This blog doesn’t have a lot of traditions or rhythms. Just the one, that wasn’t planned, but sort of “happened”. Once a year, on (or close to) Easter Sunday, I blog about the resurrection. The first post was simply because I had to get some stuff out of my system, but now it’s the one rhythm that I try and keep to. So this time around I continue reflecting on this key theological concept, and I continue to find myself within the contemporary debate, attempting to move beyond the impasses which we have created.

In my own context, and that of many others in the various white Western parts of the world, the debates on the resurrection typically gravitate towards questions of historical reliability and speculations on biology rather than theological implication. This is a gross generalization I know, but just listen my out for a moment before condemning the statement. We turn to Wright or Crossan, but rather than actually engaging their texts in all their complexity (something which I can’t claim to have done), we like to quote them to justify our various positions on whether the resurrection was a historical event. And the debate continue, and the historians doesn’t seem to provide us with an end to it.

We try to work around it by turning to biology. Or we turn to biology to make sure the extremity of our claims don’t go amiss on our hearers. We do the biology trick by adding a bunch of descriptions onto resurrection. Jesus was not only resurrected, but it was a physical, bodily, historical, literal resurrection (and yes, I’ve heard this exact four strung together within the debate, although I’m still in the dark on exactly what is being implied with each, and how they relate to the various resurrection narratives of the Bible). Or we do the biology trick to the other side by explaining that it was not any of the above descriptors, or not certain of them, and then adding others such as “spiritual” or “metaphorical”. Although these words do help in pushing us towards theology, they are not quite what I’m moving towards.

What historians do not deny is that we have a whole bunch of resurrection narratives from the ancient world. They differ on whether all of them, or all but one of them, can be discarded. Within the church we’ve been confronted with this by various smart young catechists asking us why we make such a big deal about the resurrection of Jesus but ignore the other resurrection narratives in the Bible. Various well-meaning pastors has then mumbled something about how the other resurrections was only temporary and the people dies again, but Jesus’ resurrection was permanent.

But here is the thing: The Bible doesn’t consider resurrections to be a once of event (if you take the book literally that is). It does consider one particular resurrection narrative to be of special importance. The supernaturalism of it however doesn’t seem to bbe the biggest issue. Rather, the bigger story within which it is found is what gives meaning to it.

Many apologists have made claims about how we wouldn’t have worried about what Jesus said if it wasn’t for his resurrections proving that he is God. But I say, the early church wouldn’t have worried about the resurrection if it wasn’t for what Jesus said and did. For who he was. The fact that it was Jesus that was resurrected was important for the early church, not the fact that they has a circus-act of resurrection to dazzle the world with.

So where does this line of thought take us? Well, today the resurrection is a reminder that God chose the words of the propher from Nazareth above the power of those who send him off to be crucified. The resurrection is primarily a theological claim, rather than a historical or biological claim, saying that the God was found in the words of him who said that the poor and those who suffer are blessed, rather than with those who are powerful and control others. It is the claim that in Jesus the time when justice will come and injustice will end has been initiated, and that the death on the cross didn’t bring and end to this force for justice, this voice talking about the kingdom of God.

If today we would find ultimate proof that one of the Ceasers from the first century was also resurrected, put as many descriptions as you want before this, would that be proof that Ceaser was lord? That God is on the side of the Ceaser? No. Because the resurrection is only the final confirmation of the continuation of a much longer tradition: that God is the God of the widows and orphans, the God with an eye for the little things in life, the God of those who were cast out. The resurrection can theologically only give meaning where it is a confirmation of this. No amount of historical evidence or biological claims can bring any proof that there was a resurrection event that pointed to God if it isn’t a confirmation on a life which was in line with the God that was the God of the slaves, rather than the God of the Pharaohs.

Is this good history? No it isn’t. We need good history, but this is not it. This is theology. It is claims about God, about the world, about how we choose to interpret reality. About how we choose to hope, not because of the historical proof we have, but sometimes despite of it. This is faith. Claiming that the gods of this world does not have the final say. That not even the cross can have the final say. Most probably a few debates will resound again this year, or has already by now, about this celebration that the church have on Easter Sunday. But let us pray that we will not be pulled around by historical niceties but confess our deepest theological convictions, faith commitments, words that say much more about the meaning this celebrated event has for lives today than about the proof of a supernatural event many ages ago.

