Tag Archives: N.T. Wright

“In Christ” is where I find a Jesus lens

At the Partner Summit of the Jesus Collective we were sent off into Zoom groups (God save us!) to practice “community discernment.” Nothing could be more countercultural and more appropriate. We did not have the capacity and environment to do it (it was Zoom, people) but we did have the audacity to try it! We zeroed in on what it means to see the Bible and the whole world with a “Jesus lens.” This is a primary characteristic of the Jesus Collective movement – not just seeing through the lens of theology, politics or personality, but seeing our way to life as the living Jesus show us, alive in our midst. Sounds like the Bible and sounds unlikely, right? I was glad to be there.

Searching for a Jesus lens

I thought many people provided good, left-brain, conceptual arguments for their views on the Bible. Others came with other views, so we had quite a few views. We were mostly practicing discernment. It is not that easy! We were not assigned to come up with a definitive piece of theological and relational understanding via Zoom. But I imagine most people were as stimulated as I was.

After all the input, I came away thinking a Jesus lens is not going to be much use unless it is derived from being born again into Christ, living in Christ, and seeing the whole world encompassed by the love in Christ. Here is a key verse for me.

In Christ Jesus
you are all children of God through faith,
for all of you who were baptized
into Christ
have clothed yourselves
with Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one
in Christ Jesus.”  — Galatians 3:26-28

I think the common, simple New Testament phrase “in Christ” is a forgotten starting point for mutual understanding. In the portion above, Paul is speaking to the Christians in Galatia, reminding them of their new identity since they placed their faith in Jesus Christ. To be “baptized into Christ” means that they are identified with Christ, since they left their false selves and are putting on their true selves in Christ. When we respond to the Holy Spirit’s drawing we are baptized us into the family of God — “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13).

I think many people with whom I travel are often missing their sense of identity “in Christ.” They aspire to go there, but it is not where they come from. They conceptualize it, but they are suspicious of feeling it. They love Christ in the Bible, but don’t seem to have the Bible’s sense of loving Christ in the here and now. The New Testament is filled with references describing Jesus followers “in Christ:” 1 Peter 5:14Philippians 1:1Romans 8:1. NT Wright can tell you a bit more

Now is the time to live in Christ

I am talking about a theme that interested me in a Zoom discussion, not making a report on data. So don’t think I am coloring the Jesus Collective, please. I just think many of the people to whom I was listening may have struggled with finding a common Jesus lens because we could not agree where Christ is outside of ourselves, individually, from “my personal point of view” or “in my opinion.” I think most of the group were sincerely coming from a place where Christ is, in them.

In this age, most of us practice identity politics by habit, even though the idea didn’t really enter our societal imagination until the 1980s. So we present ourselves according to our sense of identity, usually based on our place in society: gay, Black, white, Canadian, Goth, engineer, etc. Nowadays the idea of identity is refined by the academics until no one feels safe until everyone has tagged themselves as a “cis white male he him his,” or whatever labels you.

It is easy to apply such hyperindvidualism to the Bible. You could read it this way:

To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom,
so that we may present everyone mature
in Christ. — Col. 1:27-8

Many people see one important thing in Paul’s statement: Christ in me is my hope of glory (that is, my hope of sharing God’s life and eternity). Meanwhile, the “mystery” Paul is talking about was made known to a group, not just me. What’s more, Paul is teaching “everyone.” And the goal is maturity “in Christ” not Christ maturing in me. I am not the mystery even though my right brain, at least, is organized to receive it.

I’m making one of those binary distinctions: is it Christ in me or is it me in Christ? It is both. But I think the mystery that was revealed is that we are welcomed to live in Christ. If you are tracking with me, I hope we are meditating on living in Christ together, so we can see with a Jesus lens and create environments where Jesus is known, not just thought about or turned into morality that looks like our present set of principles.

What is being in Christ?

