Budgets and Programs not Needed to Proclaim the Gospel?

I took a shot of this bumper sticker in Monroe
Today is a reading day for me. Yay!!! This “down” time is an “up”time for me. I’ve got a bunch of new books, and I think I may begin reading them all today.
One of them is by New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, entitled The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited. The book has two Forewards, by two of my heroes – N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard. Wright writes:
“The revolution Scot is proposing is massive— so massive that I doubt whether any of his colleagues, and certainly not this writer, will at once agree with every detail… [T]he large thesis that is advanced here, in parallel with other similar cases that some of us are trying to make, is that the movement that has long called itself “evangelical” is in fact better labeled “soterian.” That is, we have thought we were talking about “the gospel” when in fact we were concentrating on “salvation.”” (p. 12)
“Scot McKnight has his finger on a sore spot in contemporary Christianity, particularly in America. For many people, “the gospel” has shrunk right down to a statement about Jesus’ death and its meaning, and a prayer with which people accept it.” (p. 14)
Willard writes that, in the American church today, “the personal and social transformation that is so clearly anticipated in the biblical writers and is so clearly present in the acknowledged “great ones” of The Way rarely becomes real. Only a life of intelligent discipleship could bring it to pass. Without that we have massive nominal, non-disciple “Christianity.” This leads one to ask, “What was the message that shocked the ancient world into its response to Christ and his apostles?”” (p. 15)
A diminished, non-revoutionary “gospel” is preached today that has no connection with discipleship and spiritual formation. “It is a view of grace and salvation that, supposedly, gets one ready to die, but leaves them unprepared to live now in the grace and power of resurrection life. The gospel of King Jesus and of his kingdom-now is indeed “the power of God that brings salvation/ deliverance.” To prove this, just preach, teach, and manifest the good news of life now, for you and everyone, in the kingdom of the heavens with Jesus— your whole life. Study the Gospels to see how Jesus did it, and then do it in the manner he did it. You don’t need a program, a budget, or any special qualifications to do this. Just understand it in the biblical form and do it. Scot McKnight gives you the key.” (p. 16)
No programs?
No budget?
No special qualifications?
Like the early church that exploded upon the world???

Jesus’ Birth was an Act of War

C.S. Lewis referred to it as “The Great Invasion.” In chapter 7 of Mere Christianity Lewis writes: “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe–a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin… Christianity agrees… that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel. Enemy-occupied territory–that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil-hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do.’ I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person, ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.'”

The most a-cultural telling of Christmas is found in Revelation 12:1-7. We read: “A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. And there was war in heaven.”

Robert Mounce says that: 1) the “woman” here is not Mary, but the messianic community, the “ideal Israel” (231); 2) out of the messianic community is born a “child,” a Messiah; 3) the seven-headed red dragon is Satan (Rev. 12:9; 20:2); 4) Satan is looking to devour this child; AKA Jesus the Christ. Mary has already been prophetically warned about such things.

In Luke 2 we read that… …the old man “Simeon took him [baby Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Violent night

Holy night

All’s not calm

All’s not bright

Christmas Eve – that violent night when the Light of the World descended into darkness…