Let’s remember that we confess faith not simply because there was a resurrection which was kind of wonderful and strange and out of this world, but because the one we confess to be the resurrected lord is the one who preached about the kingdom of God. Jesus gives meaning to the resurrection, not the other way around (or at least, this year, on resurrection Sunday, this is the way around which I’d like to consider it, but we won’t exhaust the long tradition of reflection on this particular event in one blogpost, or in one year of celebrating Easter).

Last year’s reflection on the resurrection, where links to previous reflections can be found.

The idea that has been working in me for the past year or two could be explained as the conviction that ideas which is not unpacked in all its complexity in the actual material (I’m starting to sound like those literalists who put 4 descriptives before the word “resurrection” just to make sure that you definitely agree with in the minutest detail with them) reality of our existence, then we should be very skeptical as to what the real intent of that idea is. I know that many in philosophy and theology has unpacked this much better than I have, but nonetheless, I need to write to get my head around this.

Even on ‘n popular level we have always claimed that the idea and its application should exist together. When it doesn’t, we make statements such as “practice what you preach”, and we talk about the hypocritical nature of the church. We especially love to talk about the church, although I believe the same should apply to most of modern liberal society. Because who will ever claim that what we should do is exploit the poor? Yet those in power participate in exactly this on a constant basis, whether Christian or not.

But rarely do we measure on what we actually do. In reality we have all this guards which we’ve employed so that no one could ever really know what I’m doing. So if you’d dare to make blatant racist comments, or claim that the plight of the poor should be of no concern, or that the destruction of the earth is not something which we should put energy into stopping, you will find yourself with a lot of harsh criticism. But if you choose to move out of a suburb which is attracting more and more black residents, spend your money in a way which will never be accessible to the majority, or consume products in a way which is not environmentally sustainable, little will be heard, except from a few radicals which we’ve worked out of mainstream conversations. So long as you make the right noises about all the good things you intend, and keep from braking these rules in the most blatant ways, you’ll be left alone, even considered a moral citizen whom are contributing to the social well-being of society.

And then we get those who follow Jesus, or those who follow Marx, that sit at a coffee-shop and discuss this new world where the first will be last, and where we should not wait to be served, but serve others, or where we dream of a world where the workers will not do work which they can’t afford to buy (and how many waiters can afford to sit at coffee-shops and be waited upon?). (and yes, I was sitting with Christian friends with Marxist inclinations at a coffee-shop in the past week)

And while the simple non-participation in the coffee-shops of our day might not lead to any kind of revolution creating a new world, we simply fail to notice that when ordering a Latté we are participating in keeping this system of unequal distribution in place. We have these nice ideas, but the true conversation towards our own ideas, that conversation which actually change our material reality in much more dramatic ways than by challenging our participation in coffee-shops (which can really be said to be an arguable example), that is what it is about.

However, it’s about more than hypocrisy. The skeptical view which we need to engage in the church, is that not only are our good ideas not reflected in how we construct our lives in this world, but our good ideas might actually be what keep us from constructing our concrete lives in a way which reflect the vision we claim to have of society. It is exactly because we can sit in church on Sunday mornings and dream about a society where all are equal that we can go out during the week and participate in a society where equality is a continually fading dream, always knowing that on Sunday morning a preacher will believe on our behalf that this dream is actually true, and thanks to this rhetoric we will be able to continue one more week.

So, since I have to go now for a meeting with fellow pastors at a local coffee-shop, and to prove that I’m don’t have in mind the typical examples of those who preach a heaven one day or something blatantly non-material as that, I’ll conclude with what I’m thinking about but still has to unpack more: is all this talk about mission actually changing the church, or is it exactly because of all this talk about mission that the so-called postmodern church is able to continue without actually changing.

I sat in church one morning as the preacher was sharing a story about Shane Claiborne. Suddenly a mass of thoughts kicked in which sprang from this one insight: this preacher doesn’t really want me to follow Claiborne! Why would the preacher propagate the example of Claiborne, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba… (Jesus?) and various radical voices if I shouldn’t follow in there footsteps? This is the post I’ve been meaning to write for many months. The one I maybe never should have written.

Youth ministry has a way of becoming a kind of barometer for what is cooking within the church. Here is the very simple test: In the church we like telling stories of Mother Theresa, Ghandi, Shane Claiborne (whom I mention because a story about him started this reflection in many ways) and many radicals. But what would the middle-class church do when we take these examples seriously? If we make them normative for youth ministry? What if youth ministry become a place where we tell children that they shouldn’t worry about getting a job and good education, but rather give up money and possessions in order to live among the poorest of the poor? And what if the children of the congregation would follow through on this? What if they were to literalize our examples, understanding our sermons and the examples we use as something which should actually be followed through?

