Ancient Answers


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The φρόνημα of the Cross

 

One of seventeen crosses representing the seventeen who were shot and killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Fla., are arranged in the Pine Trails Park during a candlelight vigil, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The cross is the stumbling block for most people who turn away from Christianity or refuse to accept its vision of God. How could God be so cruel as to demand such a thing? How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death? Of course to even ask a question such as, How could God allow his son to die such a horrible death, does put our own questions in perspective: How could God allow the shooting at the Parkland high school, or at Sandy Hook? How can God allow thousands of refugees to drown every year in the Mediterranean Sea as they try to flee war and starvation?

Well, before we get to the God question, let’s answer these questions with one single word: Evil. Evil men shot to death those students at Parkland and Sandy Hook. Evil governments and human traffickers are responsible for those refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. And of course it was evil men who put Jesus to death on the cross.

But where is God in all this? To invoke free will, as we Orthodox usually do, is a cop-out. We Orthodox like to get to resurrection, to Easter, so we try to get through talk of cross as quickly as possible. We even boast that we are the resurrection church – while the western churches talk too much about the cross and the blood of Jesus. The blood of the western churches does get to be rather much; but too much resurrection and theosis talk in the Orthodox Church also falls short of any answers we can offer to the God question.

Attendees pass a wooden cross as they arrive at a candlelight vigil for the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, in Parkland, Florida. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

We can’t rush to the resurrection. We have to go through the cross first. Jesus tells us today that if we want to follow him we must pick up our cross and follow him. What is this cross? Is it some catastrophe that falls to us in our home? Is it a deadly illness we have to go through? Some struggle that overwhelms us? “This is my cross… This is your cross…” we casually speak about our problems and each other. Maybe something might be “my cross” or “your cross,” but not necessarily the cross Jesus has in mind.

 

Paul said it very clearly in a great passage in his letter to the Philippians:

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (Philippians 2:5)

φρονέω – an amazing, multifaceted verb in the ancient Greek, together with several derivatives, like φρόνησις, φρόνημα, φρόνιμος, etc. – all ultimately deriving from φρήν, usually in the plural φρένες “diaphragm.” Originally this was regarded as the seat of intellectual and spiritual activity. The diaphragm determined the nature and strength of the breath and hence also the human spirit and its emotions. In Homer φρένες means “inner part,” “mind,” “consciousness,” “understanding” etc. and like the other terms for inner organs it is the agent of spiritual and intellectual experiences. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume 9, page 220)

But in ancient Greek these words all had to do with attitude, mindset, attitude to life

Romans 8:6 – “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The word translated as “to set the mind on…” is φρόνημα, phronema. For Paul and for the ancient Greeks, φρόνημα was not simply about thinking – just thinking never killed anyone, or almost never. To set the mind on something, meant for Paul and the ancient Greeks the action that goes with the mind’s thinking – more broadly, the life that goes with the mind’s thinking. And later in this chapter 8 of Romans, Paul says something even bolder. Verse 27: And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. τὸ φρόνημα τοῦ πνεύματος is the key phrase.

That simple word, φρόνημα, phronema, is used by Paul in his letters in such a way as to unite our approach to thought and life with God’s own Spirit. So when Paul says in Philippians, Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, he is basically saying be united with the Spirit of God so that you can live as Christ lived. “Have the same mind” (or, attitude) is the usual translation, and it falls very short.

The cross is not some particular problem or sickness we have to bear; or something God sends to test us – another very popular idea – and in my opinion thoroughly pagan. The cross is not a problem or an instrument of death. The cross is a way of life. That’s what Paul is saying when he wrote to the Philippians to have the same mind, the same mindset, the same approach to life, that was also in Christ Jesus.

This is what the two disciples walking to Emmaus could not wrap their heads around. They didn’t have the φρόνημα of the Holy Spirit in them until Jesus opened their minds on the road and then their hearts when he broke bread with them at the dinner table. And there, their minds and their hearts were united and they understood; they saw Jesus. They understood what was at the very heart of the universe. Stephen Hawking and his fellow physicists will hopefully some day discover a theory of everything. But for us and for all eternity, from the very beginning of time, the Cross is at the heart of the universe. It reveals God without the need for religion.

