During the heady days of the Jesus Movement there was a pervasive conviction among the young people involved that we were part of something revolutionary. Our lives had been radically transformed by Jesus and we wanted to relive the Book of Acts. Church as usual was not an option for us. We weren’t interested in being conservative or playing it safe. We carried a strong counterculture ethos. We saw Jesus as a revolutionary and we wanted to be revolutionaries too. We shared much of the theology of conservative evangelicals, but our vibe was decidedly counterculture, with our long hair, patched blue jeans, and tie-dyed t-shirts. We preached on the streets, in the bars, and at rock concerts.
More significantly we had inherited a distrust of government and a disdain for war from the Vietnam era. We saw a Christian critique of war as being faithful to the revolutionary Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount. We had no interest in serving the political causes of either Republicans or Democrats. We saw Christianity as a revolutionary movement that was incompatible with power-hungry political parties. We wanted to change the world in the name of Jesus; we weren’t interested in who was the current resident of the White House or the composition of Congress in the name of politics.
“It is the prerogative and charm of beauty to win hearts.”
–Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
It’s an ugly time right now. Especially in the public discourse in the land in which I live. Politicized and polarized, public discourse has devolved into the polemical napalm of give-no-inch, take-no-prisoners, burn-it-all-down flaming rhetoric. Ugly “Us versus Them” ideology goosesteps across the American stage. Hysterical screams of fear-infused hatred are heard in this nation of immigrants.
Deport ’em all!
Build a wall!
Don’t tread on me!
I was in New York last week and saw the Statue of Liberty. I think she had a tear in her eye…or maybe it was just in my eye. The tired and poor, the wretched refuse, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free…are basically given the finger these days. For the sake of honesty maybe it’s time to commission a new statue.
Are we entering a dark age where the only thing we can build is a wall and where nothing is sacred but a gun? I wonder.
Yet it’s not for America that my heart is most heavy these days, but for the church. Are we just a religious version of our ugly age or can we actually be the alternative counterculture of Christ? Can we develop enough spiritual maturity to be a Christlike community of radical love and mercy? We must! If not, we will become as superfluous as a Blockbuster video rental store…and suffer the same fate.
If the church in America is to recover any relevance, it won’t be through a public emphasis on the true (though there is a place for Christian apologetics), and it won’t be through a public emphasis on the good (though there is a place for Christian ethics), but through a public emphasis on the long-neglected third prime virtue — the beautiful. What we desperately need is a renaissance of Christian aesthetics. In a post-Christian culture adverse to truth claims and suspicious of assertions to a superior morality, it is still the prerogative and charm of beauty to win hearts. If we can be so formed in Christ that we begin to live beautiful lives, we will gain a new hearing; if not, we deserve to be ignored.
Those who want to hold onto a primitive vision of a violent and retributive God often cite the white horse rider passage from Revelation. They will say something like this: “Jesus came the first time as a lamb, but he’s coming back the second time as a lion.” (Despite the fact that no lion is ever seen in Revelation — the lion is the Lamb!) By this they mean the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels is going to mutate into what they fantasize is the hyper-violent Jesus of Revelation.
Sadly, the proponents of this flawed interpretation seem to prefer their imagined violent Jesus of the future over the nonviolent Jesus of the Gospels. At a basic level they essentially see the Bible like this: After a long trajectory away from the divine violence of the Old Testament culminating in Jesus renouncing violence and calling his followers to love their enemies, the Bible in its final pages abandons a vision of peace and nonviolence as ultimately unworkable and closes with the most vicious portrayal of divine violence in all of Scripture.
In this reading of Revelation, the way of peace and love which Jesus preached during his life and endorsed in his death, is rejected for the worn-out way of war and violence. When we literalize the militant images of Revelation we arrive at this conclusion: In the end even Jesus gives up on love and resorts to violence. Tragically, those who refuse to embrace the way of peace taught by Jesus use the symbolic war of Revelation 19 to silence the Sermon on the Mount.
