An explosive Scripture

Well we can ask which one as there are so many!!

In this little old lockdown era, that signals something much longer term for us all, along with countless thousands of others I have been discovering the world of zoom. Yesterday Brazil, today Germany and so it goes on daily. At the same time I have been writing, working on writing a book, or a series of booklets, not sure what to do with them yet, but one thought I have is of some form of publishing and then with a small group of doing a zoom chat on a chapter per week. So for all the millions who follow this blog put that at the back of your mind as ‘I would love to do that.’

I am trying to write material that would tackle some of the theological issues in a down to earth simple way, not so that I can gain converts to my incredible movement but to be a resource. I am sure that our goal in life is not to convert others to our viewpoint but to help stimulate people to develop their own convictions. Sadly so much of what we can access is predictable and simply re-enforcing the status quo. I think some simple theological principles might help equip us for wider engagement. Or so go my thoughts.

And before the Scripture quote (one I have been looking at in the context of the writing) how about this for a stupendous quote, regarding being inspired by the natural world:

The deep swirling grandeur of our gorgeous planet drifting through space on a mission to increase compassion and wisdom (Stephen Harding).

Moving on to the Scripture I was meditating on yesterday. In John 10: 47-53 we read of a behind the scenes meeting:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

So much detail from the insider meeting. The corruption of the Jewish hierarchy, their collusion with Rome so that in the symbiotic relationship (you scratch my back and I will scratch yours) there was a recognition how everything could be sustained if they did not rock the boat. Jesus was rocking the boat and everything was being challenged, with a focus on the loss of the Temple. They decide Jesus has to be put to death to save the Temple. Ironically Jesus said ‘destroy this Temple and I will raise it in three days’, and he also said that within 40 years of his death the Temple the hierarchy cared about would be destroyed… wait for it… by the Romans. Irony, or irony?

The area that interested me in the text was that ‘Jesus would die for the Jewish nation (and not only…)’. We have focused our theology on ‘and not only…’ and in a very personal way – for the sins of the world = for my sins. However there is a huge theme in Scripture (or at least in the Pauline writings) of ‘the Jew first, then the Gentile’.

I think so much of our theology has been removed from the historical narrative of Scripture so much so that we have approached the Bible as if it was there as a book to develop systematic theology. Here is my illustration. We have a jigsaw puzzle, the biblical texts being the pieces. We know the finished product, the picture on the box (=my theology). I work my way through the pieces finding the ones that fit the picture, ignoring all along that are pieces in there that don’t fit the picture, they seem to belong to another puzzle. But we are convinced we have the right picture! So we proof-text (choose the bits that fit the picture) and ignore the non-proof texts. But the Bible is not a book of systematic theology it is a narrative. (Before moving on I simply need to state very humbly that I do have the correct picture and all texts irregardless of colour, shape or size fit my picture, but I state this humbly.)

In making a systematic theology we run in to the cross of Jesus and sadly often come down to some crude system that splits the Trinity. Jesus is definitely good, the one we call the Father… maybe some anger issues there? That is often the result of seeing the cross in a vertical way… God and humanity. (BTW I have written yesterday a chapter on the ‘wrath’ of God… appetite whetter there.)

If however we follow the biblical trajectory the cross is not primarily presented vertically but horizontally, it is set in a very exact time frame. If so then it needs to be explored what history is it bringing to an end, and what future is it opening up. No need to start with ‘God is angry’ and wrath can then fit in where I think it does elsewhere in Scripture, so we end up making a shift as the writer in Isaiah 53 did, from ‘we considered him smitten of God, BUT…’

Caiaphas prophesying said his death was for the nation. That is historical, that is horizontal, that is narratival, that is Jew first, then the Gentile. So the cross of Jesus answers an historical issue first. If we don’t start there I think our systematic theology will be squeezing the texts to fit with the courthouse dramas that came from the Reformation era not the narratival story of Jesus coming ‘to save his people from their sins’ (Matt. 1:21).

Speaking of bad moods

Well not really about to write about moodiness and certainly never going to get me to confess to any level of moodiness, but going much higher than that! It is so easy to read of ‘the wrath of God’ and picture a moody out of sorts older person who has just had enough. Grumpy and ready to lash out. Then add to that the picture of the cross and Jesus taking the anger that was coming our way.