Jesus did not take the shortcut – Hey, guys, it’s me, I’m risen, forget about the cross and everything else that happened in Jerusalem these past few days. No, he had to take them through the whole history of God’s ways; he had to educate them in the φρόνημα of the Spirit before they could understand the resurrection, before they could see him as the resurrected one.

So, to return to the God question, we cannot even begin to ask the question unless we have the φρόνημα of the Spirit. But we can answer some questions. Where was God at Parkland or Sandy Hook or the Mediterranean crossings? How could he allow such horrible deaths and killings? Where was God at Auschwitz? He died in the gas chambers, some Jewish writers have asserted. Where is Jesus when those refugees are drowning? He is drowning with them. Where was he when those students were gunned down? He was killed with them. That is the φρόνημα of the Spirit – to see life through the lens of the cross; which is the lens of reality, rather than some make-believe fantasy. We are to see life – all life – as completely wrapped up ἐν Χριστῷ, “in Christ”. He tells us in today’s Gospel reading to pick up our cross and follow him; but in fact it is he who is still bearing the cross.

The cross IS the core truth of Christianity. Other religions have resurrection. The Moslems believe in a resurrection and a judgment. But they don’t have the cross. And I don’t mean as an ornament, a symbol, a slogan.

The cross is a way of life – the way of life that unites us with Christ. How that life unfolds will be unique for every one of us. Carry your cross and follow Christ – means accept the calling, accept the φρόνημα of the Spirit.

 


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The Truth About Repentance

 

I read an incredible story in the Washington Post.  A man is trying to get his son’s death sentence commuted to life. What was the son’s crime? He conspired with two other men to kill his parents and his brother! The mother and brother were killed and the father barely survived. The father forgave his son from the beginning, and is now begging the governor of Texas to commute his son’s death sentence. In many ways it reminds me of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son.

It’s a story of sin, self-awareness, love and repentance.  Who is more prodigal, the son in his sinfulness or the father in his forbearance and love? I’ve asked that question in other sermons in the past, and my answers is of course the father, he’s the real prodigal in this story, and he reflects the prodigal, excessive love of God the Father and his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. One could even call Jesus the prodigal son of his Father. Prodigal in love, humility and self-sacrifice.

We read this parable every year as part of the church’s preparation for Lent. But the monks, who over a thousand years ago decided what Gospel readings we would read at the Liturgy, got it wrong. This is a story of repentance, but not the kind of repentance monks preach.

I turn to Romans 2:1-4 for a particularly enlightening passage:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

Focus on that last statement: Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? This question strikes me as the key we have ignored. We are taught by church tradition that repentance is about us grovelling to God and begging for forgiveness, which God then gives to us because he is kind and loving. Paul says it’s the other way around: It’s God’s kindness and goodness that leads us to repent! A very crucial difference, in my opinion.

Paul didn’t use the word μετάνοια very often in his letters, probably because he was very aware how people are prone to take it legalistically, which is precisely the way it has been taken for most of church history. Paul uses the word here in Romans and in only two other places:

2 Cor 7:9-10 Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death. Crucial contrast: ἡ γὰρ κατὰ θεὸν λύπη…ἡ δὲ τοῦ κόσμου λύπη.

2 Tim 2:25 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance so they may come to knowledge of the truth.

So Paul basically says that two things lead to repentance: God’s kindness and the grief that comes from God κατὰ θεὸν. The only repentance that has any chance of producing genuine faith is the repentance that arises from God’s kindness and the grief that God plants in our souls. It is not repentance that we manufacture in ourselves in order to bargain with God.

What kind of repentance did the prodigal son experience in the parable? He was hungry, he missed being in his father’s home where he could eat anything and as much as he wanted. “But when he came to himself,” Luke tells us, he decided to return home. He came to himself, εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν. That’s not repentance; that’s just awareness of how hungry he was and how well fed he was at his father’s home!

