Today we have the book we call the Bible, consisting of Old and New Testaments. There are genuine questions concerning the make up of the books, why some are included and other writings were not. Huge discourses have been written concerning that. And such discussions are far beyond the scope of this book, not to mention beyond the intellectual prowess of the current author! The above difficult question we simply dodge, and get right into a quick guide as to how we read what has been (more or less) accepted that has meant to guide the Christian faith.
The Bible assumes the existence of God. There are no great discussions but right at the outset it simply says that ‘God spoke’. S/he speaks therefore s/he is! Presented as a generous being who shares with humanity, giving choice and autonomy, and inviting humanity into partnership for the future well-being and enjoyment of creation. In story-form (and I probably should have bitten the bullet and just used the word ‘myth’) there were two main trees in the garden of Eden. One was the ‘tree of life’ indicating that humanity was made for eternity (not indicating that humanity is immortal, that being a later Greek, Platonic concept), and one that if eaten would result in ‘death’. This word ‘death’ is much more than a reference to something physical but something deeply personal and emotional, something corporate-wide, and something even cosmic-wise.
Two deeply contrasting words, but words we can relate to. We have all said something along the lines of, ‘I really came alive when…’ And the ‘when’ becomes, in some measure, ‘I was doing what I was born to do’, or as the Spanish graphically describe it, ‘when I was in my salsa’ (sauce). Death is just the opposite, and we have probably all had experiences when something inside of us has ‘died’.
Digging a little deeper into the forbidden tree, and remembering that the encouragement was to eat of all the trees, just avoid the fruit from this one tree. Humanity is instructed to avoid this one tree for the consequences of eating from it will be the release of a flow of death to one and all. That tree was named as the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’, and the temptation was to eat of it as it was thought that it would give us the ability to draw the lines, deciding what is right and what is wrong. Rights and wrongs! There are some pretty much accepted rights and wrongs, and that is both helpful and understandable. But when we move beyond those basic agreements so much of the ‘right and wrong’ paradigm results in divides, and for sure the world of religion has perfected the use of that paradigm.
It seems to us that the original paradigm was not to decide what was right and wrong but to search out the path that brings life, life not simply defined as being in one’s salsa (important as that is) but how to respond so that we enable those we come into contact with to come increasingly into their salsa.
Although as we read further in the Bible we encounter Israel and how they received the law we should not think that this was as simple as a list of ‘rights and wrongs’. There is a key instruction that came through the person attributed in bringing them the ‘law’ that says,
This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live (Deuteronomy 30: 19).
Life and death were two possibilities, with the encouragement to choose the path of life. The law simply was an (inadequate) guide to what that path might look like. A helpful path as it instructed how to live well within society, how to respond to one’s neighbours. Yet not a perfect guide. We see this with the instructions about the death penalty, where it worked on the basis of ‘an eye for an eye’. That remains an ongoing principle where the punishment is to fit the crime, but not go beyond it. However, we also read that God responded directly to the first murderer (Cain who murdered his brother Abel) by protecting him so that others would not take vengeance against him. God did not comply with his own law, or better put, the law (God gave) did not comply with God. There is no need, when we read the laws in the Old Testament, to simply take them as we read them, but again to see them as signposts pointing in a direction, that direction being the path of life.
Over many centuries it would seem the Jews lost sight of the ‘life and death’ paradigm and elevated the ‘right and wrong ‘ paradigm, with many discussions on how the law should be applied (such as how far one can walk on the Sabbath day). They moved away from seeing the law as being a servant to help us discover the path of life. If the above comment seems a little hard on ‘the Jews’, it is only because their response simply helps us see what is a universal tendency; we lose sight of the ‘life and death’ paradigm.
Let’s jump ahead to consider Jesus and in particular his death. We have already said that his death on a cross satisfied the Jews, as it indicated a just punishment for a blasphemer, and it satisfied the Romans, sending out a clear signal that all were to comply with their customs and laws. But it runs deeper than simply an act at a specific time in history. It occurred at a precise time known, by the biblical writer Paul, as ‘the fullness of times’.