We continue to have language such as ‘act of God’ for events that take place that we can’t really find someone to blame. Strong language, but also found to some extent within the pages of Scripture (Old Testament). At least on that there is something of a shift from Old to New. In the Old there is a more primitive view of God (did I write that? Yes and would defend that perspective!) with everything coming from God. We can see a shift within the pages of the Old Testament itself. In Kings God entices David to count the people and then well and truly slaps him down for doing it, whereas in Chronicles ‘Satan’ does the enticing. Amazing how theology can change over a few hundred years! (It could be argued that Satan is invented in the sense of discovered as the revelation of spiritual reality developed. The serpent in the garden = Satan is fundamentally a biblical reading back in to the situation.)

Jesus made comments about the theology of an ‘act of God’ when he referenced the tower that fell causing death.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13: 1-5).

Basically it was one of those things (an accident, or through human error in construction) but it was not judgement. And beyond that he calls for a repentance – probably in this setting calling Jews to follow a way of peace and the ways of God otherwise the future will be one of perishing at the hands of the Romans. (Probably to be read that way rather than ‘eternal perishing’ in this context.)

The current coronavirus is one of those things. Dis-ease is in the world and Scripture clearly puts that at our feet. The falls of creation flow from the fall of humanity.

I am just reading a book that has numerous wonderful insights in it. Two days ago I read a comment on John the Baptist, quoting John’s Gospel that the Baptist ‘was not the Light’. The greatest born of woman, one coming in the spirit and power of Elijah was not the Light. He stood within the Old Covenant era, having opened the door to the new. But where he stood meant he could point toward the Light, but not be the Light. Only Jesus is the Light, that enlightens everyone. Gladly we cannot read the Old Testament unless we read it through the New. God’s revelation is not essentially propositional truth (such ‘truth’ will approximate or point toward the Truth). God’s revelation is incarnational, and John nor any writer was the Light.

So back to the bad mood situation.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom. 1: 18).

Wrath is clearly referenced – but not wrath against people. Wrath against sin, wickedness. My reading today took me to Isaiah 53, I read again these familiar words:

We considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:4,5).

We had one viewpoint… probably because ‘we’ saw God primarily as a punisher, but – and there is a wonderful ‘but’ something was taking place that is hard to theologise without distorting who God is, it was ‘for’ us.

‘Sin in the hands of an angry God’ would make a good title for a sermon. God is heaven-bent on destroying all that is destructive, and we need to understand this. Otherwise we can live in fear, from legalism, or conversely be over-familiar with someone we don’t even know.

Yes there are some real hard Scriptures and themes. Maybe we don’t get it right, but we certainly cannot transfer our understanding of (fallen) human emotions on to God.

The Peter response

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that it is possible to fall into the ‘Peter trap’ once we have revelation. So maybe just a quick expansion on this. From Matthew 16 we get this inter-change:

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day and be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!

Reasonably powerful!! We have some:

  • startling revelation
  • followed by Jesus explaining the path ahead
  • provoking Peter to ‘correct’ Jesus’ prediction
  • resulting in an (almost) name change for Peter!

The revelation was accurate, and Jesus proclaimed that it was not based on some human element but that it had come from heaven. Top marks Peter! Revelation comes from the future.

Jesus who is living, not to preserve his life, but to follow the path that is laid out explains where this will lead, but Peter takes exception to this explanation. I consider that on the basis of his revelation he knows he needs to correct Jesus. I don’t this was because of arrogance but because the revelation has brought to Peter an expectation. Jesus is the Messiah (revelation from the future) meets his understanding, his expectation that is shaped by his journey to date. Peter is seeking to keep Jesus on track! Expectation meets revelation and is informed by the journey thus far.

The general expectation was that the Messiah would deliver a people from oppression. The expectation was not of the death of the Messiah but of the overcoming of all opposition by the Messiah. (This is why I do not consider that Judas understood the betrayal as betrayal, but as having the two-fold benefit of personal financial reward and enabling the mission of Jesus to be truly successful.)

I am of the opinion that there is almost certainly a lot of prophetic revelation that proclaims a wonderful future and of the triumph of the Gospel, but that it is inevitably met by an expectation that will not be fulfilled. The path is always ‘first to suffer then glory’ as there are three words tied together in Scripture: suffer – time – glory.