The immediate “mystery” Paul was talking about in the previous passage is this: the Gentiles are also included as fellow heirs of God with the Jews. The ultimate mystery is this:  everyone living in Christ experiences hope as life wells up in us. (More from Pete Enns on mystery)

One could read the following portion individually: “Christ dwelling in me is the mystery revealed to me.” But, more accurately, we could read, “Me living in Christ is the mystery.”

For this reason I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,
so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you,
being rooted and established in love,
may have power,
together with all the Lord’s holy people, 
to grasp
how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ,
 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—
that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:14-19

  • Being in Christ is being restored to one’s place in the family of God, the Creator of familiness.
  • Being in Christ is sending down roots into love, the humus of reality that grows humans.
  • Being in Christ is being one of God’s people as a primary identity
  • Being in Christ is entering the spacious environment of grace that is beyond human understanding

I need to kneel, I need to be strengthened in my inner being, I need power to grasp the gift I have been given, I need to be filled to my fullness. But none of this happens unless I am in Christ. Christ is in me because I am in Christ. That is the mystery of my remaking.

Why does being part of Circle of Hope seem so demanding?

Aren’t most churches afraid of being too demanding? If we ask too much, people might shop down the street or decide Jesus is not their brand altogether!

Image result for jesus demanding

There is no hiding it. We at least seem demanding.

For instance, some Sunday Meeting Team leaders were talking about how to ask people to develop their worship discipline. One of them worried out loud that someone might think it was too demanding if we did not just lay out different music and exercises at our meeting without too much direction and let people browse without breathing down their necks like anxious salespeople.

I said, “Most of the time, when I lead people to do something, I add a caveat at the end — ‘Or do what you want.'” When it comes to worship, I’m saying, “Worshiping God is worship – not much I can do about that. But if you want to be here and not do it, that’s OK. Don’t do it.” That’s one way to deal with the demanding nature of what we do — let everyone be where they are, including God. I want to embrace people where they are, first, and let them catch up to what God has for them in their own time.

We are ambitious — that is demanding

Just hearing me admit that we are ambitious let’s you know that we prize speaking directly, which is also demanding. We make plans, and we want to complete our goals; we truly think we are listening to Jesus, and we don’t mind telling you what we are hearing. We take people seriously enough to include them in making our plans and in our conversations with Jesus. What’s more, we like the term “radical.” But even apart from our traits as a people, it is only honest to say we are demanding because we are relating to God, which, by nature, is quite demanding.

At the same time we are inevitably demanding, we don’t really want to be. People get upset with us! Someone actually asked the question I am answering with some exasperation: “Why is being part of Circle of Hope so demanding?!” We struggle with their exasperation. When I wrote a blog post about cohabitation once, people wrote to me and said, “Wow, thanks, that was bold. You waded right in.” They were scared for me. I was talking about things people have feelings about. I created a demanding situation. If you talk about something intimate people sometimes forget you are not their mother and react accordingly. Some people think it would be wiser to let a sleeping dog lie most of the time. Why kick someone’s fear and resistance? Why ask someone to have an identity centered on Jesus and never let anything get in the way of that? It’s very demanding.

We we assume you have “the stuff” to do what you decide to do – and that includes deciding about Jesus. 

It is kind of demanding to treat people like they don’t have to be a Christian and I don’t have to coerce them. It requires a lot of maturity of people to think they can stand on their own two feet and do what they need to do.

Facing this assumption is hard on quite a few people because they inherited Christianity from mom and dad. They didn’t have too many choosing experiences about it. They are used to feeling coerced, and they like to think the church is doing that so they can rebel against it. I don’t think it is the same for everyone, but, to be honest, I find us relatively undemanding, since I want to be a Christian. The church could not possibly be as demanding as Jesus. He tells me to lose my false self so I can gain my true one!

When Jesus was talking to people who were already settled into their religion, he raised the bar very high. He told them they had to deal with their own personal sin, not rely on their standing in their family or community. They had emulate Abraham’s faith and hope, not just rely on their honored place as his descendants. They had to listen to the Son of God, not to the lies the powers were telling them. This kind of talk made them very defensive (John 8:31-47).

