Archive for June, 2014

Sermon 06-22-14: “He Who Humbles Himself”

June 30, 2014

Wedding Receptions

This sermon explores the nature of Christ-like love—especially its demand for humility. “What if we woke up every morning with this thought in our minds and our hearts: ‘I don’t deserve any of this, Lord. I don’t deserve this gift of life—of love, of family, of friends. I don’t deserve the financial and material gifts you give me. I certainly don’t deserve your love and grace and mercy. I know I was “bought with a price”—the infinite price of your Son Jesus, dying on the cross.’ ‘O to grace how great a debtor!’ I can’t begin to pay you back!’ What if we woke up praying a prayer like that and then spent time in God’s Word each day reminding ourselves of that truth!” 

I also applied this lesson to Vacation Bible school, for which our church had been busily preparing.

Sermon Text: Luke 14:1-14

No video this week: instead you get to hear the sermon in old-fashioned audio! Click on the play button below or right-click on this text to download a separate .mp3 file.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

People of my generation got some sad news a couple of weeks ago: Ann B. Davis, the woman we know and love as Alice on The Brady Bunch, the live-in maid, the cook, the dispenser of Yoda-like wisdom, died at age 88. Those of us who grew up on The Brady Bunch loved Alice. We all wanted an Alice in our lives, right? At least some of us were blessed to know someone like Alice.

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Did you know that in 1976, a couple of years after the show went off the air, Ann B., as she was affectionately called, came to know Jesus in a personal way, as her Savior and Lord? She had a conversion experience. In an interview in the early-’90s she joked to People magazine, “I was born-again. It happens…even to Episcopalians.” And although she participated in occasional Brady reunions over the years, she mostly retired from show business and acting and devoted the rest of her life to serving the Lord—offering her testimony at churches all over the country, working in homeless shelters, teaching in church schools, and always worshiping and serving through her local church. Read the rest of this entry »

Jesus drank the “cup of God’s wrath” for me

June 30, 2014

I’ve spent many posts on this blog defending penal substitution, not because I think it’s the only biblical way of understanding God’s atoning work on the cross, but because penal substitution is the point at which the rubber meets the road for me. I need to know that on the cross God accomplished something objective to deal with my sins—my ugly, wrath-deserving sins—and it has nothing to do with my (feeble) subjective response.

By all means, Christ won a victory over sin, Satan, and death and demonstrated the love of God to the fullest extent possible, but where does that leave me and my guilt? I need to know that he paid for my sins in full.

Trevin Wax has a nice reflection on N.T. Wright’s affirmation of penal substitution. Wright often gets criticized in more Reformed corners of the evangelical world for refusing to justify Reformation-era doctrines on anything other than biblical grounds as construed by him rather than Calvin, Zwingli, or Luther. Wright will often say something like, “Of course they’re right, but there’s so much more to it than that!”

As Wax points out, Wright does the same with penal substitution.

One insight I hadn’t considered before is that Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane also speaks to penal substitution:

When speaking of “the wrath of God” on Jesus at the cross, Wright turns to the Gethsemane narrative, and specifically Jesus’ use of the “cup” terminology from the Old Testament. Since, in the prophetic writings, the “cup” refers to God’s wrath, Wright believes it is historically sound to affirm that Jesus was referring to God’s wrath when He willingly faced the cross, in order to drink of the cup. Nowhere does Wright articulate the idea of the “cup” more powerfully than in his Matthew commentary:

“The Old Testament prophets speak darkly about the ‘cup of YHWH’s wrath.’ These passages talk of what happens when the one God, grieving over the awful wickedness of the world, steps in at last to give the violent and bloodthirsty, the arrogant and oppressors, the reward for their ways and deeds. It’s as though God’s holy anger against such people is turned into wine: dark, sour wine which will make them drunk and helpless. They will be forced to “drink the cup,” to drain to the dregs the wrath of the God who loves and vindicates the weak and helpless. The shock of this passage… is that Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself.”