If our expectation is the cross as symbol by which we conquer we will be shocked and disappointed by the path ahead.

We can easily fall, and normally do fall, into the Peter trap. That is the one where we verbalise it all, and it seems we (like Peter) look pretty stupid as the future unfolds. But at least in verbalising it we can be corrected. If we push it further and allow our own personal weakness to come strongly into the mix we might go beyond the Peter syndrome to the Judas one. Best avoided!

Demonic power accessing the cross

So the answer was ‘yes’!

Of that I am convinced, just not quite sure how to get there. However, I think that if we use a symbol such as a flag there might be power in what it is calling us to, but if we use the (false) cross there is another added dimension.

The demonic realm love to invade human space as that is the connecting point of heaven and earth. Humanity, made in the image of God is very key to the demonic strategy. Once that space is invaded a process of dehumanising can take place, so that as that increases in scope the connection between heaven and earth decreases. This is why I see sin primarily not as ‘law-breaking’ and subsequent guilt but as falling from the glory of being human.

The demonic then want to invade and pervert every access point between heaven and earth, and it is the cross that in time makes that access point eternal. It is no surprise then that the cross is a focal point for such an invasion, not the cross that becomes the pathway to life, but the cross that oppresses all enemies, the cross as symbol through which we conquer by power.

In all situations to change the meaning of something is key in nullifying the original meaning. This happens all the time organisationally. When a new challenging message comes, the institution seeks first to understand the new language, then the nature of institutional power is that the language gets converted to mean something different to what was the initial intended meaning.

I consider something similar happens with the change of meaning in the cross. (Maybe we could also consider the shift in Israel from a call to the nations as servant, to being superior to the nations demonising them in the process, but in reality just opening themselves up to the demonic!) By changing the meaning probably what takes places is an emptying of the symbol of the cross of its transforming power. It is not then that by pulling on the symbol of the cross that God is pulled in to serve evil, but by perverting the symbol of the cross, there is space for the advance of evil at a frightening level. In the same way that the power of sin (singular) dehumanises, so the perversion of the cross de-crosses the true cross.

Redemption re-humanises. But to do so there has to be a repentance. Maybe we too can re-cross the cross, but through the path of repentance. Confessing the wrong allegiance to power might be a start.

I often follow the Catholic (and early church) practice of crossing myself, but normally only when passing our local church of San Lorenzo. It is a reminder that Jesus asked that I carry the cross. I am happy to do so outside the building dedicated to the one who on August 10, 258 was burnt at the stake in Rome by command of the emperor. He seemed to be committed to the implications of picking up the cross and following Jesus.

There are two crosses. The false one is here to pervert and thus seriously remove the reality of the true cross being the bridge between heaven and earth. Reduce but can never obliterate. If we can recover the true cross, be marked by it, the ugliness of oppressive power will be revealed, the tie between religion and politics will be broken, so that the followers of Jesus can help hold space where a politics (simply meaning the shaping of society) of love can grow. There is a new world we are called to see as a result of the cross of Jesus, and as embrace the cross a new world that is to become ever increasingly visible.

The cross – accessing power

Religion and political power. Now there is a combination that is lethal. Jesus as a prophet went to Jerusalem to die, stating that no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem. Jerusalem should have been a (fallen) symbol of a location for the nations, but we read that the religious verdict from the centre was that it was better he died or the supra-national power of Rome would come and take away their religious privileges.

Religious privilege! How we love that, hence the party that espouses family values, can pull our vote even if on other issues such as a generous immigration policy they are vehemently opposed to. We are in dangerous times, not dangerous primarily because of terrorism, nor the coronavirus, but over the compromise of our faith. In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote at one point:

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator.

Policies that were in line with God!

I do consider that we are at a very dangerous time of history. I am deeply grateful for the prophetic prayer that has opened space, but we can SOOOO easily fall into the Peter trap. We flow from revelation to rebuking Jesus for the path ahead that he saw. There will be no delivery into the hands of our enemies (the cross) but they will be delivered into our hands (the false cross).

Just as Jesus went to Jerusalem to end the journey of the prophets to that place of death, so Paul ends in Rome. No record of his death there, as it is not about his death, but about our death. Jesus goes to Jerusalem to break the alignment of politics and religion, so leaving Paul pronouncing the Gospel in Rome turning everything on its head.

