Crosses, Rainbows, Yoga, and Jesus

 

The implicit question posed by the title is, “What do crosses, rainbows, yoga, and Jesus have to do with one another?”  This article seeks to give an answer to that question and to show why this is immensely important to each of our lives.

It may be a shock to some to find that a Christian world view begins with creation, not salvation.1 In order for salvation to matter there needs to exist something worth saving. That something is creation, and not creation as narrowly understood to refer to Man only. Creation is valuable to God as evidenced by his constant care for it (cf. Ps. 104 where human beings are almost a footnote in comparison to the rest of creation). And because creation also shares in the curse of Man’s Fall (Gen. 3:17, 18) we ought to expect it to share in Man’s redemption, which is exactly what we find. The consistent witness of scripture points to the future restoration of all creation resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth (Isa. 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Rom. 8:18-25; Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:15-20; 2 Pet. 3:8-13; Rev. 21:1-22:5).

This comprehensive redemption of all creation ought to be normative for our relationship towards creation, which includes that which we create, namely culture. Instead of regarding creation as bad and something to be fought against or suppressed we ought to regard it as something in need of redemption. A quick look at how this paradigm works itself out in practice will help to illustrate exactly what I mean. We begin with the very cross of Christ itself.

Crosses
The cross of the ancient world already had a symbolic meaning long before Christians gave it its contemporary significance. Insofar as it was the Roman Empire’s death of choice “It already had a social meaning: ‘We are superior, and you are vastly inferior.’ It had a political meaning: ‘We’re in charge here, and you and your nation count for nothing.’ It therefore had a theological or religious meaning: the goddess Roma and Caesar, the son of a god, were superior to any and all local gods.”2 The association of the cross with the horrific practice of crucifixion made the cross a topic not to be mentioned in polite company. Cicero, the Roman orator, speaks directly to this point: “The mere mention of the word ‘cross’ is shameful to a Roman citizen and a free man.”3 The cross, then, was a powerful symbol of shame as well as one of Roman power. This makes the Christian symbol of the cross all the more shocking and instructive.

The pre-Christian symbolism of the cross is what causes Paul to describe the gospel as “foolishness” to unbelievers. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18a). However, Christ’s redemption, accomplished by the cross, redeemed even the symbolism of the cross itself. This is why Paul is able to go one and say “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18b). We must be careful not to overlook the significance of this. If there were anything in the ancient world worthy of being completely abolished it was certainly the cross. But instead of rejecting the cross God recruited it to serve his purpose. Now, instead of being a symbol of shame and defeat the cross has become a symbol of victory and salvation. For this reason Paul is able to say, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). It is because of the redemption of Christ that Paul was able to boast about it. Without the work of Christ, the cross would have remained a symbol of shame. Many today still refuse to wear the cross, believing it to be horrific. They make it analogous to wearing a noose around one’s neck, or a charm shaped like an electric chair. And so it would be if it were not for the atonement of Jesus Christ. No part of God’s creation, even something so ghastly as the cross, is beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconciling work. “For in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19, 20).  The blood of Jesus’ cross reconciled even the cross itself.

Rainbows
Consider another ubiquitous symbol of the present day: the rainbow. The rainbow, especially the rainbow flag, has become a widely recognized symbol of the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) movement. Insofar as homosexuality is outside of God’s intention for Mankind (cf. Gen. 2:22-24; Lev. 18:22; Rom. 1:24-27; Jude 7) one Christian response might be to “give up” the symbol of the rainbow, as many have given up the cross. But, if we hold firm to the redemption of all of creation we cannot forfeit the rainbow. God is not willing to give up any part of his creation, and neither should we.

The rainbow is a great example of the holistic redemption I am describing because the rainbow is explicitly mentioned as an original symbol of God’s mercy. After Noah and his family exited the ark which saved them from the judgment of the flood God said:

“‘I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.'” (Gen. 9:11-17)

Whereas this was the original meaning of the rainbow another meaning was hoisted upon it by the LGBT community. This should not deter us, however, from consistently affirming the goodness of its original symbolism. The rainbow, then, illustrates in miniature what has happened to all of creation. All of God’s creation is good, just like the rainbow. But, just like the rainbow, God’s good creation has been put into services which are at variance with God’s good intention. And, just like the rainbow, we should refuse to forfeit God’s creation to such uses. We affirm the goodness of everything God created so long as it is line with God’s good intention. Whenever any part of the created cosmos is put into the service of anything but the Creator himself we do not abandon that bit of creation to misuse. We, through the power of Christ’s redemption, seek to take it back for God’s glory. We aim to help God’s good creation be all that it can be so that, once again, it might “tell the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1).

Yoga
I have been a regular practitioner of yoga for some months now.4 Because yoga is technically a religious practice some have wondered how a Christian can conscientiously participate in yoga.5 The answer, as you might have guessed, lies in the goodness of creation and the redemption of Christ. Our bodies are part of God’s good creation. The bodily movements involved in yoga are neither good nor bad. It is the meaning we attribute to those movements that determine its goodness (or badness). If the “Sun Salutations” are in fact performed as worship to the Sun then one finds one’s self firmly in the sphere of idolatry, worshipping “the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).  Other poses are intended to honor gods of the Hindu pantheon or Hindu sages. If one performs them with that particular intention then, again, one is participating in idolatry. But if the asanas (poses) of yoga are viewed from the perspective of creation and redemption one is able to see how a Christian can practice yoga without fear of idolatry.

First, consider the asanas from the perspective of God’s good creation. If the Fall had never taken place and a human being, faithfully reflecting God’s image in the world, was to perform the exact same stretches and poses we would never think that there was anything inherently evil in the arrangement of his limbs in such a way. We might think that he was being a good steward of the body which is part of God’s good creation, but we would not think that there was something irreverent about his exercise.

Second, consider asanas through the redemption of Christ. A Christian worldview cannot ignore the Fall (even though imagining a world without it can sometimes be helpful). Man has consistently failed to submit himself to God’s rulership and, as a result, has used God’s good creation in service of idol gods, as is the case with some yoga. This does not mean, however, that we are content to leave his creation in bondage to idols. Just like we will not forfeit the rainbow to the LGBT community we will not forfeit yoga. And just like Jesus’ work on the cross was able to redeem even the cross itself, so Jesus’ atonement is able to reconcile yoga to God’s good intention.6 One may practice yoga (since the poses themselves are not inherently evil) with the intention of glorifying God and be successful. A Christian is expected to present his “body as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1, 2). Often the only difference in a Christian’s use of his body and an atheist’s is his intention. So it is with yoga. One may perform the exact same movements either to the gods of the Hindus or to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The choice is his.

Conclusion
Nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond Christ’s redemption. This is because nothing is inherently evil. Evil is always derivative, never original. It is always a perversion of what is good. The goal of redemption is to “buy back” that original goodness. And good news, the price has already been paid by Christ. One might object, “Nothing is beyond redemption? What about idolatry or pornography?” Although certain things diverge farther from God’s original intention than others, and consequently (in some sense) require more “redemption” than others, we must still affirm that nothing is beyond reconciliation. Concerning idolatry, it is not golden images which are inherently evil but their intention. The Israelites made a golden calf and worshipped it as god (cf. Ex. 32). They were justly condemned for idolatry. Just before this incident, however, the very same Israelites were commanded to create golden images of cherubim (Ex. 25:17-22) even though images of “anything that is in heaven” were also prohibited in the Decalogue (Ex. 20:4). What made the difference? It was the intention. One was properly formed to the glory of God and the other deformed and reduced the image of God to creature instead of Creator. The things that made the golden calf into idolatry are absent in the construction of the cherubim. Moving on to pornography: there is hardly anything in all of creation as detestable as the sexual slavery involved in the production of pornography. But even it is merely a perversion of an inherently good thing. Sex is a part of God’s original creation and his good intention. This good thing was merely “hijacked” by those who have departed from that intention. All of the things that make this sex act into pornography are absent in the consensual sex between husband and wife. It is no wonder that new creation is often attached to the image of fire (cf. 2 Pet. 3). The things which “infect” the goodness of creation are “purified by fire” until all that remains is God’s unadulterated good creation. When all idolatry is removed from statuary they become works of art to God’s glory. When all abuse and exploitation is removed from pornography what remains is the joining of man and woman which itself mirrors the intimate relationship between Christ and the church.

