew up in a very different Church of Christ than I did. Again, there is an irony here. While we were in the main, culturally conservative and biblicists, we were not technically fundamentalists. In fact, we were so sectarian that we pretty much sat out the Scopes trial and had no dog in the modernist/fundamentalist controversy. Alexander Campbell was a man of science, reading the bible according to Baconian inductive method. He founded Bethany College as a liberal arts institution, a practice which continued beyond Campbell, both in the north and the south. This rich tradition of liberal arts education has continued and stands in contrast to the Bible colleges founded by Independent Christian Churches and their evangelical counterparts. While there were certainly fundamentalists in Churches of Christ and in Ray’s childhood church, there weren’t in mine. Ray’s book falls in line with the best lights of our tradition.

So, Ray’s book needed to be written. And it is done beautifully so. It will help us not only with evolution, but will challenge the pervasive anti-science bent among some evangelicals. Climate science, vaccines, masks, and the like are fights that weaken public Christian witness. Creation care and love of neighbor are denied right along with the science. This need not be the case. Uncle Lynn would be proud.

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Why preaching, even in a post-Christendom context, should be more than teaching

In 1979, Fred Craddock sparked something of a revolution in homiletics with the publication of his book, As One Without Authority. He argued that preachers faced each week a congregation overly familiar with the themes and texts of Christianity. This familiarity actually hindered listeners in the preaching moment from hearing something startling and new, and a message that would demand more of their lives. Preachers, too, were more accustomed to delivering deductive sermons that reinforced what people already knew. They were preaching as ones with authority.

Craddock’s argument is primarily rhetorical, perhaps one built on pathos, or the needs of the audience. He suggested that sermons instead should move inductively, moving from problem to new realization, or to use Paul Jones’ terminology, from obsessio to epiphania. Craddock offered that this was only the way a sermon should move if the audience was overly familiar with Christian content. If, he suggested, the audience was unfamiliar with Christian stories and meanings, then preaching deductively would be the appropriate way to go. Preaching would serve its audience in this case by being more didactic. It should teach.

Fast forward to 2021 and we are indeed in an environment where the persons who fill our pews are less familiar with Christian stories and themes than they were in 1979, and by a long shot. Have we come to the point where Craddock’s advice about our audience means preaching should primarily function didactically? Many who think about homiletics have come to that conclusion. Some argue that Craddock’s abandonment of authority left the sermon to move from experience to revelation, but what is needed now is to recover that authority of revelation and move from doctrine to experience.

I know a lot of preachers who’ve made this shift, particularly in evangelical circles where the liturgy serves the sermon and not the other way around. I’ve been told, “I have people who don’t know the basics for one hour a week on Sunday. I’ve got to use the sermon to teach them.” In fact, I know many congregations who now refer to the sermon as “teaching time.” Sermons have gotten longer and power point addicted.

Craddock lived long enough to see this shift in American Christianity, but still resisted his earlier argument that the audience’s needs now called for a more authoritative presence in the pulpit. He was unwilling to go back. I will admit that I was cutting my teeth as a preacher in the bloom of the Craddock revolution. Preaching inductively was exciting and my listeners seemed to agree. I can’t imagine preaching any other way.

I want to suggest, though, that preaching inductively still should be the norm in American Christianity. I want to make this case less on a rhetorical basis, ala Craddock, and more on a theological basis. Or perhaps its fairer to say that I want to make a rhetorical argument based more on logos than pathos. That is, the very demands of preaching gospel require induction regardless of the makeup of the audience.

Ok, this is a pretty bold claim, let me see if I can justify it.

First, the aim of preaching should be gospel. By this, I don’t mean that preaching should be aimed only at the uncoverted. Rather, with Paul, I see gospel as being that which “you received, in which you stand, and through which you are being saved” (1 Cor 15:1-3). Gospel is both the basic rudiment of the faith and its surpassing wisdom. Gospel is not just what you give to people who are outsiders or new to the faith. Gospel is the logos (word of the cross) that continues throughout the Christian walk for those who are “being saved” (1 Cor 1:18). The Christian walk, in other words, is an ongoing process of salvation and this process moves in sync with what counts as gospel.