Sometimes when we speak into American life and American Christianity, any straight talk can seem confrontational. American Christianity has kind of been dumbed down, in general, so it can be sold to a mass audience. Sometimes it seems like a self help book, or religion for dummies. It is all about what people feel and do personally, and it is designed to be convenient, like an IKEA. Plus you can be a Christian easy enough because it only happens once a week at church. It can be like a sitcom — happy theme songs, plot lines that are not too deep; everything is expected to work out quickly. These are such gross generalizations I wish I hadn’t said them. But they are kind of true.

Jesus took away the lines on the aisles leading to the checkout counter and made faith in God a whole-life thing. He acted like we had the stuff to relate to God — just like he was living and giving his whole life. We think that is how it should be. In comparison to being in control or thinking one can accomplish the job of being good quickly and efficiently, what we talk about is demanding. We have to relate. Love is expected. Reconciliation is important. Doing the most and the best is normal.

I wonder what you think. When Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, does it make you resistant and mad? Or when Jesus comes at you and seems confrontational, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is this: live as your true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Our era is more and more inhospitable to Christianity. 

Unless we conform to the prevailing philosophy, or at least accept being deconstructed, it is hard to be a Christian. Even saying the name of Jesus can seem like heavy lifting.

When my hero, Teresa of Avila, awakened to the gospel as a twentysomething in the 1500s, she thought the convent she was living in was lax and compromised. She got demanding and changed thousands of lives. But her situation was different. Almost everyone she knew was a Christian. There was no debate about whether one should believe in God! So her ground floor was Christian and what she was complaining about was a convent, where women went to pray and devote themselves to God. I think most people we know think convents were last heard of in the Sound of Music! And even then, the convent  Julie Andrews was in was one she was escaping because she wanted freedom and sex, and to fight Nazis with Christopher Plummer on the way to a stage career in the United States. If a screenwriter put a Maria Von Trapp character in a movie these days, it would be to mock her as way too wholesome and moral. It is a new day.

There is a famous account of Jesus speaking with an upper class person like Teresa of Avila and like Julie Andrews who came to him to ask a question. It was, basically, “How demanding is it to follow you?” I think how Jesus related to him might be considered very demanding by some people because he so uncompromising and unaffirming. The man had a lot of money and didn’t want to give it away to follow Jesus. He had a lot to lose. The picture I found (at left) seems to picture the moment well. I think the artist captured the sharp contrast between Jesus and the man very well. Jesus looks like he totally does not fit in the picture. The man to whom He was speaking did not think Jesus fit into his picture, either. He thought he was good already and his prosperity helped convince him that he did not need more saving — and even if he was not that good, he was at least good at getting stuff. Why would a Savior demand his stuff?

In Circle of Hope Daily Prayer not long ago, the “voice” was talking about some other things people believe these days that make it hard to be a Christian. For one thing, they believe humankind is good and getting better all the time, just like the man Jesus was talking to only more so. N.T. Wright finds it remarkable that in spite of the evidence, people still believe in the myth of progress. In the 1800s, he says, philosophers thought they had gotten rid of the idea of original sin when they propagated the idea that humankind could keep making things better, forever. Marx and Freud offered replacement doctrines about why things get so bad and offered new solutions to match: new doctrines of redemption which mirror and parody the Christian one, just minus that demanding Jesus. Wright says that somehow, despite the horrific battles of Mons and the Somme during World War I, and despite Auschwitz and Buchenwald in World War II, people still continue to this day to suppose that the world is basically a good place and that its problems are more or less solvable by technology, education, and “development” — that is development in the sense of “Westernization” and the application of Western “democracy” to more and more regions of the world – surrendering to Western social-democratic ideals or Western capitalism, or a mixture of both. The powers that be ignore their sin — they think everything they do is progress. When their sin hits them, or when someone sins against them, they are surprised. When they are surprised they do weird things, like start 17-year war in Afghanistan or design a rocket that can hit the U.S. from North Korea. It is surprisingly hard to leave that thinking behind and follow Jesus.