Too often our impoverished theology has forced us to reject certain parts of culture. What we need is to bring everything under the Lordship of Christ. What we need is a vision like Zechariah’s where everything is dedicated to God. “On that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of horses, ‘Holy to the LORD.’ And the cooking pots in the house of the LORD shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar; and every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 1:20, 21). This is just a part of fulfilling our calling as human beings. So join me in being simply human. You were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 43.
2. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, (New York: Harper Collins, 2016), 60.  All of chapter 3 is dedicated to explaining the ancient pre-Christian symbolism of the cross..
3. Cicero, Pro Rabirio 5.16, as quoted in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fully revised 4th edition (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 2002.
4. You can see my yoga practice on my Instagram Profile here.
5. This concern lead to the establishment of Praise Moves which advertises itself as “The Christian Alternative to Yoga.”
6. It is significant that Praise Moves recognizes the redemptive power of Christ in this regard, though they do not apply it consistently. E.g. they refuse to use the Anjali Mudra (prayer hands) because of its association with the Hindu religion, despite the fact that the prayer hands are a widely recognized Christian symbol. It seems that Praise Moves, while recognizing the redemptive power of Christ, considers some things to be beyond the pale of Jesus’ reconcialiatory power. You can read their explanation here.

How Then Shall I Live? (Part 5)

 

To quickly recap before we round up this series of articles: we are primarily loving/desiring things, not thinking things.  Our desires are created and shaped by our practices and rituals.  Those rituals which touch us nearest to our core move our ultimate love and is therefore just another way of saying that it teaches us what to worship.  Worship means ultimate love.  So, those practices which touch us most deeply can rightly be termed liturgies.  While involving ourselves in certain secular liturgies (e.g. going to the mall, the stadium, the university, etc.) our loves are being (de)formed.  They are being created in the world’s image, not the image of God.  As a result we need a practice which will act as counterformation to these secular liturgies.  A Christian naturally looks to Christian worship to be this practice.  Sadly, however, even much “Christian” worship turns out to be “Jesusfied” versions of secular liturgies.  The practices themselves have stories built-in to them.  So whenever our worship looks like the coffee shop or the mall we still learn that Story even if the Story of Jesus is preached.  We learn to be consumers or customers instead of servants and worshippers of the true God.  In light of all of this we ask, “What would worship look like if it accurately embodied the True Story of the World?”1

Time2
Before entering the church building we are already being prepared for a practice which is counterformative. The banners and signs and colors announce the Christian season within the liturgical calendar (Violet for Advent and Lent, White for Christmas and Easter, Red for Good Friday etc.). The Christian’s year is, quite literally, determined by the life of Christ (each season corresponds to the events of the life of Jesus) instead of the secular calendar. Experiencing time within the worship of the church is different than it is experienced outside of it. The church creates a different world in which we live, move, and have our being. This sense of time is intentionally counter cultural.  The practice of keeping time differently embeds in the Christian a sense of living differently than the world while remaining in it.

Call
Apart from the Christian seasons there is the simple fact that we gather on Sunday. For the rest of the world Sunday is a day to sleep in and recover from the shenanigans of the past two days and to prepare for returning to work on Monday. For Christians, however, Sunday is at once the climax of the week and the beginning of another. We wake while much of the world sleeps and we gather together. Why? Because God has called us into his presence. Not only does our simple gathering reflect this calling there ought to be an active recognition of this fact. Beginning worship with “Good morning” or “We’re glad you’re here”, as often happens, subtly suggests that we are the ones who have called this assembly. Likewise, beginning with the announcements suggests that we are here to “do business” rather than to enter the presence of the living God. A way of recognizing God’s call is to offer it. The worship leader, as God’s servant, welcomes others with “The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.” Or perhaps he opens the service by saying “The Lord be with you all” with the congregational response, “And with you.”  This response teaches us that all of life is in response to our God.  The creation began as a response to God’s divine fiat and it continues that way today (Gen. 1; Heb. 1:3).  Life itself is a response to God’s will (Acts 17:24, 25).  And even though we have largely lost our sense of “calling” we still regularly describe our jobs as our “vocation” (from the Latin vocare, “to call”).3 Issuing the Call of God to enter into his presence offers the Christian the opportunity to reorient himself. In a world whose mantra is “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul”4, this response to God’s call trains us to constantly recognize God’s authority as our Lord and our response-ability to him. This practice is, therefore, intentionally counter cultural.

Law
Thomas Cranmer in his monumental and seminal liturgy, The Book of Common Prayer, begins with the reading of certain passages which call attention to our sinfulness in order to lead one to the confession which follows. E.g. “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive” (Eze. 18:27); “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).5 A reading of the Law (and certain sections of the epistles) would also be suitable here. In a world which aggressively fights against the idea of an absolute Truth, a transcendent rule of ethics, the reading of God’s Law reminds us that there are universal norms. There is a way that the world ought to be, and by this reading we are invited to join in embodying that vision of shalom (i.e. peace and wholeness). This also reminds us of our creatureliness. We are not our own masters. Rather, we come as a community gathered together in service of the same Master. The Creator of the universe revealed his will on Sinai. At once the reading of the Law calls us to obey it and it condemns us for having broken it, which leads to the next movement.

Confession and Absolution
Cranmer rightly sees the reading of scripture as call which evokes a response.

“Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of the Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, penitent, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.”6

The response is bilateral: We confess our failures while recommitting ourselves to obedience. The prayer which embodies this two-fold response is reproduced here:

“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done, And there is no health in us: But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders; Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults, Restore thou them that are penitent, According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord: And grant, O merciful Father, for his sake, That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.”7

This communal confession carries the most weight when we remember it within its context. First, God’s mission is not to save us from the world but rather to redeem the world. In this light the Law is not simply a test which God gives in order to determine whether he lets us into heaven when we die. The Law embodies a vision for the world. It is a societal vision and we have a part to play. This vision is a vision of True Humanity, humanity the way it was meant to be. Therefore, breaking the Law is not just failing a test. It is a failure to be fully human. Second, this confession takes place within worship. This is the place where we rehearse the True Story of the World, the way things are supposed to be. This means that we are not only concerned with confession of wrongs but we are also concerned with righting of wrongs. This means that we recommit ourselves to the fulfillment of God’s vision for the kingdom. It also means that we seek absolution; we seek forgiveness. We confess our wrong and want to be put right. Again, Cranmer sees this clearly. A pronouncement of forgiveness follows the confession of sin and commitment to righteousness.

“Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather than he may turn from his wickedness and live; and hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins: He pardoneth and absolveth all them that truly repent and unfeignedly believe his holy Gospel. Wherefore, let us beseech him to grant us to repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do at this present, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy; so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. The people shall answer here, and at the end of all other prayers, Amen.”8

This movement is about things being put right. This is about that which has been divided being reconciled again, and reconciliation is always two sided. That is why the pronouncement of forgiveness is necessary. When we confess our sins to God he is not silent. He responds with mercy and compassion. This movement in the liturgy embodies that. It also teaches us what God’s kingdom is supposed to look like. This is the place where hurts are healed, brokenness is mended, the estranged are reconciled, and division is conquered by love. By this practice we are learning to long for justice; we learn to long for the world to be put right.  And by confessing our own sins we learn that injustice is not just “out there.”  Sin runs right through all of us.  If the world is to be put right it must begin with us.  Longing for the reconciliation of the world means longing for my own reconciliation with God.

Passing the Peace
This movement quite naturally follows our reconciliation to God.  This is so because reconciliation is always vertical and horizontal.  One cannot exist without the other.  I cannot be right with God if I am not right with my brother.  I also cannot be right with my brother if I am not right with God because it is God which puts me right and enables me to love my brother as he deserves.  Having now been put right with God, the community which was likely fractured throughout the week (perhaps in slight ways beyond our recognition) is now made whole again.  This is embodied by the passing of the peace.  Neighbors turn to one another and share an appropriate sign of good-will.  They kiss, they hug, they shake hands, and even offer the manual “Peace” sign from a distance.  Accompanying this is the blessing “Peace be with you” which is answered with “And with you.”  Having confessed to God the sins which fractured shalom we now embody its restoration and reality.  And it is a peace shared across every boundary.  We greet young and old, man and woman, the CEO and the garbage man, the red, and yellow, black, and white.  This is God’s multi-ethnic multi-cultural kingdom just as he would have it.  Here we learn to live out shalom, God’s very own vision for the world.

Song
The book of Isaiah offers many pictures of New Creation, some of which are followed by a hymn of praise to the God who has finally put the world right.  E.g. “Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth” (Isa. 12:5).  “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing!  For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (49:13).  It is, therefore, appropriate for us to praise him for his act of New Creation in our midst.9
Our songs are perhaps one of the most important parts of our worship, partly because they are the most easily distorted. Songs “get in our bones.” We may hear a song we haven’t heard in 10 years and still sing the words with immense accuracy. This makes them especially powerful and especially dangerous. There are a great many errors that we sing on a regular basis.10 And by repetition the bad theology may work its way into our hearts. Most of us will not remember the sermons that we have heard but we will forever remember the hymns. Songs, therefore, are some of the most important vehicles for theology. The Catholic Church is supposed to have said of Martin Luther, “He has done us more harm by his songs than his sermons.” This is because they are powerful and memorable. Singing is the language of the kingdom. We must be careful we are learning the right language and speaking with the appropriate accent.
Singing songs is also one of the most holistic/embodied worship acts we perform. We often stand, we hear the melody, we match our own voices to the harmony, the music moves our “gut” and grabs our emotions; we smile, we shout, we laugh, we cry, we mourn. It is, therefore, also one of the most transcendent acts that we perform. We “get lost” in the music. This world is a world within a world. We have stepped into a place where things are different than they are “out there.” The goal, however, is always to take some of this music with us when we leave. The dissonant sounds of heartbreak may be cheered by our echoes of heaven. And worship is where we learn the Song.

Prayer
Prayer is a time where much discipleship takes place. Even in “non-liturgical” traditions, like my own, our liturgy appears most in our prayers. Certain stock/ritual phrases appear again and again, passed down from generation to generation, whose origin is now forgotten. “Guide, guard, and direct us.” “Bring us back at the next appointed time.” “Help us to partake of this in a manner well pleasing in thy sight.” Although prayers, like our songs, may take many forms (praise, lament, petition, intercession) we’ll examine just briefly The Lord’s Prayer which will be heard in most Christian churches throughout the world.
The very first word of the prayer, “Our”, reminds us that we live within community. My life is not just about God and me, my personal salvation, and whether or not I go to heaven when I die. My life is lived within community and therefore I pray within community. I recognize my shared relationship with others by recognizing our mutual relationship with God. “Our Father”, not “My Father.”
Next we recognize God’s uniqueness.  “Hallowed be thy name.”  Being holy/hallowed indicates being set apart, “in a class of his own.”  This emodies the wish that all of our idols would be overthrown.  This God is nothing like the pantheon of gods we serve day to day.  This prayer, like the entire liturgy, is a rebellion against the idolatry which lobbies for our love throughout the week.
At the center of the prayer lies the point of the entire Story, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is no escapist prayer which wishes to pass a test in order to leave earth behind. Each time we pray the prayer we are situated within the larger Story of New Creation where God’s glory floods the earth “as the water covers the sea” (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). We are reminded of our part in bringing that into reality.
Following that we are immediately reminded that this kingdom is not divided ontologically. It is not a kingdom which separates the physical and the spiritual. The requests for bread and forgiveness come back to back. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins.” Both are necessary in this kingdom.
This kingdom is not divided socially. It is no Us-Against-Them sort of kingdom. We are not The Righteous Few going to conquer The Wicked Other. The very thing that God intends to overthrow in the world must also be overthrown in us. We pray, “Forgive us our sins.” Yes, we have our sins too. We must be willing to be reconciled to God as well as to other people. And so we pray, “As we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s Story is about reconciliation: the reconciliation of Heaven and Earth, Spiritual and Physical, Jew and Gentile, Men and Women, Citizen and Non-Citizen, Greeks and Barbarians, Us and Them. When we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is heaven that means the reconciliation of everything. All that divides the world must be overcome and the peace of God must reign.
This prayer also teaches us that there is a real messy world all around us. While we come together on Sundays to tell The True Story of the World, to remind ourselves of how the world should be, and to practice being citizens of that kingdom, this is not naive make-believe. We never let ourselves forget that the vision of God’s future is, in some sense, still future. When we leave the confines of the sanctuary there will be more battles to fight, and we dare not trust our own strength. So we pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but delver us for evil.” But the good news of it all is that although there are still battles to be fought the outcome of the war has already been decided. And so we pray, “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.” Yes, there are still battles to fight. But the kingdom belongs to God and one day we will see that kingdom come fully. So this prayer situates us within the Story, and while it is realistic about the present it remains confident about the future.

Gospel
Worship ought to be a Story filled experience. Too often our scripture reading is short and singular. It would be beneficial, I believe, to have a number of scripture readings and longer readings. This way we are able to feel the grand sweep of the Story instead of just being fed little bits. Within those readings there ought to be something in regard to the life of Jesus (whether from the Old Testament, the Gospels, or the Epistles). Jesus is the center of our worship, the climax of history, the Lord of the world, and Good News for all creation. He is the one that has made worship, as it is, possible. His life, death, and resurrection are what brought New Creation to birth. He changed the Time which governs the church. He issues the call which gathers us together. He fulfilled the Law that we have broken and he extends forgiveness to its transgressors. He created the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community of shalom that we have prayed about, sang about, longed for, and enjoyed. There is a very real way in which Jesus re-narrates the entire world. He is the Logos (Jn. 1:1), the True Story of the World. Christian worship without Jesus is a Story without a meaning.

