The 'Arc' of the books
The ‘arc’ is important to understand to grasp my intentions. I have not written for someone who comes from a fixed evangelical position. To try and engage with such a person would probably result in that person throwing stones from their corner, and I would probably try and throw stones back. They are probably smarter than me so their stones would be bigger, their aim more accurate… but when all is done and dusted the whole exercise would be fruitless, not to mention my bruises and their win! Ouch on both counts.
My overarching arc and theirs would be so different there would be no / little point of contact. I do write from that background, but probably have moved further than I realise, for often change is gradual and can almost go unnoticed.
The first book I consider is the foundation and for that reason the Zoom groups take it chapter by chapter. The first chapter is putting humanity at the centre of the discussion, suggesting:
- that God has a wonderful focus on humanity; the Incarnation being essential so that the ‘unknown’ God might be known as revealed in the face of Jesus.
- That Jesus, fully God and fully human was also truly human. In being fully human there is a growing process that he experienced, a growing (and learning process) through to maturity.
- To fall short of being truly human is at the core of sin, the aim of the demonic being to dehumanise, thus every aspect that is valuable (and God-like) is to humanise.
There are then three chapters that relate together. They focus on three individuals, Judas, Peter and Cornelius. They might bring some fresh insights about the characters but the purpose of the chapters is to sit in the arc. Judas betrays Jesus, but we all have betrayed Jesus. He betrays Jesus as he seeks to direct the outcome of his mission. The ‘I know better’ is his downfall. The narrative I give is one that I consider fits both the texts we have and also the historical setting. Peter is not too dissimilar. The betrayer or the deniar, the parallels are clear. Peter is a paradigm of those that God ‘builds’ on! Flaky and weak, yet chosen. He also gives us clear insight to the personal and corporate journey - one of facing previous understandings (clarities) and discovering through the puzzles that our convictions are not always rooted in a deep knowing of God. For there to be advances there has to be a ‘conversion’ of those who already have convictions and understandings. The Cornelius passage does not answer all the questions but the confession that someone who was formerly unclean (Gentile) can no longer be called unclean, and that there was an acceptance by God for such a person before they made a response to Jesus. Those chapters seek to track with the arc of heaven’s universal mission toward growing a new society, namely ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, not separated but integrated.
The Judas chapter is about Judas being the sharp end (of betrayal), thus he respresents us all. Our vision corporate is what often betrays Jesus… The cultural barriers that were in place, and the spiritual powers that shaped the distorted views of God, were incredible, hence the money / weakness is at one level not an issue, but the false (and passionate) vision of the kingdom is what betrays Jesus. Betrayal is necessary to lead to the cross, as betrayal of the generous vision of God took place first in the garden. Betrayal in the face of life-poured-out love. Betrayal leads to death in both situations, the gardens of Eden and Gethsemane. There is a move away from Life as the shaping framework, to one where being in control with the knowledge of good and evil was the betrayal, taking control of God’s vision. (This becomes even further perverted with Babel / Babylon where it is no longer God’s vision that is perverted but a godless vision - a tower that reaches heaven… however I think the critique of all visions that take control are that they are a form of Babylon?) The consequence of taking control is death… However the path out of Eden eastward is the walk God embarked on with them… eventually leads to Incarnation where the walk with humanity is physical and deeply intimate. This journey that God embarks on was hidden from their eyes - shame does this. The married couple on the road to Emmaus (Cleopas and Mary - Adam and Eve so to speak) finally saw this. Their eyes were opened not to realise shame but glory when they saw that he was walking with them: they saw what was always true. Until that point they had thought that Jesus had betrayed the vision of God. The cross is the end to wrong visions of the kingdom… Reminiscent of the question ‘Where is God now’ that was thrown at Eli Weisel as the young boy was hanged in the concentration camp. Where is God revealed?… There he is, hanging on the tree… was Weisel’s response. On the tree - the cross. Hence take up your cross and follow me.
In the next chapter we move beyond the time of the historical life of Jesus, to the intersection with Cornelius that is also beyond Pentecost and acts as the door opener in the Spirit to Paul. (Beyond Pentecost but as a result of Pentecost.) It also is a paradigm of every move beyond boundaries, hence it sits at this point in the book. This is the Gospel touching the Gentiles (the word is ta ethne: it is the word we get ethnicity from and in mission usage is often taken to mean ethnic groups… but it is the generic term for those who are not of the covenant, i.e. non-Jews. Hence I suggest a paradigm for every boundary crossing.)
Following on from the interaction with Cornelius is the chapter on witness, that contrasts the narrow view of evangelism that can be perverted into treating people as objects to be saved, thus not being good news but aligning with the work of dehumanisation.