Clearly, by “gospel” I mean something more than a message about atonement or how individuals get saved. Rather, I mean something more like this: Gospel is the surprising news related to how God is ordering life in ways other than the ones given to us by the principalities and powers of this age. It is not a set of facts about which we are to make our minds (teaching), but an invitation to participate in the surprising and ongoing story of the reign of God (preaching).

In this regard, I like Charles Campbell’s work in The Word Before the Powers. Jesus’ own preaching is a word that confronts the powers that impinge upon all of our lives, whether we are believers or nonbelievers. Preaching serves the purpose of liberating us from ways of life to which we have become long habituated. To use James Smith’s language, preaching is part of the counter liturgy which allows us to recognize and resist the “secular liturgies” that make up our social imaginary.

The work of the gospel, then, necessitates surprise regardless of the audience’s basic orientation to the facts of the faith. We are, all of us, in need of what Alexandra Brown calls a “new perceptual awareness.” Jesus did this through parables, stories which frustrate our expectations, and in so doing leave the surprising possibility that the world might be other than what we have imagined. And this is always our need.

This “surprise” element of gospel (good news) shows up in some of my favorite texts that use the term with any specificity. In Isaiah 52-53, the prophet imagines that kings and other nations will be startled by the good news that the suffering servant is Yahweh’s chosen one and will seek repentance. In Mark, Jesus is introduced to us as the surprising one bringing the good news of God’s reign, coming out of Galilee just as John is imprisoned by Herod. “Repent and believe the good news!” is Jesus’ summons to the coming of the kingdom of God (Mk 1:14-15). Paul’s “word of the cross” is the surprising demonstration of the power of God, in contrast to wisdom of the rulers of this age who find the weakness of the crucified one a stumbling block (1 Cor 1:18ff, 15:1ff). At Pentecost, “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” are startled to discover that they have had a part in crucifying the one whom God raised from the dead. Cut to the heart, they ask “what must we do to be saved?” (Acts 2).

This capacity to upend expectations, to subvert the way the world as arranged by other powers and kingdoms, to startle, is necessary for Christian proclamation to stay in the mode of “news.” This is the birthright of preaching, and it requires parabolic speech. It requires more than good information. It requires a word that surprises us into repentance.

Don’t get me wrong. I bemoan like all other teachers of freshman Bible courses the sad state of basic information about the Bible and Christian teachings in our churches today. We’d be better off with more teaching. And good preaching should teach a good many things along the way. But people suffer from more than a lack of good information, or even for “biblical principles for successful living.” They suffer from the ways that principalities and powers turn them into consumers or nationalists or “autonomous” individuals. They need God’s Word to be newsworthy, to disabuse them of their prior allegiances, and liberate them toward the kingdom of God. And in my experience this requires moments of surprise.

And so, this is why I think Craddock’s inductive approach to preaching still holds. Not for the sake of pathos, but for the sake of logos.

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When your god must die

I know the difficulties of belief in our world. As Charles Taylor point out in Secular Age, over a period of a few hundred years, we went from an enchanted world with a presumption of belief to a disenchanted world with a presumption of unbelief in transcendent realities. The story Taylor tells is complex with responsibility for this turn of events laid not at the feet of godless atheists, but in large part at the feet of the faithful trying to make a reasonable account of their belief in an increasingly skeptical world. Point is, belief is hard and sometimes Christians are unwittingly their own worst enemies.

I have friends who have given up on belief in one form or another, or at least they’ve given up on what they believed. To a person, I recognize their struggle because I struggle with the exact same things. I was listening to the Avett Brothers this morning and resonated with the lyric, “I know about Jesus and the cross, But I cannot explain the holocaust.” Actually, I think what most people know about “Jesus and the cross” blocks them from any kind of meaningful thought related to the holocaust. But that’s for another post.

Which brings me to my main point. Too often, we believe in a god that must die. I don’t mean making material things our god, or our bodies or our wellbeing, though these gods might also need to die. I mean the god we have imagined needs to die. For instance, the god whose will is expressed through the control of every event, whose sovereignty is directly measured or accounted for in relation to every outcome in life: that god must die. Ultimately, that account of God and the world will fail, and thinking believers will see right through the platitudes associated with that kind of belief.