The man who came to Jesus thought he had it down. But Jesus told him he needed to follow Him personally, not try to fit him into his Beemer. You can get a lot of Jesuses into Beemers, but not the one who had the actual conversation I’ve noted, at least if you are trying to drive Him into Beemerdom. It seems very demanding, even insulting and demeaning, to dismiss the Beemer as trivial. Who does Jesus think he is, and how can he be so undemocratic?

What do YOU think?

When Jesus looks at you in pity, does it make you ashamed and mad? Or when Jesus looks at you in pity, do you think he loves you and has a life for you? How much do you reduce him to merely “demanding?”  I think the only thing he is really demanding is that we live as our true selves in an environment that is becoming new and making all things new.

Why is Circle of Hope so demanding? Like I said, I’m not sure we are, truthfully. But I think we seem demanding in relation to how people were raised in the church and in relation to the society in which we live. I think we need to be sensitive about that, lest we just choke people with our insensitive ambition. But Jesus is a lot more demanding than us —  if you want to see him that way.

A confusing world: War is a good practice topic for finding a third way

We’ve got to do better than Disney thinking in a disintegrating world. I know, I’ve been to Disney World.

Disney World is such a theological place! It recently set my head spinning again when I visited. Simba, Aladdin, Pooh, Peter Pan, etc. were all trying to teach me lessons — and everywhere, it was “Have a magical day!” which is like a liturgical response to everything for people from the Magic Kingdom. With Disney, the basic message is relentlessly, “Find the dream in you and follow it” and there is always a choir to tunefully follow up the message, like the famous song from Cinderella (below) that sums it up:

After the song, we all go ride the rides that give a little jolt of experience that proves the magic is real. A little magic, a large group of fellow-worshipers, a promise of more (if you buy a ticket) sounds like religion to a lot of people. It is, in a way. But it is religion that resembles what N.T. Wright calls present-day “gnosticism” more than it resembles the way of Jesus, as he warns:

Gnostic-like thinking says, “Whatever you need is in you, you just need to find it and unleash it.”

  • Some people go for that with gusto: “I believe I can fly!”
  • Many more wither under the responsibility of self-creation in an uncaring world.

We need the third way that is following Jesus, risen among us.

The world is confusing right now.

There is a lot to say about what is happening to the world and how people are making sense of it, and I hope we will say a lot, because Jesus is the ultimate meaning maker. It is an opportune time to see what is going on right now, since it is an election year and the beliefs of the masses get up to the surface and we get a chance to see them again — and  we get a chance to make sense of them (if the pundits don’t steer us completely). How do we keep discerning the way when there is so much shouting from either pole? A lot of people I’m talking to are quite confused, how about you?

I think we can keep our heads on and our love intact if we stay somewhere in the middle and keep moving toward Jesus. There is a third way. Jesus is not a stance or a platform, but he is the way and a destination. I often find myself trying to steer a middle course among the people of the world, and, unsurprisingly, between the poles I often see in the church. It is something like what Paul teaches when he says I must not be, “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14).

  • On the one extreme we have people who preach that “your dreams are a wish your heart makes,” just keep believing — and for many a traumatized person in Philadelphia, to do that would be a brave step out of the disaster they have experienced their whole life.
  • And then on the opposite extreme, we have people who can’t say the word “Disney” without an ironic inflection, who think a material “reality” is all there is so make the most of this mess and spend your efforts getting yours and loving your friends — for many people moving in to Philadelphia, to say such a thing might be an honest step away from the delusions in which they can no longer believe.

It is surprising how often the church seems unconscious that they have another way, a third way, that is not for or against, with or without the present age.

Is there a way to relate to people in the middle of the turmoil?

Here we are in the middle of the polarization: Spirit-indwelled people, living in a tangible community, persistently telling the story of our resurrection with Jesus and our future as world-redeemers by his side. We have our work cut out for us if we want to have any conversation at all.

Let me try to demonstrate how to think in a way that isn’t at one of the poles or merely disagreeing with them, a third way Take one subject that makes Christians at odds with most structures: WAR.