This kind of hermeneutic has disastrous implications; it mutes Jesus’ message of peace and forgiveness. When we literalize the ironic and symbolic images employed by John of Patmos, we illegitimately use Revelation to give license for our own hellish violence. We reason, if Jesus is going to kill two hundred million people upon his return, what does it matter if we kill one hundred thousand people at Hiroshima?
The second Sunday after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I preached a sermon entitled “The Road To Armageddon.” During those days of grief and rage when I should have preached the gospel of peace and forgiveness, I instead resorted to the hackneyed trope of dispensationalism that claims a mega-war in the Middle East must occur before Jesus can return.
I’ve repented and made amends for that pastoral failure, but the fact remains that my mistake was made possible by the terrible eschatology I had inherited. The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series are only the best known of countless books that have popularized the worst possible reading of Revelation.
The phenomenon of modern dispensationalism with its endorsement of supposed divine and unavoidable hyper-violence is such an ugly and perverse eschatology that it’s unfit to be called Christian. A Christian eschatology of peace and hope has been supplanted by a dreadful eschatology of violence and doom. An eschatology that insists there must be more wars, more famines, more earthquakes, and more epidemics before Jesus can return is not a Christian eschatology. The Apostle Paul calls the glorious appearing of Christ the “blessed hope,” but there’s nothing blessed about another war or global catastrophe.
Yet hoping for “wars and rumors of wars” is the predicament the adherents of dispensational eschatology find themselves in. According to their system (based in an utterly mistaken reading of the Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation), Jesus cannot return until a series of global catastrophes culminating in World War III occurs first. This leads to the deplorable phenomenon of Christians secretly (or not so secretly) hoping for another war and finding a reason to rejoice over the latest catastrophe. An earthquake kills 100,000 people in China and somewhere in America a Christian smiles and says, “Praise the Lord. It’s a sign of the end times. Jesus is coming soon!” An eschatology that rejoices over earthquakes and causes people to want another war in the Middle East is not a Christian eschatology! Christian hope is for the peace of New Jerusalem, not the horrors of Armageddon.
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4 ESV).
“Mary Magdalene turned around and saw Jesus standing there,
but she did not know it was Jesus…supposing him to be the gardener.”
–John 20:14, 15
The first person to see the risen Christ was Mary Magdalene. It happened in a garden. At first, Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. A logical mistake. Or a prophetic mistake. Or perhaps not a mistake at all.
On Good Friday, Jesus was buried in a garden. A garden is a place to cultivate and grow living things. An appropriate place for Jesus to be buried. A few days before his crucifixion Jesus had said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24) On Holy Saturday, the Son of God was a holy seed sown in a peaceful garden. On Easter Sunday, the garden brought forth the first fruits of resurrection — “Jesus Christ declared to be the Son of God by resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:4)
The first seed raised by God in the garden of resurrection became the gardener. When Mary Magdalene “supposed him to be the gardener,” she was exactly right! Jesus is now the gardener of resurrection, cultivating new life in all who believe. The first Adam was a gardener who failed in his task and the world became a wasteland of war and sin. But the second Adam will succeed in his task — Christ will restore the ruined garden. With Christ as the gardener of new creation we have a hopeful eschatology.
Instead of the thorn bush shall come up the juniper;
Instead of the briar shall come up the myrtle.
“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be there anymore.” –Revelation 22:2, 3
The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God!
The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.
In the light of the cross, we are to realize that if what we have built on Cain’s foundation is capable of murdering the Son of God, then the whole edifice needs to come down. In the light of the cross, our war anthems lose their luster. But this throws us into a crisis.
What other alternatives are there? How else are we to arrange the world? The alternative is what Jesus is offering us when he told us that the kingdom of God is at hand. God’s way of arranging the world around love and forgiveness is within reach. If we only dare to reach out for it, we can have it.
But we are so afraid. We’re not sure we can risk it. It’s so hard for us to let go of the sword and take the hand of the Crucified One. It’s so hard for us to really believe in Jesus.