There are other versions of godless gods. A close cousin to the god of sovereign control is the god who secures good outcomes for those with enough faith. This usually doesn’t kill the belief of those who hold fast to this confession–they believe it because things are going well for them–but kills belief in sensitive friends whose lives are not going as well. They must be doing something wrong, not praying hard enough, not living quite right. They feel that God has failed them, that God notices others, but ignores them. And at that point, all the big questions of suffering rear their heads and seem insurmountable. It’s ok to let that god die.

The god of wrath whose justice has to be satisfied with blood before forgiveness can occur. Yeah, it’s all right for that god to die.

And here’s the part I’m learning. This isn’t lack of faith. Belief is lost because people have faith in the kinds of things that God does as well. They often teach me things about God because they ask the right questions. So, I’m learning to sit patiently and quietly. It’s hard. I love these people and it’s hard to see them angry and hurt and confused. But I also know I don’t have an answer to the way they’re asking the question. And I know this as well. My god will die too. And this is the thing that makes faith in the living God possible.

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The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Ministry in Luke, part 3

In the last post, I used Brueggemann’s distinction between the royal consciousness and the prophetic imagination to suggest that Jesus’ fundamental identity is prophetic. I want to extend that observation in this post. The royal consciousness serves the interest of the status quo, and so seeks order, describing the world in wisdom tropes. Jesus, in contrast, does not come teaching wisdom for the world as it is, but offering parabolic speech designed to upend the way things are currently arranged in favor of the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ parables in Luke are notable in a couple of ways. First, the Lukan theme of reversals is prominent in parables unique to Luke. For instance, the parable of the two debtors (7:36-50) is told in the context of Jesus receiving a sinful woman in a banquet hosted by Pharisees. The point of the parable is that the one who is forgiven the most, loves the most. He then applies the parable directly to the welcome provided by the woman in contrast to the welcome of the Pharisees, making her closer to the kingdom of God than the Pharisees, who think they have little need for forgiveness. Their positions have been reversed.

In another table scene with Pharisees (14:1-24), Jesus heals a man with dropsy on the Sabbath and critiques the table practices of the Pharisees at the banquet, namely the way they seek places of honor at the table. Jesus suggests that they should take the lower seat instead, because in the kingdom of God “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” This reversal becomes very concrete related to the guest list of those invited to banquets. Jesus tells them that they should not invite their rich friends or relatives, namely those who can repay them, but should instead invite the poor, the blind, the lame, namely those who cannot repay them. At this point, one of the guests blurts out, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God,” the religious equivalent to “all lives matter.” Jesus responds with a parable of a great feast where those first invited are too important to attend, making excuses for their refusal of the invitation. So, the host of the banquet tells his servants to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame so that the room is full. “For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” The insiders have become the outsiders, and vice versa.

Reversals are also present in the unjust steward (16:1-8), the rich man and lazarus (16:19-31), and Luke’s version of the wicked tenants (20:9-18). A few of these we will return to.

The second feature I want to point out in Luke’s parables is the way Jesus casts himself as a hidden character in the story. In particular, a few parables foreshadow his death and resurrection. For instance, the parable of the wicked tenants needs to be heard against the backdrop of the prophets who came before Jesus and were killed, all of those from Abel to Zechariah (11:47-51). In the parable, the tenants beats the vineyard owner’s servants who come to collect the proceeds from the vineyard. So, the owner of the vineyard sends his son, thinking they will have to respect him. But instead he is killed by the tenants who mistakenly think, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” The parable ends with the vineyard owner “destroying” the tenants in an act of retributive violence. It’s not hard to read this parable assigning roles to the chief priests, Jesus, and God.

A chapter earlier, we find Luke’s version of the parable of the talents (19:11-27). Jesus tells the parable against the expectation that the “kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” It is not hard to see Jesus in the figure of the nobleman who leaves to receive royal power and then to return after a delay, and who will judge the actions of those left with responsibility for the nobleman’s realm. It’s not hard to identify the chief priests with those who bury the talents in the ground and fail to earn anything with the nobleman’s money. The nobleman will judge them “by your own words,” being a harsh man who will have them “slaughtered in my presence.”