Notice how Wright maintains the “cup of wrath” in historical context. This is the way he avoids the picture of God as a tyrant taking out His vengeance on His Son for others’ mistakes. Wright sees the wrath of God in historical events. “Jesus takes the wrath of Rome (which is…the historical embodiment of the wrath of God) upon himself…” In fact, God has set Jesus forth as a hilasterion (propitiation).

It is because Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God in order to shield His people that He uttered His cry of God-forsakenness on the cross. In that moment in which Jesus was most fully embodying God’s love, He found Himself cut off and separated from that love. Furthermore, Jesus’ taking upon Himself the wrath of God against sin (through the Roman crucifixion) frees us from sin and guilt.

“Jesus, the innocent one, was drawing on to himself the holy wrath of God against human sin in general, so that human sinners like you and me can find, as we look at the cross, that the load of sin and guilt we have been carrying is taken away from us. Jesus takes it on himself, and somehow absorbs it, so that when we look back there is nothing there. Our sins have been dealt with, and we need never carry their burden again.”

Again and again, Wright affirms the penal substitutionary view of the atonement. Theologians may quibble with him for not putting this at the center of his atonement theology; others may chide him for not speaking of it more often. But no one who has read Wright fairly can charge him of denying this doctrine. I close this section with a paragraph from one of Wright’s early works, which he has since affirmed in other ways in later writings:

“On the cross Jesus took on himself that separation from God which all other men know. He did not deserve it; he had done nothing to warrant being cut off from God; but as he identified himself totally with sinful humanity, the punishment which that sinful humanity deserved was laid fairly and squarely on his shoulders… That is why he shrank, in Gethsemane, from drinking the ‘cup’ offered to him. He knew it to be the cup of God’s wrath. On the cross, Jesus drank that cup to the dregs, so that his sinful people might not drink it. He drank it to the dregs. He finished it, finished the bitter cup both physically and spiritually… Here is the bill, and on it the word ‘finished’ – ‘paid in full.’ The debt is paid. The punishment has been taken. Salvation is accomplished.”

An unlikely ally for UMC traditionalists

June 26, 2014

In the rarefied world of mainline theological scholarship, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic, is something of a superstar—at least the most popular and widely quoted professor at my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In the comments section of a post earlier this week, a friend offered an excerpt from a Commonweal article that Dr. Johnson wrote in 2007.

I wrote a lengthy response, which you can read here. Johnson is arguing that we have biblical warrant for disregarding scripture’s clear teaching against homosexual practice in light of what the Holy Spirit is showing us through the lives of thousands of (practicing) gay and lesbian Christians. He uses the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as evidence. As I wrote in my comment,

It’s ironic that Johnson uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as part of his argument: while the council “reinterpreted Scripture in light of the experience of God,” they reaffirmed the proscription against porneia (sexual immorality), which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have understood (without controversy) to include homosexual practice (alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality).

He refers to vv. 20-21 as a “compromise” made for the sake of Jewish Christians, but he can’t mean that, can he? He surely isn’t saying that the proscription against porneia, however one interprets it, isn’t a crucial aspect of holy Christian living!

By all means, the Jerusalem church is seeing that some parts of Old Testament law have fulfilled the purpose for which they were given; that they’re no longer binding on people who are now part of Christ Jesus. Interestingly, one part of the law that is still binding is that part that deals with sexual immorality—which, again, in context would have included homosexual practice.

He cites other examples from the New Testament of the early church revising its understanding of Old Testament law in light of what Jesus or the Holy Spirit was revealing in people’s lives. His point is this: because the early church did it, we can do it, too.

As I said in my comment:

Regardless—and this is my most important point about Johnson’s argument—all of this fresh reinterpretation or revisionism in light of what God is now revealing in people’s lives is revealed to us—where?

In scripture!

So we have a choice: we can, along with Johnson, view this work of reinterpretation as an ongoing project, which risks relativizing the Bible to the authority of personal experience. Or we can say that whatever help we needed in reading the Old Testament in light of the revelation of God in Christ the Word, the Holy Spirit has provided for us in God’s written Word.