Creed
Having just heard the Story of our Lord we know affirm our commitment to him. Although the recitation of The Apostle’s Creed is not common in all traditions I feel safe in saying it is more common than not.11 This is yet another moment which recognizes our unity in Christ. We are a people bound together by belief/trust in Christ and that is never more explicit than it is here (except possibly in the Supper). This is like our Constitution or Pledge of Allegiance, and we pledge allegiance to Jesus, not to the State, the Union, the Emperor, President, or Prime Minister.12 This, again, is a counter-cultural practice.  While others consider their highest allegiance to “King and Country”, ours is higher still.  This practice instills in us the importance of “obeying God rather than Man” (Acts 5:29).
Recitation of the Creed is also counter-cultural because it connects us to an ancient tradition.  It rebels against the chronological snobbery which says, “New is always better.”  “Advances” in science do not mean that we have advanced beyond the need for religion.  That will never happen.  We unabashedly commit ourselves to a tradition which is 2,000 years old.  We are unashamed of that which others label as superstition.  We confess with one voice our belief in God as Creator, Jesus as virgin born and resurrected.  We confess our belief in the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body, and the life ever lasting.  This is not superstition to us.  This is a commitment to living a different sort of life, a life enchanted with the life of God himself.

Sermon
Once we have committed ourselves to our Lord we receive our marching orders.  While we have already had a number of readings from scripture there is a place also for commentary.  This is where the Story of the World is extended and expounded.  If we have made the mistake of hearing the Law and the Gospel as dry and dusty documents the sermon will not allow us to do so any longer.  The sermon renarrates the world and reminds us that the Story is still being written.  The sermon tells each one “That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”13 The play has gone through its previous acts, climaxing in the Fourth Act with the Christ Event. We now live in the Fifth Act improvising our way to the end which has already been settled and revealed. We know where we are going, but there is still work to do.14 The sermon becomes for us something like stage directions. We are bound by certain facts. We cannot act in discontinuity with the previous acts and we cannot change the ending. But exactly what it looks like between here and there is always changing because history is always changing. Early Christians did not have to face questions of internet pornography, nuclear war, stem-cell research, or the separation of church and state. So we are guided along within the confines of the authoritative text. We are a troupe of actors gathered together on the stage of history to try and tease out what the next scene should look like. This too is counter-cultural because the Play we’re rehearsing is different altogether from the rest of the world. They are working towards an ending which will never arrive. Out there we will look as if we are the ones who are on the wrong stage, but that cannot be helped. We know the Writer and Director. He has assured us that we are where we are supposed to be. And he looks forward to seeing his troupe bring his Masterpiece to life! And so we shall.

Eucharist
There is much to say about the Eucharist in an already long article so brevity will have to suffice.  First, the Supper is itself an abolition of the social stratification that takes place “outside.”  In a world where most in the West enjoy feasts and those in the rest of the world suffer famine we gather around a table where everyone takes an equal share.  There are not Haves and Have-Nots here.  We enter into a vision of the world where everyone has enough.
Second, it sanctifies the common.  The Meal is common bread and wine, and yet it is where we meet the God of bread and wine.  There is no secular/sacred divide here.  The Meal that Jesus gave us is a rebellion against the disenchantment of our secular world.
Third, the Meal collapses Time into itself.  It connects us to the past.  We eat the bread and drink the cup in remembrance of Jesus broken body and shed blood (cf. Mat. 26; 1 Cor. 11).  It also reminds us that the Story is still being written.  This is not a ritual relegated to by gone ages.  We still gather around the table today.  We still need forgiveness.  We still need bread and wine, body and blood.  And we also look forward to the future.  It anticipates Jesus final coming (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26) as well as the Messianic Banquet at which death itself will be swallowed up (cf. Isa. 25:1-10).  In this way it is a kind of celebration.  We enjoy the future victory now.  In a world so full of death and tears we may sometimes forget how to laugh.  But we have rehearsed the Story and we know the end.  We have stepped into a different world where forgiveness is the rule, where God’s peace reigns, because Jesus has fulfilled the Law, conquered sin and the grave, and we have heard the announcement of the Gospel.  We have committed ourselves to following the victorious King and now we celebrate our independence!  We feast and enjoy the spoils of our King’s war with Death.  This is the Meal that makes every funeral bearable.  We are emboldened against Death itself because we have learned to anticipate its full and final defeat.  The Supper is not just a memorial, it’s a party.  And all weary travelers are welcome.

Offering
We cannot celebrate the defeat of Death while simultaneously colluding with its power.  This next act, the offering, is a further rebellion against a culture which stinks of Death because it is so often in his company.  In a world where the top 1% now owns half of the world’s wealth, sharing is defiance.15  The only way the rich stay rich is by keeping the poor poor. This culture contributes to the deaths of many. And so week after week we learn that “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We have seen a vision of God’s kingdom where Death is overthrown, none go hungry, all are clothed, and all have places to sleep. We’ve captured a glimpse of that vision and that vision has captured us, so we live into it right now. We give to support those whose struggle with Death is more fierce than our own. This is insurrection. We will not allow Death to overcome. So we give. And by giving we give life.

Sending
Rehearsal is, by definition, not the show. All practice is preparation. We have rehearsed the True Story of the World and practiced its virtues. But the show is intended to be seen. Virtue is for the sake of The Other. We leave the confines of our gathering to step out onto the stage of history. But we do not merely leave. We are sent. This is not just worship, it is a Mass.16 We are sent with the power and blessing of God himself.  The minister, as God’s representative, commends us to God’s care.  “The Lord bless you and keep you” (Num. 6:24-26).

 

