bankrupt Christian traditions, biblical authority, Christian Calling, Christian community, gospel jesus, Jesus the Messiah, Justice Issues, message of the new testament, N. T. Wright, Redemption of Creation, the Christian story, the gospel of the kingdom, the kingdom of God, the story of God, what is the kingdom of god
I have said and written repeatedly:
If you want to understand the message of the New Testament, first come to grips with the Old Testament. If the New Testament “Jesus is the answer,” the questions he answers are in the older books.
Tom Wright puts it another way. He says, imagine you have installed a quadraphonic stereo system but the four speakers are badly balanced so that you are not hearing the music at all as it was meant to be.
Speaker One: The Melody of Israel
The first thing you discover is that speaker number one is almost turned off. Says Wright,
The first speaker… to be turned up is this: the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel. All four evangelists, I suggest, deliberately frame their material in such a way as to make this clear, though many generations of Christian readers have turned the down speaker to such an extent that they have been able, …to ignore it.
Our failure to hear the eventful climax of Israel’s story in the gospels has meant we have read the gospel as though it was first of all a universal story, about Adam and the second Adam. To be sure, the gospel carries that frame but indirectly. First of all, “Jesus is the answer” to the Jewish question. The reconciliation of Israel is not the whole story but it is the indispensable first story and thus, to use Wright’s analogy, a “speaker” which must not be muted or turned off.
Speaker Two: The Music of God In the Flesh
If the first speaker which Wright discusses is the “Israel” speaker, speaker number two is the “God” speaker. And if the first was turned way down, number two is so loud as to be seriously distorted.
The distortion has a great deal to do with the nearly missing melody, barely audible through the first speaker. This second theme announces Jesus as God but not as just any god. He is the one who had raised up Israel to be the light of the world. Jesus is God who has returned for an all-important visit to his people, God who has come to find faith in Israel, God who created and now seeks to redeem his people and restore them to their great mission, the blessing of all the nations of the earth. More subtly in the synoptics and more explicitly in John, all the evangelists report that to know God and what God is all about, what God is doing these days, we need but watch to see what Jesus is doing.
In Luke after Jesus has healed a man, it is, “Go back to your home, said Jesus, “and tell them what God has done for you.” (8:39)
In Mark after Jesus wakes up in the boat and stills the wind and waves, we have, Great fear stole over them. “Who is this?” they said to each other. “Even the wind and the sea do what he says!” (4:41)
Matthew, of course, starts right out with an angel who tells Joseph to call the child Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” On which point the evangelist then comments, All this happened so that what the Lord said through the prophet might be fulfilled: “Look: the virgin is pregnant, and will have a son, and they shall give him the name Emmanuel” – which means in translation, “God with us.” (1:22-23)
So, no need to shout, “Jesus is divine! Jesus is divine!” This is not a Greek story where a human was so loved by the gods that they granted him or her immortality and a home with them. This is a very different sort of claim. It is the rather strange announcement that Israel’s god, in order to rule and save his people, has come to them in the flesh.
What is implicit in the synoptics, is, in John, the central point in the framing of his whole story. “The Word was God… and the Word became flesh.” As Wright states it,
John’s cards are on the table from the beginning. For him, the story of Jesus is the story of how God became human, how the creator became a part of his creation. …this astonishing claim, rooted as it is in the echoing narrative of Genesis 1 in which humans were made to bear the divine image and likeness, is woven tightly together with the story of Israel.
…the God who made the world as a temple for his own possession and dwelling had deigned, as an act of unmerited fresh mercy, to pitch his tent in the midst of the Israelites…
The destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BC had been the worst possible disaster, indicating that Israel’s God had abandoned his house… He had promised one final great Passover. …when he returned, his people would be free forever.
…this promise had been made good in Jesus. The Word became flesh and kai eskenosen en hemin, “set up among us his skene,” his “tent”…
God made humans to be his image in creation, God came to “tent” among his people, God removed himself from them but promised to return, a promise which God had kept in Jesus.
