Thursday, September 29, 2016

City Notes 27: The Pursuing God Part 2 of 3

City Notes 27: Books in 30 minutes or less

City Notes are more than a book review. They are meant to provide you with direct quotes from some books I've read in the last year, so you can get a taste of the overall theme of the book and then begin to chew on what your life might look like if you applied what you read.

Here are links to the previous City Notes books:

City Notes 27: The Pursuing God: A Reckless, Irrational, Obsessed Love That's Dying to Bring Us Home Part 2 of 3

| 2 | Taking Down the Corporation: Crucifixion

Lion and Prey: A good place to start with the crucifixion is to recognize that Jesus is an active agent, not a hapless victim. He is not coerced or manipulated to the cross against his will. Jesus boldly declares, "No one takes my life from me; I lay it down of my own accord." Jesus goes of his own volition to accomplish his purposes. He is taking down the destructive power of sin, death, and hell. Jesus is a lion; the cross is his prey. 

Jesus "set his face (toward) Jerusalem" long before his execution and, like an arrow streaming toward its target, made his way toward Zion to atone for the sin of the world. Jesus is constantly saying things like, "the Son of Man must suffer, be rejected, and be killed," while the disciples, confused and blind, rebuke him, saying, "May it never be!" While we see the cross as a detour, Jesus sees it as a destination. Jesus sets sail into the storm to bring us home. ... 

The Gospels depict the Son of God taking on flesh and emptying himself on our behalf, running toward the cross as a man on a mission. ... While he truly agonizes and suffers, Jesus is thirty-three, emotionally stable, and goes to Golgotha to conquer our grave. Jesus is a jaguar out to devour death. 

The cross is not happening to Jesus; Jesus is happening to the cross.  ... Jesus goes to the cross compelled by affection, driven by desire, moved by longing. He sees the cross as an act of service, explaining his mission: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." The cross is a signpost of divine love poured out for the world. Jesus points to the cross as a way of life, saying that those who love him are to "take up their cross" and follow in his footsteps, to lay down our lives in sacrificial love for others. A cruciform life is an act of love. + pgs. 90-91

Lion and Prey: Why does Jesus bear our exile and death? To better understand this, let's return to the early church's idea of recapitulation: that Jesus relives our story, being faithful where we've rebelled, to be established as the new head of humanity. Jesus relives Israel's story: his virgin birth reminds us of the nation's miraculous birth from Sarah's barren womb; his childhood years in Egypt recall Israel's early years under Pharaoh; his wilderness temptation relives Israel's desert testing; his life and ministry fulfill his people's kingdom calling to embody God's reign in the land.  
Jesus faithfully bears Israel's story in his own life to redeem it. In Jesus' rejection and crucifixion, he is bearing Israel's exile and death, living out this next major era of his people's story. Jesus is an Israelite, and as her Messiah he carries her story within himself in order to redeem it. As Jesus is cast outside the city, he is recapitulating Israel's banishment from the land. As he is crucified under the pagan powers, he takes upon himself her national destruction. Though personally innocent, he takes upon himself the exile and death of his people. 
And Jesus bears our exile and death as the new Adam. As Paul observes, "Sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned." Like Adam, we've all wanted to be like God rather than with God; we've all declared independence from the kingdom; we've all severed earth from heaven. Our distance from the Giver of Life gives rise to death. Sin's river flows downstream along the banks of exile and empties in its deadly ocean. 
And death is the ultimate penalty. "Sin reigned in death," writes Paul, depicting evil as a king who rules over a dominion called death. Sin tears apart creation, back toward the nothingness from which it came. Our rebellion rips apart the world, unleashing the disruptive decay that's out to destroy the masterpiece. 
But fortunately, Jesus bears our exile and death, Paul concludes, to exhaust its power, "so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." So when the Artist absorbs the corruption in his masterpiece, when the Lamb takes upon himself the sin of the world, when Jesus endures our exile and death, he is receiving the penalty our rebellion has unleashed; he is bearing our punishment for sin. ... 
The early church had a saying, "The unassumed is the unhealed." What they meant was that Jesus takes on, or assumes, the full weight of our condition in order to redeem it. If our world's distance from God is the problem, then God bridging that distance to unite us with him  in our condition – is the solution. 
It is Jesus' union with us that brings our healing. If Jesus only had a soul with no body, for example, his union with us would only extend to our souls. But since we "have flesh and blood, he too shared in (our) humanity," Hebrews tells us, in order to assume the full weight of our condition. He was "made like his brothers and sisters in every way," to break the power of death.  
Similarly, if Jesus took on a body but never suffered temptation or pain, his redemption would not enter the depths of our distress with the same weight and power. So "he himself suffered when he was tempted," Hebrews goes on, in order to identify fully with us. Through our union with him, he is now able to help us when we are tempted, lifting us up with his power as his people. + pgs. 92-94