He goes home, speaking his well rehearsed speech – as a form of bargaining – to his father, who doesn’t even listen to it. The father is not interested in grovelling and long speeches. He has been waiting in love and ready to pour all his kindness on his son. He doesn’t even say I forgive you. He is all kindness and love. And it is here, I believe, that repentance happened in the son, although the parable says nothing more about him. I bet he also experienced that godly grief that Paul wrote about. It’s left to us to picture the scene and what transformation happened in the soul of that young son. The older son objects to the easy way the father took his son back, and the father teaches him also the ways of God.

This is repentance, dear friends: To receive the love and kindness of God. Let the kindness of God lead you to repentance. If Lent this year does nothing else than reveal the kindness of God it will be a transformational. time. Let it begin here at the Liturgy, where God waits to embrace us and clothe us with love and mercy and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

AFTERWORD: A friend told me about a Fresh Air story he heard this morning on NPR. It concerns a white supremacist who changed his ways because of the kindness that was shown him by people that he targeted with his racism. It is a perfect example of kindness leading to repentance! Here are his own words:

What it came down to was receiving compassion from the people that I least deserved it [from], when I least deserved it. Just before I left the movement, I opened a record store to sell white-power music that I was importing from all over the world. In fact, I was one of the only stores in the United States that was selling this music. And I also knew that to stay in the community and get their support I would have to sell other music. So I started to sell punk-rock music and heavy metal and hip-hop and when the customers came in to buy that music, who were often African-American, or Jewish, or gay, at first I was very standoffish, but they kept coming back.

The community, even though it’s Chicago, everybody knew what I was doing, everybody knew how hateful I was and how violent I was, but these customers came in despite that. And over time I started to have meaningful interactions with them, for the first time in my life.

In fact, I had never in my life engaged in a meaningful dialogue with the people that I thought I hated, and it was these folks who showed me empathy when I least deserved it, and they were the ones that I least deserved it from. I started to recognize that I had more in common with them than the people I had surrounded myself for eight years with — that these people, that I thought I hated, took it upon themselves to see something inside of me that I didn’t even see myself, and it was because of that connection that I was able to humanize them and that destroyed the demonization and the prejudice that was happening inside of me.


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The church knows only one totality

In a previous post I outlined some thoughts Karl Barth offered at a gathering in 1962 and which constitute one chapter of the book, Barth in Conversation. He was asked to say something about the church in a totalitarian state, such as existed in 1962 in East Germany and other countries behind the Iron Curtain. Barth had experienced totalitarianism in Germany in the 1930s and had opposed it in his sermons, writings and church activism. So it was perfectly reasonable for that 1962 gathering of Protestant book dealers in Switzerland to ask him such a question. In my previous post I shared his thoughts on totalitarianism in general and I drew a connection between his thoughts and what Paul called the powers and principalities that rule our lives. I offered the example of social media and the internet as contemporary manifestations of the powers and principalities. But let’s return to Karl Barth and see how or if he answers the question about the church in a totalitarian society.

Barth was asked about “possibilities” for the church in a totalitarian state. Barth turns to the question by first rejecting the term possibilities in the plural.

For the church in a totalitarian world and in a totalitarian state, there is only one possibility – one alone, but it is a genuine possibility. And I would now like to describe it simply with the word in the third chapter of Mark’s Gospel: “And looking around at those who sat about him” (Mark 3:34). The Latin text of the New Testament puts it in a remarkable way: circumspiciens ad eos, qui erant in circuitu. I believe that this word circuitus is actually the proper word for “church”. The church is those who are around Jesus and whom he looks at around him. And that the church be this circuitus, and so simply be church in the totalitarian world – that is its “possibility.” (Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, page 242)

Barth quoted the verse in Latin probably because it was more accessible to his listening audience. But the Greek original is just as powerful: καὶ περιβλεψάμενος τοὺς περὶ αὐτὸν κύκλῳ καθημένους. The church is only church when it is κύκλῳ. κύκλῳ (around) whom? Christ Jesus! When the church is κύκλῳ, the “circle” around Christ, Barth likens it to a wall – but “a completely different one from Mr. Ulbright’s”, and here Barth makes reference to a man associated with the building of the wall in Berlin; or, in 2018, Barth might say, a wall “completely different from Mr. Trump’s!”