Notice John is not shouting. The harmony of the second speaker, blending now with the first melody, is subtle and nuanced, and far deeper than, “Jesus is God! Jesus is divine!”
Speaker Three: Birth-Song of a Community
Although the “god” speaker has been unbearably loud, it has been less loud than the third speaker which, for several centuries, has been squealing that nothing we learn in the gospels is actually about Jesus and his disciples. This speaker blares: the gospels merely reflect the early Christian communities and the issues which were important in their moment!!!
Ironically, what we hear from this speaker distorts not only the witness of Jesus and his immediate followers; it also obscures the actual launch of the new people of God.
For a long time those of us who have imagined we could read the gospels and trust that the words we read have been faithfully transmitted to us by persons with about one degree of separation from Jesus and his disciples have been treated as simpletons. The so-called “critical scholarship,” Wright says, have certain deep but not particularly rational prejudgments which now need to be challenged:
They maintain that we know, in advance, that most of these stories must be fictitious, because dead people don’t rise, lepers don’t get healed, people don’t walk on water, and not least gods do not appear in human form.
Wright maintains there is nothing naive, uncritical or fundamentalist (necessarily) about accepting the gospel writers accounts as accurate. And when we do read the gospels as trustworthy documents we get a strong sense of the communities of faith which emerged from the missional imperatives which we find within as well at the ends of the gospels. Whole new communities came into being after Pentecost; the entire world, even in nations beyond the Roman world, were seeded with small Christian communities which grew, often unhindered, for decades. Jesus prepared the ground for the planting and the kingdom of God grew exactly as he had said it would.
Speaker Four: Drumbeat of Inevitable Conflict
Conflict? What conflict? When was the fourth speaker disconnected? Wright suspects it was never even installed. That seems impossible to me. There must have been a time when Christians understood that their battle was not just against powers and principalities in the heavens but also against the earthly, flesh and blood, brick and mortar, sword and machine-gun powers which are always driven by the spirits behind the scenes. Otherwise, the apostle Paul would not have needed to correct the perception, to put the driver back in his seat. The clash between the Godly kingdom and the long-established forces in the world was certainly understood at the time Paul dictated Ephesians.
Empire in all its forms is just a fine, powerful, organized and oppressive way of doing evil. It was and is always opposed by God’s kingdom people in whatever times and in whatever shapes they and it appear. As I have written elsewhere, empire always develops from a good thing, a government, a business, a church, what-have-you, that has become a cancerous monster. It grows for the sake of growth with no earthly sense of what it is or of where it belongs in this world.
Wherever the kingdom shows up in creation it must always oppose what is violent, lawless, what collects and destroys for the sake of its own acquisitiveness. The kingdom people have gathered before to bless and heal the devoured and the devourer, to disciple governments to do justice and businesses to the just/righteous and caring value-added distribution of the earth’s resources.
Wright is correct: it has been a long time since we took this clash seriously. When was the last time Christians looked out their windows at their world and named imperial names?
Ahhhh! At Last!!!!
Can you hear the powerful melody, vibrant harmonies, the pulsing rhythm, working together once the four speakers are brought into balance? Makes you cry. Makes you belly laugh! Makes you want to get out the doors and get something done!
Having trouble hearing it? One) Get/read the book (this one is not to be missed). Two) Let’s talk.
Next: Part Three, The Kingdom and the Cross
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1 Back to Post Wright, N. T., How God Became King, The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (Harper Collins, New York, N.Y., 2012) page 65
2 Back to Post Ibid., page 101-2
3 Back to Post Ibid., page 106
4 Back to Post In Ephesians 6:12, Paul reminds his hearers that the folks who are giving them trouble are themselves just minions of powers much greater than themselves. Christians since then have come to need the opposite correction. We vaguely recognize the existence of powers of evil but we almost always fail to name and oppose the actual imperial minions! I mean, that would not be nice and Christians are always nice, aren’t they?