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This article by Caleb Miller seems to be no longer available at what was once his blog.

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Matthew 25:31-33 – When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.

This passage has been used over and over again, especially if we’re involved in any evangelical style church or ministry gathering, as a teaching for eternal separation. The typical offering gives us the following prognosis based on the evaluation of the text.

  • The sheep are the believers
  • The goats are the unbelievers
  • The believers go to heaven
  • The unbelievers go to hell

These four conclusions are cemented in many minds, but if we are willing to (as Christ often did) play with the text a little, take a breath and a step back from it, and look at it a more intently, I believe we’ll see something a little more that Christ is offering than a simple issue of eternal destination. Jesus rarely offered a simple sermon without dressing it up in metaphor. Even Matthew says that Christ spoke nothing that wasn’t in parable form to the crowds1. Obviously we can see at first glance that Jesus isn’t referring to literal sheep and goats, but is making a play to the people He’s speaking with. But to whom is He speaking? Jesus tells us in Matthew “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”2 Is Jesus telling us that His salvation is only for the Jews? No, He’s telling us His ministry on this earth was first to them. His teaching and healing ministry, though at times encompassing Samaritans and surrounding gentile peoples, was first and foremost to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But who were those lost sheep?

The Lost Sheep were, according to Jeremiah, those who had lost/forgotten their place of rest.3 According to Jeremiah, it was the fault of the shepherds that they had forgotten this place of rest. What we see in Jesus’ statement then is that He is not sent for the “lost” as we would view them through our 21st century evangelical lens – those unbelievers – but rather sent for the “lost” as Jeremiah put it, those who had been led astray and forgotten their place of rest. This place of rest is what David spoke of in Psalm 23; the green pastures the Father, the good shepherd, leads us to in order that we may lie down. Lying down is an image of rest. Jesus, the wonderful rabbi that He was, would have known this passage well, and might have been thinking of it when introducing the parable of the sheep and goats.

A Pictorial View

His use of sheep and goats would intentionally play on the imagery of the Hebrew mind. Their ability to see objects as representative would surely have come into play while hearing the master teach. Just as the Passover lamb would have a significant representation to them beyond a simple lamb, the sheep and goat from His parable would have a meaning beyond the bare text. The goat to the mindset of the Jew would represent the sin offering under the systems of sacrifice.4 The sheep would represent the offering of peace (a state of total tranquility).5 As they heard Him speak, possibly the thought of what these two animals represented came flooding into their minds. The goats, the offering for sin, were set off to the left, and the sheep, the offering of peace – of which Jesus title as the Lamb of God would encompass – off to the right.

In this pictorial view we see that the interest of the judgment and separation is about separating the offering for sin away from the hearer’s peace. The two never need be in the same room again, much less eternally abiding together. Sacrifices for sin and the sacrificial (self giving) life of the lamb for peace were not to be linked together. Does this view do away with Jesus’ dealing with sin? By no means, but His dealing with sin had little to do with peace between God and people, and more to do with healing the conscience of humanity. The writer of Hebrews says that our conscience needing cleansing, not our actions.6 If our actions needing cleansing, then that is what would have been dealt with, and we would most likely see better ethical choices taking place today. It has never been about action, it has always been about conscience. The story of the two trees in the garden doesn’t show us good versus evil, but rather the dangers in a conscience of evil (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). It is knowing good or evil that creates issues of conscience. (Please note I’m not condoning having no conscience in how we deal with one another, rather I’m stating that the purpose of dealing with sin was to cleanse our conscience of separation anxiety due to that same sin).

This view occasions a broader scope of the text than is commonly understood. Christ separates sin from peace, removes sacrifice from the equation eternally, and casts that idea into the fires of eternity, forever separating sacrifice and offering from peace. As David said (and the writer echoed in Hebrews) “sacrifice and offering you did not desire”.7 The desire of the Father was never sacrifice,. Rather His desire was peace between God and man, without the necessity of sacrifice.

A Royal View

Another view of the parable would revolve around typical royal positioning. According to Hermas, the Holy Spirit stands on the left, and Christ on the right of the Father.8 To the Jew the first and primary position was the middle, most often occupied by God. The next position of power would be immediately to the right, and the third position would be immediately to the left. (Keep in mind that this is not to say Jesus is more or less powerful than the Holy Spirit – as a viewer facing the throne would have the opposite left and right from the throne itself). In this scenario, the left and right are both positions of power, with the greatest (second only to the giver of said power) being to the right – the position those who “believe” or “visit the poor” find themselves. Using this view, we see an image of separation that isn’t used for eternal destination but rather to display how it is we can find power. It is as though Christ is saying to the listener “do you want power?” “Then visit the poor, care for the outcast, minister peace”. In peace is power according to the royal view of this parable.