The church knows that all the totalities of the world and society and also of the state are actually false gods and therefore lies… Whenever the church takes these lies seriously, then it is lost. With all calmness and in all peace, it must treat them as lies. And the more that the church lives in humility and knows that “we too are only human, and there are also many lies in us,” then it will know all the more surely that “God sits in governance” over and against the lies that are in us and over and against the lies in the world and in the state and wherever else they may be. And in that case the church, regardless of the circumstances and no matter how entangled and difficult the situation, remains at its task and knows itself to be forbidden to fear for its future. Its future is the Lord. He, not the totalitarian state, is coming to the church.

But, of course, the church must believe that. The church must be in its place. The church must get serious about what it proclaims… (Ibid., page 243)

I don’t need to quote any more of Barth’s comments. It’s plain to see his approach in dealing with matters of political and spiritual urgency. He always comes back to the original vision of the Scriptures. He does not rely on any historical experiences of the church because he knows that the church easily fell and falls into lies. He saw the German church capitulate to the lies of Hitler in the 1930s. He and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were the most prominent spokesmen against the lies of Nazi racist ideology. But almost all German church leaders preferred to listen to the lies of Hitler than the warnings issued by Barth and Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer and other courageous Christian opponents of Hitler paid with their lives and became martyrs for the faith in the murderous hands of the Reich.

The execution grounds at Flossenbürg concentration camp, where Bonhoeffer and others were executed on the morning of 9 April 1945

Memorial to those executed on 9 April 1945 (click to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Barth refused to give allegiance to the powers and principalities, whatever form they took. Standing firmly on the Scriptures, he was able to see through the lies and deceptions. That is the church’s greatest task in every generation. We are not here to adapt the Christian message to any social movement or moment. As another recent Christian activist put it, Jesus Christ did not bring about the kingdom of God by “christianizing the social order” (John Howard Yoder, as quoted in The Wisdom of the Cross, edited by Stanley Hauerwas et al, page 199). The patristic era of the church is often invoked as a time when the Roman Empire was indeed “christianized”: pagan practices, rituals and temples were replaced by Christian analogues. Barth would have none of that. The temptation is too great, and the church never mustered the spiritual strength to withstand the allure of prominence and success in the eyes of the world.

So yes, there is nothing outdated in Barth’s opposition to Hitler in the 1930s or the comments he made in 1962 in the face of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. The church must always be κύκλῳ, around Christ. He is the only totality the church should recognize. And I love that word, totality, that Barth uses. We always have and always will live in times of totalities: entities that command our full attention and allegiance, that drain our attention spans, that make it impossible for us to be challenged by the Scriptures in their full force.

Barth was born (1886) into a world where the integrity of the Scriptures was questioned. How could the Bible still be called the Word of God when scholars had proven beyond any reasonable doubt that the Old and New Testaments were written by fallible human beings over the course of many centuries? Barth’s confidence was not shaken by these developments. But neither was he a fundamentalist. He saw that the writers of the Bible were completely, passionately absorbed and transformed in the message they were communicating, and by their writings they transmitted this message to anyone who is prepared to be similarly affected.

The Scriptures are a message from God. True, spoken and transmitted indirectly through human words and understanding. But that does not take anything away from their power to transform human lives and to guide us through difficult times. Indeed, acknowledging the human element only strengthens the Scriptures: in addition to being God’s message to us, the Scriptures are also a response to God’s message. And we also must stand in our own time and respond to God’s clear message. Jesus Christ is the only totality I as a Christian should accept in my life. When I don’t, I capitulate at least part of my affections to the powers and principalities that lurk at every corner. I will never be a Karl Barth. But I know from experience that I am strongest in my resistance to the fallen powers and totalities when I place myself under the government of Scripture.


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Unfinished Business with the Devil

 

What did Jesus do after his baptism? Why was he baptized to begin with? Perhaps we will find the answer by looking at what happened after his baptism. Today’s Gospel reading coming on the Sunday after Epiphany might give you the impression that right after his baptism he began preaching, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But between the baptism and today’s passage in the Gospel, something very significant happened in the life of Jesus.