Lion and Prey: Sin makes us less human, not more. We're not talking about accidental mistakes; we're talking about willful insurgency. We were made in the image of God, to reflect his glory, yet when we reject and run from God, we scratch markers across the surface of our lives that efface this reflection. We dehumanize ourselves and diminish the glory of life we were given. 

Irenaeus famously declared, "The glory of God is man fully alive." Jesus is "fully alive" without sin  and God's goal in Jesus is to make us fully alive, more human, not less. Jesus is more human without sin, not less, as "the image of the invisible God," radiantly reflecting the splendor of the Father in pulsating, life-giving glory. When we look at Jesus, we see the face of the Father clearly displayed. Jesus is true humanity.

And yet, though he had no sin, Jesus becomes sin for us. The Artist absorbs our destruction, the Savior soaks up our death, to the point that he is identified with it. The fact that Jesus is spotless, blameless, without defect or blemish, is part of what makes him not only sacrifice, but the perfect sacrifice, to bear our exile and death  and to annihilate it in the grave. The Deliverer takes in our decay in order to make us whole. Jesus joins us in our distance in order to bring us home. + pg. 95

Jesus is a Wall Street CEO: Forgiving your neighbor doesn't do away with the bill or dissolve the damage; it means you eat the cost. ...  
At the cross, God is eating the cost. The Father, Son, and Spirit are forgiving the debt by dealing with it themselves. The Artist is absorbing the corruption in his masterpiece. The CEO is bearing the exile and death of Humanity Inc. The Savior is swallowing our sin in order to make us whole. Why can't God just forgive the debt? This is what is happening at the cross: God is just(ly) forgiving the debt  by personally covering the cost. God takes in the decay we've unleashed to extinguish it in the power of divine love. 
I misspoke earlier when I said the White House gave Wall Street the most expensive bailout of human history. Actually, the most expensive bailout was when the Father established his incarnate Son as the new CEO of a corrupt corporation called Humanity Inc. and together, in the power of their Spirit, they took upon themselves the most outrageous debt-forgiveness plan the world has ever known. + pgs. 100-101
Key Idea  
Caricature: Jesus bearing our punishment is an act of divine child abuse.
Gospel: Jesus bearing our punishment is an act of divine love.

Muggers and Physicians: On the one hand, the cross arises from the absence of God. At the climax of Jesus' crucifixion, he cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The Father's protective presence has left the building, the glory has departed the temple of Jesus' body, and his Son is now vulnerable as the pagan powers invade to tear down this Most Holy Place, to desecrate the sanctuary of his flesh and bone, to demolish him to rubble and carry him down to captivity in the grave. Jesus is forsaken, the temple of his body destroyed. The cross arises from God's absence.

And yet, from another angle, God is present in the crucifixion. When Jesus cries out, he cries out to My God! And you don't cry out to someone who isn't there. More so, Jesus' final words are of trust: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." As Jesus breathes his last, he entrusts himself to his Father and looks to him for vindication on the other side of the grave. As we murder God's Son, the Father's arms receive the tattered, lifeless body of his beloved child. God is present at the cross.

