Friday, February 28, 2014

Watchman Nee: God's Activity Steadily Progressive

A good reminder from Watchman Nee:

"Because God acts in history the flow of the Spirit is ever onward. We who are on earth today have inherited vast wealth through servants of Jesus Christ who have already made their contribution to the Church. We cannot overestimate the greatness of our heritage, nor can be we sufficiently grateful to God for it. But if today you try to be a Martin Luther or a Wesley, you will miss your destiny. You will fall short of the purpose of God for this generation, for you will be moving backwards while the tide of the Spirit is flowing on. The whole trend of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is a forward trend.

God's acts are ever new. To hold onto the past, wanting God to move as He has formerly done, is to risk finding yourself out of the main stream of His goings. The flow of divine activity sweeps on from generation to generation, and in our own it is still uninterrupted, still steadily progressive."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Jesus Before Christianity (Part 8 - "Jesus, God in Sandals"*)

The final chapter of Jesus Before Christianity is so wonderful that I would love to quote the entire chapter! After concentrating on looking at Jesus' humanity in all of the preceding chapters (1-18), Albert Nolan focuses his final chapter on Jesus' divinity and the implications of His being God.

There are two primary implications to Jesus being God that the author proposes:
1) We must allow Him to define what God is like (i.e., the way Jesus lived shows us exactly what God is like).
2) Acknowledgement that Jesus is God and Truth means to live like He lived, understanding the world and times that we live in just as He understood the world and times that He lived in.

Speaking of the early church's response to Jesus after his life and death and resurrection, Nolan says, "The movement was pluriform, indeed amorphous and haphazard. Its only unity or point of cohesion was the personality of Jesus himself...Everyone felt that despite his death Jesus was still leading, guiding and inspiring them...Jesus remained present and active through the presence and activity of his Spirit...Jesus was everything...Their admiration and veneration for him knew no bounds. He was in every way the ultimate, the only criterion of good and evil and of truth and falsehood, the only hope for the future, the only power which could transform the world...Jesus was experienced as the breakthrough in the history of humanity. He transcended everything that had ever been said and done before. He was in every way the ultimate, the last word. He was on a par with God. His word was God's word. His Spirit was God's Spirit. His feelings were God's feelings...

"To believe in Jesus today is to agree with this assessment of him...To believe that Jesus is divine is to choose to make him and what he stands for your God...By his words and his praxis, Jesus himself changed the content of the word 'God.' If we do not allow him to change our image of God, we will not be able to say that he is our Lord and our God. To choose him as our God is to make him the source of our information about divinity and to refuse to superimpose upon him our own ideas of divinity...Jesus reveals God to us, God does not reveal Jesus to us...if we accept Jesus as divine, we must reinterpret the Old Testament from Jesus' point of view and we must try to understand the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the way in which Jesus did..."

The author masterfully sums up the implications of Jesus being God: "We have seen what Jesus was like. If we now wish to treat him as our God, we would have to conclude that our God does not want to be served by us, but wants to serve us; God does not want to be given the highest possible rank and status in our society, but wants to take the lowest place and to be without any rank and status; God does not want to be feared and obeyed, but wants to be recognized in the sufferings of the poor and the weak; God is not supremely indifferent and detached, but is irrevocably committed to the liberation of humankind, for God has chosen to be identified with all people in a spirit of solidarity and compassion. If this is not a true picture of God, then Jesus is not divine. If this is a true picture of God, then God is more truly human, more thoroughly humane, than any human being...

"Jesus was immeasurably more human than other human beings, and that is what we value above all other things when we recognize him as divine, when we acknowledge him as our Lord and our God."

If we accept that Jesus is God then the way He lived His life on earth is how we must live ours: "In the last analysis faith is not a way of speaking or a way of thinking, it is a way of living and can only be adequately articulated in a living praxis...The beginning of faith in Jesus is the attempt to read the signs of our times as Jesus read the signs of his times...we can begin to analyze our times in the same spirit as he analyzed his times. We would have to begin, as Jesus did, with compassion - for the starving millions, for those who are humiliated and rejected, and for the billions of the future who will suffer because of the way we live today...

"Searching for the signs of the times in the spirit of Jesus, then, will mean recognizing all the forces that are working against humanity as the forces of evil...We shall have to try to understand the structures of evil in the world as it is today. How much have we been basing ourselves upon the worldly values of money, possessions, prestige, status, privilege, power and upon the group solidarities of family, race, class, party, religion and nationalism? To make these our supreme values is to have nothing in common with Jesus."