You’ll remember that at his baptism the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus. Mark then tells us, “And right away the spirit drives him out into the desert – και ευθύς το πνεύμα αυτόν εκβάλλει εις την έρημον.” The implication of the verb εκβάλλει is that the spirit drove him out into the desert in a forceful manner. Jesus was thrust, almost thrown into the desert. Why? Matthew tells us in order to be tested/tempted πειρασθήναι by the devil, the διάβολος. Luke’s version puts it in a softer, more spiritual manner: “Jesus departed from the Jordan full of Holy Spirit, πλήρης πνεύματος αγίου, and was guided by the spirit (but the Greek says, ήγετο έν τω πνεύματι!) into the desert, where he was put to the test by the devil for forty days.”

Note the more aggressive action of the spirit in Mark’s version – ευθύς…εκβάλλει! What happened in the desert is the key to understanding his baptism. There he was tested by the devil three times. I’ll follow Matthew’s sequence of the three temptations instead of Luke’s.

First temptation: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” An echo of the time in the desert when God fed his people with manna from heaven. Jesus goes right back to that time and quotes Moses’ words in Deuteronomy: It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is interesting that Moses himself said that in the same sentence as he reminded his fellow Jews of the manna! As if he was saying to them, don’t get too excited about the miraculous manna; get excited about the words God speaks to you and the reasons why God sends the manna and does other miracles in your lives.

Second temptation: The devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem and tells him to throw himself down to see if angels will come to rescue him. Jesus answers again from Deuteronomy: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. Jesus allows himself to be tested/tempted, but he will not test God!

Third temptation: The devil shows him all the kingdoms of the world and all their glory and promises to give all these to him if Jesus would bow down and worship the devil. This is the last straw, and now Jesus calls him by his more proper name: Away from me, Satan. For it is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only – and again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, the same chapter 6 he used to fight the second temptation. It is in that same 6th chapter of Deuteronomy that we hear those wonderful words: “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” This is the Shema Yisrael – the most important affirmation that Jews speak morning and night as the summary of their faith.

Jesus’s baptism was necessary as his own immersion into the history of his people. The God of the Bible is not an aloof God; he is in the midst of his people. As he was in the desert with Moses after the exodus, he is here in the person of Jesus. But the baptism was not only an immersion in the history of his people, it was also the conclusion of that history. Something new, something great was about to happen. “Behold, I do something new,” God spoke through the prophet Isaiah. God was always doing something new, something surprising. And the greatest surprise was about to unfold.

But first some unfinished business. The devil had to be dealt with. He was and is the constant opponent of God’s new order. And he does this with the tricks of the marketplace: good food, security, idolatry… Anyone who promises a comfortable and secure life we will gladly vote for and gladly worship. Money, security, and all the goods the marketplace has to offer – that’s all we need to turn away from God. Ancient Israel had barely escaped slavery in Egypt that they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt: at least that was better than facing an uncertain future with Moses!

Can you love God more than you love the trinkets and comforts of a secure life? And how secure really is our life, really? A wrong button in Hawaii yesterday could have started a nuclear war! “Someone clicked the wrong thing on the computer.” Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your strength – that is the challenge. Don’t accept the deceptive promises that the gods we have created make.

Matthew and Mark tell us that after the devil left, angels came to look after Jesus. Luke says something more ominous, no angels in Luke’s version: And when the devil had finished all his tempting, he left him, for the time being – άχρι καιρού – until another time. Ominous. The devil is the same tempter at all times. He does not change. God changes – the devil does not! He tested Israel in the desert; he tested Jesus in the desert; he tests every one of us in the desert of our own failures. Jesus was baptized in order to immerse himself completely in the story of his people. He re-lived all the temptations of his people by confronting the devil. Then and only then does he go out and start preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent, change your mind about God and life. Don’t worship the false gods and the enticing promises they make. Worship the Lord your God, and let the Holy Spirit take you into the marvelous new life of Jesus. He was baptized for you; he lived for you; and he died for you. But he then rose from the dead so you and I might also rise from the dead. Awake, O sleeper, face the new dawn!