Jesus Restored Purity Outside the Sacrificial System

Muslims here wash their hands and feet before praying in the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
When I was growing up my parents did not allow a deck of playing cards in the house. Card-playing was wrong, it was sin, and therefore made us spiritually impure. I didn’t know why this was so. As a child I didn’t question it or find it weird. When I became a Jesus-follower I began to wonder where this purity law came from.
I found out that, among the Finnish Lutherans of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where my family was from and where I was born, card-playing was associated with drinking and gambling. Someone who was a Christian didn’t drink, gamble, or play cards. We were to be “set apart” from such things because they were impure and brought stain to our souls. Put biblically, we were to be “holy.” (Greek hagios, ‘set apart’) God would accept us if we kept the cards out of our house. In our home we had a “holiness code.”
Every culture has its holiness code with its accompanying purity laws. Purity laws come with lists of religious ‘Dos’ and ‘Don’ts’. During Jesus’s time one could not touch a dead body lest it make you ritually impure. Or eaten certain foods.
Impurity is best thought of as a sort of invisible dirt that people picked up through contact with various things. Many traditional peoples have ideas about ritual purity. In the Jewish version, one contracted impurity through contact with corpses, sexual fluids, other genital discharges, skin disease, and, in the case of women, through childbirth. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham writes: “Originally, in Judaism, purity and impurity only really mattered when one visited the Temple. God’s presence in the Temple made it a kind of pure space that would be defiled by someone in a state of impurity. But by the 1st century AD, there was a tendency to think that, since purity was a good thing, one should aim at being pure as much as possible. All over Palestine, archaeologists have found ritual baths, which indicate that it was not just groups such as the Pharisees who cared about purity. Many ordinary people evidently took care to remove impurity when they contracted it. It was part of the desire to be the holy people of the holy God.” (Bauckham, Jesus: A Very Short Introduction, p. 23)
Jesus violated many of the existing purity laws. In doing this he clashed with the religious leaders of his time. If your church had a law that said “Don’t watch movies,” this would be like inviting your people to come see “The Hobbit” with me this weekend. In regard to this Larry Hurtado and Chris Keith write: “Jesus’s healing and teaching caused turmoil for Jewish leaders because it created a point of access— Jesus himself— to forgiveness and purity outside the sacrificial system and the temple. It also therefore created alternative definitions for who is in God’s community, who is out, and who decides. Jesus placed himself at the center of God’s restoration of Israel, a place that Jewish tradition reserved for God. These symbolic claims from Jesus, among other aspects of his ministry, are what infuriated the Jewish leadership in the Gospels.” (Hurtado, Larry; Keith, Chris, Jesus among Friends and Enemies: A Historical and Literary Introduction to Jesus in the Gospels, Kindle Locations 992-996; emphasis mine)
Jesus redefined purity, and gave us a new way of attaining it before God. Many impure people, hearing of this, sought out Jesus. Jesus was now the road, the door, the Way, the point of access, into the family and presence of a holy God. The hemorrhaging woman was impure according to Leviticus 15: 25; the ten lepers were impure according to Leviticus 13– 14; the woman who washes Jesus’s feet, if a prostitute, was impure according to Leviticus 15: 17– 18; and Zacchaeus was likely considered impure because he consistently came in contact with impure gentiles and handled their money. Jesus’s healing of the bleeding woman, lepers, and sinful woman thus restores their purity,just as dining with Zacchaeus as a legitimate “son of Abraham” symbolically restores Zacchaeus to Israel. (From Hurtado and Keith, K986-991; emphasis mine)
Bauckham says that the key question for Jews during this time was how to maintain purity and be God’s holy people in the situation of the hyper-impure Roman occupation. Facing this situation, the Pharisees “greatly extended the purity rules in the Torah and made purity a major concern of daily life” (Bauckham, 25)
Jesus came against the social, economic and gender stratifications of his society. This means that he fought against Judaism’s purity codes. Purity codes are about distinctions, divisions, and separation. Jesus broke down the walls of separation from God and others as he proclaimed and lived out the new reality of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus ate with the poor, with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touched and healed the sick — the leper, the demoniac, the hemmorhaging woman. In doing this Jesus shattered and subverted ritual law. Jesus disregarded the existing purity taboos and approached both women and Gentiles, thereby demonstrating his contempt for the prejudices of purity.
Jesus moved outside the prevailing religious system of atoning sacrifices, and independently – in himself and by his authority – proclaimed the forgiveness of sin and thus restored purity and holiness to people.
2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. 4 Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” – Matthew 8:2-4
The Real Jesus came to make people clean, holy and acceptable to God.

Jesus Had a Preferential Option for “the Least of These”

I have read through the 4 Gospels many times. Their words are both familiar and unfamiliar to me. They are familiar. I have read and heard and even preached the words of Jesus many times. They are unfamiliar. I have many moments, indeed I often wonder if they are not increasing, where I am stopped in heart and mind and think, “I’ve never really seen this or heard this before.” It happened to me several years ago when reading Matthew chapter 25.
The fiery passion of Jesus is seen in Matthew 25:31-46. When I read these words I have wondered, who, then, are the real followers of the Real Jesus? If you can, stop now before reading further and slow-read these words of Jesus. And tremble. Behold Jesus, the “Familiar Stranger.”