Here's what's crazy, however: God is doing something through this event. The Father is present not only over his Son, but in his Son. At Golgotha, Paul declares, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself." In Jesus' darkest hour, the Father is actively present accomplishing something  the reconciliation of the world. Colossians declares in a similar vein: "God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in (Jesus), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. God is dwelling in Jesus, working through Jesus, actively present at the cross – and his endgame is reconciling the world.

God's motives are radically different, however, from ours: we are out to crush the Son, while the Father is bearing our destruction in him to exalt him as Savior of the world. We kill Jesus to tear him down while God is at work uniting us to him, tearing our corrupted body down in him to ultimately build us up and lift us up through him. We are striving to keep our world distant from God, while God is – in the very same event!  drawing our world most intimately close to him. The Father is present through his Son and in his Spirit at the cross, working to bring us home. + pgs. 107-108 

Muggers and Physicians: Jesus was, like Joseph, mistreated and sold into captivity by his brothers (Israel), where he was beaten and crushed by a pagan empire (Rome), and enslaved in a foreign land (the grave). And yet, God was not simply absent or watching from the sidelines through all this. He was at work for our redemption: the Father united his Son to us in our famished and failing estate, in the midst of our arrogant empires, in order to save the world through him.
Jesus is our greater Joseph. As the resurrected King, he now stands before us, the brothers and sisters who betrayed him, and offers the reconciling embrace of forgiveness. We can hear Jesus echo the ancient words of his ancestor Joseph, spoken now to us regarding his death: "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives." God and we are both involved in the same event, though with radically different motives  in fact, opposite motives. Jesus views the tragic event under which he suffered, the cross, as both the cruel power of our sin and the sovereign, saving action of God, in a way that magnifies his Father's goodness and love. God intends good; we intend evil. While we seek to destroy his Son, the Father is judging evil in order to deliver us through him.
So the cross is the revelation of God's sovereign, self-giving love. God is taking on the destructive power of sin, death, and the grave. The Father is working through his Son and in his Spirit  for the reconciliation of the world. The Pursuing God is finding us in the distant land, to bring us into his divine life and carry us home. + pgs. 110-111 

For God So Loved ... : So at the cross, to borrow respected theologian J. Todd Billings' language, the Father "has compassion" on his suffering Son (who cries out as the innocent one in corporate identification as our head). The Father "grieves over" creation's self-destruction (borne in the flesh of his Son). The Father "is angry" at the cross (in response to our evil, injustice, and wickedness fully displayed). The Father "delights in" the cross (as it displays the obedience of the Son ordered towards the restoration of creation's goodness).

The Father has a massive, multifaceted relation to the death of his incarnate Son. One of the reasons the cross is so profound is that it reveals the beautiful love of God from so many different angles (like the compassion, grief, anger, and delight mentioned above). Like a symphony when multiple instruments play in harmony, all these dimensions of God's affective relation to the world are revealed in the power of the cross.

All of these angles are, to again borrow Billings's language, "the appropriate relational, affective response" of God's impassable holy love  the Father is not "blindsided or manipulated" by the cross, but acts in a way that is "utterly consistent with his identity as the covenant Lord." The Father does not "lose himself," but rather is fully himself  the life, light, and love of his being in relation to the multifaceted angles of all that he is sovereignly engaging and accomplishing at the cross. + pgs. 118-119

If we look through a more robust relational lens (at the cross), things take on a new light. We see not only the passion of the Son, but the sacrificial love of the Father. The One of whom the Father said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," bears our destruction in his flesh as he carries our sin and death into the tomb. As the Son goes into exile, he bears our distance in his humanity. The Father introduces this distance in order to bind the Son in union with fallen humanity and raise us with him from the grave.
They act in one accord, with an unbroken communion of will, in love for the world through the power of their Spirit, as the Father's greatest object of most intimate affection, the eternal beloved Son, is shredded to pieces and severed from the earth into the grave. On Holy Saturday, while Jesus lies dead and buried, the living, loving Father looks upon the desolate earth that covers the face of his dead, incarnate Son.
The Father makes, I would suggest, the greatest sacrifice in the event of the cross. He does not passively suffer the world, but he does something much greater. The Father actively endures the death of the Son. + pgs. 121-122 
Key Idea  
Caricature: The Father is cold, distant, and unengaged at the cross.
Gospel: The Father endures the greatest sacrifice of all: the death of the Son.