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For those who are late to the game and wondering who Brian Zahnd is and where he's coming from, Water to Wine is a good place to start. You'll be able to experience his long faith journey in these memoirs of a master storyteller and wordsmith. The book marries spiritual autobiography with the fine wine of sage wisdom. I don't doubt that Brian is the best preacher in America, but in this book, you'll also witness the thoughts, dreams and prayers that ensure his oratory is far more than rhetoric. Readers will get also taste of this theological artisan's hand at parables and poetry ... he even provides a playlist of songs that have moved him. But don't mistake this accessibility for watered-down pop Christianity: Brian is as fine a biblical theologian as you'll find and this comes clear throughout these pages. As the subtitle suggests, this is "some of [his] story," but a fine introduction into his other books and podcasts ... and a way to join him on the trail to this point. A keeper!
In the mystery of the Eucharist God in Christ chooses to make himself present to humanity by ordinary elements. Through grain and grape we find Christ present in the world. But it’s not unprocessed grain and grape that we find on the Communion table, it’s bread and wine. Grain and grape come from God’s good earth, but bread and wine are the result of human industry. Bread and wine come about through a cooperation of the human and the divine. And herein lies a beautiful mystery. If grain and grape made bread and wine can communicate the body and blood of Christ, this has enormous implications for all legitimate human labor and industry.
The mystery of the Eucharist does nothing less than make all human labor sacred. For there to be the holy sacrament of Communion there must be grain and grape, wheat fields and vineyards, bakers and winemakers. Human labor becomes a sacrament. A farmer planting wheat. A vintner tending vines. A miller grinding wheat. A winemaker crushing grapes. A woman baking bread. A man making wine. A trucker hauling bread. A grocer selling wine. Who knows what bread or what wine might end up on the Communion table as the body and blood of Christ.
This is where we discover the holy mystery that all labor necessary for human flourishing is sacred. A farmer plowing his field, a worker in a bakery, a trucker hauling goods, a grocer selling wares, all are engaged in work that is just as sacred as the priest or pastor serving Communion on Sunday. The Eucharist pulls back the curtain to reveal a sacramental world.
Ours is an angry and vociferous age. We’re constantly subjected to the noise of charged political rhetoric — the wearying din of the culture wars. Too often Sunday morning can be little more than a religious echo of this same noise. But shouldn’t Sunday be a Christian Sabbath, a time to quiet our souls and receive the gift of silence? What if, instead of being another contributor to this clatter, our churches became a shelter from the storm offering respite to shell-shocked souls?
Silence belongs to an earlier age. Ours is an age of noise. With our technological progress has come the din of modernity. With the advent of digital social media has come the white noise of everyone “expressing themselves.” Silence is now a precious commodity, a scarce resource hard to come by. Sure, we can pray anywhere, anytime, but to pray well, to pray in a way that restores the soul, we need to find some quiet places. This is what we find appealing in the holy hush of the cathedral, the sacred stillness of the monastery, the reverent quiet of the woods.
When birdsong and gentle footfall replace the shrill rancor of 24-7 news and the inane blare from five-hundred channels, the soul has a chance to heal. Without some intentional silence the weary soul is a prisoner being slowly worked to death in a merciless gulag of endless noise. The always-posted sign at the entrance of the tourist-attracting cathedrals is perhaps a desperate plea from the soul of modern man — Silence Please.
I once heard an Italian winemaker say that to produce good wine the grapes must struggle, they must suffer.
The taste of good wine is the taste of struggle and suffering mellowed into beauty. There’s a deep truth there that applies to far more than winemaking—it also applies to the formation of the soul. All the great biographies of the Bible involve suffering. The great souls grown in the Lord’s vineyard all know what it is to suffer.
