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Terror: Not So Ho-Hum

There is nothing ho-hum about terror. The word, if said just so, can flush faces and raise blood pressure. There is nothing ordinary about terror in most circumstances and people who find themselves in situations where terror is a constant state of affairs must go a bit crazy: like with life in a concentration camp such as Auschwitz or Guantanamo Bay; multiple applications of torture and the constant threat of all sorts of other abuse must cause some to become divorced from their extreme daily reality to not lose it all together.

I for one have lived a sheltered life where my worst experiences tend to revolve around missed trains and customer-unfriendly airlines and airports. I, who regularly avoid unpleasantness know nothing of real terror. So I have precisely zero sense of what it was like for Jesus of Nazareth, who after two-plus years of adroitly ducking the authorities all over Galilee and Judaea, finally did a complete about-face and met them and their terror, head-on.

No one can tell me the cross held no terror for Jesus, or any less than it did for another human being who, knowing what crucifixion was and what it meant to be crucified, discovered it was to be his fate the next morning.

From what we know, crucifixion was an instrument of terror as well as of execution and torture because it was the most horridly effective way of shaming, hurting, breaking, exhausting, maiming and killing a person in public ever devised.

And so what human being in his right mind in that time would have intentionally engineered his own death by crucifixion? N. T. Wright, based on his careful reading of the four canonical gospels has concluded that the one who was to become the king of Israel, the adopted son of God, the one who saw it as his calling in life to bring resolution to the story of Israel, the one who had come to his people as their God, visiting them in the flesh, that one planned, predicted and placed himself on a path where his opponents would have no other credible option than to turn him over to their Roman overlords for crucifixion. And, write the evangelists, through that worst of all deaths, he became the rightful savior/king of Israel and of the whole world: the Kingdom and the Cross.

Why the King Went to the Cross

Ever had a combination lock for which you had the last number but not the first two? Unless you are from the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia[1] or some similar place, you might as well toss that lock out. Over and over, you would have to try another first number and then every possible second before you could add the third.

Wright maintains that our understanding of the gospels is off in such a way, just a little off here and there but even one mark off denies us the real story. Wright’s articulation of the relationship between the crucifixion and the kingdom-come proceeds directly from the same gospel narratives and discourses that we have known forever but by turning the point of this story just one click and that parable a quarter turn the other way, a new but very old and exciting message falls open in our minds and hearts. There is nothing ordinary about the good news which proceeds from the old books; no nice, polite God, no irrelevant Jesus, off in heaven, no safe vocation, not even the oddly tinny good news we usually get on Easter morning. No. No, it is something so much better.

What Does God Really Care About?

Keeping the four sound speaker analogy as a framework for his discussion [for my post on this, click: adjusting the volume] Wright retells the story of God in the gospels, letting those old texts speak with new force, new power, all about God becoming king! If you stay with Wright, by the time he is done, you realize how concrete, how focused, how utterly down to earth the story was and still is:

    • Jesus came to set things right in Israel because God was to save all creation through Israel and without Israel all the nations could not be blessed 
    • from the “Nazareth Manifesto” (Luke 4:14-ff.) onward, Jesus made it clear that he had come to restore life on the earth, to bring about a new heaven and a jubilee/just/new earth
    • Jesus was God, come in the flesh, because God had promised to visit his people, to again graciously “tabernacle” with them and there was no room for God in the official Temple
    • the kingdom Jesus announced received all who desired to become a part of it but it opposed all imperial motives that held back the establishment and spread of the kingdom on the earth
    • Jesus had to suffer and die because it had always been the plan of God that Israel and all creation would be rescued through the purposeful sacrifice of Israel’s king
    • the crucifixion, far from being an unfortunate turn of events or a gateway out of this world, canceled the authority and disabled the forces which had kept all creation so enthralled
    • the resurrection became the first great proof that God had indeed brought to bear all power in heaven to reclaim and restore the earth and its people
    • far from producing “detached, heavenly enclaves,” the message of the new king and kingdom-come on earth put men and women right in communities on the earth which could then reach out with truth and could love with forgiveness, service, grace and hospitality as their weapons of warfare
    • a new creation/new Israel/new humanity emerged from the sacrificial work of God in King Jesus, first in Judaea, then in other Jewish communities until it spread far beyond old Israel
    • the new Israel opened up possibilities throughout the known world by becoming a reconciling servant people, capturing the attention of the crowds everywhere
    • the new community’s sacrifices did not add to but rather shared in the sufferings of the king and thus the community itself continued to multiply
    • far from being a message about a “new religious experience,” or information about how to attain an “otherworldly destiny,” this gospel proclaimed “another king” (instead of Caesar), “Jesus”
    • conflict with the imperial establishment was the inevitable outcome of being a confessionally clear alternative kingdom with claims and agendas for all of created life which implicitly called out the oppressive ways of Caesar and his minions
    • this was no religion; this was the God movement, in action!

Two Easter Messages

Even the resurrection of Jesus’ flesh on Easter Sunday takes on new meaning within this reading. Our modern Easter message, more implied than spoken aloud has been,

 Isn’t it great that Jesus rose from death? Our sins are surely forgiven, our place in heaven reserved and this proves it (again this year)! Now, let’s go catch a quick nap before dinner.

In Wright’s reading, where Jesus’ baptism leads to his ministry and message and on from his intentional suffering and death to new life, the frame for the resurrection (with the ascension coming up fast behind it) is,

The world of bondage, decay, violence and death threw everything it had at Jesus and on Easter morning he has risen to ask the powers, ’Is that all you’ve got, world!?’

“This is really good news! King Jesus reigns in power with all authority at his finger-tips at this very moment, close by, even as we celebrate! And after we feast and toast this great celebration of the new creation, we know there is still a lot to do. Because the king reigns in power right now we also know what would have been impossible before is now just quite hard. Brothers and sisters there is nothing at all now which is beyond the reach of King Jesus’ forgiven/forgiving, reconciled/reconciling, gifted/generous, gracious, loving, fear and hate-absorbing people. Let’s go, folks! We have good work to do!

Looking for a straightforward, clear gospel message, one that does not explain away half the text? You got it!

Comments? Questions? Anybody want to pick points?

Next: Part Four, Creed, Canon and Gospel; How to Celebrate God’s Story

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1 Back to Post Years ago when I was in seminary I had a sem brother who was from the Kensington area of Philly. He claimed that no self-respecting guy from his neighborhood had ever met a combination lock he could not pick. And then he proceeded to prove this to be true, at least where he and my lock were concerned.