Another royal view of the parable comes in the relationship of King and Queen. In the royal court, a king who is legitimately king is seated to the right, with the queen on his left. His highest position of power would be to his own right hand. When the queen is queen regnant, she is seated to the right, and the king on the left. With this view, what we see is that the right hand is again, the position of power, and the left hand, though a lesser power, is still the king’s bride. She is still a royal, still in a position of great importance.

In either view of the parable, we see something more than simple eternal destination sorting. We see a greater picture of what Christ is saying. Understanding the metaphor with which He would have been speaking, we see that Jesus isn’t simply telling us we’ll “go to hell” if we don’t visit prisoners, He’s telling us that there’s great peace found in caring for the outcast, and that the greatest position of power is found in caring for those who, according to the parable, would be found on the left side.

In either view, we also are left with a niggling question.

What of those we did or did not visit?
On which side do they fall?
Is Jesus telling us that we are only judged based on our visitation of the sick, the prisoner, and the hungry?
What of those hungry people, are they sorted to the left or to the right?
What of the prisoner, is he sorted to the faithful or the unfaithful?
What of the sick, is she sorted as a believer or an unbeliever?

Maybe we need to look on to the “punishment” that is to be inflicted on those we believe to be “out” of the fold.

Everlasting Punishment?

We’ve dealt with separate viewpoints on the separation of the sheep and goats, but what about the sending of the goats into eternal punishment? The word for eternal is aionios. There are several sources claiming this means “for an age” and that could very well be. My only problem with taking the word this way is the same word aionios is used for “eternal life”. So if punishment is only for “an age” then life would have to be the same “for an age” contextually speaking. However, if we focus instead on “punishment” I think we’ll find out what is really being said in this occasion. Punishment as used by Christ is kolasis. Kolasis refers to both correction and punishment, so which are we to understand He means in this context?

Retribution or Restoration?

The question of “God’s Judgment” is one that has the ability to divide the lines of Christian theology. From my personal tradition, I do not believe the Father is going to judge the world, whether it be for sin, or otherwise. I believe He “gave all judgment to the son”.9 For whatever this means to us today, my view of judgment is one that allows for it to have happened in the past through the working of the Son. There is not room in this particular writing to deal with all the viewpoints of judgment, so this is where I’m going to start. We should look at the biblical view of “God’s Judgment” and how it pertains to what Jesus is speaking about.

There are three “judgments” of the Old Testament that are probably the most notable: the first being human removal from the Garden of Eden, the second being the great flood, and the third being Sodom and Gomorrah. These will suffice to show the lens through which we can view judgment, whatever your personal stance may be on the judgment of God.

Firstly, the removal of humans from the Garden. For the sake of time we won’t cover all available bases here, but the main point is: Adam and Eve eat something they shouldn’t have, and then judgment comes to them. This judgment comes in the form of removing them from their home. Often we hear that God was punishing them for this mistake, but is that what is really going on here?

And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. Gen 3:22-23

God removes humans from the garden for their protection. Lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever is only a problem when we know good and evil, or are able to make a separation in our minds of who and what would fall under those headings. This is not ours to decide. More devastating than knowing good and evil is to live forever, knowing good and evil.

We could then state that this first “judgment” of God is protective. Protective judgment makes a decision based on the best interests of the defendant’s future. Much like a father today would issue protective judgment on his own children to keep them from driving the family car under the influence of a controlled substance, the Father issued a protective judgment to prohibit humanity from operating eternal life under the influence of a controlled substance, the ability to determine good from evil. This ability is a controlled substance; it intoxicates us on our ability to determine who and what is in or out.

Secondly, the Great Flood. There are many theories as to the historical accuracy of the Noahic flood. Whether it be myth (historical metaphor sprinkled with fact), parable (metaphor only) or literal (no metaphor), there remains a truth to be seen in the “judgment of God” in this setting as well. One of my favorite things to point out in this story is that the bible says every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually10 yet we never see it say except Noah. Noah “found grace” in the eyes of the Lord, but certainly was far from perfect. But let’s stay on topic. The flood comes, the people die, and judgment and gloom is all around. And then the end. Noah comes with his family and the animals out of the ark, and the Father issues a decree.