Nolan concludes his book with one final challenge: "There is an incentive that can mobilize the world, enable the 'haves' to lower their standard of living and make us only too willing to redistribute the world's wealth and its population. It is the same drive and incentive that motivated Jesus: compassion and faith...With this kind of approach to the problems of our time one will surely come to recognize the impending catastrophe as a unique opportunity for the coming of the 'kingdom.'...God is speaking to us in a new way today. Jesus can help us to understand the voice of Truth..."

*I took the phrase "Jesus, God in Sandals" from Rachel Held Evans' book, Evolving in Monkey Town, which I highly recommend for anyone with doubts or questions about their faith.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Jesus Before Christianity (Part 7 - The Silent Truth that Judges Every Human Being)

Chapter 18 of Jesus Before Christianity is about Jesus' trial by Rome and the collaboration of the Jewish leaders with Rome. Nolan looks at the charges "which they could have brought against Jesus, the charges which they actually did bring against him and the real motives for wanting to destroy him...Jesus could have been charged with deliberately breaking the Sabbath or practicing magic (casting out devils by the power of Satan); he was actually charged with claiming to be the Messiah-king; and the real motive, according to Mark followed by Matthew, was envy or jealousy..."

He points out that because these distinctions aren't maintained consistently by the gospel writers, there is confusion about this. The author also distinguishes between the part played by Rome and the part played by the Jewish leaders in Jesus' sentencing and death: "Jesus was tried, sentenced and executed by the Roman court. But the gospel writers, like all early Christians, endeavored to make it quite clear that, in spite of this, the Jewish leaders were more to blame for Jesus' death than the Romans."

In the confusing reports by the gospel writers, there is one thing certain which is that Jesus' claim to be the Messiah or king of the Jews is the only thing that He was charged with by Rome and it was Rome that carried out the crucifixion. (The Jews had no authority to do this.)
Nolan describes how ruthless Pilate was and why he was eager to be rid of Jesus: Rome executed all "prophets and potential Messiahs" for fear of an uncontrollable uprising against the government. The Jewish high priest was appointed by the Romans for the purpose of helping to maintain the peace, especially during the festivals in Jerusalem. Though there are a couple of  different reasons why the Jewish leaders sided with Pilate, "In either case the decision of the high priest and his council was to collaborate with Rome. Political expediency demanded that this man be handed over and allowed to die. To attempt to save his life would be national suicide...they betrayed Jesus."

A remarkable thing about Jesus' trial is that He never defended Himself. No matter what He was accused of or who accused Him, He remained silent. "Jesus stood there without a word, putting everyone else to the test. The truth of the matter is that it was not Jesus who was on trial. His betrayers and accusers were on trial before him. His silence puzzled, disturbed, questioned and tested them. Their words were turned back at them and they condemned themselves out of their own mouths."

The chapter ends with a summary of all those who were tested and judged by the killing of Jesus: the High Priest Caiaphas and his associates who collaborated with Rome to save their nation and their own skin and positions rather than defend Jesus; the scribes, Pharisees and others who knowingly rejected His 'kingdom' of the poor; the disciples of Jesus who betrayed (Judas), denied (Peter) and forsook (all the rest) Him; Jesus Himself was tested and tried severely in the garden before His death...

"Jesus alone was able to accept the challenge of the hour. It set him above everyone else as the silent truth that judges every human being. Jesus died alone as the only person who had been able to survive the test. Everyone else failed and yet everyone else was given another chance..."

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Jesus Before Christianity (Part 6 - The Man Who Emerges)

The next two chapters (16,17) of Jesus Before Christianity look at how Jesus viewed suffering and death and at the uniqueness of Jesus as a man.

In chapter 16 Nolan says that Jesus viewed suffering and death differently than the Jews: "The Jews had a long tradition of persecution and suffering. Theoretically the righteous person always suffered on account of his or her righteousness, and every faithful Jew was willing to die rather than disobey the law...The early Christians did not invent the idea of martyrdom nor the idea of an atoning and redemptive death; it was part of their Jewish heritage..."

jesus passion of the christ photo:  Passion_of_the_Christ_8.jpgThe author goes on to say, "The Maccabean martyrs died for the law; the Zealots died to defend the sovereignty of Israel's God; other people have been willing to die for other causes. Jesus did not die for a cause. As he understood it, one should be willing to give up one's life for exactly the same reason as one gives up possessions, prestige, family and power, namely for others...Jesus was fully alive because he was willing to suffer and die not for a cause but for people...It is a willingness to die for all people. The willingness to die for some people would be an expression of group solidarity. The willingness to die for humankind is an expression of universal solidarity...(it) is a service rendered to all people."