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Cruciform Love

A few weeks ago I had told of a woman we met in October at the island of Hydra in Greece. She had just returned from Latin America and vowed never to return. She was turned off by the proliferation of crucifixes. Everywhere she went in Latin America there were crucifixes, and she wanted no further experience of those depressing sights. She much preferred the images of Buddha in East Asian countries.

The crucified Christ is scandalous to many people. Saint Paul indeed calls the cross a scandal (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρίαν) to Gentiles. Skandalon and foolishness, but despite all that, “we proclaim Christ crucified … Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). The theologian Hans Kung, in his bestselling book of over forty years ago, On Being a Christian, stated the foundational truth of Christianity:

Paul succeeded more clearly than anyone in expressing what is the ultimately distinguishing feature of Christianity….as opposed to the ancient world religions and the modern humanisms …[It] is quite literally according to Paul “this Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ crucified.”… It is not indeed as risen, exalted, living, divine, but as crucified, that this Jesus Christ is distinguished unmistakably from the many risen, exalted, living gods and deified founders of religion, from the Caesars, geniuses, and heroes of world history.

But this foundational, distinctive truth of Christianity is not about bleeding crucifixes in Catholic or Orthodox churches, nor is it about superficial sermons about “the blood of Christ” that saves the comfortable evangelicals who crowd the entertainment centers that pretend to be churches. Paul went on, in his great letter to the Corinthian Christians: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2).

Nothing, except Jesus Christ crucified! That’s all that Paul wanted the Corinthians to hear from him. Yes, he gave them all sorts of teachings about personal behavior, about order in the church. He even wrote a whole section of his letter about the resurrection of Christ and its meaning for all Christians (chapter 15). Nevertheless, he wanted to preach nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified. This was the heart of his teaching. But it was not about crucifixes or about sermons to comfortable, suburban Christians.

Have the same mind that was also in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped (ἁρπαγμὸν),
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

“Have the same mind,” Paul tells the Christians in the northern Greek city of Philippi. In other words, exhibit the same cruciform love that Jesus showed by taking on our nature and accepting death on the cross. For whom, did Jesus die? For us, his brothers and sisters, since he became as one of us. “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” Paul wrote to the Philippians immediately before the remarkable passage quoted above. This is an invitation to cruciform living. It’s not about hanging crucifixes in churches or around our necks. But neither is it about sermons to “me”-Christians. Jesus did not die on the cross to create a me-centered people. His death on the cross is about creating a new humanity, a new human community – exemplified by the church, but only if and when that “church” lives in accordance with the cruciform love of God in Christ.

Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν, he wrote to the Philippians (2:5). It’s all in the plural: [You – plural] have this mind in, or among, you (plural). ἐν ὑμῖν can be translated as “in you” or “among you” – both in the plural – but more likely as “among you”, as this fits better with the communal advice that Paul is giving to the Christians in Philippi. His concern was to build up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12), the church – but not just the church with the name “church”, but the church that lives by and reflects the power of the cross of Jesus Christ: εἰ γὰρ σύμφυτοι γεγόναμεν τῷ ὁμοιώματι τοῦ θανάτου αὐτοῦ, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως ἐσόμεθα· “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5). The Greek adjective σύμφυτοι goes all the way back to Aeschylus in Greek literature and can be translated in many ways, including the one quoted here, “united” – but also, “planted together”, “joined”, “grown into union”, “identified”, “incorporate”….. ὁμοίωμα [in the dative, ὁμοιώματι, here] is translated “like his”, but more literally, “in the likeness”. So a more literal translation of Romans 6:5 would go like this: “For if we have become joined in the likeness of his death, so also we shall be to his resurrection.” This passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is read at every baptism, but people are more interested to watch the baby than to listen to words of such profound, transformational meaning.

The church is here to be for others – not for our own selfish spiritual needs. Jesus never attended to “spiritual needs”! He never knew the term, nor did the New Testament writers. Jesus told us to live for others, just as he lived for us; we are the “others” that he had in mind when he ascended the cross, when he brought into the world and poured out the cruciform love of God in Christ. May we become a church of cruciform love. May we become the church for others. Because we also are “others” who have been brought into the embrace of Christ. Paul reminds us that we also were “without Christ, aliens … and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:12-13). We are in this together, σύμφυτοι in the cruciform love of Christ.