Destroy This Temple: Why did Jesus identify himself with the temple? The temple was the center of the people of God, the "hot spot" of God's presence, like Jesus, where the Creator dwelt most intimately in creation. We tend to think of it as tiny, like a regular building, but it was massive, taking up around a quarter of the city of Jerusalem. We tend to think of it as a religious site, but its significance was like Wall Street, Times Square, and the White House all rolled into one – the hub of Israel's political, economic, and social existence. The temple was the center of the kingdom.

And of the nations. Israel sat at the crossroads of the mighty empires, at the intersection of the trade routes between ancient powerhouses such as Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, and Rome. They traveled through her to get to one another. God places Israel there to be a "light for the nations," a "kingdom of priests," living a life that displayed God as King to her neighbors. And the temple was her headquarters.

Israel saw the temple as something like the umbilical cord of the world. God resided there as King, and from there his kingdom was mediated to the nations. This was where the Creator made his home in creation, and from which his presence extended to the earth. If Israel was at the center of the nations, the temple was at the center of Israel. ... 

Jesus fulfills the temple. He is where the Creator makes his home in creation, where the King resides at the center of the kingdom, where God's presence most intimately dwells  the umbilical cord that brings life to the earth. + pgs. 129-130, 132

Dead Meat: Back in the day, sacrifice was universal. From Egypt to Rome, China to the Americas, and giant civilizations to nomadic indigenous peoples  it was a staple of ancient life. In fact, on the historical scene we today are the oddballs.
Sacrificial animals were often at the center of a community celebration. Far from devaluing the animal, this often added a sacred significance. I think I got a sense of this once, attending an indigenous ceremony in which the elder offered a public prayer of gratefulness to the Creator for the sheep that was about to provide the community meal. Laying her hands on the lamb's head, she offered words of thanks and recognition that life is received from life given. The ceremony seemed to say, "Life is gift." And the proper response is gratitude.
Then they ate the meat. This may seem too obvious to mention, but many seem under the impression that animals were just killed for the gods and then tossed in the trash. For Israel, the sacrificial system went a long way toward feeding the priestly tribe and providing for community celebrations. The irony is that throwing unused food in the trash is way more indicative of the modern West than the ancient world. 
We still kill animals today, though most often without the recognition of life given or gratefulness. We are disconnected from the process. We get our meat shrink-wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam at Costco, cut into perfect proportions, sanitized, and clean. And we definitely don't treat their lives as sacred: we crowd our animals into jam-packed stalls far from the open fields, standing in their excrement, unable to move, and stuff them full of antibiotics to deal with the disease that floods their unlivable conditions.
We should be wary before too quickly pointing a finger at the ancient world; we may find a much larger mirror pointing right back at us. Our culture hasn't stopped killing animals; we've stopped remembering that life is sacred. We haven't lost the dead meat, simply the awareness that life is gift. + pgs. 136-137

Dead Meat: The most honest way to receive life is to acknowledge that it is given. Our lives are not earned but received; our breath is upheld by gift. When we deny this, we cut against the grain of the universe. We are not our own; we belong to the creation that sustains us  and ultimately to the Creator from whom it has come. ... 

For Israel, many of her sacrifices were simply ways of saying, "Thank you" and "I'm sorry." For example, in Leviticus 1-7, the grain and fellowship offerings were ways of saying thank you, while the sin, guilt, and burnt offerings were ways of saying I'm sorry  and saying this together as a people to God. The food wasn't thrown away but rather provided for the Levites (the tribe of priests), and for the national celebration (think of the biggest neighborhood block barbecue you've ever seen) with one another and God. Community formation was in view  to be a people inscribed with humility and gratefulness before their Creator. ... 

Israel was unique from her neighbors in important ways. In the surrounding empires, the gods were often seen as violent and capricious, so sacrifice was a way to appease them  to get them to bless your crops, make you virile, and beat your enemies.