And Jesus knew that in order to be in solidarity with suffering people, He would have to suffer, meaning He would have to come out of hiding and face those who were seeking to get rid of Him.

Chapter 17 is a beautiful chapter about the uniqueness of Jesus. Nolan says that "there are no traces of fear in Jesus. He was not afraid of creating a scandal or losing his reputation or even losing his life...even John the Baptist (was) scandalized by the way he mixed socially with sinners, by the way he seemed to enjoy their company, by his permissiveness with regard to the laws, by his apparent disregard for the seriousness of sin and by his free and easy way of treating God. He soon acquired what we would call a bad reputation..."

Much of chapter 17 focuses on how, unlike all others, Jesus insisted on not using any titles for Himself: "Jesus' courage, fearlessness and independence made people of that age ask again and again, 'Who is this man?' It is significant that Jesus never answers the question. There is no evidence that he ever laid claim to any of the exalted titles which the Church later attributed to him."

Jesus wanted nothing to do with the whole idea of acting and speaking 'with authority' (the right to be obeyed by others): "...did Jesus claim authority, any kind of authority at all, even implicitly? Would it not be closer to the truth to say that what makes Jesus immeasurably greater than any other human being is precisely the fact that he spoke and acted without authority and that he regarded the 'exercise of authority' as a pagan characteristic...

"Jesus was unique among the people of his time in his ability to overcome all forms of authority-thinking. The only authority which Jesus might be said to have appealed to was the authority of the truth itself. He did not make authority his truth, he made truth his authority...(He) did not expect others to obey him; he expected them to 'obey' the truth, to live truthfully..."

The chapter ends saying, "The secret of Jesus' infallible insight and unshakeable convictions was his unfailing experience of solidarity with God, which revealed itself as an experience of solidarity with humanity and nature. This made him a uniquely liberated man, uniquely courageous, fearless, independent, hopeful and truthful. What would make anyone want to destroy such a man?..."

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Jesus Before Christianity (Part 5 - Jesus "De-apocalyptized")

The next section of Albert Nolan's Jesus Before Christianity looks at Jesus and why He became such a target for both the Jewish leaders and for Rome. The author looks at the man Jesus without "apocalyptizing" Him and His teachings; in other words, Nolan is attempting to peer into how the people in Jesus' day would have understood Him and how He Himself understood things before His followers later interpreted His life and words through an "end-of-the-world" lens.

Chapter 13 looks at "politics and religion". The fact that Jesus of Nazareth was killed for high treason by Rome did not make Him unique, because many thousands of Jewish revolutionaries were crucified by the Roman rulers of that day. Although the revolution that Jesus wanted certainly involved liberation of the Jews from oppressive rulers, His greater concern was that Israel have a change of heart. "As Jesus saw it, the only way to be liberated from your enemies was to love your enemies, to do good to those who hate you, to pray for those who treat you badly. This is not a matter of resigning oneself to Roman oppression; nor is it a matter of trying to kill them with kindness. It is a matter of reaching down to the root cause of all oppression and domination: humanity's lack of compassion. If the people of Israel were to continue to lack compassion, would the overthrowing of the Romans make Israel any more liberated than before? If the Jews continued to live off the worldly values of money, prestige, group solidarity and power, would the Roman oppression not be replaced by an equally loveless Jewish oppression?..."

Unlike what many of us have been led to believe about the man Jesus, the men of His day would not have "thought of him as an eminently religious man who steered clear of politics and revolution. They would have seen him as a blasphemously irreligious man who under the cloak of religion was undermining all the values upon which religion, politics, economics and society were based...

"He disapproved of (Rome's) way of 'making their authority felt' and their way of 'lording it over their subjects'. But he envisaged changing this by changing Israel so that Israel could present the Romans with a living example of the values and ideals of the 'kingdom.'"