Addendum: I should point out that the initial incentive for this post came from the book by Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, published by Eerdmans in 2001. I have only now started to read this book, but the term “cruciform love” is used by the author.


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Powers and Principalities Then and Now

 

Jesus encountered constant opposition and criticism for breaking sabbath rules and the taboos of society. In the healing of the woman in Luke 10:10-17, the synagogue leader could not tolerate Jesus healing on the sabbath. He was following the biblical rules that clearly prohibited work on the sabbath. Jesus responded that healing was not a work but a grace. If it was permissible to untie animals and let them drink, certainly it should be permissible to untie a woman from her bondage. The leader could not see that mercy might be more important than rigid rules or that God might work in new ways that open wide the flow of grace. Jesus was opening wide the curtain to reveal the truth about God.

Jesus actually broke more than the Sabbath rule by touching her! Both her illness and her gender forbade such an act. By touching her, Jesus himself became unclean according to the rules that governed people’s lives. Imagine that! But Jesus was only concerned to restore her identity as a “daughter of Abraham”. He brought her from the margins back into the center of the community, and he did it on the Sabbath. The choice was between law and grace, between rules and healing, between tradition and newness. What if God is working in new ways?

Note however that Jesus did not call this an act of healing; rather, he spoke of being in bondage and being set free. The language of being in bondage and being set free is the language of the exodus. One of the main reasons that keeping Sabbath is so important for Jews is that it serves as a reminder that God has brought them out of bondage. Jesus is reminding his listeners that Sabbath keeping is freedom to be God’s people, just as when they were set free from slavery in Egypt.

But what does it mean for Christians? We were not set free from slavery in Egypt. We are not under obligation to keep the Sabbath. Tell that to people who want to install the Ten Commandments in public buildings! Note especially Exodus 20:2 & 8.

But are we free? We are not in bondage in Egypt or to Satan. But are we in bondage nevertheless?

Ephesians 4:11-13:

Put on the whole armour (πανοπλίαν) of God,

that you may be able to stand firm

against the stratagems of the devil (μεθοδείας τοῦ διαβόλου). 

For we are not contending against flesh and blood,

but against the principalities (ἀρχάς),

against the powers (ἐξουσίας),

against the cosmic masters of this darkness (κοσμοκράτορας τοῦ σκότους),

against the spiritual powers of wickedness in the heavenly places (τὰ πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίας ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις).

Therefore buckle on the whole armour of God

that you may be able to offer resistance in the evil day

and be prepared in every respect to stand firm.

Statue of Artemis of Ephesus

Christians in Ephesus would have been under pressure to worship the emperor at the newly constructed temple of Domitian. Ephesus was also a thriving commercial city and the cultic center of goddess Artemis. They’re a little closer to us than the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. They could understand the language Paul uses of powers and principalities.

Temple of Artemis of Ephesus

William Stringfellow spoke of the time when he lectured on the biblical idea of “powers and principalities” to divinity students at Harvard. They found the terminology outdated; their theology was too sophisticated to accept such mythological language. But when he addressed students in the business school, who had done time serving at the church of realism, they recognised the language immediately.

Paul’s language is not outdated, it is very modern. It is the language of money, sex, fashion, sports, politics, consumerism, and religion. It is language that exposes our bondage to the powers: racism and segregation, organized crime and corruption in high places, addiction, depersonalization and loss of identity, economic and political authoritarianism, pornography, the celebrity culture of glamorized Bad Girls and Boys, and genocide.

Paul even exposes powers in the heavenly places – a passage that caused much trouble for the early Fathers of the church. In our more cynical age, it is less difficult to imagine evil in the heavily places – or the places that we think are heavenly!

Paul does not call us to make war on the devil or any of the powers – but to be prepared to defend ourselves – through prayer, faith, thoughtful living, through knowledge of scripture, and above all, through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our churches.