Woman begging in Jerusalem

You don’t need to be a hermeneutical genius to understand these words. Jesus separates people into two groups: “goats” and “sheep.” “Goats” are people who see hungry, needy, sick, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned people but do nothing to help them. “Sheep,” on the other hand, are the real followers of Jesus who thereby, obviously (since it is Jesus whom they are following), actively help such people. Jesus himself was tight with the “least of these.”
N. T. Wright says that Jesus “ate and drank with all sorts and conditions of people, sometimes in an atmosphere of celebration. He ate with ‘sinners’, and kept company with people normally on or beyond the borders of respectable society… This caused regular offence to some of the pious.” (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 149) For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums – Bruce Cockburn, “Cry of a Tiny Babe” “Goats” are religious, pious people who know about the suffering of others (and who doesn’t today in our media-saturated world?), but don’t actually follow Jesus into the slums of the world. “Goats” don’t actively and sacrificially help the people who are low on the honor-shame hierarchy. The fate of the goats is clear: “they will go away to eternal punishment.” (Matthew 25:46). “Sheep” are actual Jesus-followers. They sacrifice their lives for others who are “less” than they are. They are the “righteous,” and their destiny is “eternal life.” The sheep of the Shepherd are always moving downward into their surrounding culture. There’s a great, separating, spiritual-litmus-test going on here, a Christ-defining either-or. The level of seriousness is intense. Jesus came for the least and the lost. Not to actively do the same is to be a goatish unbeliever. Because someone who doesn’t actually follow after Jesus is an unbeliever, right? True belief always leads to active following; theoretical-religious belief is dead because it lacks deeds.
I am the judge of none of this. But I can read.
“For I was hungry, while you had all you needed. I was thirsty, but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger, and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes, but you needed more clothes. I was sick, and you pointed out the behaviors that led to my sickness. I was in prison, and you said I was getting what I deserved.” – Matthew 25, paraphrased by Richard Stearns, in The Hole in our Gospel, 59.

Experience, not Theory, Breeds Conviction

Horses threaten to get up close and personal
Two senses of the verb”to know” are: 1) Theoretical knowing – call this, following Michael Polanyi, explicit knowing. Such knowledge is impersonal, or from a distance.
2) Experiential knowing – call this, following Polanyi again, tacit knowing, or knowledge by acquaintance (not merely knowledge by theory). Experiential knowledge has been called “personal knowledge.”
First, for example, I know about the game of ice hockey. I can recognize and state various elements of the game as I observe it. Because of this I can identify it when I see it and distinguish it, for example, from bowling.
Secondly, I know how to ride a bike. This use of “know” is non-theoretical. When asked “Do you know how to ride a bike?” I don’t respond by reciting some scientific theory of bike riding. Instead, I respond “Yes, I do.” That is, I can do it; viz., I am able to ride a bike.
This second kind of knowing is especially Hebraic. It is experiential and, when it comes to “knowing” God, it has consequences. Henri Nouwen writes:
“Once I “know” God, that is, once I experience God’s love as the love in which all my human experiences are anchored, I can only desire one thing: to be in that love. “Being” anywhere else, then, is shown to be illusory and eventually lethal.” (Nouwen, in The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, 69)
It’s possible for persons to know about the love of God from an experiential distance. This kind of knowledge is largely uncompelling; it rarely moves people. It’s sometimes referred to as “head knowledge.”  But in Scripture we are assured that it is possible to know God up close and personal. We can have “heart knowledge” of God.
Jesus was going after heart knowledge. To experientially know and be known by God. Only this kind of knowing keeps the inner fire burning. Experience, not theory, breeds conviction.
(In Polanyi’s own words, the distinction:
“These two kinds of knowing are not only distinct, but also in an important sense mutually exclusive. Motion studies may teach us to identify some of the elementary acts constituting a skill, and this may be useful in training. But, while attending to the elements of a skill in themselves, we impair their smooth integration to the joint performance that it is their function to serve. If we succeeded in focusing our attention completely on the elements of a skill, its performance would be paralyzed altogether.
The mutual exclusiveness of the two kinds of knowing can be expressed in terms of a logical disjunction. When we know something by relying on our awareness of it for the purpose of attending to something else (i.e., we know a particular for the purpose of attending to a comprehensive entity to which it contributes), we cannot at the same time not rely on it for this purpose – as would necessarily be the case if we attended to it exclusively in itself.
We may call “knowing by attending to” a focal knowing, and “knowing by relying on” a subsidiary knowing, and reformulate in these terms the conclusions we have arrived at as follows. We know subsidiarily the particulars of a comprehensive whole when attending focally to the whole which they constitute; we know such particulars not in themselves but in terms of their contribution to the whole. To the extent to which things are known subsidiarily in terms of something else, they cannot be known at the same time in themselves.”