  • The one side might just let people decide whether being a pacifist is “right for them.”
  • The other side might use all the power at hand to keep what is theirs, as long as they are safe and don’t have to do anything too dangerous.

What does a Jesus-follower do? I don’t think Christian peacemaking is the same thing as political pacifism, but since they always get lumped together, let’s just use the word. What is the third way in thinking about war? – and I mean what is thinking as a Spirit-indwelled person, not just a spirit trying to escape a body or a spiritless body trying to prolong life as long as possible?

To begin with: pacifist is not passive. Not being pacifist is being pacified.

That sums it up. Proactive peacemaking is a lifestyle, not a leisure-time activity. Loving others, including enemies, is a character trait, not an application of theory. I say (and I think Jesus does too) that if you are not “pacifist” you are pacified. You may think you have love in your heart and that’s enough, or you might think you are not required to address the subject of loving people at all, but those are just more ways to be under the sway of the powers Jesus came to upend. Being disembodied is not an option.

jesus in the middle is the third way

If you want life coursing through your body as you proactively make peace on earth with Jesus,  I think there are at least three important reasons to think about forging a third way that is moving toward Jesus rather than getting stuck bouncing between the prevailing poles of arguments looking to make you an adherent.

  1. There is only so much time.

We should make the most of our time. So many of us like the election cycle because it is a big overdose of arguing that lets us off the hook from deciding. As long as we can find a reason not to choose, we feel a strange lack of responsibility that we like. I was just with five-year-olds for a few days. They were adept at pretending they never did anything they feared might be construed as wrong. Ever. No lie was too big to get me to swallow in that cause. We’re all like that a little, I think. If we can avoid it, we will. But our minutes matter. The clock is ticking and the life Jesus offers is being wasted if we are not telling the truth we know.

Donald Trump said: “In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. … I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” There is no time to wish that away and no time to lose by merely avoiding. We need to choose Jesus.

2. Faith is public.

The idea of a public faith is heresy to most Eurocentric people. They think faith is private. We are taught in any number of ways to be autonomous beings responsible for ourselves. And we believe the law protects our private beliefs (until those beliefs go against the powers that write the laws, of course). So we are furious at poor people for not getting richer and furious at rich people for taking all the poor people’s money — people should fulfill their potential and no one should take away the possibility of that. Even when it doesn’t happen, the prevailing authorities can’t think of anything else to do but blame individuals for not being good enough, since they are sure the world is an economy run by an invisible hand and people get to do whatever is  in their heart.

Nothing in the life of Jesus or anyone else in the Bible, for sure, would imply that faith is anything but a life one lives in public, in view, unashamed, assuming one’s life matters as part of the whole. “Privacy” is the luxury of being complicit with some power that protects one’s capacity to go unnoticed. Meanwhile, Jesus is enduring a public execution. He tells his executioner that he will not use his power to participate in a war that might save him from the acts of evil he came to share and overcome. That is about as public example of pacifism as possible. There is another way.

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3. Meditation without action is self absorption.

Orthodox Christians tried to root out gnosticism in the 200’s and 300’s, but the spirit of it was well-preserved in the meditation teaching of my cherished monks, I have to admit. By the 20th century, they realized that Buddhism, Sufism and all sorts of other religious people long to leave the body for complete union with God. These days, mindfulness and irreligious yoga instructors teach the out-of-the-body mindfulness without any spirit at all.

I appreciate the reality and the feelings of contemplative prayer. But I am mindful to meet Jesus in prayer, not just my own capacity for contemplation. Just because I am doing spiritual things doesn’t mean I am connecting to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What saves me from the self-absorption so popular these days is remembering Jesus in history and meeting the risen Lord in my own history: spirit to Spirit, heart to heart, mind to mind, strength to strength. From the peace I experience in prayer, I make peace.

There are ways between the poles:

  • Keeping my eyes on my minutes rather than wasting hours on political redundancies and absurdities, as if they were as breathlessly important as the CNN would like us to believe.
  • Keeping my faith public rather than being driven into privacy or giving up on making a difference.
  • Keeping my spirituality looking to Jesus rather than just “spirituality” or just my own physical sensations.