I want to address the violent images associated with “God” in these parables after we look at a few more. As we noted in the parable of the wicked tenants, we have the killing of a son after the vineyard owner has already sent a number of servants (prophets) who have been beaten. The parable prefigures Jesus’ death. In the parable of the talents, Jesus may be seen in the one going away to “receive royal power” and who will one day return. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (16:19-31), the rich man appeals to Abraham to send warnings to his father and brothers concerning the horrible fate that awaits them if they ignore the poor. Abraham says to the rich man, “If they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31). Here the death and resurrection of Jesus is foreshadowed.

The most tantalizing character who seems to represent aspects of Jesus’ own story is the prodigal son (15:11-32). Here is one who travels to a far country, associating with sinners, and receiving a royal welcome from a father upon his return. The father orders a banquet because “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” Later in the parable, in response to the reaction of the older son, the father replies “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.” Are these twin sayings related to a son who is dead and is now alive a foreshadowing the resurrection? We hesitate to do so because of some of the characteristics assigned to the son. He demands his inheritance and squanders it in dissolute living. He appears repentant, indicating wrongdoing. His father not only refers to him as dead, but now alive, but also lost and now found.

These the same kinds of concerns we should have by assigning to characters resemblances to Jesus and or the Father in the parable of the talents and the wicked tenants. Though the nobleman is Jesus like in some ways, he is described as a harsh man and has his enemies slaughtered before him. Similarly, the vineyard owner might easily be imagined as God in the parable, but visits retribution on the tenants. This seems incongruous with other depictions of both Father and Son, and the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts. What are we to do?

Let’s look a little closer at the parable of the prodigal and its setting. The parable is third and culminating parable in a collection that includes the parable of the lost sheep and lost coin. But the setting is more completely understood in 15:1-2: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.'” Here we have tax collectors and sinners coming near and listening to him in contrast to Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling and lumping Jesus in with sinners.The parables are designed to confirm this authorial characterization, and within the story, to turn the tables on the Pharisees by turning their own evaluative criteria against them.

The first two parables demonstrate God’s concern for those things that are lost. The lost sheep and the lost coin demonstrate the great value of those considered lost in the estimation of others. The parable of the prodigal son includes a grumbling older brother who is invited to the celebration, but finds himself on the outside looking in. This is the rhetorical bullseye of the three parables, locating the grumbling of the Pharisees in the figure of the older brother. I believe the parable is told mirroring how they view Jesus as he eats with tax collectors and sinners. He cannot be the beloved of the father because he is squandering the inheritance of the kingdom of God with what they perceive to be dissolute living. Imagine their surprise when the one who eats with tax collectors and sinners is received by the Father with the robe, ring, and fatted calf. The one who died is now alive! And as with other parables, the Pharisees will find themselves on the outside looking in.

Now let’s see if reading the parable through the perspective of the Pharisees helps us with the other parables as well. The best clue that this might indeed be the case is in the parable of the talents, when the nobleman says to the one who has buried the talent in the ground, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave!” (19:22). Again, the drama of Luke can be explained to a great extent by Jesus’ alignment with the prophets before him who have been killed by leaders like those in Luke-Acts. When the nobleman who has travelled away to get royal power for himself returns, he say to “these enemies of mine who do not want me to be king over them–bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” What I am suggesting is that this is the way those who have killed the prophets and who are about to kill Jesus would act if they were in the position of the nobleman. They are being judged on their own terms, foisted upon their own rhetorical petards. If they received in kind what they have felt justified to do in God’s name, they would be slaughtered in the presence of the one who returns with royal power.

This would apply also to the parable of the tenants in chapter 20. If the roles were reversed, they would avenge the death of one of their own. Perhaps we are prepared for this interpretation by the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4 where Jesus suggests that Gentiles, the enemies of God’s people, have often been the location of God’s saving activity. This enrages Jesus’s hometown audience who seek to kill him by throwing him off a cliff.

In contrast, those who kill God’s son are offered repentance, forgiveness, and the gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. God’s way, it turns out, is not the same way as those who have killed God’s prophets from Abel to Zechariah. The one who has returned with power will not have his enemies slaughtered in his presence or visit destruction on those who killed the son. However, the resurrection of the one who squandered his life in dissolute living with tax and collectors and sinners will be vindicated and those who have been excluded and considered lost by other systems of power will enjoy the celebration of the one who was dead, but is now alive.