Backtracking… Abraham and the nation of Israel were chosen to enable the other nations to be the best they could be, but they became self-obsessed, simply wanting to be as one of the other nations. The choice of a king (Saul being the first, with the next two, David and Solomon, perhaps being the best-known ones) was very critical in the history of the nation of Israel. The result was a hierarchy with the major flow of resources being to the centre and to the ‘top’, rather than a distribution of wealth and authority throughout the land. By the time of Jesus the religious leaders claimed they had ‘no king other than Caesar’. If the nation that was meant to be different, so that others could see, learn and imitate, was just the same as all the others, all possibility of Israel being an agent for change had gone. This seems to be what the term ‘fullness of times’ means. The time when there was no hope for the future.
Jesus’ birth was announced as good news for the world:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests (Luke 2: 14).
Peace to the world. Not the Pax Romana where there was a wealthy centre and a powerful elite, who promised benefits… benefits if one complied! Peace on earth, or in the Hebrew language, shalom, something very positive, much more than the absence of war, and much more than peace imposed through military means.
We consider the best way to describe the death of Jesus is that it was in some strange way a roadblock to the path that we were all on, that dead-end street. Somehow God was in Jesus saying enough is enough. It is almost as if the tree (the cross) that Jesus died on was that very tree of ‘the knowledge of good and evil’. He said enough to the divides, the lines that push people away; the cross (or maybe the resurrection of Jesus) was the announcement of a new time, a new humanity, a new trajectory, a new guiding system. Or maybe an old guiding system brought back into view – the ‘life and death’ paradigm.
Of course all the above takes a measure of faith to accept, and I am simply presenting my faith concerning the death of Jesus, accepting that if it be true that the above will not totally explain what took place at the cross. We do however reject any idea (such as was common in many religions) that God had to be placated, had to be satisfied in order to forgive us of our many sins!
The announcement at the birth of Jesus, the life of Jesus right through to the resurrection (and beyond), was to bring hope to the world. In the last chapter we looked a little at Paul and how the message gained traction in the Roman Imperial world, and it had to be that it was essentially a message of hope. It might have been dismissed as wishful thinking, or an impossible dream, but it certainly could never be reduced to mean ‘private faith expressed in religious activity’.
Beyond Jesus we have the initialisation of the ekklesia (translated as ‘church’, but the problem is we know what church is and therefore project back into the Bible that what we know must be what was being encouraged to grow throughout the then known world). This ekklesia consisting of people who willingly lined up under the person of Jesus to live for the prosperity and well-being of all others, so that the world might be as good as it could be, and where all could benefit from the belief that God is generous beyond belief, that each human being carries some reflection of God (‘image’).
Practical questions are provoked by the Person of Jesus, and the message of the Gospel. How we answer those might differ among those who claim to align to Jesus and take the Bible as a written source of authority. On some issues I am far from clear, but I think it is time to draw the ‘theoretical underpinnings’ to a close. To summarise what I have proposed that should inform anyone trying to articulate some answers to the practical questions, I suggest the following:
- There has always been a generosity in God, a pouring out of life for others. There has never been any act, and with that I am particularly thinking of any sacrificial act, that has brought God round to loving us. Love is the nature of the God described in the Bible.
- Jesus ‘emptied himself’, poured out his life and in doing that showed us the nature of God. He was fully human and yet also fully God. The third aspect I wrote about (‘truly’ human) we do not share with him. In that he shows us what we are to be. At no point did Jesus sin, but he developed and grew to maturity, pushing through every cultural barrier.
- Those who align with Jesus are to reflect that generosity; growth toward true humanity is to act in a way that humanises all others.
- We cannot and should not quickly wade in with proclamations of what is right and wrong but have to use the measurement of what brings life and what brings death.
- We should not simply look to the Bible as a text book but as a story, that outlines a journey past, and points to a journey beyond its pages. We have to seek to follow the trajectory even if it seems to conflict with certain texts. Compliance to the story takes precedence over a blind obedience to the text.
- We have to think of a whole new way of society relating together as being descriptive of the outworking of the good news coming into our world as a result of the birth of Jesus, understanding the Gospel as containing much more content than aspects of personal devotion and private faith.
- We might not get it all right; and I suggest that perhaps it is not so important that we get it right. We are all involved in a journey; ‘life’ not ‘right’ has to guide; ‘love’ not ‘vested interest’.
Religion in all its forms might have some helpful input to the journey, but religion, regardless of how it is defined, will fall short of (of course my perspective) what we can see was initiated when Jesus was born. A baby entered the world. And God entered the world at a whole new level to journey with imperfect people. People who don’t know all the answers but can seek to humbly make a few suggestions and contributions.