Being actively on the way, connected to Jesus and his people, allows me to be a pacifist, to choose to love, to even risk the danger of brazenly escaping the clutches of the powers in their own backyard. They don’t have me pacified because I left reality for my dream and they don’t have me pacified because I gave up my need to be a personal alternative and to create an alternative society, the church. Jesus has me, right in the middle, making a peaceful way through, a third way.

Original version appeared on Circle of Hope’s blog.

It is Ascension Day

N.T. Wright thinks Ascension Day is important and he suspects you don’t. I think His theology is so seldom-considered that I decided to write out a section of his book Surprised by Hope and let you consider what Luke says happens to Jesus after he rises from the dead.

Jesus ascending into heaven“Many people insist — and I dare say that this is the theology many of my readers have been taught — that the language of Jesus’ “disappearance” is just a way of saying that after his death he became, as it were, spiritually present everywhere, especially with his own followers. This is then often correlated with a nonliteral reading of the resurrection, that is, a denial of its bodily nature: Jesus simply “went to heaven when he died” in a rather special sense that makes him now close to each of us wherever we are. According to this view, Jesus has, as it were, disappeared without remainder. His “spiritual presence” with us is his only identity. In that case, of course, to speak of his second coming is then only a metaphor for his presence, in the same sense, eventually permeating all things.

What happens when people think like this? To answer this, we might ask a further question: why has the ascension been such a difficult and unpopular  doctrine in the modern Western church? The answer is not just that rationalist skepticism mocks it (a possibility that the church has sometimes invited with those glass windows that show Jesus’s feet sticking downward out of a cloud). It is  that the ascension demands that we think  differently  about how the whole cosmos is, so to speak, put together and that we also think differently about the church and about salvation. Both literalism and skepticism operate with what is called a receptacle view of space; theologians who take the ascension seriously insist that it demands what some have called a relational view. Basically, heaven and earth in biblical cosmology are not two different locations within the same continuum of space or matter. They are two different  dimensions  of God’s good creation. And  the point about heaven is twofold. First, heaven relates to earth tangentially  so that the one who is in heaven can be simultaneously anywhere and everywhere on earth; the ascension therefor means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him. Second, heaven is, as it were, the control room for earth; it is the CEO’s office, the place from which instructions are given. “All authority is given to me,” said Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel, “in heaven and on earth.”

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thor­oughly embodied, risen state, comes as a shock to many people,  including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many  people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while,  stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least,  that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe).  More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial  reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but  also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has  suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messen­gers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge. They discovered through their own various callings how his new way of running things was to be worked out. It wasn’t a matter (as some people anxiously suppose to this day) of Christians simply taking over and giving orders in a kind of theocracy where the church could simply tell everyone what to do. That has some­ times been tried, of course, and it’s always led to disaster. But nei­ther is it a matter of the church backing off, letting the world go on its sweet way, and worshipping Jesus in a kind of private sphere.

Somehow there is a third option. …We can glimpse it in the book of Acts: the method of the kingdom will match the message of the kingdom.  The kingdom will come as the church, energized by the Spirit, goes out into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, misunderstood, misjudged, vindicated, celebrating:  always–as  Paul puts it in one of his letters–bearing in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be displayed.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church–if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than  his standing  over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism. This indeed is what twentieth-century English  liber­alism always tended toward: by compromising with rationalism and trying to maintain that talk of the ascension is really talk about Je­sus being with us everywhere, the church  effectively presented itself (with its structures and hierarchy, its customs and quirks) instead of presenting Jesus as its Lord and itself as the world’s servant, as Paul puts it. And the other side of triumphalism is of course despair. If you put all your eggs into the church-equals-Jesus basket, what are you left with when, as Paul  says in the same passage, we ourselves are found to be cracked earthenware vessels?