…and the LORD said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. Gen 8:21

God makes a promise that never again will living things be destroyed for the problems of humanity. This judgment could be seen then as birthing a promise. Much like a protective judgment, a promise bearing judgment proves to be for the benefit of those who have been judged. It is not for their destruction, but rather for their good. God saw evil, (according to a strictly literal view) dealt with evil, and then promised that no living thing would ever be destroyed again for the problem of evil.

(I should interject that I do not hold to a strict literal viewpoint on the flood, my personal belief is that something happened, and mankind gave the credit to God, rather than God taking credit for the mass genocide of His beloved children, but that is not what we are dealing with in this essay.)

Lastly, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. Probably far more popular than even the Noahic flood is the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. If we have sat through any length of service, children’s church, or bible class we will have heard this story and had it explained to us. The people are caught up in violence and rape, and a variety of sexual and violent behaviors. Destruction comes, and after destruction – something I don’t think we fully understand at times.

I will restore their fortunes, the fortune of Sodom and her daughters and of Samaria and her daughters (and I will restore your fortune along with them), that you may bear your shame and be disgraced for all the comfort you brought them. Yes, your sisters, Sodom and her daughters, Samaria and her daughters, shall return to their former state (you and your daughters shall return to your former state). Eze 16:53-55 (NAB)

After hell fire and brimstone comes something that most probably don’t admit. Restorative judgment. God promises I will restore their fortunes. Restorative judgment is really the heart of the matter. For whatever we believe about the “judgment of God” in relationship to the world today, it must be said that the only judgment found in the bible is that which leads to restoration. This is of supreme importance because it will forever change how we view the Abba of Jesus, our Heavenly Father. In punitive judgment we have destruction at the end. Punishment (legally speaking) is tit-for-tat. It is this much punishment for this crime. The greater the offense, the greater the destruction wrought. However, the judgment of the Father throughout the Old Testament can, and must be, seen as restorative. Restorative judgment is aimed at furthering a relationship or person. Retributive judgment is aimed at ending a relationship or person.

So, God’s “judgment” is either:

  • Protective,
  • Promise-Bearing, or
  • Restorative

In either case, these are the ideas that must come forward to the parable at hand. When Jesus speaks of those goats being cast into something, it must be seen as either protective, promise-bearing, or restorative. We can rest assured that the Savior is not simply offering a message of eternal separation, but rather eternal correction and thereby restoration. What could be better for a heart hell bent on excluding the outcast than to be corrected? And what could be better for a heart committed to the outcast than to be shown that the position of power the exclusionist sought to obtain was in fact found in being committed to the outcast? Nothing, and that is the nature of the gospel, to be committed to the outcast, to the downtrodden, to the broken.

I realize that in playing with the text we can often times read too much into it. My intent is not to create a new theology or to simply “buck the system” but rather to help us take a less literal approach in applying the parables of Jesus to our own time in history. In many of our own lives, we have a sort of morbid curiosity that leads us toward focusing on the negative side of any circumstance. For many, it isn’t enough to see an accident, we begin to wonder and even speculate as to whether someone died in the accident, usually basing our speculations on the appearance of an ambulance or paramedic. This is all too often how we treat the gospel as well. We see an instance wherein Jesus is seemingly making a separation of “believers” and “unbelievers” and our focus tends to be drawn towards the fate of the unbeliever rather than what is spoken about those He would call “sheep”.

If instead, we would focus on the right hand and the goings on of those sheep, I believe we could find a bit more importance. Those sheep find rest and peace at the right hand, and find it because they are willing to care for the outcast. In caring for the outcast, “sheep” beget “sheep”. Our focus is to be loving one another, caring for one another, and providing for one another, not making a determination on who is “in” or who is “out”.

Michael Hardin has (in my opinion) summed up this idea best in an article from his website saying:

“A great contemporary debate in America is whether or not we are a ‘Christian’ nation.’ In the light of our parable we must ask whether the moral trivialities we fight over are evidence of our character. How can a nation spend $500 billion on a war and neglect the poor and suffering around the world?”11. How indeed? I believe we can justify it because we have for too long been focused on the wrong side of the story, the left hand if you will, and in focusing on the left hand, we have missed the point of the story – namely the right hand, to care for the hurting, the oppressed, the outcast, and the poor.

Final Thought

One final thought to consider comes from Robert Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Mr. Capon talks about Left-Handed and Right-Handed power.12 An interesting concept, Capon states that right handed power is the power that uses force to meet its needs, while left handed power is as Mr. Capon puts it paradoxical power that is; power that closes no doors to interpersonal relationship from our side13.