Chapter 14 deals with the dramatic confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders which was the turning point in Jesus' life: the Temple incident. The gospels are confusing concerning when this took place, but Nolan cites sources and proposes that it took place early in Jesus' public ministry as told in the gospel of John (rather than just before His death). Because of this angry demonstration by Jesus towards the economic exploitation of the people's devotion and piety by the Temple system (an example of this is the widow giving her last penny), Jesus and His disciples were forced to change their whole way of life because of the danger they were in.

Jesus had been preaching about the need for Israel's change of heart in order to escape the coming catastrophe (destruction of Jerusalem), but it was this confrontation in the Temple that made Him a figure of national importance and forced the leaders to make a decision about taking action concerning Him. They were further worried about the fact that He seemed to have great influence over the people. All of this caused Jesus to avoid going to Jerusalem and also to Galilee (Herod was after Him too) and when He did go to Jerusalem, it was under cover.

In chapter 15, the author proposes that there were two main temptations to violence for Jesus in the form of two particular incidents that Nolan views as attempts to get Jesus to take on the role of Messiah and lead an overthrow of Rome. (These would have been during the time of His hiding from and avoiding the authorities.) The first incident was the gathering of 4-5,000 men on the deserted hills near Bethsaida, which Nolan suggests may have likely been a gathering of men to persuade Him to lead them in a rebellion against Rome. (This gathering is typically known for the miracle of the loaves and fishes...)

The second incident was with Peter; a strong quarrel ensued over Jesus' talking about rejection and suffering while Peter saw the perfect opportunity to seize power and become Messiah. These were real temptations and while there were likely practical reasons why Jesus knew such a revolution would never work, there was a greater reason for not yielding: "To have accepted the kingship over a people who had not transferred their allegiance to the 'kingdom' of God and to lead such people in battle was to play into the hands of Satan. It would have meant accepting power from Satan over a 'kingdom' which was itself without any loyalty to the 'kingdom' of God and encouraging them to use violence against another, albeit more godless kingdom. Nothing could be achieved for God's 'kingdom' in this way...Jesus would presumably have been willing to be Messiah-king if Israel had changed its ways and the 'kingdom' of God had come. Messiahship would then not have been a title of honor, prestige and power but a form of service, and the Gentiles would then have been brought into the 'kingdom' not by the power of the sword but by the power of faith and compassion."

We'll cover chapters 16, 17, and 18 in the next post; these chapters continue to look at what made Jesus such a target in His day and why He was crucified.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Jesus Before Christianity (Part 4 - Jesus' Good News about a Very Different Kingdom)

The third section of Jesus Before Christianity is comprised of seven chapters (chapters 6 through 12) about "Good News" in which the author focuses on the "kingdom of God" and how utterly different it is from all of the kingdoms of this world.

In chapter 6 Nolan writes of how Jesus understood the kingdom of God; the most common ways Jesus talked about the kingdom of God was through the pictures of a household or a walled city: "The fact that his way of speaking about the 'kingdom' is based upon a pictorial image of a house, a city or a community leaves no doubt about what he had in mind: a politically structured society of people here on earth. A 'kingdom' is a thoroughly political notion...The difference is between a community of humankind in which evil reigns supreme and a community of humankind in which goodness reigns supreme...Jesus was convinced that the 'kingdom' of God would eventually triumph over the 'kingdom' of Satan and replace that 'kingdom' here on earth."

The next four chapters are chapters dealing with the value system of God's kingdom and how radically different God views these matters; the author presents all of this in light of the world Jesus lived in and gives wonderful insights to what Jesus' words and actions meant in His day:
  • Chapter 7: The "Kingdom" and Money
  • Chapter 8: The "Kingdom" and Prestige
  • Chapter 9: The "Kingdom" and Solidarity
  • Chapter 10: The "Kingdom" and Power
Chapter 11 deals with the idea of "time". This is a fascinating chapter in which Nolan contrasts the way Westerners view time (more quantitative) with the way a Hebrew views time (qualitative). "For the Hebrew, to know the time was not a matter of knowing the date, it was a matter of what kind of time it might be...Time was the quality or mood of events...When individuals reach a fixed point, for example, the Passover festival or a time of famine, they become in a sense contemporaneous with their ancestors and their successors who have passed or will pass through the same qualitative time. The individual's ancestors and successors share the same kind of time, no matter how many intervening years there happen to be between them."

