Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Caravaggio's Gruesome Treasure

"Jesus said to Thomas,
'Put your finger here and see my hands.
Reach out your hand and put it in my side.
Do not doubt but believe.'
Thomas answered him, 'My Lord and my God!'"
- John 20:27-28 (NRSV)

As I've been praying and preparing for worship this Sunday, I have been pondering Caravaggio's famous depiction of "Doubting Thomas". It's a pretty grisly painting. The notion of poking around in someone's abdomen is not a very attractive idea for me.

Thomas could see his Risen Lord before him, and certainly Jesus offered to allow him a closer examination of the wounds. But the Bible never tells us if Thomas actually explored the wounds of Jesus' resurrected body. I'm not sure I would have done so. It's a pretty grotesque proposition.

And yet, perhaps Caravaggio's depiction is correct. Though Thomas could in fact see the Resurrected Jesus standing before him, and surely recognized the tenor of his master's voice, the tilt of his head, and the slant of his smile, perhaps the disciple needed something else confirmed: this was no ghost. This Jesus was flesh and blood, a crucified messiah actually resurrected, not simply a vindicated martyr permitted to roam the earth as an ethereal spirit.

In the Resurrection of Our Lord, the Kingdom of God had truly arrived. In Jesus, God had even conquered Death, that great enemy. A new age had begun.

With that realization, Thomas had no problem in excitedly proclaiming Jesus as Lord and God. Indeed, he truly is.

I am in the midst of reading N.T. Wright's new book Surprised By Hope, a challenging explication of the Doctrine of Resurrection. It's an exciting read, both affirming and agitating. The first thing it's doing for me is forcing me to ask the Easter question, "What does the Resurrection of Jesus and our Doctrine of Resurrection mean in my every day life and ministry?"

I hope it means more to me than simply the promise of "pie in the sky by and by when I die". I want this essential affirmation to inform and dominate all I do for Christ's Kingdom. My fear is that I've not allowed the full implications of resurrection to saturate every aspect of my theology and practice.

So, maybe I can learn from Carvaggio's masterpiece. Maybe I, too, need to "poke around" the flesh of my Risen Lord's body, not only to dispel any doubt, but to reinforce the notion of "resurrection" (as opposed, I presume, to any intrinsic "immortality"), to allow the Spirit to teach and re-teach me, and to allow this doctrine to more fully inform and direct my ministry and life.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Sunday 2008

"Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!
Earth and heaven
in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys
and triumphs high, Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens,
and earth reply, Alleluia!

"Love's redeeming work
is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight,
the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!

"Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!"
- Charles Wesley, 1739

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday 2008

"O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God
hath died for me!
The Father's coeternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th' immortal God
for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love,
is crucified!

"Is crucified for me and you,
to bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
ye all are bought with Jesus' blood.
Pardon for all flows from his side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

"Behold him, all ye that pass by,
the bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
and say, 'Was ever grief like his?'
Come, feel with me his blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!"
- Charles Wesley, 1742

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Holy Thursday 2008

"Come and partake the gospel feast,
be saved from sin,
in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness
of our God,
and eat his flesh
and drink his blood.

"See him set forth
before your eyes;
behold the bleeding sacrifice;
his offered love make haste to embrace,
and freely now be saved by grace.

"Ye who believe his record true
shall sup with him and he with you;
come to the feast, be saved from sin,
for Jesus waits to take you in."
- Charles Wesley, 1747

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Rerun: Was Jesus "punished" for us?

"...he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the suffering that brought us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed."

- Isaiah 53:5

This wonderful verse is crucial in Atonement theology, yet it is often, in my view, mistranslated and misunderstood. This can lead to some views of the Atonement which are not Wesleyan and, perhaps, not even Biblical.

The misunderstood word is the Hebrew word "musar". This is a word that traditionally has meant
"correction", "chastisement",
"instruction", "suffering", "rebuke", or "discipline", as from a loving father. In fact, "musar" is used 50 times in the Old Testament, and the King James Version always utilizes one of these English words. The ASV followed suit, as did the RSV about 50 years later.

According to Isaiah 53:5, then, and assuming a messianic perspective, Jesus suffered for us. The verse does not teach that Jesus was punished for us; "punishment" comes from an entirely different Hebrew word which is not used in reference to atonement.

This is an important distinction, because punishment and forgiveness are not synonomous, and salvation hinges on forgiveness in Wesleyan theology. When a person is found guilty of a crime, they are sent to prison, the imprisonment being their punishment. Let us assume that they have been sentenced to two years in prison. At the conclusion of those two years, they freed from their cell, having served out their punishment. It would be inappropriate for a judge to then s ay, "You have been in prison for two years; now, you are forgiven." The criminal was not forgiven; he took his punishment. The same would be true if a person received a fine for a parking violation. If they pay the fine, they have received their punishment, they have paid their debt.

Conversely, if a judge were to say to the criminal, "You don't need to serve two years; you are forgiven", or to the parking violator, "You don't need to pay the fine; you are forgiven", then there would be no punishment. Punishment and forgiveness are not the same thing.

In the 1970s, the Good News Bible (also known as "Today's English Version") appeared, translated quite loosely, a style known as "dynamic equivalence" (as opposed to the more literal KJV and RSV). In this translation, "musar" was rendered in Isaiah 53:5 as "punishment". Still, this can be forgiven, since the Good News translation itself was fairly paraphrastic and not really intended for academic or theological use.

The New International Version (NIV) emerged in 1978 as a legitimate translation alternative to the KJV and RSV. This wonderful translation made the mistake of translating "musar" as "punishment". Why?