What does this mean in relationship to the parable “at hand”? This creates yet another vision within which we can make a determination on the left-vs-right hand scenario painted by the Savior. For the Jews, Jesus represented a paradox. Their God had been one who not only seemed to prefer right handed power, but also used little other means to accomplish His ends. Jesus however, comes on the scene using precisely the opposite, and has the gall to say “if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”. His determined left handed power left the door open to all humanity.

Looking at this parable then through the lens of left and right handed powers, it could be said that Jesus is making a play at this very idea. That those on the right, the ones who are doing the will of the Father by visiting the downtrodden, are exacted with swift force, placed as good and faithful servants, and no more movement is needed. Those on the left however, are met with this paradoxical power, the power that leaves a door open, open to reconciliation, open to forgiveness, open to correction. The right hand of the King receives a swift judgment of a “stamp of approval” of sorts, while those on the left hand of the King receive a judgment that is not so swift, one that leaves room for change, for repentance, for contrition. Whether they ever take advantage of that or not is not to be taken from this parable, but is interesting to think about to say the least.

Conclusion

It may well be that this parable reframes standard views of judgment found e.g., in I Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls where judgment is predicated upon holiness codes or election. Whether we see the parable as strictly literal (a heaven/hell issue), partially metaphorical (sin offering vs peace offering), strictly metaphorical (the bride to the left, with the position of power to the right) or even as a play on two types of power (right vs left handed power), we see a marvelous thing unravel; namely, the parables of Christ continuing to play out in our own place in history. This, I believe is the greater point of His parables. There is no one single answer to “what they mean” but rather they stand to mean something different to every reader.

1 Matt 13:34
2 Matt 15:24
3 Jer 50:6
4 Lev 4:24, 9:15, 16:9, 16:15, 16:21, Num 15:27, 28:22, 29:28, 31, 34, 38 – etc.
5 Lev 22:21
6 Heb 10:22
7 Ps 40:6, 51:16, Heb 10:5, 10:8
8 9:35
9 John 5:22
10 Gen 6:5
11 http://www.preachingpeace.org/lectionaries/yeara-lastpentecost/
12 Kingdom, Grace, Judgment pp 15-25 (2002) Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
13 ibid

 

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Madeleine zapped off the TV set with the remote control switch. “I refuse to look at that dumb name anymore.”

“What dumb name?” Pietro asked, looking up from his newspaper.

“Pacific Telesis,” she snapped. “It sounds more like a skin disease than a phone company.””

“Maybe it’s not a phone company. Maybe it’s just a Christian punk rock band hiding its light under a bushel.”

Madeleine considered the possibility for a moment and discarded it. “Fat chance. Christian music groups always flaunt their Christianity. The bushel has yet to be invented that will cover up the big business of witnessing to Jesus for Fun and profit. Not that that isn’t a rash in its own right, come to think of it.”

“My, my,” Pietro observed quietly, “I gather you have a bone to pick with musical proclaimers of the Gospel.”

“You bet I do. I can’t stand the way they overlay whatever legitimate musicianship they may have with a lot of commercial sincerity. Listening to them is like snorkeling your way through an ocean of pancake syrup.”

“It seems to me that I detect the prejudices of a fifth-generation Episcopalian.  These people have to make a living, you know. Outside of you and your mother there isn’t all that much of a market for handbells, recorders, and the Kings College Choir.”

“Can I help it if I was raised to spot corn a mile off“?  And corn in the name of Jesus halfway across the country? I’m just saying what I think—and what a lot of other people think too, but can’t work up the nerve to admit.”

“Corn is ever with us, love,” Pietro said soothingly.  “The beloved nineteenth—century hymnody of your youth was not exactly a seamless tissue of musical spun gold.  Besides, the name of Jesus is, I think, quite able to fend

for itself despite any or all lapses of taste on the part of its advocates.”

“Don’t try to soft—soap me,” Madeleine huffed. “You squirm your way through those testimonial—ridden performances just as much as I do.”

Pietro pondered briefly. “That is true; but permit me to make a distinction. My deepest objections to what is currently called ‘Christian music’ are rooted not in the tackiness of stretching the safety-net of piety under the supposedly daring highwire act of artistic performance, but in the use of the word ‘Christian’ to modify any human endeavor at all.”

“I think you just lost me.”