American Christianity, on the other hand, is conditioned to avoid suffering at all cost. But what a cost it is! Grape juice Christianity is what is produced by the purveyors of the motivational-seminar, you-can-have-it-all, success-in-life, pop-psychology Christianity. It’s a children’s drink. It comes with a straw and is served in a little cardboard box.
I don’t want to drink that anymore.
I don’t want to serve that anymore.
I want the vintage wine.
The kind of faith marked by mystery, grace, and authenticity. The kind of Christianity that has the capacity to endlessly fascinate is not produced apart from struggle and suffering. It’s the pain of struggle and suffering that confers character and complexity to our faith.
After the first twenty-two days of 2004 I knew I had to move beyond a watered-down, grape-juice faith—the popular schlock I had begun to refer to in the pulpit as “cotton candy Christianity.” By August of that pivotal year I had told my church I was packing my bags from the Charismatic Movement and moving on.
The congregation applauded. Except neither they nor I really knew what would come next. The problem was I was embarrassingly ignorant of “the good stuff.” I had been reading the early Church Fathers, philosophy, and classic literature. Saint Augustine, Søren Kierkegaard, and Fyodor Dostoevsky were all a significant help, but I needed something that spoke more directly to the time in which I was living. I needed a deep well dug in my own time and place. What did Jesus say about seeking and finding? My seeking heart was about to be rewarded.
I wrote these words yesterday following our Wednesday Noon Prayer and Communion service in the Upper Room. As we were praying about the witness of the church in America in the coming year, our prayers took on the theme of mercy.
We are living in a moment marked by mean-spiritedness. Much of this meanness is directed toward immigrants and refugees, Muslims and foreigners. And, of course, various political factions aim their ire at one another. As we move through the presidential campaigns of 2016, I sadly anticipate the mean-spirited rhetoric to grow worse.
My prayer is that in 2016 the church would be something other. That instead of conforming to the spirit of the age, the church would model mercy as a Christlike act of nonconformity. Or to say it another way, I’m praying that the church would conform to the mercy of Christ and not to the current zeitgeist of mean-spiritedness. I’m praying that we would walk the world as the pardon of God — a phrase borrowed from G.K. Chesterton’s description of Saint Francis of Assisi.
Speaking of Francis… I’m aware that Pope Francis has launched an “Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy” in the Roman Catholic Church. When we were praying at Word of Life for the new year to be marked by mercy, we weren’t thinking about the Pope’s decree; but I would like to think we are all being led by the same spirit. Perhaps the Holy Spirit really is saying something to the church about modeling mercy in 2016.
While we were praying I felt drawn to the words of James. As the first bishop of Jerusalem, James (the brother of Jesus) was the first pastor of the first church. That seems significant. At the end of the third chapter of his epistle, James exhorts the church with words like these…
If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it in the meekness of wisdom.
If you harbor bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it.
Do not be false to the truth.
Jealousy and selfishness are not from above, but are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.
The wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, and full of mercy.
A harvest of justice is sown in peace by the those who make peace.
And in the second chapter of his epistle, the wise bishop famously says…
Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Maybe that could be our mantra in 2016 — “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”
So in 2016 I’m praying the church will be more marked by mercy and less characterized by judgment.
I’m praying that we will walk the world as the pardon of God, instead of acting like the wagging finger of God.
I’m praying that when mean-spiritedness and scapegoating reach a fever pitch later this year (as it will), that the church will be a haven of mercy and a sanctuary of peace.
Most of all I am praying that I would live as an answer to my own prayer.
Perhaps you will pray this too.
Mary had lost Jesus. She couldn’t find him anywhere. Jesus had gone missing. He wasn’t among the friends and relatives who had traveled to Jerusalem for Passover and who were now returning home to Nazareth. Jesus had always been reliable and trustworthy, but now he was inexplicably absent. Concern gave way to panic as Mary and Joseph rushed back to Jerusalem to search for their missing twelve-year-old son.
For three days Mary and Joseph frantically searched Jerusalem. It must have been agony. On the third day they found Jesus in the Temple, sitting with the rabbis immersed in theological conversation. Mary’s anxiety turned to relief and then to irritation. “Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.”