Conclusion
We have come a long way in this series.  We discovered that we are primarily embodied creatures, not brains-on-a-stick.  This means that we are not lead primarily by our thoughts/beliefs but by our loves/desires.  We also learned that we are teleological creatures.  Our loves are “aimed” at a particular vision of The Good Life, and because those visions are always social they can rightly be termed “kingdoms”.  We then investigated two texts which offer us visions of God’s Kingdom.  We looked at the commission given to Man in Genesis 1-2 and what that commission would look like fulfilled as pictured in Revelation 21, 22.  The conclusion was that we are not made to evacuate earth and live in a disembodied heaven.  Rather, we are intended to rule over God’s creation by being instruments of his goodness, compassion, love, mercy, justice, and creativity.  We are to create cultures–to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.  The question we were left with was, “How does God work in us to develop those virtues which are necessary to fulfilling our vocation?”  The answer, we have seen, is worship.  Our habits are built by our rituals and when those rituals touch us nearest to our center they teach us what is most important.  They teach us what to love ultimately, and because what we love above all else is the thing that we worship then our rituals teach us what to worship.  While the rituals of the world are deforming us, the worship of the God of heaven is supposed to work as counterformation against the secular habituation.  The difficulty is that many Christian worship services have adopted the same rituals which deform our loves.  We were lead to question what a Christian worship service would look like if it rightly embodied the True Story of the World.  We asked what rituals would “aim” our hearts towards God’s kingdom.  And here we are.  The liturgy above (imperfect I’m sure) is one which removes the secular/sacred divide.  By being an active and embodied liturgy our bodies are embraced, not shunned.  We are not taught to overcome or suppress our bodies’ loves; Rather, we are taught to aim our bodies’ loves in the right direction.  We have learned about forgiveness and reconciliation, not by word only but by action.  We have practiced forgiveness.  We have learned that there are standards of right and wrong through the reading of the Law.  We have learned about Christ’s redemption of creation through the reading of the Gospel.  We have placed our stamp of approval upon cultural work by singing the songs that are themselves products or poets.  We have learned to see the holy in the mundane by meeting Jesus in common bread and wine.  We have learned that sharing, not upward mobility, is the virtue of the kingdom.  We have been sent into the world to carry this vision to others.  We are practicing for the kingdom.  This alone is what it means to be simply human.  So join me in being human.   Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. A caveat is necessary at this point. I do not pretend to know what a “perfect” liturgy would look like. This should not deter us, however, from attempting to embody the True Story of the World as best we can. So two things ought to be kept in mind. First, this is only a broad outline. There is still room for variation of order and “style” within the framework pictured here. Second, I recognize that not all worship services look like the one I will describe. (My own tradition is is “non-liturgical” [admittedly a misnomer; all churches have “liturgy”], which is, in my opinion, lamentable. Indeed, my analysis here could very well serve as a critique of my own tradition). To differ from the liturgy suggested here is not “wrong.” However, if I’m right about the things discussed in past articles then we have to say that form matters. Practices are not neutral. This requires that we think long and hard about the liturgies in which we submerge ourselves from week to week.
2. Though my liturgy is not a whole-sole transmission of Smith’s, I am largely dependent on James K.A. Smith’s analysis in Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic 2009), 155-207.  I am also indebted to Constance M. Cherry and her work The Worship Architect, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010). Specifically, her description of each event in worship as having a “movement” (either in, down, up, or out) was influential to my understanding of worship and to the order of the liturgy I suggest here. 
3. New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
4. William Ernest Henley, Invictus.
5. A word in defense of the archaic language used here. There has been a regular movement, even–perhaps especially–in our churches, to remove the transcendent and replace it with the mundane. The motivations behind this are legion, some being laudable and others less so. I think, however, that this loss of transcendence (what Charles Taylor calls “disenchantment”) is a vice, not a virtue. Because one goal of worship is to counter the deformation of secular society it is beneficial, I believe, for worship to have its own “ritual language.” For this reason Joseph Campbell, in his book The Power of Myth, (New York: Doubleday, 1988), lamented the ruling of Vatican II which resulted in translating the Mass from Latin to English. “There’s been a reduction in ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, my God–they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language that has a lot of domestic associations … They’ve forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time” (84). Though I do not know whether his reasons are the same as Campbell’s, J.R.R. Tolkien is also well known as having opposed this rule of Vatican II. After the decision Tolkien continued to make the responses in Latin as loudly as possible as a form of protest. The point is the one that we have repeatedly made: form matters. This includes the form of our language. Perhaps a poetic “ritual language” is not a bad thing, despite its reputation in recent years. It may be time to ask ourselves whether conducting worship in the vulgar (literally “common; ordinary”) language is really beneficial to the formation of true human beings in an increasingly secular world.
6. Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer, (London: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 70.
7. Ibid, 70, 71.
8. Ibid, 71. A few things need to be pointed out: The minister is not the one granting forgiveness. The “He” that pardons is the same one who has delivered “his holy Gospel”, i.e. God. The minister only serves as a representative of God. There is no power in the minister himself. He is only an instrument. Also, this pronouncement of forgiveness is not some sort of magic which effects forgiveness apart from faith.  There is a recognition within the prayer that forgiveness is received where true repentance and contrition reside. The point of the action is to comfort the afflicted, not the impenitent.
9. The forgiveness previously pronounced is not merely the transfer of information. It actually accomplishes what it describes. In this way it is an act of creation, or New Creation to be exact. God created the world much as an artist might make a painting. Our sins, which fracture the original shalom of God’s kingdom, are acts of uncreation in the same way that chemicals in the air have eroded the colors of the Sistine Chapel. The restoration of that chapel in the 1980s, sometimes called “the restoration of the century”, was so stunning as to be nearly an act of New Creation, even causing one writer to say that “every book on Michelangelo would now have to be rewritten.” In the same way, the restoration of the shalom which we have destroyed can rightly be termed an act of New Creation. And so in our worship we enact–not just re-enact as if it were merely a rehearsal–the True Story of the World. In our worship we confess our Fall and we actually experience New Creation, the creation of God’s shalom here on earth.
10. E.g. Songs like I’ll Fly Away and When We All Get to Heaven suggest that the goal of history is to evacuate earth and reside in a disembodied heaven.
11. My own tradition has historical rejected all creeds. “No Creed but the Bible,” they say. Despite our official rejection of Creeds they still exist ipso facto and can usually be found on our church websites under the link labeled “What We Believe.” I think this rejection of Creeds is unfortunate. First, because every one has a Creed (the word Creed comes from the Latin credo which simply means “I believe,” and everyone believes something) we do not have a choice between creed and no creed, only between a good creed and a bad one. When we rejected Creeds it was not long before we replaced them. Only now the things which my tradition disliked about Creeds became all the worse because we do not label them as such. Second, this rejection of Creeds was, in effect, a rejection of tradition. By cutting ourselves off from the ancient Christian tradition we left ourselves with an impoverished knowledge of who we are and where we come from. We are left now with no central statement of belief around which to unify (which is ironic because my tradition began as a unity movement). Granted, there are some within the Churches of Christ who recite the Creed, recognize the value of tradition, and openly practice liturgy as such, but those exceptions are so rare as to be negligible.
12. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom,  190-191.
13. Walt Whitman, O Me! O Life!.
14. N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God, (New York: HarperOne, 2005), 121-127.14
15. Daniel Bentley, “The Top 1% Now Owns Half the World’s Wealth”, Fortune (October 14, 2015), available from http://fortune.com/2015/10/14/1-percent-global-wealth-credit-suisse/ ; Internet; accessed December 5, 2016.
16. “Mass: … –ORIGIN Old English maesse, from ecclesiastical Latin missa, from Latin miss- ‘dismissed,’ from mittere, perhaps from the last words of the service, Ite, missa est ‘Go, it is the dismissal.'” New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). We come to be sent.16

Why Am I Here? (Part 1)

 

In previous articles we asked the question “Who am I?” to which we gave two answers: 1. I am primarily an embodied creature.  2. I am a teleological creature.  This means that what I do is not governed first of all by my thoughts/beliefs but by my desires/loves and that my love is pointed towards something.  My love moves me towards a particular vision of the good life.  This good life is a social vision and therefore can be described as a sort of “kingdom.”  Because we are embodied creatures we are moved by desire  and because we are teleological creatures we desire a kingdom.1

Now we ask the question, “Why am I here?”  We are here to bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven by “imaging” him into the world.  This will require a discussion of what God’s kingdom looks like and the deeds which characterize a person who is living into that vision.  The former will occupy this article and the latter will be expounded in future articles when we seek to answer the question, “How then shall I live?”

Another way of asking “Why am I here?” is to ask “What is my purpose?”  Or “What is my goal?”  The question becomes, “Towards what vision am I supposed to live?”  Insofar as we are teleological creatures we are all living towards some sort of vision.  But we want to know which vision God intends for us.  What end did God have in mind at our beginning?  Thankfully, we do not have to guess.  God revealed that vision to John almost 2,000 years ago.

Revelation 21-22 gives us a picture of what God intends for all of creation: a New Heaven and New Earth.  A detailed explanation of this passage is beyond the scope of this article but I want to paint a few broad strokes so we can begin to imagine our future with God.

It Is Material
What John saw was not the destruction of the material cosmos.  He saw a new heaven and a new earth (21:1).  God did not make creation with the intention of throwing it into the trash bin.  Earth is not a temporary holding cell to be evacuated so that we can dwell somewhere else, in an immaterial disembodied heaven.  He formed the earth “to be inhabited” (Isa. 45:18) and he isn’t going to turn his back on that intention. He even gave us material bodies to accompany that material earth. Just like the future of the cosmos is renewal, not destruction, so the future of Man is not to evacuate the body (or the earth) but for the body to be renewed and resurrected.  Jesus’ resurrection body was a physical body (Luke 24:39) and our bodies are to be modeled after his (1 Cor. 15:20-23; 1 John 3:2).2 How then shall we live?  We ought to treasure creation.  It is God’s and we are just stewards of it (cf. Ps. 24:1; Lev. 25:23).  This means we care about the environment and the ethical treatment of animals.  It means we take care of our bodies.  We do not feed it trash and we do not neglect the necessary exercise to keep our bodies healthy.