“Be patient and the way will be made plain. First of all, the word ‘Christian’ appears in Scripture only three times. In its two occurrences in the Book of Acts, it comes from the lips of unbelievers; and in the single reference in

1 Peter, it is used in a way that indicates the writer is at some pains to bestow respectability on it.”

“So? How do you get from there to saying there shouldn’t be any Christian anything?”

“Quite directly. The word, having had a dubious beginning, has had a history of even more dubious developments. If we are to exalt Christian musicians above all other musicians, why not Christian plumbers above all other plumbers, or Christian chicken-pluckers above their unbelieving but still feather-bedecked fellows? The point, you see, is that music, plumbing and poultry dressing can be–and most properly are—judged by the workmanship, not by the religiosity of their practitioners.”

“Hold on, though. Aren’t there some activities to which ‘Christian’ can legitimately be applied? How about Christian parenting, for instance—or Christian marriage?”

“In a word,” Pietro said authoritatively, “my answer must be ‘No way,Jose’. If you will allow me rather more than a word, though, yet another distinction occurs to me.  True enough, there will be Christians who marry and who raise children, just as there will be Christians who unclog sink traps. And truer still, their Christian beliefs may well impinge on them as they seek to fulfill their roles as partners, parents or plumbers. Nevertheless, the roles themselves (which, mind you, were designed by God when he created nature, both human and non-human) and—to come to the point—the performances given by people who assume those roles, can only be judged by the particulars of the roles, not by the religion of the role-players.”

“Say it simpler.”

“A good Jewish mommy is good primarily because of her mothering, not her religion. A bad Christian plumber cannot, by reading the Bible more regularly, make amends for running the sewer line into the dry well instead of the septic tank.”

“Thank you.”

“’Thank you. Ergo, musicians should be judged by their music, poets by their skill with the language, and stockbrokers by their ability to recommend companies that do not go bankrupt. If these people are both Christians and baritones, bards or brokers, we should rejoice that Jesus has so many competent supporters. If they are good religionists but poor workmen, we should enjoy their fellowship in the Gospel but take our trade elsewhere. And if the local Buddhist makes the best pottery…”

“All right, already. But what about the idea that ‘the soul is naturally Christian?”

“Ah!” Pietro sighed. “So it’s Tertullian, is it? Anima naturaliter christiana; the grain of truth that’s been used to justify a ton of half-baked, if not lethal, misrepresentations of the Gospel. Better just to talk about Jesus and the Good News; ‘Christianity’ is mostly a millstone around the neck of the Church.”

“But the Church is Christian, isn’t it?”

“Nope. It’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Call it Christian and you close the door on the whole worldful of non-Christians to whom it’s sent.”

“O…kay. How do you stand on the Christian religion?”

“Negatory. Not only isn’t it just for Christians, it isn’t even a religion. What Jesus did by dying and rising was the end of whatever religion was trying to accomplish, not the beginning of a new one.”

Madeleine sighed. “And just think: all this from just mentioning Christian music.”

“What you mentioned,” Pietro said archly, “was Pacific Telesis. If your itch for criticism is over, why don’t you switch the TV back on?”

 

(More Theology & Less Heavy Cream, Robert Capon)

(After its merger in 1997, Madeleine was officially liberated from Pacific Telesis commercials. She now suffers through AT&T commercials instead.)

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Louise: But didn’t he finally do something religious when he died on the cross?

I’m sorry to disappoint you, Louise, but no again. Nothing he did was in any way recognizable as having religious significance. He died as a common criminal. The cross is a sign not of sacrifice but of execution — of a nasty bit of judicial murder that has no more intrinsic significance than the thousands of other such acts all through history. To be sure, people have turned the cross into a religious symbol; but since Christianity is not a “religion,” that sort of thing can only lead to confusion. Christianity is the proc­lamation of the end of religion, not of a new religion, or even of the best of all possible religions. And therefore if the cross is the sign of anything, it’s the sign that God has gone out of the religion business and solved all the world’s problems without requiring a single human being to do a single religious thing. What the cross is actually a sign of is the fact that religion can’t do a thing about the world’s problems — that it never did work and it never will — which is exactly what Hebrews 10:4 says: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” So, if you want to theologize it into a sign, the best you can do is say that it’s the sign of the fulfillment of all that religion ever tried to do and couldn’t. The fact that the death of Jesus was non-religious says that loud and clear. And the fact that we put up crosses in the church, and make the sign of the cross on those who are baptized, says the same thing.