The next chapter is a preliminary look at the cross, seeking to make the point that the ‘when’ of the cross is important to discover ‘what’ the cross accomplished. I therefore describe the cross as a roadblock that is placed on the path of destruction that humanity has chosen; and that it is first for the Jew then for the Gentile. (The cross is looked at in more detail in the fourth book.)
The first book then ends with a link chapter to the next books. A reminder that the tree Jesus died on was the problem tree in the garden of Eden: the tree of knowledge of good and evil; and that from his side came forth a suitable partner for the work within creation. Those chapters I consider are very foundational and open up the following books. In summary those books follow this trajectory:
Book 2 (Significant Other) presents the ‘church’ as ekklesia, essentially a political term. Thus suggesting that a ‘movement’ paradigm is at the heart of the understanding of what ‘church’ was always meant to be.
The approach to Scripture (seeking to read it narratively as related to the historical context) opens up necessary possibilities to be considered. Rather than simply taking texts and approaching them as timeless truths it becomes the task of understanding them in context. Hence Jesus is addressing Jews (as is the majority of the Bible). The broad road / narrow road is related to the Roman Imperial conquest - few will find the way that is to safety / salvation, but many are and will remain on the road to destruction; I suggest his references to hell (Gehenna) by Jesus are references to AD70; ‘born again’ is addressed to a religious Jew (whose journey in the gospels is to new birth, but ever so slow!). Likewise ‘no name under heaven by which we are to be saved’ is addressed to Jews… Abraham is not the name by which they will be saved… and they have a generation in which to align with Jesus, otherwise not one stone upon another will be their experience. The historical journey is from Jew to Gentile; the theological journey likewise: first the Jew and then the Gentiles. First the Jews sinned; also the Gentiles - thus all have sinned and ‘fallen short’. Likewise salvation is historically and theologically to the Jew first and then to the Gentiles. I therefore don’t think we can simply jump from verses that we collect together and then prove our point. For even the cross of Jesus, which is totally universal in scope, is for Jews and males… They have to die - they are the ‘sharp’ end of sin. In the same way that we all betray Jesus, but Judas is the sharp end. Likewise all have sinned, but there is a ‘sharp’ end. Hence I also want in the light of new creation to purge the Bible of its patriarchy, suggesting the Bible demands we do that!
I see the whole context is from creation, creation gone wrong that needs to be fixed / healed, to the new society where there are no divides. Death is a divide, a separation; death leads to divides. Jesus death ends the divides, ends the knowledge path that religion had polished, exposing that path as empty with ‘they know not what they do’. Religion is the top layer of the knowledge of good and evil so is the first element to be touched at the cross. From there is opened up one new humanity of no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. Questions of who is saved takes a back seat, not everything of the kingdom is in the church. And not all our churchiness is in the kingdom. The work of the ekklesia is in the kingdom and for the kingdom’s increase but we do not have to (and cannot) affirm that is true of what we have produced as ‘church’.
The trajectory moves us toward a greater and challenging understanding of the universal mission of God. A mission / vision for the new heaven and earth.
Church, in that sense (ekklesia), is important but not the form / shape / structure of it. And I am more than open to the strong possibility that Paul only had vision of the first step. Even the first step might be very different today, and the second, third etc. might be beyond the biblical record… not beyond the biblical story, but beyond the biblical text.
Book 3 (A Subversive Movement) seeks to explore how all of this ekklesia as movement embeds in society. It has to be subversive, from the bottom up, rather than a vision to impose values on society. Any truly apostolic vision will therefore have to have patience, transformation will not take place overnight. It also has to engage the ‘little people’ for the work of God is done through that ‘that is not’, marked by ‘not many wise, rich, powerful’ having been chosen.
The final book in the series The LifeLine is a push into Pauline theology, with a final re-visit to the cross where alongside the ‘road-block’ suggestion from book 1 I put at centre is the need for ‘cleansing’. I push away from any split in the Trinity (angry God, loving Son) which leaves us with a conflict within God, and a conflict between the Persons of the Godhead, even if we were to stretch it to a creative conflict, it nevertheless remains a conflict!
Being an exploration in theology there are directions that could be pursued (indeed that seems to me to be the nature of the Bible with its many wonderful internal dialogues). Issues related to sexuality and gender are certainly implied as new creation does not consist of ‘male and female’, exhibited I would suggest in the resurrection (or if not resurrection, the acension) of Jesus who rises as a human, this resurrection I would consider being neither ‘male nor female’.
The four books lay a foundation for such discussions and perhaps other volumes could have been added that address issues of eschatology, though the intention of the four volumes is to suggest a direction that would be appropriate on these subjects.
(I intend to write on eschatology but to publish them solely in eBook format and as part of the growing Extended Articles series.)