Even my fellow United Methodists who seek to change our church’s traditional doctrine on human sexuality should be wary of enlisting Johnson as an ally. We are Protestants, after all (not to mention evangelicals at our roots). No argument that contradicts the plain meaning of scripture, properly exegeted and interpreted, should persuade us. Even according to our so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral,” personal experience doesn’t get a veto over the Bible. Scripture is our primary authority.

Still, people on my side of this debate ought to enlist Johnson as an ally—a hostile witness. Why? Because in this article he says what people on my side been saying all along: all hermeneutical gymnastics to the contrary, the Bible is clear about what it teaches on homosexual practice.

I admire his integrity. He writes:

The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.

 

C.S. Lewis on the moral argument against God

June 25, 2014

lewisWhen a Christian apologist says that we “need God” for objective moral values, unbelievers often mishear or misunderstand the statement. They think he’s saying, “We need God in order to be moral people”—at which point, they might, for example, point to Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament and say, “I don’t need that God telling me what’s good and bad!” Or they might become indignant, thinking the apologist is saying that unbelievers are incapable of being moral people. I witnessed the late Christopher Hitchens exhibiting this same confusion in both ways in a debate with my Christian ethics professor many years ago.

Needless to say, both these responses miss the point. As David Bentley Hart has written:

We all know that countless persons of no creed whatsoever—atheists, agnostics, the indeterminately “spiritual,” the genially indifferent—are able to behave with exemplary kindness and generosity. Spend some time working with Doctors Without Borders, for instance, and you will meet many physicians who joined the organization out of religious conviction, but also many who did not, and it is impossible to discern any great differences among them as far as compassion or heroism goes.

That said, I have to observe that… I have been led to a few dark and desolate locales, of the sort that never get mentioned in tourist guides, and it is hard not to notice that the nearer one gets to the ground in places where poverty, disease, despair, and terror are simply part of the quotidian fabric of existence, the more the burden of humanitarian aid is shifted onto the shoulders of religious institutions (generally, though not exclusively, Christian). I don’t doubt the good will, decency, or dedication of atheist altruists, or the supererogation of which many of them are individually capable. But I do occasionally entertain doubts that in general, considered purely proportionately, they can rival their believing counterparts for sheer moral stamina.

That is not an accusation, however. The real question of the moral life, at least as far as philosophical “warrant” is at issue, is not whether one personally needs God in order to be good, but whether one needs God in order for the good to be good.

For Hart, it’s “blindingly obvious” that we need God in order for the good to be good. You can read his essay for more on that.

Many atheists, by contrast, convinced already that the good is really good, reject faith in God on that basis. C.S. Lewis, who did the same thing himself early in life, points out the logical problem with doing so in the following paragraph from Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.[†]

† C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 41.

“My body is in prison, but my soul is free”

June 25, 2014

I recommend this article from the New York Times, a profile of a 32-year-old man in Afghanistan named Josef. He briefly escaped civil war in his home country by emigrating illegally to Germany, where many of his siblings live. At that point, he had already abandoned the Muslim faith he was born into. Out of curiosity, he attended a Protestant church whose services were in Farsi, his native language.

“When I threw away my Islamic beliefs, I was living in a space of spiritual emptiness,” he said. “During that time I was studying different religions — Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. I was studying Islam as well.”

After 15 days in Germany, he turned himself in and applied for asylum, and was held in a refugee camp where the monotony was broken by visits from missionaries.

“I think I was impressed by the personality of Jesus himself,” he said. “The fact that he came here to take all of our sins, that moved me. I admired his character and personality long before I was baptized.”

After being released from the refugee camp, he later converted. His petition for asylum was rejected, and he was deported.

Today, back in Afghanistan, he’s hiding from his own extended family, who vow to kill him for renouncing Islam. A brother-in-law named Ibrahim even offered the New York Times reporter $20,000 to tell him where Josef is hiding.

“If I find him, once we are done with him, I will kill his son as well, because his son is a bastard,” Ibrahim said, referring to Josef’s 3-year-old child. “He is not from a Muslim father.”

The article explains that his wife and child are also in hiding, in Pakistan with his wife’s family.