If that’s hard for you to grasp, try a little mental exercise with me. Suppose for a moment that the work of Jesus — the mani­festation of the whole Mystery of God’s Incarnation — was taking place now rather than in the first century. Suppose that the Jesus in whom he became human had been born in an inner city to poor, Hispanic parents in 1959, that he began teaching when he was about thirty, and that after three years he ran afoul of the authorities and was condemned to death in 1992. Then ask yourself, “How would he be executed?” Most likely, of course, he’d die in the electric chair.

But then, jump ahead to the year 3092 and ask yourself another question: What would his followers in that distant future be doing with that manner of death in terms of ecclesiastical symbolism? It’s interesting, isn’t it? The chosen sign of the saving Mystery of his death would be not a cross but an electric chair. There would be replicas of the Old Rugged Electric Chair in all the churches. Solid brass ones, fourteen-karat gold-on-silver ones, fabulous diamond-encrusted ones on cathedral altars, tiny silver-chained ones to wear around your neck, and even molded chocolate ones for Easter candy. Not only that, but those who were baptized would probably have their heads shaved and be strapped into a chair for the rite.

But perhaps that’s enough to make my point about the cross. All I want to add here is that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was just as non-religious. Nobody at all saw him actually do it. And only a handful of people witnessed the empty tomb — a witness that was written off by a good many others as a fraud. True enough, his followers claimed to have seen him risen; but he didn’t bother to stay around long enough to get any decent publicity. Instead, he disappeared after forty days and left a ragtag group of apostles and disciples to proclaim that this festival of irreligious mysteriousness was in fact the best news the human race had ever had. Weird; definitely weird. But not religious.

Third and finally, though, think of how the street-theater director’s cast of characters might try to explain to themselves how he finally turned their hodgepodge of actions into a play with a happy ending. They might, of course, attribute his success to specific bits of intervention on his part: a word here, the suggestion of a different bit of business there. And, true enough, each of those interventions would have been an instance of the director himself entering into the interchanges of the play. But if the cast were wise, they would look deeper than that. For one thing, they would see that since the key to the play’s success didn’t lie in them, it had in some sense to have been in the director all along. And for another thing, they would realize that since the success of the play was caused by the director, he had to have been in the play at every moment of its action, not just at the times they could recognize as his interventions.

In other words, they would have to invent something very like the notion of mystery to explain his constant, unobservable presence throughout the play; and they would have to invent something very like the notion of sacrament to explain how his occasional, specific actions were not just single instances of his acting to make the play a success but rather manifestations, in certain situations, of his real and effective presence to the play all along. Or, to put it another way, they would have to develop a directology (read “theology”) of his work that met two important criteria. On the one hand, it would have to affirm his intimate and immediate relationship to every moment of the play and not insist that his specific interventions were the whole cause of its happy ending. On the other hand, it would have to affirm his general relationship to the play in such a way that it didn’t deny the real presence and effectiveness of that relationship in his specific interventions.

Which brings us (luckily, because the analogy is just about to wear thin and break down) to what the church at its best has done in developing a theology (read “directology”) of the work of God incarnate in the world. Needless to say, the church’s theolo­gizing has had its share of analogous temptations. Some theologians leaned in the direction of the “on the one hand” in the preceding paragraph. They treated the death and resurrection of God in Christ, for example, as if it were the only time and place in the history of creation where God had done his reconciling work. He acted once and for all, they said, in A.D. 29. Taken literally, of course, that got them into trouble. The “once” made it sound as if God had been absent from the play of history until he showed up after the intermission and did his thing in Jesus. And the “for all” gave them problems because it required a lot of legalistic shuffling to get the job he did in Jesus applied to the characters who died before the intermission, or to those who did their part in the play of history in places that Jesus (or his church) never got to before they died — or never got to at all.

This approach also led them to take a highly “transactional” view of what the church was up to. The church, for them, became the pipeline through which the work of God in Christ was funneled to the world. If you got yourself connected to the church, you got the happy ending; if you didn’t, you were out of luck. Or, to change the illustration, the church took the God in Christ who said he was the Light of the world and turned him into the Lighting Company of the world, complete with access fees (lots of good deeds) to be paid before you could tap into his power, and the threat of a cutoff in service if you didn’t keep up the monthly payments with righteous acts. But if Jesus really shines as the Light of the world the way the sun shines as the light of the earth, then nobody needs to do anything to get the light. The Mystery of Christ shines from one end of creation to the other: the whole shooting match is already lit up everywhere, free for nothing. The church doesn’t have to tear around telling people to get themselves wired into Jesus. It just has to bring them the hilariously Good News that if only they will trust Jesus and open their eyes, the darkness will be gone. And it will be gone because, except for the blindness of their unbelief, it was never there at all.