If the church identifies its structures, its leadership, its liturgy, its buildings, or anything else with its Lord–and that’s what happens if you ignore the ascension or turn it into another way of talking about the Spirit–what do you get? You get, on the one hand, what Shakespeare called “the insolence of office” and, on the other hand, the despair of late middle age, as people realize it doesn’t work. (I see this all too frequently among those who bought heavily into the soggy rationalism of the 1950s and 1960s.) Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church­ when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him — only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Je­sus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand–when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present–are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present…. We are also, significantly, rescued from the attempts that have been made to create alternative mediators, and in particular an alternative mediatrix, in his place. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

You could sum all this up by saying that the doctrine of the trinity, which is making quite a come back in current theology, is essential if we are to tell the truth not only about God, and more particularly about Jesus, but also about ourselves. The Trinity is precisely a way of recognizing and celebrating the fact of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as distinct from while still identified with God the Father, on the one hand (he didn’t just “go back to being God again” after his earthy life), and the Spirit, on the other hand (the Jesus who is near us and with us by the Spirit remains the Jesus who is other than us). This places a full stop on all human arrogance, including Christian arrogance. And now we see at last why the Enlightenment world was determined to make the ascension appear ridiculous, using the weapons of rationalism and skepticism to do so: if the ascension is true, then the whole project of human self-aggrandizement represented by eighteenth century European and American  thought  is rebuked  and  brought to heel. To embrace  the ascension is to heave a sigh of relief, to give up the struggle to be God (and with it the inevitable despair at our constant failure), and to enjoy our status as creatures: image-bearing creatures, but creatures nonetheless.

The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human and hence in an important sense absent from us while in another equally important sense present to us in a new way. At this point the Holy Spirit and the sacraments become enormously important since they are precisely the means by which Jesus is present. Often in the church we have been so keen to stress the presence of Jesus by these means that we have failed to indicate his simultaneous absence and have left people wondering whether this is, so to speak, “all there is to it.” The answer is: no, it isn’t. The lordship of Jesus; the fact that there is already a human at the helm of the world; his present intercession for us — all  this is over and above his presence with us. It is even over and above our sense of that presence, which of course comes and goes with our own moods and circumstances.

Now it is of course one thing to say all this, to show how it fits together and sets us free from some of the nonsenses we would oth­erwise get into. It’s quite another to be able to envisage or imag­ine it, to know what it is we’re really talking about when we speak of Jesus being still human, still in fact an embodied human — actually, a more solidly embodied human than we are–but absent from this present world. We need, in fact, a new and better cosmology, a new and better way of thinking about the world than the one our culture, not least post-Enlightenment culture, has bequeathed us. The early Christians, and their fellow first-century Jews, were not, as many moderns suppose, locked into thinking of a three-decker universe with heaven up in the sky and hell down beneath their feet. When they spoke of up and down like that they, like the Greeks in their different ways, were using metaphors that were so obvious they didn’t need spelling out. As some recent writers have pointed out, when a pupil at school moves “up” a grade, from (say) the tenth grade to the eleventh, it is unlikely that this means relocating to a classroom on the floor above. And though the move “up” from vice chairman of the board to chairman of the board may indeed mean that at last you get an office in the penthouse suite, it would be quite wrong to think that “moving up” in this context meant merely being a few feet farther away from terra firma.

The mystery of the ascension is of course just that, a mystery. It demands that we think what is, to many today, almost unthinkable: that when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call matter, and also quite possibly (though this does not necessarily follow from the other two) two different kinds of what we call time. We post-Enlightenment West­erners are such wretched flatlanders. Although New Age thinkers, and indeed quite a lot of contemporary novelists, are quite capable of taking us into other parallel worlds, spaces, and times, we retreat into our rationalistic closed-system universe as soon as we think about Jesus. C. S. Lewis of course did a great job in the Narnia sto­ries and elsewhere of imagining how two worlds could relate and interlock. But the generation that grew up knowing its way around Narnia does not usually know how to make the transition from a children’s  story to  the real world  of grown-up  Christian  devotion and theology.”

What do you think? Can you do some theology with N.T. Wright? Happy Ascension Day!