It Is Free of ‘The Curse’
Man was made to bring order from non-order, to spread God’s love and goodness and justice and creativity into the world.  After the tragedy of Adam and Eve all of creation was cursed.  God’s good intention was twisted somehow.  The result was hate, war, injustice, and chaos.  The picture of Revelation 21-22 is the healing of creation.  John saw that “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”  In Apocalyptic literature like Revelation and parts of Daniel, as well as in Ancient Near Eastern creation stories, the sea or sea monsters were associated with chaos (Rev. 13:1 cf. also Dan. 7:2-3; Ps. 89:9-10; Isa. 27:1).  The non-existent “sea” of Revelation does not indicate a lack of water in the New Earth.  Instead it points to the victory of God over chaos.  Just a few verses later John says, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).  God has overcome everything which “tastes” of Death.  John describes this as God’s victory over the “curse” of primeval history.  “Nothing accursed will be found there any more” (22:3).  This is why “nothing unclean” will enter into the New Jerusalem.  All of “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars” who have not put their trust in Jesus will be done away with (21:8).  How then shall we live?  Any where we see anything tainted by the curse we fight to overcome it.  We develop medicine to fight against death.  We fight against the unjust systems which keep the poor impoverished.  We fight against the addictions which rack individuals and ruin families.  We fight against every thing which makes good men bad.

God Is There
With the New Heaven and New Earth John sees a New Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth.  This city is pictured as being in the shape of a cube whose “length and width and height are equal” (21:16).  In all of the Bible there is only one other cube mentioned: the holy of holies in King Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:19-20).  What John sees is the entire city become the place of God’s presence.  “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (21:22-23).  How then shall we live?  We live in God’s presence in the here and now, which is another way of saying that we should acknowledge God’s presence.  David knew that he could not escape the presence of God.  “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).  The angels sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).  So in our lives we should acknowledge God’s presence instead of “kicking God out.”  We invite him into our homes, our marriages, and our work place.  We acknowledge his presence at the dinner temple as well as the bedroom.  He belongs everywhere.

God Rules
In the New Jerusalem God is on the throne, as well as Jesus the Lamb.  “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb … But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him” (22:1, 3).  How then shall we live?  We acknowledge God’s authority.  God presence is a ruling presence.  Everything that we do is under his command.  Everything I do ought to serve God and his purpose.

We Rule With God
“[God’s servants] will see his face … and they will reign forever and ever” (22:3-5).  Though God is in charge he always intended to run the world through Man (cf. Psalm 115:16).  We were created as his vice-regents (cf. Gen. 1:16-28; Psalm 8:4-8).  How then shall we live?  Even though God is in charge we do not just sit back and let him handle it all.  God intends his purposes to be worked out in the world through human beings.  The Eternal Word became a human being for this very reason.  He now reigns as Man–without ceasing to be God–over the world (1 Tim. 2:5).  So Jesus, who has all authority in heaven and on earth (Mat. 28:18), delegates that authority to human beings.  We continue God’s project in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

We Develop Culture
John writes that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it … People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:24-26).  Here John pulls from the imagery of Isaiah 60.  This helps to explain what it means that the kings will bring “their glory” into the heavenly city.  Isaiah uses the phrase “wealth of the nations” to describe the “glory” that is brought to the LORD (60:5).  All the best that each nation has to offer is brought into the New Jerusalem.  “A multitude of camels” along with “gold and frankincense” (60:6).  “Silver” also (60:9) as well as the “glory of Lebanon … the cypress, the plane, and the pine” (60:13).  In the New Creation the development of culture does not stop.  Kings and nations continue to bring their best into New Jerusalem.  How then shall we live?  We develop culture here and now.  We involve ourselves in the advancement of art and technology.  God cares about sculpture and dance and mathematics.  He is intensely interested in science and music and economy.  Government, agriculture, and architecture, all of this is important to God.  So we practice it here and now.

It Is a Multi-Ethnic Kingdom
John’s vision includes the “nations” (21:24, 26).  People from all walks of life, all colors and stripes, are included in God’s New Creation.  How then shall we live?  If we are going to be with people of all races and all cultures then we have to learn to live together now.  Racism, classism, sexism, and every sort of “-ism” is excluded from God’s Kingdom.  We honor all people as equally precious in God’s sight.  That is the vision we live towards.

Conclusion:
What we hope for tomorrow determines how we live today.  When Peter pictures the purification of the cosmos, resulting in a New Heaven and a New Earth, he concludes, “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holines and godliness … But, in accordance with this promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet. 3:11, 13).  We do not simply wait for God to bring the New Age.  That New Age has already begun in Jesus Christ.  His resurrection body was the first “bit” of New Creation (Col. 1:15-20).  That part of the future has invaded the present.  So we live out the future now.  Day by day we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Mat. 6:10).  This is what we were made for.  This is why we are here.  This is what it means to be human.  So join me in being simply human.  Because you were born to.

 

©M. Benfield 2016


1. This is the reason that James K.A. Smith entitles his book Desiring the Kingdom, (Grand Rapids: BackerAcademic 2009).
2. The best objection to a physical/bodily resurrection is from 1 Corinthians 15:44 which says that the body is sown a “physical body” but is raised a “spiritual body.” The answer to this is that the adjectives “physical” and “spiritual” do not describe the “stuff” from which the body is made but the thing that animates that body. The word “physical” is psuchikon which describes those who “do not have the Spirit” (Jude 19; cf. also 1 Cor. 2:14; James 3:15). While the word “spiritual” (pneumatikon) often describes men in physical bodies who have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them and are thus “animated” by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:15; 14:37; Gal. 6:1).

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 5)

 

We’ve come a long way.  We began with God’s good creation and saw it cursed.  We’ve seen God work through his people Israel eventually bringing about the True Israelite, indeed the True Human Being, Jesus of Nazareth.  He is the perfect reflection of the image of God.  He is fit to rule God’s creation just as God intended and he goes about to do just that.  Where ever he finds things which are not like they are supposed to be he puts them right.  But “patch up” work will not suffice.  Jesus moves to strike sin and death at the root.  He submits himself to death and by doing so he quite mysteriously exhausts the power of sin and death bringing forgiveness and life to all under his rule.  Christ himself being freed from death in his resurrection now offers that life to all who are his.  But if Jesus conquered the powers of sin and death then why do people still sin and why do people still die?  This article will discuss this question and give us a picture of what it means for us to bear the image of God in God’s good (but fallen) world.

First, insofar as Jesus is to be seen as the fulfillment of all that God promised (Acts 13:32), we would do well to get a sense of what God promised.  A quick look at just a few scriptures will give us a sense of what the people expected God to do when he put things right.

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken” (Isa. 25:6-8)

“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind … The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent–its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD” (Isa. 65:17-25)

These two passages, and many others could be named, picture the state of things when God puts things right.  All of “the former things” which are associated with the curse “shall not be remembered or come to mind.”  In fact, death itself will be destroyed and “the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces.”  This time, when God puts all things right, is variously described as “the day of the LORD,” “the latter days,” or vaguely “a coming day.”