As for Josef, his faith is unshaken. “I inherited my faith, but I saw so many things that made me discard my religious beliefs,” he said. “Even if I get killed, I won’t convert back.”

The article concludes:

For Josef, who has recently changed hiding places, the time passes slowly now, with little company other than his Bible. He can hear the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer, a reminder of danger’s proximity and the paradox he lives now.

“When I threw away my convictions, it was hard to speak with people about it,” he said, a red ember pulsing on the tip of his cigarette. “It was like an imaginary prison.” He paused, the light from his propane lantern casting a long shadow on the wall. “Now it is the other way around,” he said at last. “My body is in prison, but my soul is free.”

More on Wesley’s Georgia

June 24, 2014

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A couple of years ago, I shared a couple of posts (here and here) about a Savannah vacation that became an unintentional Wesleyan mini-pilgrimage. Wesley, as many of you know, briefly ministered in the new British colony of Georgia (from February 6, 1736 to December 2, 1737), an experience that, by Wesley’s own account, was a failure. Like all such “failures” in God’s kingdom, however, God used it as an important formative experience from which Wesley learned and grew.

Last week my family and I vacationed at St. Simons Island, where John and his brother Charles also ministered. Charles established the St. James parish, which is now the Christ Episcopal Church parish. Both John and Charles preached at nearby Fort Frederica, the ruins of which you can see below. (Click on pictures to expand.)

 

While the Wesleys didn’t preach in the present sanctuary of Christ Episcopal Church, built in the 19th century, there is a stained-glass window in the church depicting John Wesley.

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Stained glass in Christ Church depicting John Wesley.

The nave and sanctuary of Christ Church

The nave and sanctuary of Christ Church

Here are some more pictures around Christ Church and a nearby memorial garden.

Does the UMC really believe that the LGBT are “evil” or “less than fully human”?

June 23, 2014

In the sixth part of a seven-part series of blog posts on “A Way Forward,” an Adam Hamilton-backed proposal to save the United Methodist Church from schism, Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and a fellow ordained elder in full connection in the UMC, notices a surprising lack of biblical and theological reflection in the debate over changing our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality.

One of the striking differences between the contours of the United Methodist discussion and the counterpart discussions which led to the breakup of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches is how seldom Methodists have actually discussed specific biblical texts related to homosexuality, or, for that matter, invoked a deep discussion about a biblical theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality… I readily acknowledge that all of these discussions have taken place in our seminaries, but it hasn’t really become part of the public church discourse as it has in other denominations. Our conversations have mostly focused on pastoral care, the need for generational sensitivity for evangelistic purposes and wanting to portray ourselves as inclusive and welcoming, not closed and angry. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that not a single verse of Scripture is actually quoted in A Way Forward.

He goes on to concede that we traditionalists haven’t fared much better, focusing our disagreement on revisionists’ disregard for the Book of Discipline—as if that were God-breathed scripture.

I’m sympathetic with Tennent’s complaint—until I read a recent blog post like this one, written by popular United Methodist blogger and pastor Jason Micheli. The post reminds me how lightly committed we Methodists are to the authority of scripture. Tennent fails to appreciate that if there’s any hope of “saving” the UMC, the Discipline may be the only arrow left in our quiver.

Be that as it may, even for Micheli, a blogger with whom I’ve long and loudly disagreed on a number of issues related to the authority of scripture, this post is unusually obnoxious.

He begins by excerpting an email he received from a parishioner, who writes, among other things:

As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?

As one long-suffering commenter on his blog said, “You should correct your friend, because this is not the affirmation or proclamation of the UMC.”

That’s putting it mildly!

Micheli knows that his parishioner has grossly mischaracterized our church’s doctrine. He knows that we in no way “affirm or proclaim” that gays and lesbians are “evil.” We affirm that all people are of “sacred worth,” regardless the extent to which they experience same-sex attraction (which is on a continuum; it’s not binary). Alongside two millennia of orthodox Christian teaching on the subject, we say that homosexual practice is sinful. (But not even that—in our own milquetoast way, we say it’s “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Well, yes…).