The whole, reconciling work of God incarnate in Jesus, you see, is already in everybody and everything by the universal pres­ence of the Mystery of Christ. Therefore, the church is catholic not because it has the whole human race inside it (it never has had, and it probably never will) but because it is the sign (sacrament) to the world of the catholic reconciliation God has handed to every last human being from Adam to whomever. And do you see whai that means? It means that the Mystery of Christ is present not just in Christians or in good guys but present in sinners right in the midst of their sins. It means that the Mystery isn’t something that picks up its lily-white skirts and runs away when somebody does a no-no. The Mystery just hangs around everywhere: it’s in the murderer at the moment he puts the knife in the victim’s chest; it’s in the victim as the knife punctures her heart — and it’s in the abuser and the abused, the torturer and the tortured, the violator and the violated. You don’t earn its presence by being a good egg, and you can’t lose it by being a bad one.

Which is why, I suppose, when God chose to sacramentalize the presence of that Mystery in Jesus between 4 B.C. and A.D. 29, he made sure it got manifested in a very questionable egg indeed. In some sense, to be sure, Christians are committed to take seri­ously the notion that Jesus was “without sin.” But you have to be very careful not to turn him into a Little Lord Fauntleroy in velvet pants. Because whatever the theological significance of his “sinless-ness” may be, it’s a cinch that the notion would have been news to most of the people who ran into him during his career. As a matter of fact, a lot of them just lumped him together with the whores and tax sharks he habitually hung around with and let it go at that. Even more alarmingly, he never even tried to convince them otherwise — being content, it would seem, to be made “like his brothers and sisters in every respect,” even to the point of being a rotten egg, or, in Paul’s more elegant but even more astounding phrase, of being “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21).

The Mystery of Christ manifested in Jesus, therefore, is the Mystery of the irrevocable marriage of God to creation — of a completely restored relationship “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” It is not some divine Ro­mance with an idealized beloved; it’s the embracing of all the gorgeousness and grisliness of the world because that’s all the world God wants and all he’s got — because “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29), and because, as the om­nipotent, champion turkey-caller of all time, he doesn’t quit till he gets every turkey in the world: Robert, Louise, Otto, Enid, Alice, and Frank; Alexander the Terrible, Sam the Serial Killer, and Geof­frey the Office Letch; St. Francis of Assisi, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Jerome the Professional Grouch-and even St. George the Dragon-slayer, just in case he had the dumb luck actually to exist We are all the Bride, the Wife of the Lamb who is the Light of a world made new in his death and resurrection.

I promised you that at the end of this long string I would give you something about the carnality of faith to the enjoyment of the Mystery of God’s Incarnation, of your restored relationship in the Marriage of God to creation. Here it is; read it slowly, because it will be over in just two short sentences:

You don’t have to work for the relationship because you’ve got it already. Just trust Jesus and open your eyes.

 

The Mystery of Christ, pgs. 62-67

 

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“Our Father,
Who art exceptionally in America,
Hallowed be Thy name over Thy teachings,
Thy kingdom has come in the American dream,
Thy will—the American way—be done,
In all the earth as it is in America.

Give us the rich our daily oil (but not food to any we deem undeserving),
And forgive us our national debts,
but do not forgive our debtors and college students,
And lead us not into repentance,
but deliver us from foreigners and nations who keep trying to take away our freedom and prosperity,
For our nation is Thy kingdom,
And our firepower is Thy power,
Our glory is Thy glory
Forever, Amen.”

 

Ramone Romero

 

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Tickled by Phyllis

Phyllis Tickle with Luke, Tom, Mike and Luke's wife

11/10/2013 @ Vintage Fellowship, Fayetteville, Arkansas

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Paul especially uses terms and phrases such as “in Christ”, “dead in Christ”, “made alive in Christ”. I think his operative phrase repeated more often than any is “in Christ”—and it seems to me that in that phrase can be summed the totality of Paul’s theology and Christology.

Older theological vocabulary used the term “recapitulation” which was taken from Eph. 1:10 (especially, but the same idea is present in Col. 1);

“…toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth.”

The Koine word Paul used is “ανακεφαλαιωσασθαι” (anakephalaiosasthai; from aná, “up,” intensifying kephalaióō, “bring to a head, recapitulate” – properly, head-up, summing up all the parts as a comprehensive, organized whole.) I think “recapitulate” came to us via Latin translations and passed into English.