Israel, however, approached things differently. To them, sacrifice was not something you did to get favors from God; it was the way you entered into the favor God already had for you. And Israel got rid of the debauchery  or at least was supposed to. Ancient idol worship was filled with orgies, hedonism, and child sacrifice. Temple prostitution was common. Violent practices mirrored the brutality of the gods being appeased. Babylon's creation story, for example, had one god slicing another in half like a fish, then making heaven and earth from the two bloody filets  creation was a product of violence and sheer power. Ritual practices could celebrate and continue this narrative.

For Israel, however, creation was gift. The Creator brings forth creation in love, and it is to be received and celebrated as such. There was a different underlying story at work. In place of gratuitous violence and hedonistic debauchery, Israel's practices were ordered toward loving submission under the Creator's life-giving reign. + pgs. 138-139

Dead Meat: The first civilization in history to bring an end to sacrifice was the Roman Empire  and the reason was Christianity.
The gospel spread throughout the empire, and with the rise of the church came the downfall of the public altars. In the fourth century, as Constantine put an end to the sacrificial slaughter of Christians in the arena and stopped gladiatorial combat, he also removed the requirement of sacrificing to the gods to serve high-ranking positions in the empire, and he eventually outlawed civic sacrifice altogether.
What is shocking is that this was the first time sacrifice was removed from a major civilization, and it rippled out through the centuries into the world as we know it. As Peter Leithart observes: "Constantine's reign marked the beginning of the end of sacrifice. ... A desacrificed civilization has become so commonplace that we think it is the natural order of things. ... Historically speaking, though, we are the aberrations. For millennia every empire, every city, every nation and tribe was organized around sacrifice. Every polity has been a sacrificial polity. We are not, and we have Constantine to thank for that."
Christendom became the first civilization in history to abolish sacrifice. So the next time someone asks you why we no longer offer dead meat to the gods, you can explain it's not because we became more enlightened or rational or less encumbered by superstition. It's because of Jesus.
Christianity's logic, however, was not that sacrifice was bad, but rather that it was no longer needed. The early church did not say, "What a horrible mistake! Thank goodness Jesus finally arrived to set us straight." They said, rather, "Jesus has provided the once-for-all sacrifice that sets our world aright." They did not point back at Israel and say, "Whoa, what a massive blunder all those lambs were!" They pointed instead at Jesus and declared: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" 

The God Who Walks Alone: As as a sign of his faithfulness, God has Abraham bring some animals for a covenant ceremony. Abraham cuts the animals in half and lays the halves opposite each other to make a pathway between them. This may sound weird to us, but was common practice back then: the two parties would walk through the pathway together between the animals as a way of saying, "If I don't keep up my end of the bargain, may I get sliced up like these animals!" With Abraham, however, something strange happens next. God walks through the animals alone.

Great King God takes a stroll on the covenant pathway by himself. The significance? God takes on sole responsibility for this commitment to Abraham's family. If Israel messes things up, makes a blunder of the relationship, and fails the covenant, Great King God says, "May I get sliced up like these animals if I still don't keep my word." God will be faithful to his end of the deal, even if Israel is not to hers. ... 

Abraham is not pursuing God in this scene; God is pursuing Abraham  and through him, the world. The sacrifice does not signify Abraham's faithfulness to God; it proclaims the opposite: God's faithfulness to Abraham. It is not something Abraham uses to show God he's serious about their relationship; it's something God uses to show Abraham he's serious about their relationship.

For Israel, when the people brought their animals to the temple, they were not "sealing the deal" with God, but rather, celebrating the God who sealed the deal with them. Like Abraham their ancient ancestor, they split the animals before their Great King, who walks alone through the animals for them.

While the sacrificial system did many things, an important one was this: it reminded Israel that God was for them with an unwavering commitment. That however unfaithful they might be, God was going to be faithful to keep the vows he made to his bride.