He also knows that gays and lesbians are not only permitted to hold positions of leadership, but they can also be ordained—so long as they are celibate in singleness—just like heterosexuals. The extent to which someone experiences same-sex attraction is irrelevant.

In the interest of acting in good faith, even given his disagreement with our church’s stance, how can Micheli let this statement stand—unless he agrees with the spirit of it?

Of course, he would probably say he’s merely using his parishioner’s email as an example of the way in which our doctrine is “bad advertising” for our church.

But if that were the case, how can he then say the following (my emphasis in bold): “Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’”

Given that I can’t decide whether it’s worse to view homosexuals as less than “fully human” or “evil,” it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Micheli agrees with his parishioner.

If so, does he not realize that he’s impugning himself? After all, he stood before God, his bishop, and his annual conference not too long ago and promised them all that he agreed with the doctrines of the church and would actively enforce and abide by what he now seems to believe are ignorant, bigoted policies.

I’ve said before that I respect the integrity of my fellow clergy on the other side of the debate who believe, along with me, that the issue dividing us can’t be a matter of indifference—that there is no middle way. Given his strong convictions, why does Micheli believe in one? In the interest of social justice, why is he willing to live under a tent so large that we tolerate or condone church leaders (like me, I presume he would say) who believe (according to him) that homosexuals are less than human—or evil? Or something like that?

The rest of his post is misleading and beside the point. Yes, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriage by a wide margin. Of course they did! Many of the conservatives who would otherwise have voted against it have already left the denomination! Also, as a matter of integrity, who cares whether the UMC is “mainline,” whether its present doctrine is bad advertising, or whether it causes us to lose or gain members? The only thing that matters is faithfulness to our Lord.

And Micheli agrees with that. He says it’s imperative that we “do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.”

Of course, but by what doctrine of scripture would the Spirit be showing us something that contradicts what the Spirit has previously revealed in scripture?

Which reminds me… Last week on Facebook someone asked me, “Besides Bible verses and tradition, what argument can you really make against homosexual practice?” To which I responded: “Besides the shooting, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

“I was born again. It happens to Episcopalians”

June 23, 2014

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I’m a little late getting around to this, but let me offer a word of gratitude for the life of actress Ann B. Davis. She died a couple of weeks ago at age 88. Of course, people of my generation may be forgiven for knowing her by another name. For us, she was Alice, the live-in housekeeper, cook, and dispenser of Yoda-like wisdom on The Brady Bunch. As I said in yesterday’s sermon, we all wanted someone like Alice in our lives, and I hope many of us were blessed to know someone like her. (I was.)

The actress herself, though a lifelong churchgoer, had a conversion experience in 1976. “I was born again,” she told the AP in 1993. “It happens to Episcopalians. Sometimes it doesn’t hit you till you’re 47 years old.”

Her quip is funny, of course, because we don’t normally associate being “born again” with Episcopalians. On theological grounds, I dislike the term because it implies that being born again is an optional feature for some Christians. In truth, new birth happens to all Christians with genuine faith.

Still, I know what she means: I had a similar experience in 1984, when I first professed faith in Christ and was baptized. Like Wesley, “I found my heart strangely warmed” by a powerful sense that God loved me, forgave me, and made me a part of his family.

Long-time readers of this blog probably won’t be surprised to know that I’ve experienced a powerful renewal of my Christian faith over the past five years. I first became aware that something was happening within me in 2010, around the time of my ordination. I’ve called this experience my “evangelical re-conversion.” It has been accompanied by a powerful conviction of my own sins, a profound sense of gratitude for Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and a renewed commitment to God’s Word, the Bible.

Consequently, my preaching and writing have emphasized sin and repentance, the cross of Christ, and the authority of scripture.

So I can identify with Davis’s experience. She was part of an evangelical renewal movement within her church (Hey, just like me!). Although she participated in occasional Brady reunions over the years, she mostly retired from show business and devoted the rest of her life to serving the Lord as part of a community of like-minded Episcopalians.