Our sympathies are naturally with Mary. After all, twelve-year-old boys aren’t supposed to disappear for three days without telling anyone. But this isn’t just any adolescent — this is the divine Word in boyhood. Jesus is unapologetic. He doesn’t offer an excuse. What he does say are the first recorded words of Christ:
“Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Mary and Joseph didn’t understand what Jesus meant by this. It wouldn’t be the last time people failed to understand Jesus.
What is time? Time is the measurement of motion through space.
A day is the revolution of the earth.
A month is the revolution of the moon around the earth.
A year is the revolution of the earth around the sun.
But time as such is without any apparent meaning. Just a spinning planet with an orbiting moon orbiting a star…repeating the process for the past four and a half billion years.
To give time meaning we need a story. Without a story time is pointless and nihilism beckons. (I am of the opinion that the violence that goes under the guise of Islamic terrorism is more likely a form of nihilist rage disguised in religious robes…but that is another subject.)
For almost two thousand years the church has had the wisdom and creativity to mark time by the gospel story of Jesus. This is time made sacred. Thus the church calendar.
Advent anticipates the coming of Messiah.
Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus.
Epiphany remembers the revelation of Christ to Gentiles.
Lent is the solemn journey to the cross.
Easter is the celebration of the resurrection.
Pentecost marks the birth of the church.
Ordinary Time (or Kingdom Time) leads us through the year and back to Advent.
How we tell time determines who we are. If you expect fireworks on the fourth day of the seventh month you are an American. Calendar creates culture.
The Greek calendar told the Greek story.
The Roman calendar told the Roman story.
The American calendar tells the American story.
The Jewish calendar tells the Jewish story.
The Christian calendar tells the Christian story.
The Islamic calendar tells the Islamic story.
The Secular calendar says there is no story — only politics and commerce.
I make a big deal about the church calendar because I want my life and the lives of my children and grandchildren to be formed by the gospel story of Jesus. To reduce the Christian calendar to a day for Christmas (a day when we don’t go to church) and a single Sunday for Easter is an almost total capitulation to secularism.
The fact that we are far more formed by the Fourth of July than by Trinity Sunday is ample evidence of our de facto secularism. The sad truth is that most Christians (myself included) are really secularists trying in varying degrees not to be secularists. If we hope to successfully swim against the overwhelming tide of secularism we need to return to the Great Tradition. For me the door back into the Great Tradition was the church calendar. The church calendar was the wardrobe that led me into the Narnia of the lost sacred.
So at Word of Life Church you can be sure we will be doing all we can to emphasize the four weeks of Advent and the twelve days of Christmas that lead to Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost. We believe the Jesus story is the true story that saves the world. We believe this so deeply that it’s how we tell time.
Today is not Black Friday. Today is the Friday before Advent.
Come, Lord Jesus.
Happy Holy Days.
This post first appeared at www.brianzahnd.com
I was recently invited to share thoughts and respond to questions about my book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, among a theologically mixed group of very perceptive readers.
Prior to the meeting, the facilitator gave me the consideration of a heads up about a question he was planning to ask. He wanted to me to address the problem of why Jesus’ parables sometimes seem to represent God in a rather un-Christlike light—especially as an infuriated and vengeful king who not only destroys, but even tortures those who do not respond to his invitation. Specifically, he asked me to look at the parable of the banquet as told in Matthew 22.
I was aware of the difficulties in that passage and thought to invite three colleagues to weigh in with their collective wisdom, rather than speaking on my own. Namely, Brian Zahnd, Derek Flood and Andrew Klager. I also received behind the scenes input from Pastor Jason Tripp, who I’ll reference later as well. The conversation that followed seemed well worth sharing, so the following represents excerpts from it.
We begin with the text:
Matthew 22 1Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. 3 And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come. 4 Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ 5 But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, 6 and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. 7 But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.
11 “But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”