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Behind the Curtain

The Guardian newspaper published an article today about the super-rich of Greenwich, Connecticut, and how they benefit from a tax code loophole called “carried interest”. As a result of this loophole, they pay taxes at a much lower rate than most Americans. People are beginning to wake up, and today’s article in the Guardian was provoked by peaceful demonstrators who upset the morning quiet of Greenwich neighborhoods this past Saturday. These super-rich are mainly Wall Street tycoons and hedge fund owners. Many of them have personal wealth in the billions of dollars.

I have very little or no understanding of such things as hedge funds. And I’m not particularly interested in learning about the esoteric practices of Wall Street manipulators. I’m not interested because I understand these practices and their practitioners by the rubric of the “powers and principalities” that Scripture speaks of:

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [meaning the cross – but many translations finish the sentence as “over them in him,” which makes no sense]. (Colossians 2:13-15)

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Who are these powers and principalities? Are they mythical beings like demons and angels? That probably was the understanding of the early Christians who read these letters of Paul. But even within the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is another stream of understanding. Consider Chapter 10 of Daniel:

In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks…. And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly beloved, give heed to the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” While he was speaking this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days; but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, so I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia…. But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I am through with him, lo, the prince of Greece will come.

What we have here is a peek behind the curtain. Behind the wars and struggles of our worldly existence there are battles in the heavenly and spiritual realms. Who are the prince of Persia and the prince of Greece that this passage refers to? They are angels that personify the character of each nation. They are appointed by God as guardians of the nations, according to Deuteronomy (32:8-9): When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

According to the “number of the gods” – now that’s a strange statement to find in one of the five books of Moses, the Torah! And the Hebrew of this phrase can be translated in other ways, “the sons of God” being perhaps the most popular. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the so-called Septuagint, translates as “angels of God”, ἔστησεν ὅρια ἐθνῶν κατὰ ἀριθμὸν ἀγγέλων θεοῦ.

The non-canonical Book of Jubilees goes further: … For there are many nations and many peoples, and all are His, and over all has He placed spirits in authority to lead them astray from Him. But over Israel He did not appoint any angel or spirit, for He alone is their ruler, and He will preserve them and require them at the hand of His angels and His spirits, and at the hand of all His powers in order that He may preserve them and bless them....(Jubilees 15:31-32)

The highlighted phrase, “to lead them astray from Him,” is very challenging. Is it a statement that reads history in hindsight? To the Hebrew mind, everything was under the control of God, so if some nations resisted God or fought against Israel, it must be because God ensured that they would be led astray! The Book of Jubilees was written a little before the year 150 BC, roughly around the same time as the Book of Daniel was written. The important thing about Daniel and Jubilees is that they portray the angels (or spirits) of the nations in a negative light. The demonization of these angels of the nations would follow naturally from such depictions.

So when Paul came to write his letters from which I quoted earlier in this article, there was a whole plethora of spiritual beings that came under the broad label “powers and principalities.” Clearly, from the writings of Paul, these powers and principalities were viewed as evil and enemies of God and Christ. In every generation, in every stage of history, the powers and principalities take different form. For Jesus, the powers and principalities were three: Satan (who tempted him three times); the Jewish religious class (who challenged him at every turn); and the authorities of the Roman Empire (who crucified him). All of them celebrated their apparent victory at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But behind the scenes, in the spiritual realm, the victor was Jesus!

Clearly the entire apparatus that I have summarized here is primarily mythical and belonging to a different cognitive age than our own. Today I don’t have to think of demons and angels who represent the nations. The nations do a very good job of destroying life without any help from angels or demons. But nevertheless, there is still a “spirit of the age”; there is a spirit of a nation; there is a spirit of the marketplace; there is a spirit of Wall Street.

And that’s what today’s Guardian article represent for me: the spirit of the marketplace. And without any help from angels, the marketplace has done an excellent job of making the rich super-rich and the rest of us… well, the rest. Hedge funds and the other contortions of the financial sector are foreign to most of us. Perhaps the practitioners themselves don’t fully understand how they work, since so much is done in millisecond transactions by computers. Is this how today’s powers and principalities operate, in the hidden realm of billions of dollars moving along fiber optic highways at the speed of light? Have the powers and principalities of our age triumphed where previously they failed? Has the cross of Christ finally met its match? Don’t bet on it.