Calvinists have held to a particular view of Atonement theology which states that Jesus, on the Cross, received our punishment. Thus, the demands of divine justice were satisfied by the death of Christ. The NIV was translated primarily by Calvinist scholars, so it is only natural that Isaiah 53:5 reflects their theological bias, even if translating "musar" as "punishment" was truly innovative, and without real precedent in the history of the English Bible. Surprisingly, the NRSV followed the NIV upon its release a decade later, as did the HCSB in 2004. I am grateful for the ESV (2001), which renders "musar" as the more traditional "chastisement".

Wesleyans should not forget the actual meaning of the verse. Jesus suffered for us, thus reminding us of the importance of suffering and the terrible pain inflicted upon our loving Lord...not that any debts would be paid through punishment, but rather that we might be truly forgiven. Jesus' suffering was substitutionary in that his suffering, "...became a substitute for something else that would otherwise occur" (in the words of the late J. Kenneth Grider). In other words, Jesus' suffering served as a substitute for our punishment.

In the words of Gordon Olson, "The sufferings and especially the death of Christ were sacrificial, were not the punishment of the law but were equivalent in meaning to it, were representative of it and substituted for it. The demands of the law were not satisfied by it, but the honor of the law was promoted by it as much as this honor would have been promoted by inflicting the legal penalty upon all sinners. The distributive (or vindictive) justice of God was not satisfied by it, but His general (or justice for the public good) as a responsible Moral Governor was perfectly satisfied."

This is more than simply a "moral influence", intended to show God's love and break our hearts, as much of traditional Protestant Liberalism maintains. Jesus suffered and died for a reason...to uphold God's moral sovereignty and to make real forgiveness possible, that we might know salvation. This is truly good news. We can know real forgiveness! Without question, due to our sinfulness, we deserve punishment - but are forgiven, because of the faithful suffering of Our Lord.

I urge my Wesleyan brethren to ponder this perspective as we approach the darkness of Good Friday and the glories of Easter Sunday.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pick Your Jesus Stereotype

"Just War" Jesus


"Pacifist" Jesus

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Food for thought?

"One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend."
- Stanley Hauerwas

Monday, March 03, 2008

Studying Jesus with N.T. Wright

"I have argued that the historical quest for Jesus is necessary for the health of the church. I grieve that in the church both in England and in America there seem to be so few - among a church that is otherwise so well-educated in so many spheres, with more educational resources and helps than ever before - who are prepared to give the time and attention to these questions that they deserve. I long for the day when seminarians will again take delight in the detailed and fascinated study of the first century. If that century was not the moment when history reached its greatest climax, the church is simply wasting its time.

"This is not a task simply for a few backroom specialists. If church leaders themselves spent more time studying and teaching Jesus and the Gospels, a good many other things we worry about in day-to-day church life would be seen in their proper light. It has far too often been assumed that church leaders stand above the nitty-gritty of biblical and theological study; they have done all that, we implicitly suppose, before they come to office, and now they simply have to work out the 'implications'. They then find themselves spending countless hours at their desks running the church as a business, raising money or working at dozens of other tasks, rather than poring over their foundation documents and enquiring ever more closely about the Jesus whom they are supposed to be following and teaching others to follow.

"I believe, to the contrary, that each generation has to wrestle afresh with the question of Jesus, not least its biblical roots if it is to be truly the church at all - not that we should engage in abstract dogmatics to the detriment of our engagement with the world, but that we should discover more and more of who Jesus was and is, precisely in order to be equipped to engage with the world that he came to save. And this is a task for the whole church, especially those appointed to leadership and teaching roles within it."
- N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus:
Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (1999)

While recuperating, I've read some things and watched some movies. I enjoyed my annual viewing of the William Wyler / Charlton Heston classic Ben Hur (1959) and I've almost finished N.T. Wright's book The Challenge of Jesus (1999).

Together, these works have challenged me. Ben Hur is, for me, one of the best "Jesus movies", because we magnificently see how Jesus' work...his mercy, his hands, his Cross...intersects and transforms the life of a man in need of redemption.

In his book, Bishop Wright argues that we need to focus more on Jesus...not just in a prayerful, devotional way (though that's crucially important)...but as a subject for serious, ongoing study by church leaders worldwide. We ought to be studying more about Jesus and his times than we do; we ought to spend more time studying Jesus and trying to better understand who he was and is and what his mission is truly all about.

Most church leaders I know would agree with that; certainly, all evangelicals would agree with that, definitionally.

Then why do so many of us (myself included) read book after book about emerging trends, leadership development, worship practice, dogmatic theology, or "how to build your business into something really neat"?

Don't get me wrong: none of that is bad. And we need to read that stuff as well. But how often do we read about Jesus and the first century? How often do we blog about these things? And yet, Bishop Wright is correct: that was "when history reached its greatest climax".

Maybe, if we are to really "believe again", we should delve more deeply into Jesus, into finding out who he was and is. I'm not talking about antiquated pursuits like the so-called "Jesus Seminar", which are fascinating but ultimately fruitless. There is excellent Jesus research out there today, and I, for one, have been lax in my attention to it. I think we've gotten lax, actually, as a Conference - remember when we engaged in Bible study at Conference each year? Whatever happened to that?

At any rate, I'm hoping to read more of this stuff in 2008 and see where the Spirit takes me. I want to find out more and more about Jesus and the world in which he walked. If anyone wants to join me on this "quest", feel free. And if you'd like to suggest any particular books which challenged you in this area, I'd love to hear about them. Maybe a "Jesus Book Club"...

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Ugh. I've been struggling for almost a week now with what I thought was a chest cold, but turned out to be bacterial bronchitis.

I haven't been out too much, but did manage to get to worship and preach today. Not my best; I was more than a little crispy. I found myself wishing I'd made other arrangements. Nevertheless, I am now on an antibiotic and a strong cough syrup and hope to be on the mend soon.

Thank God I haven't had any trouble relieving myself.