At her funeral, the Rev. Paul Frey, son of her long-time pastor, the Rt. Rev. William Frey, said that when she first volunteered to work at a homeless shelter, she said, “‘I want a backstage job. I want to do laundry.’ I told her that meant cleaning mostly really nasty socks. These guys have been wearing socks for three or four weeks. She said, ‘It’s OK,’ and did it faithfully for more than six years.”

I also like this, from one recent blog post:

Speaking with People in 1992, Davis talked about the religion that meant so much to her: “‘My mother would write letters when I was away at camp and say, “There’s an Ann-shaped space around the house. Nobody fills an Ann-shaped space except an Ann.” I’m convinced we all have a God-shaped space in us, and until we fill that space with God, we’ll never know what it is to be whole,’ she said.”

Sermon 06-15-14: “Few Are Chosen”

June 20, 2014

Wedding Receptions

The religious elites to whom Jesus is speaking in Matthew 22 didn’t believe they needed the gift of forgiveness that Jesus offered. Why? Because they didn’t believe that they had a problem with sin. As I suggest in this sermon, we contemporary people aren’t so different from them.

Sermon Text: Matthew 22:1-14

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

I’ve only met a few people in my life who went to Harvard. One of them went to my previous church in Alpharetta. I was talking with her at a Christmas party once, and… well, she probably doesn’t like me very much. When she told me she went to Harvard, I turned on the charm and said, “Harvard? Isn’t that a safety school for people who can’t get into Yale? I was kidding. I know that Harvard is no one’s safety school. In fact, just this year, 34,295 people applied for admission into Harvard. The university only accepted 2,023. That’s an acceptance rate of a mere 5.9 percent, which makes Harvard the most exclusive of all colleges.

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Some of the 5.9 percent at Harvard.

In today’s scripture, the first group of people that the king invited to his son’s wedding banquet—they were like Harvard’s Freshman class. They were an exclusive bunch. They were the elites. They were the 2,000 out of the 34,000. They were the 5.9 percent.

The king invited them… and they said noRead the rest of this entry »

Wright on reasons to believe that Jesus’ bodily resurrection happened

June 19, 2014

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N.T. Wright, New Testament scholar and former bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is by far the most formative influence in my movement away from the liberal Protestant mainline five years ago toward conservative evangelicalism. If you could blame just one person, blame him. And if you could blame one of his books, blame his magisterial work The Resurrection of the Son of God.

It’s not that I hadn’t been exposed to scholarly apologetic defenses for the historicity of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Among other things, my Systematic Theology professor, Steffen Lösel, a student of Wolfhart Pannenberg’s, believed in bodily resurrection and offered a defense of it on historical grounds. (I’m deeply indebted to Dr. Lösel; his was the most positive influence on my thinking in seminary.) But even Dr. Lösel’s (and, by extension, Pannenberg’s) defense mostly sold the Bible short as a resource for that defense.

By contrast, Wright, an evangelical writing and ministering well within the Protestant mainline, acknowledged Pannenberg’s contributions, while saying that he didn’t go nearly far enough. Scripture, alongside many extrabiblical sources, enables us to say a great deal about the extreme likelihood of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection.

Needless to say, the more confident we are that Jesus’ bodily resurrection happened, the more confident we can be about everything else that the Bible says. Thus, in my case, an evangelical was born. If we get squishy on bodily resurrection, it’s easier to get squishy on everything else—the virgin birth, salvation through Christ alone, final judgment, hell—and, while we’re at it, even God’s intentions for human sexuality.

But enough of my story…

At nearly a thousand pages, I appreciated the nice summary chapter of Wright’s arguments for resurrection in his new book aimed at general audiences, Surprised by Scripture. After dismissing the popular contemporary idea that resurrection is coherent within the worldview of ancient paganism, he talks about seven important “mutations” of ancient Jewish belief, each of which was universally held by early Christians. What accounts for these significant revisions to traditional Jewish thought—by many people who were, after all, previously faithful Jews? Nothing, Wright says, other than that these early Christians believed that Jesus was really bodily resurrected.

These mutations are the following:

1. No spectrum of beliefs about life after death. 

Early Christians came from Jewish and pagan backgrounds that held diverse beliefs about life after death, yet they held to one common belief about resurrection.