The picture we are left with is one “day” or “age” or “time” which is ruled by sin, death, injustice, and oppression and another day in which those things are done away with and God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven, a time in which what God wants done is done.  And the picture of the prophets is that this happens quite abruptly.  All at once we pass from one age to the next.

Second, now that we know what was expected we know what we can look for Jesus to do.  As was shown in the previous article Jesus does what was expected.  So often whenever he sees things which are not as they should be he puts things right.  This the way the “kingdom of God” looks when it arrives (cf. Mat. 12:28).  Jesus fights and wins the ultimate victory against the powers of sin and death by his crucifixion.  He then is resurrected in a physical body which is never to die again (Acts 13:34).  His body is untouched by the curse.  His body is a little “bit” of that “age to come” in which death is destroyed.  But this is where the mystery appears.  The “age to come” did not arrive all at once.  We are in a sort of in between period, what theologians often call the now-and-not-yet.

For example, just before Jesus makes his finally entry into Jerusalem he goes to the house of a dear friend, Lazarus, who has just passed away.  Before Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ house his sister runs to meet Jesus.  Martha says to Jesus that if Jesus had been there Lazarus would not have died.  In response Jesus makes his intentions quite clear.  He will resurrect Lazarus.  He says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). As explicit as Jesus might be the idea of someone rising from the dead in the middle of time was absurd.  That was an event reserved for “the age to come” or “the last day.”  In that day, when God’s kingdom comes an earth as it is in heaven, when death was overthrown all at once, then Lazarus would be resurrected.  Martha says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24).  But Jesus is making a surprising claim.  That future world has rushed backwards to meet Lazarus in the present.  The kingdom of God, and indeed the resurrection, is present right there in Jesus Christ.  “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.'” (11:25).  This helps to explain the mystery of the now-and-not-yet.  Whereas the expectation was to leap immediately and all at once from “this age” to “the age to come,” the reality in Jesus is that those two ages actually overlap.  Yes the age to come has in fact arrived in Jesus but not in its totality.  That is still reserved for the future.  But the last days have begun.  We are living in them now.  And any who are attached to Jesus by faith and baptism have been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred … into the kingdom” of Jesus (Col. 1:13).  This leads us to my final point.

Finally, we live in the overlapping of the ages.  This explains why people still die and people (even Christians) still sin.  We are still waiting for the fullness of our redemption.  But, that redemption has begun.  And that has serious consequences for the way that we ought to live in the world.

If God’s kingdom has been inaugurated on earth then all those who belong to him recognize that we are under new management.  And that means we must start acting like it.  After Jesus resurrection he gathered his apostles and said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21).  One teacher put it like this: what Jesus was for Israel they (and we) are to be to the world.  Just as Jesus went about “putting things right” so we are to do the same.

But we are not to repeat the sin of our first parents.  We cannot attempt to run the world however we see fit.  We are to do it under the sovereignty of God and we are helped along the way by the Holy Spirit.  “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit'” (20:22).  Whenever a person is placed into Christ by faith and baptism he receives the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38) which is else where described as “the pledge of our inheritance” (Eph. 1:14).  The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer is a pledge or a promise.  It is a promise that the work which God has begun in us he will bring to its full and final fulfillment.  But again this implies that the work has already begun.  The image of God in us is being renewed “according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24).  As we walk in step with the Spirit he brings forth the fruit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22, 23).  It is by the Spirit that we build for God’s new world in the midst of this world.  And we are promised that our work “is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).  The good we do will not be forgotten.  Indeed it will have a part in God’s New Heavens and New Earth.

This is our duty.  This is what it means to be simply human.  Wherever we see death, we fight against it to bring life.  Wherever we find oppression we bring freedom.  When we see crookedness we bring justice.  Where ever we find division we bring unity.  Where ever we find war we bring peace.  When we find indifference we bring love.  Where ever we find anger we bring forgiveness.  God is making the world new in Jesus Christ.  It has already begun.  Our privilege is to partner with God.  We can be a “new creation” in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  We can build for that new world.  So join me.  Partner with God.  Be simply human.  Because you were born to.

©M. Benfield 2016

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 4)

 

God’s good creation has fallen under the curse.  He moves to redeem the world and he does so through Abraham and his family, the nation of Israel.  But, Israel too has fallen prey to the curse.  The rescuer needs rescuing.  That savior is Jesus of Nazareth.  He carries forth Israel’s Story.  He becomes representative of Israel and humanity itself.  He succeeds where we have failed.  In so doing he restores Israel and releases the blessing of New Creation into the world.  Let’s dive in and so how all of this works out.

The Gospels are those four books which give us most of what we know about Jesus’ life and each one in its own way makes a point of connecting Jesus’ story to both the Story of Israel as well as the long sad Story of human history.  For example, Matthew begins his Gospel with the words biblos geneseos (Βίβλος γενέσεως) in Greek which means “The book of the generation” or “the book of the genealogy.”  This may not seem overly significant until one realizes that those words form the very chorus of the book of Genesis.  Ten times Genesis draws attention to “the generations” or “the genealogy” or “the story” of a particular person (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2).  The first two of these times the exact phrase biblos geneseos is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint or LXX).  By using this phrase Matthew connects Jesus’ story to the Story of creation (2:4), the Story of all Mankind (5:1), and the Story of Israel in particular (11:27 etc.).  Matthew intends for us to understand the Jesus is the one who carries this Story forward.

John is even less opaque.  His gospel begins exactly like the book of Genesis begins, “In the beginning” (John 1:1; Gen. 1:1).  Just like there were seven days of creation, John shapes his gospel around the number seven in many ways but specifically by recording seven signs of Jesus culminating in his resurrection.  He even enumerates the first two signs just as God enumerated the days of creation.  “The first of his signs … the second sign …” (John 2:11; 4:54).

Jesus’ story is the Story of Man carried forward.  A designation frequently used to refer to Jesus is “the Son of Man” which, as already noted, means “the Human Being.”  But his story is also the Story of Israel carried forward.  In a myriad of ways he relives Israel’s history.  Just as Israel was called out of Egypt as God’s firstborn son (cf. Ex. 4:22), so Jesus was called out of Egypt as God’s son.  Matthew even uses a quotation from Hosea which refers to Israel herself and applies it to Jesus.  “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son'” (Mat. 3:15; cf. Hos. 11:1).  Jesus forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil (Mat. 4:1ff) mirror Israel’s forty years wandering in the wilderness.  And even Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan corresponds to Israel’s crossing of the Jordan which was itself recalling Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea in their exodus from Egypt (cf. Josh. 4:23).  After Jesus’ baptism and wilderness temptation he enters the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a section from Isaiah (61:1, 2) describing the mission of God’s “servant” (a name for Israel–Isa. 42:1; 43:10) and declares the scripture fulfilled in him (Luke 4:21).  Jesus is an Israelite who now embodies/represents Israel.  He is the True Israelite.  And he proves himself to be such by fulfilling Israel’s mission as described in the prophets.  He does in fact go about releasing the “captives”, curing the blind, and bring good news to the poor.

On one occasion Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years.  After healing her he describes the healing as an instance in which he has set the captive free.  He asks the indignant leaders, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).

On another occasion Jesus meets a man with a withered hand.  Jesus “restores” it to health.  The word translated “restored” (apekatestathe)is significant.  A form of the same word is put into the mouth of Peter as he looks forward to the fate of all the world.  God is working towards a “universal restoration (apokatastaseos)” (Acts 3:21).  What God intends to do for the whole world he does in miniature through Jesus Christ for this man with a withered hand.  The curse which has tainted all of creation since Genesis 3 is responsible for the state of the man’s hand and Jesus, by reversing the curse, brings God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, he heals creation and “restores” the man.  Just as God intended to fix what went wrong through Israel so he does through Jesus the True Israelite.