Good Questions about Jesus

One of my friends put up the picture at the left on Facebook, so here I am forwarding it and expanding its pernicious reach. Go figure. If it brings you down, I apologize. No matter how painful the dialogue, it is better to have it than to hide, I think.

I couldn’t resist responding to my friend, so I almost got in to one of those email exchanges in which young men, usually, can argue a point for a few weeks and feel hurt when they don’t feel heard but act righteously self-reliant when confronted. I am not very adept at those, but I don’t mind blogging.

I have been suffering a little about this poster. It is painfully accurate. I wish it had shown a picture of Christians and not Jesus, but then it would not have been nearly as effective. I think most people leave faith in Jesus behind because of the Christians, not Jesus. They end up thinking that Christians are just as self-interested as unbelievers, only they have an overlay of religion in the way of being as real as unbelievers. I think a lot of former believers might admit they first thought Christians might be “full of shit” when their relationship with a believer could not fulfill their needs any better than the others who didn’t. Jesus, prayer, the Christians – everything was so disappointing!

My rather small response to the poster was, “Yes, people do pray like that. BUT — if Jesus’ prayer was doing jack shit, people would not STILL be tying to take him down.” That’s more of a confession than a recommendation. I got kind of personal with whoever made that pernicious and effective poster. I had to admit that my fellow-believers often use prayer as a retreat from living and an excuse for inaction. But I had to state the obvious, as well, that when Jesus prays, “Not my will but yours be done” in the garden, there are world-changing results that changed me, too!

I won’t repeat my whole reply, since friends need space to work with all the relational issues and understandings that probably need to get on the table along with the arguments. But there were two questions brought up in the exchange that I think I run into quite often. So I want to take a shot at speaking to everyone about them.

If Jesus is God, why is it that he struggles with humans taking him down? Why is God in a struggle with things he has all power over?

Are all cultures preoccupied with power, or is it mainly the empire-building Americans? The Christians seem to be zoomed in on God being “in control.” The more disempowered they are socially, the more dramatic the lust for power seems to be.

God is in a struggle with things he has power over because of his great love. He wants the relationship, not just the fruit of his power. God created beings with whom there could be a struggle in order to expand love in the universe. I think that is the usual and best response to the age-old question. God, in the person of Jesus (and alive in His Spirit, stumbling around in the body of Christ, the church) is the ultimate expression of this struggle. Jesus is so identified with humans, he is tempted to “take God down” by not fulfilling his destiny when he is praying in the garden. God has the same internal struggle we do – to not merely be “in control.”

Hasn’t humankind created God and all other gods, and that’s why ascendant cultures replace them over time?

My friend is “post-Christian” right now. I haven’t asked him if that’s his way of looking at it. But he is insightful, intelligent and can see that the culturally-subsumed Christianity of his childhood is breaking down and being replaced by a multicultural religion of tolerance and general unbelief in all “gods.” A new culture appears to be ascendant; it is certainly taught by all our schools and is the main propaganda of our media! If twentysomethings are not skeptical when someone thinks an old picture of a white Jesus antiseptically praying in the garden might mean something, I don’t know why they aren’t. I am skeptical, too!

My answer (for now): Humankind has created gods. Cultures often march into battle with the god-emblem of their society at the front of the troops. Supposedly-Christian Americans are in Afghanistan and Iraq to protect “our way of life,” often symbolized by the constitution which enshrines individual rights. So the point is well-taken. Jesus is God right in the middle of that mess offering a true way out of the redundant cycle of ascendancy and fall. Jesus is restoring our true image, lest we create another monster-god in our own.

People answer these questions much better, of course. They often take whole books to do it well. N.T. Wright is making a whole prophetic career on trying to speak to our era about all these things – and quite successfully. I am writing a blog-entry in my PJs. I just wanted to speak back to the poster. I have a lot of affection for the friend who posted it. I wish I could talk to the person who made it originally. I’d like to know if he’s making the implications about my friend, Jesus, that he or she appears to be making.