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The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me: Ministry in Luke, part 2

Much has been made lately of a “king Jesus” gospel that turns the focus of the biblical drama to the kingdom of God, along with Jesus’ lordship over that kingdom. This makes saving faith for some commenters more a matter of allegiance than trust. Will we be loyal subjects of the king? The emphasis on Jesus’ lordship related to the kingdom is not wrong as clearly the gospels and other NT texts make connections between Jesus and David. Luke clearly does as well. But I want to suggest that this is not the primary way that the gospel writers in particular want us to think of Jesus. In Luke, the majority of the biblical allusions refer not to David, but to Moses, Elijah, Daniel, an indication that Jesus is fundamentally the prophet of God.

So, for Luke and the other gospel writers, Jesus is not so much a king-prophet as a prophet-king. And I think this distinction is an important one. The most problematic aspect of Israel’s faith was what Brueggemann refers to as the “royal consciousness,” the idea that the crown and the temple are inviolable, which inevitably allows those in power to ignore the poor and needy. The persistent form of “royal consciousness” in Christian history, particularly in the West, is triumphalism. The “king Jesus” gospel just invites these vulnerabilities to be foregrounded.

The antidote to the royal consciousness has always been the prophetic voice, and in Luke this is the primary form the ministry of Jesus takes. The gospel in Luke is good news for the poor, the lowly being lifted up and the powerful being pulled down from their thrones. In Luke Johnson’s words, we have a prophetic Jesus and a prophetic church.

As in all the gospels, the meaning of the whole story turns on the death and resurrection. The gospel writers do not leave us with a single interpretation of Jesus’ death, but give us four distinct pictures. Luke’s portrayal ties the significance of Jesus’ death to the death of the prophets that came before him. His death is the prophetic sign of his ministry.

At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34). This lament over Jerusalem matches woes he delivers to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. Here, at the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”

“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (11:47-52).

In setting his face to Jerusalem, then, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. His own death at the hands of those within this generation will pull back the curtain on all that has gone before.

The cross is not merely atonement for personal sin in Luke. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.

At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This
is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:4,14,22). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. This is a lynching. An innocent man, an unruly mob, complicit authorities, all overcome by a certain social momentum.

Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice or safety, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(T)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, an unholy peace.

The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). He seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The words with which Jesus condemns the lawyers, however, makes the point more directly. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets whom their ancestors killed. This might have two interpretations. One interpretation which is supplied by the text is that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these whom they have unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.

I can’t help thinking of the monuments and streets and commemorations made in our day for prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. The very system that builds monuments to him, still suppresses minority voting, incarcerates young black men at appallingly high rates, and pro- vides limited access to quality schooling and housing. King is publicly championed as advocating that people be judged, not by their race, but by the content of their character. Suppressed are his attitudes about war and poverty and systemic racism. In this way, the monuments serve as propaganda for the very system that killed him. I think something like this is what Jesus has in mind in Luke 11.

The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus, however, is that he didn’t stay dead. He refused to be a monument or a street name. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4, including a violent wind and tongues of fire, is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. The remarkable thing from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is the offer of peace to those complicit in the death of Jesus. “Repent and be baptized everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins might be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). Jesus offers peace, not through scapegoating or retributive violence, but through the giving of his own life that pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence, showing it for what it is–injustice. More, the risen Jesus offers life under a different power than that offered by the rulers of this “corrupt generation” who rule at the end of a sword. Jesus offers instead the Holy Spirit, power for a life that makes peace in a way other than control, coercion, and state sanctioned violence.

Jesus lives and performs his ministry in the power of the Spirit. The same Spirit that animated the prophets before him, rests on him and marks him as God’s anointed one. His death serves as a prophetic sign against those in power, the rulers of this age and the corrupt of this generation. His death makes it plain that the killing of the prophets before him, those who stood on behalf of the poor against rulers and powers, is unjust and noticed by God. His resurrection is the sign that the power of the Spirit is among the poor, lifting up the lowly, and creating bonds of solidarity–a new community– beyond the power of rulers and kings.

In the next post, I want to write a little about how some of the parables function in Luke to give us surprising insight into who Jesus is and what his ministry entails.

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