Now, here’s the point. The entirety of creation—past, present and future—is “in Christ”—recapitulated. That is why Paul can say in Romans 5 and 6 that “all are made alive in Christ” and that we have also “died with Christ”. Both are true, not one or the other, nor is one conditioned upon the other. The only “condition” is the reality of Christ Himself.

 

Also, as a side note, in two specific places Paul describes what Christ accomplished in terms of removing us and creation out of one dominion/domain and then transferring it/us into another domain. The most obvious reference is Col. 1:13. The other, which is not so obvious in some newer translations is Rom. 6:1 ff where Paul makes something of a play on words by using “Sin” as a noun, not a verb.

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”

The rhetorical question is not “shall we keep on sinning?” but rather “shall we continue (to live in the domain/country) of Sin? And then he answers the obvious, “how can we continue living where we used to after we’ve died??!”

Christ’ death + resurrection has changed the entire geography of Creation. Despite what we experience which suggest the contrary, thangs just ain’t the same no more.

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A friend asked this question of me knowing my promiscuous appreciation for Robert Capon…

What do you think Robert Capon would say about Matthew 5:13-20?

(Thinking about Sunday’s sermon)

L.

I don’t find at this point anything that RC has said on that text.  I’m sure that he homilied  it more than a few times.

The Beatitudes are not simple.  I’m constantly being challenged by what Jesus is recorded to have said in this setting.  I’m constantly in flux relative to what I think it means to me and us as “church”.

Be that as it may, let me start with what Dallas Willard says about the Beatus;

“The Beatitudes, in particular, are not teachings on how to be blessed. They are not instructions to do anything. They do not indicate conditions that are especially pleasing to God or good for human beings.
“No one is actually being told …that they are better off for being poor, for mourning, for being persecuted, or so on, or that the conditions listed are recommended ways to well-being before God or man. Nor are the Beatitudes indications of who will be on top ‘after the revolution.’ They are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship to Jesus. They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope.”
-Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

I think that Willard is correct that in the parables Jesus isn’t telling us to do anything—they are not moral stories, rather stories that give us some insight into what the Father (and at times the Son) is like and how radically varient is the oikonomia of the Kingdom of the Heavens from the powers and principalities of the present age.  I know from my extensive reading (even a superficial reading would serve) that Capon wrote the same kinds of things and had very similar understanding as Willard in this.

To establish the context I’ll copy/paste Eugene Peterson’s take on the passage;

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down 2 and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

 3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. 12 You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

13 “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.

14 “Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world. God is not a secret to be kept. We’re going public with this, as public as a city on a hill. 15 If I make you light-bearers, you don’t think I’m going to hide you under a bucket, do you? I’m putting you on a light stand. 16 Now that I’ve put you there on a hilltop, on a light stand—shine! Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you’ll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven. 17 “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures— either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. 18 God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.

Knowing full well, as we do, that RC’s shibboleth that Grace rest on the lost, the least, and the last—I’m now forced/constrained to view the Gospel narratives through that systematic lens.  How do we–the down and out’ers at the end of our ropes, we who have lost everything we once thought indispensable (especially our own egoic pride), we have ceased from taking ourselves seriously, have entirely different “appetites” than what is considered “normal” by our competitive and sex and violence addicted society, we who would rather spend time in contemplation than amusing ourselves to death with “reality” TV, and have more appetite for constructive relationships than rather trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out with God…Yeah, us “nare do well’s”  who just don’t get “how this world works”, so to speak.  (Isn’t that just a humdinger of a run-on?)

So, how are we, the Failures in the sight of the world (everybody are losers, it’s just that some admit it and some don’t…in the final analysis none of us have the power to hold our life intact) who apparently spend our lives in the “lost and found” section of Sears, how is it that Jesus says we are “salt and light”?

My short answer?

By being willing to be viewed as “failures” and “dog dirt” (I Cor. 4:13) by the powers that be (“The World”). In doing that—in reality allowing that to be in us—we are to the world sacraments of Jesus, the Light of Life which has come into the world.  Being vulnerable to others will at the surface look like a total failure.

Maybe I can “channel” RC with a paraphrase…

“Jesus is the ultimate loser of a god dying on a loser’s cross—a loser right to the end when he prays, “Father, FORGIVE THEM….”

Nietzsche didn’t criticize Jesus as a failure or loser, rather his criticism was directed toward those who claimed to be Jesus’ followers while at the same time buying into a “tame” successful life in the present which is a repudiation of Christ and thus the “death of God”.

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