And after? They feasted together in celebration. Following Abraham's ceremony, God passed through the animals as a "smoking firepot with a blazing torch," preparing the animals for a feast. Great King God cooks a meal for Little King Abraham, and upon their sealed deal they sit down together to celebrate their shared hope for the setting right of the world. + pgs. 144-146

The God Who Walks Alone: We're invited to a similar feast today. While we don't kill animals in our church services, we celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, feasting on the bread of his body and the wine of his blood. On the night he was betrayed, Jesus declared, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." Did you catch that word covenant? Jesus is making a new covenant, like Abraham's covenant so long ago. Great King Jesus is sealing the deal with us, his little people, not with the blood of animals but with his very own life, as he prepares to go to the cross. In Christ, God is about to walk the path alone.
Jesus tears the bread in half as a sign of his broken body, and pours the wine as a sign of his life poured out. And he says, "Do this in remembrance of me." When we tear the bread and pour the wine, we don't do it to show God how serious we are about him. We do it to be shocked afresh at how serious God is about us. We don't prepare the table to give something to God; we prepare it to receive life from God. We don't create the reality of the Eucharist; we enter the reality of the Eucharist. We acknowledge: our life is received from his life given.
The word Eucharist means, literally, "to give thanks." In the early church, it was a celebration of Christ, who bore our death and brought us life. We come not only to a table prepared by Jesus, but to feast upon Jesus, to receive his life that forms us as a people. We come to encounter the living Christ, who conquered death on our behalf. And as we do, he forms us as a community marked by humility and gratefulness.
When I receive Communion, I love breaking a big chunk off the bread. As my teeth tear it apart, fracturing its wholeness into tiny scraps of what it once was, I encounter afresh how Christ was torn asunder in love for me. And as I drink a massive gulp from the chalice, swallowing its intoxicating waves deep into my parched and thirsty bones, I soak in the immense weight of his poured out to bring me life.
I'm not taking Communion to show Jesus I'll be faithful to him; I'm celebrating the fact that Jesus is faithful to me. Jesus invites us to drink deeply from his life and to feast together upon his love, for it is he who makes us whole. + pgs. 146-147  

Soaking Up Death: I've heard people compare God's presence to radioactivity, saying, "Don't get too close because it can kill you." But I think this gets it backward: God is not like radioactivity; sin is. Sin is the deadly force running amok in the masterpiece, the dangerous corruption in God's good world. We were made to dwell in the presence of our Creator. But God's life, light, and love are so strong that death and its toxic allies cannot stand in his presence. ... God's radiance destroys radioactivity.

Notice with Isaiah how God's glorious goodness drives the scene (in Isaiah 6). Isaiah doesn't say, "Oh no! God's really big and mean; I hope he doesn't beat me up." He says, "Woe is me! I'm unclean." The light of God's presence reveals Isaiah's uncleanness. The power of God's beauty unveils the wickedness of his people.

Isaiah is not afraid because God has a dark side, but because in God's presence the prophet sees more clearly what we do. Luckily, God is ready and waiting to wash us clean. ... 

The coal taken from the altar (in Isaiah 6) is burning – a sign that a sacrifice has just been offered. The coal touches Isaiah's lips and, like a fresh burst of water washing through his soul, he is cleansed. Here's the important observation I want to draw our attention to: Isaiah is not using sacrifice to clean himself up to God can stand to be with him; rather, God is cleansing Isaiah  so that Isaiah can stand to be with God. ... 

Through Jesus' sacrifice, God washes us clean. Jesus is like Windex: he cleans the gunk off the window of our hearts so we can see our Father clearly again. He is also like a hazmat suit: he protects us from the radioactive gunk that would put in a "death state." And finally, Jesus is like a shower: his holiness and righteousness wash us clean. Jesus fills in the holes we've punctured in our space suits so we can bask again in the life-giving radiance of God, and reflect that presence to the world. Jesus takes our impurity upon himself to atone for it, and transfers his purity to us. Jesus uses his sacrifice to cleanse us and make us whole. + pgs. 153-155   

Key Idea  
Caricature: Sacrifice is how you clean yourself up so God can stand to be with you.
Gospel: Sacrifice is how God cleans you so you can stand to be with God.

Next post: City Notes 27: The Pursuing God Part 3 of 3


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