But these local victories only point forward to that grander cosmic victory.  The preaching and healing that accompanied Christ where ever he went were ways of “binding the strong man” so that Jesus could eventually “plunder his property” (Mark 3:27).  The details of how Jesus’ death turned out to be a victory is not explained, the Bible only says that it was.

As Jesus went to his death he faced, not just the Jewish guards, nor the Roman empire, but the “power of darkness” itself (Luke 22:53).  In his death, when he was “lifted up,” the “ruler of this world” was “driven out” and “condemned” (John 12:31, 32; 16:11).  By the voluntary sacrifice of his life (John 10:17, 18) Jesus exhausted the power of the twin terrors of sin and death (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14).  Death, now without power (Acts 2:24), could not hold him and he resurrected on the third day in a body untouched by the curse, which would never see corruption (Acts 2:31, 32).  The work which God began, in some sense, was now “finished” (John 19:30).  The curse is lifted and the spell broken.  Jesus’ body is the first bit of New Creation, an incorruptible creation.  And the promise is that all of those who are joined to Jesus by faith and baptism will share in a resurrection like his (1 Cor. 15:20-23; 1 John 3:2).

But if Jesus has broken the back of sin and death, why do people still die?  And why is it that even those who belong to Jesus still sin?  And what are we supposed to do about it, if anything?  That will be the topic and concern of the fifth and final article in this series.

CONCLUSION:
1. Jesus is the climax of the long Story of the Bible.  God made the world to be ruled by Man and never rescinded that commitment.  When Man fell and brought the curse upon creation he moved to save Man by Man, specifically through Israel.
2. Israel, the rescuer of the world, found that she too shared in the curse.  He continually broken the partnership she had with God and brought curses upon herself.  The rescuer needed rescue.
3. Jesus, both the True Israelite and the True Human Being, came to restore Israel and to break the twin terrors of sin and death.  He began the work in his life and won the final victory in his death.  By submitting to death he exhausted the power of death and brought new life, indeed New Creation into the world.
4. This means that the New Age, the age which is no longer run by sin, death, corruption, oppression, war, and injustice but rather by righteousness, life, freedom, peace and justice, has begun with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If that New Age has begun then we ought to live as if we are there instead of here.  We must live as people of life, peace, freedom, and justice.  Now.  This is what it means to be fully human.

©M. Benfield 2016

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 1)

 

“In the beginning …” Those weighty words begin the Hebrew Bible.  Too often the story of creation has been flattened out to become a simple account of how God created the world, but there is much more to say about the first episodes of the true Story of the world.  This article explores what it meant for God to pronounce his world “good” and what that means for us today.

Focusing on a couple of key words in the first chapter of the Story will help to give this article direction.  First, the word good” (Heb. tov) may indicate moral goodness (in contrast to evil).  Here, however, it indicates flourishing or, as it is sometimes translated, “prosperity” (Deu. 23:6; 1 Ki. 10:7; Job 36:11; Ecc. 7:14; Zec. 1:17).  A helpful way to think about “goodness” is in the way that George MacDonald explains it: ” ‘They are good’; that is, ‘They are what I mean.’ ” 1  Whenever a thing is as God intends it to be then it is “good.”

Second, the word “blessed” (Heb. barak), among other things, means to wish or to cause flourishing/prosperity.  For example, “The LORD will make you abound in prosperity, in the fruit of your womb, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your ground in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you.  The LORD will open for you his rich storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to bless all your undertakings” (Deu. 28:11, 12 italics mine).  To bless something is to bring about its good, its life, its flourishing.  Notice the parallels between life, prosperity, and blessing:

“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity [Heb. tov] … I have set before you life and … blessings [Heb. barakah]” (Deu. 30:15, 19).

Now to get to the Story.  When God creates his world the chorus of the creation song is “It is good” (mentioned 6 times: 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25) ending with the grand climax “It is very good” (1:31).  This means that initially all of creation was good, i.e. as God intended it to be.  It was ripe for flourishing.  And God intended it to continue to flourish.  The only two times “blessed” appears in the chapter it is followed by the command to flourish: “God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth’ … God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth …'” (1:22, 28, italics mine).  God’s intention for all of creation was life, not death.  Man did not eat the animals and even the animals did not eat one another (1:29, 30; cf. 3:22; 9:2, 3).  Death, corruption, and all things which “taste” of death, oppression, injustice, dishonesty, etc. do not belong in God’s good world.

Sadly, this Story takes a horrible turn.  After the primal pair turn away from God (the very source of life/flourishing) they welcome death, not life, into the world (3:19; cf. chp. 5).  They bring a curse, not blessing, upon creation. “Cursed is the ground because of you … thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” (3:17, 18).

But the goodness of God was not undone, only infected.  Much like a person with a terminal disease is not dead but has the “sentence of death” in him, a kind of “creeping death” which will eventually claim his life.  Much good remains, but that good is now stained.

If we were to stop here and predict how the rest of the Story would play out we could probably guess.  Like any good Story what has gone wrong will now be put right.  Like Narnia waited for the eternal winter of the White Witch to be lifted, so creation now awaits its redemption (Rom. 8).  Death will pass away and all that takes part in death (Rev. 21:4).  That is exactly what we find.  God moves from Genesis 3 onward to reverse the curse.

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.  This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6-9).

Death disappears.  The curse of our body is gone.  And when the curse of the body, which is made from the earth (cf. Gen. 2:7; 3:19), is undone so shall the curse of the earth itself be undone.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.  For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.  Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isa. 55:10-13)

So, God never gives up on his original intention for creation.  He wants it to live and flourish.  Through the agency of his people Israel, culminating in the representative Israelite, and human being, Jesus Christ, God won the victory over all that would corrupt his good world (cf. 1 Cor. 15:20-26, 57).  In the end God will purify his world from all that is bad bringing about a New Heaven and a New Earth (cf. 2 Pet. 3:1-13).  God wins and fixes what went wrong.  All that was lost in the beginning is restored in the end:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there any more.  But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:1-5, italics mine).  This is the vision about which Isaac Watts sang in his beautiful hymn:

“No more let sins and sorrows grow / Nor thorns infest the ground / He comes to make His blessings flow / Far as the curse is found”4

CONCLUSION:
So what does this have to do with being human?  That will be explored in more detail in Part 2 of this article but I want to point forward for just a moment.  There are two important things to draw from this:

1. The Story is not “our” Story.  The Story of the Bible is about the mission of God in the world.2  This means God is the Lord, not us.  He is the focus of the Story, not us.  He is the Savior, not us.  Therefore, to be human is to be an actor in a Story which is not our own but which we are invited into.  We are granted a place in an amazing work, the greatest Story every told.  To have a role in this great drama3 is an honor indeed.

2. Creation matters.  God cares so intensely about all he created that he does not intend to give a single bit of it up to the enemy.  All will be redeemed.  Every thing is precious.  Every “rock and tree and creature.”  We are created beings intended to care for created things (cf. Gen. 1:26-28).  We can have confidence that the things we care about will not be forgotten because God cares about them too.

This is the Story we live in.  This is what it means to be simply human.

©M. Benfield 2016


1. “George MacDonald: An Anthology“, C.S. Lewis. 251.
2. “The Mission of God“, Christopher Wright.
3. “The Drama of Scripture“, Craig G. Bartholomew, Michael W. Goheen.
4. “Joy to the World,” Isaac Watts.