2. The centrality of resurrection (both Jesus’ and our own future resurrection) in Christianity.

“In Second Temple Judaism,” Wright says, “resurrection is important but not that important… Take away the stories of Jesus’ birth, and all you lose is four chapters of the Gospels. Take away the resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second-century fathers as well.”[1]

3. No spectrum of belief about the kind of body that the resurrected will possess.

Ancient Jews held different beliefs about what resurrection means. Not so within Christianity: resurrected bodies will be physical and in continuity with our present bodies, but transformed and incorruptible, possessing new properties.

4. The belief that resurrection splits history in two.

In other words, prior to Jesus, Jews who believed in resurrection believed that it was an event that happened to everyone at the end of history as we know it, not an event that first happened to one person in the middle of history.

5. The belief in “collaborative eschatology.”

Eschatology refers to events that relate to the end of the world or the end of history as we know it. Early Christians believed, uniquely, that they were to live now in anticipation of God’s new world. “If Jesus, the Messiah, was God’s future arriving in person in the present, then those who belonged to Jesus and followed him in the power of his spirit were charged with transforming the present, as far as they were able, in the light of that future.”[2]

6. A new metaphorical use of the word “resurrection.”

In the Old Testament, the word resurrection was used as a metaphor exactly once: to describe the Jews’ return from exile in Ezekiel 37. This metaphorical usage disappears in the New Testament, and a new one replaces it: resurrection is used in relation to baptism and holiness, “though without, importantly, affecting the concrete referent of a future resurrection (Romans 8).”[3]

7. The association of resurrection with Messiahship.

No one in first-century Judaism expected the Messiah to be killed, much less raised from the dead. Yet early Christians believed that Jesus was Messiah precisely because of his resurrection.

To illustrate the improbability of first-century Jews believing that Jesus had been resurrected, let me excerpt Wright extensively:

We know of several other Jewish movements, messianic movements, prophetic movements, during the one or two centuries on either side of Jesus’s public career. Routinely they ended with the violent death of the central figure. Members of the movement (always supposing they got away with their own skins) then faced a choice: either give up the struggle or find a new messiah. Had the early Christians wanted to go the latter route, they had an obvious  candidate: James, the Lord’s brother, a great and devout teacher, the central figure in the early Jerusalem church. But nobody ever imagined that James might be the Messiah.

This rules out the revisionist positions on Jesus’s resurrection that have been offered by so many writers in recent years. Suppose we go to Rome in AD 70 and there witness the flogging and execution of Simon bar Giora, the supposed king of the Jews, brought back in Titus’s triumph. Suppose we imagine a few Jewish revolutionaries three days or three weeks later.

The first revolutionary says, “You know, I think Simon really was the Messiah—and he still is!”

The others would be puzzled. “Of course he isn’t; the Romans got him, as they always do. If you want a messiah, you’d better find another one.”

“Ah,” says the first, “but I believe he’s been raised from the dead.”

“What d’you mean?” his friends ask. “He’s dead and buried.”

“Oh no,” replies the first, “I believe he’s been exalted to heaven.”

The others look puzzled. “All the righteous martyrs are with God; everybody knows that. Their souls are in God’s hand, but that doesn’t mean they’ve already been raised from the dead. Anyway, the resurrection will happen to us all at the end of time, not to one person in the middle of continuing history.”

“No,” replies the first, anticipating the position of twentieth-century existentialist theology, “you don’t understand. I’ve had a strong sense of God’s love surrounding me. I have felt God forgiving me—forgiving us all. I’ve had my heart strangely warmed. What’s more, last night, I saw Simon; he was there with me….”

The others interrupt, now angry. “We can all have visions. Plenty of people dream about recently dead friends. Sometimes it’s very vivid. That doesn’t mean they’ve been raised from the dead. It certainly doesn’t mean that one of them is the Messiah. And if your heart has been warmed, then for goodness’s sake sing a psalm, but don’t make wild claims about Simon.”[4]

1. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 47.

2. Ibid., 48-9.

3. Ibid., 49.

4. Ibid., 50-1.