Many are now beginning to use the cross – even in the former stronghold of atheism, Putin is pulling on religion and the cross. So to the question…

Is there a (demonic) power released when the (false) cross is pulled on.

And to the answer: YES.

End of post!

Questions about the cross

This post is not an acknowledgement that we will never fully fathom the cross, that I take for granted. I am musing concerning questions that have troubled me for a while. Questions such as ‘are there two crosses?’ and ‘by pulling on the cross is power released?’

I am sure there are two crosses. If we go back to the Roman culture the cross was an ugly reality. A public statement visible throughout the Imperial world. Reserved for rebels against the system it was a frightening reminder that peace had been established through violent force and would be maintained in the same way. Prior to his own crucifixion Jesus instructed his followers to pick up their cross and follow him. Pick up the instrument of torture and death to make the job of the enemy even easier! We use the phrase ‘this is my cross to bear’ but it no way comes close to doing justice to bearing our cross. The cross was not the symbol of victory over the enemy, but the pathway to a brutal death inflicted by the enemy.

Fast forward and we record the words of revelation given to Constantine – in this sign (of the cross) you will conquer. Of course by faith the cross is the sign by which we conquer, by faith we see that all powers were stripped and left naked and powerless through the cross of Jesus, but to attach the sign of the cross to military conquest? I can only conclude that to do so is to use the symbol in a way that is a perversion. There are indeed two crosses.

A while back our good friend Dani Mateo did a dance on the very place where we prayed for the removal of Franco’s body. At the ‘valle de los caidos’ he did a ‘baile de los caidos’ (‘b’ and ‘v’ have virtually the same sound in Spanish, so he did a crazy ‘dance of the valley of the fallen’). So many were incensed as it was deemed sacrilegious to do so in such a place, a place marked by the cross. A priest wrote an open letter in reply to the reaction and the ensuing court case that what was done was right as there are two crosses and the one over Franco’s tomb honouring the victor of the Civil War could not be seen as the cross of Jesus. He encouraged Dani to continue! (A little note here… we have never met Dani, he is no more a friend than the 5 million followers I have on FaceBook (as if!) but we laugh whenever he is on TV.)

So two crosses – that question I am happy with the conclusion that there are indeed two crosses, and have to acknowledge every time I have used my ‘faith’ to be above anyone else I am not aligning myself to the true cross, even when I claim truth is on my side.

The second question is a tougher one. When I use the (false) cross am I pulling on power that I do not access otherwise? That question I will post on tomorrow as it is a huge question.

Two crosses

caidosThe cross over Franco’s tomb provoked for me a serious question as we went there to pray in the Spring of last year. My question was whether if one uses the cross in a wrong way does it tap into the power of the cross and release that power, but release it negatively – a little like electricity (as a ‘good’ power) lights and heats a house, but if wired wrongly it does not serve well but is actually destructive. Some of that did not fit well with me as the power of the cross is not some sort of abstract power source. God’s rule is kenotic, is self-emptying love, not some sort of sovereign crushing power. But why the cross?

I am considering that we have two crosses which, dependent on which cross is chosen, of course will reflect back somewhere into the nature of the Gospel. There is the Constantinian cross (‘in this sign you will conquer’) that can be placed on the banners and it results in yielding evidence of its power by vanquishing all foes. As such it is aligned to an imperial power, and fits well with Christendom and all forms of getting the right person(s) in power. It was that kind of cross that manifested in the Civil War with Franco being a ‘son of Spain and a servant of God’. His conquering of the land was for the uniting of Spain and the uniting of it under God – a repeat of the ‘Reconquista’ that saw the Muslim rule in Spain end. A ‘Christian’ conquest that fitted with the wider context of the Crusades to rightly align Jerusalem to God. That cross gives us a right of power over and we are vindicated by it when we use force to establish righteousness, as that cross itself is a symbol of power.

The second cross represents a power of a different kind. It does speak of imperial power, but only when used against us. It is carried as an instrument that can be used by others – it is the same spirit as when Jesus sent out the disciples as ‘lambs among wolves’ (guess the favourite meat in the restaurants that wolves frequent?). There is no protection… unless heaven itself is involved. It takes faith to suggest that in the process of living for God that ‘no-one can take our lives from us’ but that the course we are on means we will ‘lay down our lives’ for others. It takes a whole load of faith to believe that such death is not the end, and in that death there is an undoing of imperial power.