Jesus was announcing that there was coming a time qualitatively different from anything that went before. "It will be a qualitatively new time, not a new measurement of time" (as we westerners would assume)...The newness of Jesus' time can hardly be exaggerated." We are not to confuse John the Baptist's message (of doom) with Jesus message (of good news). "Goodness is triumphing over evil. God has relented and is no longer intent upon punishing the people. God now wants to save them..." This can be seen in all that Jesus did and said: "God has come down from the heavenly throne, the highest position of prestige in the world, to be intimately close to men, women and children, who may now address God as abba...The success of the cures and of all Jesus' liberating activity showed him that God felt with those who suffer, that God wanted to live in solidarity with humanity and to use the godly power to serve them and protect them."

In chapter 12 Nolan concludes this long section on "good news" by talking about the coming of the 'kingdom' as miraculous: "In view of the extraordinarily high values that are supposed to reign supreme in this 'kingdom', it should not be difficult to appreciate that its coming would be a miracle...This kind of 'kingdom' can only come, it cannot be built...The 'kingdom' itself cannot be achieved, it must be received - as a gift."

Although Jesus didn't know the time of the coming kingdom, the urgency in His preaching was because He understood that if there was no repentance, for sure a catastrophe would come; and the catastrophe did come with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 CE, to be followed with a merciless massacre in 135 CE when the Romans completely destroyed the nation of Israel and expelled the Jews from Palestine.

"Jesus' message, like the message of any prophet, was not timeless. Nevertheless it did point to something about humanity and God that was so fundamentally and definitively true that it could be re-interpreted in relation to other times and other places...We can see the beginnings of this process of apocalyptizing the the gospel of Mark...Matthew takes the process very much further..."

Nolan ends the chapter by saying that in order for us to recover what Jesus meant to the people of His day (before Christianity), we need to read the gospels without the "apocalyptized" process being applied to them. He attempts to do this in the following chapters.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Jesus Before Christianity (Part 3 - Jesus, Friend of 'Sinners')

Following up from the previous post, The Significance of Jesus' Identification with John the Baptist, we'll look at the section of Albert Nolan's book, Jesus Before Christianity, that deals with the activity of Jesus in light of the conditions of humanity in His world. There are three chapters in this section (chapters 3,4, and 5).

In chapter three Nolan tells about the sort of people that Jesus gave most of His attention to. Scripture uses the following descriptors for them: "the poor, the blind, the lame, the crippled, the lepers, the hungry, the miserable (those who weep), sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, demoniacs, the persecuted, the downtrodden, the captives, all who labor and are overburdened, the rabble who know nothing of the law, the crowds, the little ones, the least, the last and the babes or the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

The author gives a description of the different classes in society in that day and says that Jesus was from the middle class (not to be mistaken for what we call "middle class" today). "The remarkable thing about Jesus was that, although he came from the middle class and had no appreciable disadvantages himself, he mixed socially with the lowest of the low and identified himself with them. He became an outcast by choice."

Nolan's main point in chapter 3 is that "what made Jesus different was the unrestrained compassion he felt for the poor and the oppressed."

In chapters 4 and 5 Nolan continues to explore Jesus' actions towards the disenfranchised by looking at healing and forgiveness. Chapter 4 contains some very interesting insights on His healing work, pointing out how different Jesus' approach to healing was from other healers of His time.

Chapter 5 is about forgiveness and how Oriental people of the first century looked at sin and its link with sickness and trouble. This is a beautiful chapter about Jesus' friendship with "sinners" and how He enjoyed being with them and they with Him. 
Jesus Eating with Sinners and Tax-Collectors in Jerusalem Giclee Print 
"It would be impossible to overestimate the impact these (festive) meals must have had upon the poor and the sinners. By accepting them as friends and equals Jesus had taken away their shame, humiliation and guilt. By showing them that they mattered to him as people, he gave them a sense of dignity and released them from their captivity...Moreover, because Jesus was looked upon as a man of God and a prophet, they would have interpreted his gesture of friendship as God's approval of them. They were now acceptable to God. Their sinfulness, ignorance and uncleanness had been overlooked and were no longer held against them....There can be no doubt that Jesus was a remarkably cheerful person and that his joy, like his faith and hope, was infectious...The poor and the oppressed and anyone else who was not too hung up on 'respectability' found the company of Jesus a liberating experience of sheer joy...He made them feel safe and secure...His very presence had liberated them."
In healing and forgiving and befriending the disenfranchised, Jesus had no motivation to prove anything but was simply moved by deep compassion.