Jesus Existed

Playing soccer in Jerusalem

Several years ago I received a phone call from a high school girl who came to Redeemer. She was crying as she told me about her high school biology teacher. This teacher at one point in his teaching left the subject of biology and stated, “There is no evidence that Jesus ever existed.” This shocked a number of students in class. The teacher then said, “If you can show me evidence please feel free to bring it to class.”
I suggested to her that she bring me into the class to present the case for the existence of Jesus. I wrote a letter to the teacher. When I learned his name I realized he was, at that time, a student in my MCCC Philosophy of Religion class!
When the time came for me to speak on the existence of Jesus at Monroe High School so many students had heard about this that it was decided to hold the event in the school auditorium. The auditorium was packed out as I spoke for 90 minutes, making the historical case for Jesus’ existence. There was a Q&A after my talk. Many students asked questions. They were so interested in the subject of Jesus! Now, years later, I’ve had people who were in the auditorium that day tell me how much it impressed and influenced them. A number of them enrolled in my college philosophy classes as a result of this.
Perhaps you have heard, or read on the Internet, the claim that Jesus never really existed, and that the figure of Jesus in the Bible is all made up. That claim is false. As small a point as it seems to be, Jesus actually existed. No reputable New Testament scholar believes otherwise (actually, maybe one does, but he is in the extreme minority). Even the skeptical Bart Ehrman believes Jesus existed.
If you want to read some more check out:
“Jesus Existed,” by Craig Keener
See my “Jesus Existed (but of course…)”

(This Christmas Can Be Different) Jesus Is the Pre-existent God the Son

Dancing in worship at Redeemer

One major difference between Christianity and the other major world religions is that, in Christianity, God came to us. In the other world religions we are left on our own to try to discover God (or achieve enlightenment, as in Buddhism).
Christmas is about God coming to us, in the form of his Son. This is called the “Incarnation.” (Which means: “in flesh.”)
We see this in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. It reads: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. (John 1:1-2) Who was “the Word?” We find out in John 1:14: The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. The Son of God, also referred to as God the Son, came to us from the Father and took on human flesh. This is the language of God as a Trinity of persons. God is a “triune” being: Father, Son, and Spirit. God, as I’ve heard J.P. Moreland express it, is a three-personed being. J.P. asks us to imagine a 3-headed person: 3 heads, 3 distinct personalities, sharing the same body. Greg Boyd has said the idea of God as a Trinity makes conceptual sense of the idea that God is love. This is because love requires relationship. In the very being of God there is, and everlastingly has been, loving relationship. God, in his being, is relational. I love this way of thinking about God! It is so rich and wide and deep and long and high.
Early Christians came up with a word to express the 3-personed being of God: perichoresis. This word is made of a prefix, “peri,” which means “around.” Like the peri-meter of a circle. “Choresis” is the word we get “choral” from, which can mean to sing, but also to dance, as in a “chorus line.” “Perichoresis” is to dance in a circle. With this word our 3-Personed God is described as Father, Son, and Spirit engaged in an everlasting circle dance. I like to refer to this as the Big Dance, into which we are invited (John 14,15, and 16). God the Son who became flesh has existed everlastingly in the Big Dance that is the being of God. Then, in the infant Jesus, God became one of us. If this is not true than the story of Jesus becomes just a tragic and minor piece of history. To understand the the Real Jesus we must begin with the Incarnation of God the Son, in whom there is neither beginning nor end. Jesus is the pre-existent God the Son, who has existed everlastingly.
*** (For you scholars this view of God as Trinity has been called “social trinitarianism”; viz., that in the being of God there is a “society” of three persons. See here, for academic ideas on this. But not, of course, for Islam, which vehemently denies the Christian idea of God as a Trinity of 3 Persons. Islam misunderstands this, as Judeo-Christianity has never claimed there are three Gods.
I also love the book The Shack as a way of figuratively expressing Trinitarian theism – i.e., God as a 3-Personed Being.)