The second cross is not the conventional sign of strength. Yet it is through that cross we are aligned to the God of heaven who give us a strength of courage that does not insist on one’s own will.

This (might) have implications for both the Gospel (good news) that we believe in and how we present it. Sovereignty will demand being appeased (Anselm: God’s honour to be restored; Reformers: an eternal debt to be paid). God will have to be bought off somehow. If we respond we will then be on the right side, all others on the wrong side. The cross as satisfying the wrath of God, that wrath being understood in personal terms. If the cross however fully satisfies the love of God, it becoming the symbol and act (when aligned to the resurrection) that fully shows us who our God is, then the work of the cross is to do a deep healing in us, to re-humanise us, to remove the scapegoating of the ‘other’, and to release us as reconcilers for the sake of others. This view of the cross will work more (note the word ‘more’) with alienation, shame and sickness than with ‘guilt’. It will see the necessity of Jesus’ true humanity being for our sake rather than for God’s sake.

The cross is to re-humanise us. The work that has to be undone is that of de-humanisation. The latter we all need to be delivered from. I don’t think the imperial cross can help at any level to re-humanise us and align us with the re-humanising God. Somewhere on the spectrum of the two crosses one seems to me to be a parody of the real one.

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Take up your cross

RevolutiionWe have just picked up this book again as I have been away in the UK… and of course cannot possibly read without Gayle! This is our current reading and we began Chapter 3 yesterday. I will probably not post on each chapter of the book, but the section was so hard hitting that I have to reflect back. The first part of that chapter was on crucifixion in the ancient world, and how Rome used it to make a point of showing ‘subject peoples who was in charge and to break the spirit of any resistance.’

Wright points out that in 88BC Alexander Jannaeus had 800 Pharisees crucified for resisting his rule; in 4BC the revolt of Judas ben Hezekiah resulted in 2000 rebels crucified; and how in the 66-70 rebellion that so many were crucified that they ran out of timber for the crosses. He then opens up that those in Galilee knew about Rome and its power to control with the horrendous death penalty of crucifixion as the ultimate and very visible symbol of power. Many of Jesus’ contemporaries would have seen, and certainly been told of crucifixions.

The call to ‘take up your cross and follow me’ cannot be sanitised. The political undertone is clear in that call. It is the call of the resistance. How far we have moved from that call to the ‘in this sign you will conquer’ of Constantine and christendom. Taking up the cross was to take up the means of brutal punishment that the Imperial powers would use to crush all dissenters. It was not taking up a weapon of warfare to defeat and crush others.

The political and revolutionary message is as strong in the words of Jesus as on the lips of any would be revolutionary leader. The difference is that of laying down one’s life not taking the lives of others to correct the status quo. The cross is the sign of victory, in this sign we do conquer but only because of a belief in the resurrection.

I had not seen, till reading this chapter, that the call to take up the cross, the call to discipleship was a political call. It now sits for me alongside the Caesar / Jesus is Lord proclamation; the parousia language of the visit of the emperor / Christ; the basileia language of kingdom / empire; pax Romana / peace by the blood of the cross; son of the divine Caesar / son of God and the many more references and allusions to the Imperial context.

The gospel is political – not in the sense of party politics. To debate capitalism / socialism is to miss it somewhat, particularly when we either inject meaning into those words that do not implicitly belong there, or we only understand capitalism through the lens of unbounded neo-liberalism (Reagan / Thatcher and beyond) or that of hegemonic state communism. The political nature of the gospel is understood as carrying the seeds for the reformation of society (the polis). It is first a call to those who are aligned to Jesus to lay down our weapons of control and to walk the walk, with the cross, with the very instrument that those who oppose us can kill us. In the year that… the belief that through losing our lives there will be an advance of the kingdom is the challenge. Maybe we have lost sight of that because the reality of the cross and what it was is not visible in our society. Only by sanitising the cross, and thereby distorting it, can we rejoice when the powerful are enthroned.

Like Israel before us any enthronement denies true good news to the nations. There is another, and only one king, and his rule is visible at the cross.

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