Reinhold Niebuhr wasn’t the world’s greatest fan of the Mennonites and other radical church-based ethics. But maybe he can help us in understanding this fascination with the radicals. In the classic Christ and Culture Niebuhr himself have to acknowledge that there is a certain fascination with these approaches where what they say and what they do actually come together. When we find these voices embodying a radical non-violence, actually living with the poor, we have a certain kind of respect for them. Niebuhr himself didn’t seem to consider the Christ Against Culture approach, where he would list the examples of Mennonites and other radicals, to be really helpful, and most mainline voices would probably be more comfortable with some of Niebuhr’s other approaches. Our continued use of example of radicals might therefore be out of respect, but I’m thinking something more sinister is at work here.

In line with liberation theology 101 we should begin to be skeptical when we see how these radical voices is being used. The overused quote from Dom Helder Camara enlighten us on this topic: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” In the middle-class church we seem to like telling stories about the saints. But then the saints from Camara’s quote. Religious people. Those who give food to the poor. Those who practice Christianity in applaudable ways. We ignore the fact that these voices are calling into question the very existence of the churches in which we are quoting them! Because all of them, Claiborne, Theresa, Ghandi, Madiba (I have to add him at this point because of the frenzy running at the moment), Jesus, were not only the saints from Camara’s quote, but also the communists from Camara’s quote. They all called into question the middle-class white Western status quo (except for Jesus obviously, although it was another white Western middle-class that he was challenging). So maybe we like quoting saints. Not even the radicals from Niebuhr, those putting action into words, but those who participate in high-profile acts of compassion. But maybe something more sinister is at work here.

This obviously bring me to Peter Rollins (well maybe not so obviously, but it does). In one of Rollins’ parables (32 min into the conversation), he tells the story about the business man who lost his faith thanks to the preacher who prayed for him. This business man was using religion to define his being, while his material reality was that of being a corrupt business man. He could continue with his corrupt ways because of the religion of which he was part, which he could use as lie to tell himself that actually his corrupt ways doesn’t define him.

But let me go somewhat deeper, into an argument which I believe might underlie Rollins’ story. In Zizek’s A Plea for Fundamentalism (at 25 minutes) he shares the insight of Agnes Scheller. Scheller was in a concentration camp in the 2nd World War, and observed that the largest group of people became a kind of “living dead”. They lost life, not even fighting for existence. Another group however resorted to a kind of egotistical life or death struggle. Everything was allowed in order to continue living. Lie. Steal. Fight for life in the most ruthless ways. But among this second group there was always (emphasize always) the idea that there is someone somewhere in the concentration camps that were able to remain a moral person. Should they however find that this doesn’t exist, they would become part of the living dead. The paradox he states: In order to be this total egotist, you had to believe that there is someone who hasn’t become this egotist which you are.

Zizek continue to talk about how religion keep capitalism in place. But at this point I want to move away from him, since the example he use is of religion that advocates a disconnect from the material reality which help us to fully participate in the capitalism reality (which is beautifully illustrated in Rollins’ parable). But in some mainline liberal environments the examples we use is exactly those who critique the same things Zizek critiques, who might agree completely with Zizek. We use these examples, the radicals actually living that which they say (or at least we believe that they are living what they are believing), but with the understanding that these examples are not to be followed.

Is it not that we share these stories to tell each other that “there is someone who was able to actually live the Christian life, and my identity is determined by being a Christian, not by what I am busy with daily”? Ghandi we obviously use in the church as a kind of Jesus-follower, ignoring his Hindu background and focusing on the fact that he liked the sermon on the mount. We call in these people and name them examples for how we are supposed to live, but there is a collective understanding that these examples shouldn’t be taken too seriously, although they should be considered part of the tradition which we are part of, they are Christian, we are Christian, and therefore we are part of those who actually live this radical life (although our very existence as middle-class church are shouting against this idea).

My fear is therefore that the sinister reality is that we call in people as examples in order that we can continue never to follow these examples. When do they move from being an example to becoming the soothing voice telling us that it is OK to continue on the path that we are on, since they have lived the radical path on our behalf.

On a side note I have to clarify why I have Nelson Mandela on this list next to Mother Theresa: Isn’t our reactions to health of Madiba a reminder that we have used him as a soothing voice for our own non-commitment to reconciliation? If Madiba was truly the inspiration we claim, then we should be able to let him go in peace, since a whole country would have taken over that which he claimed to stand for. Is the idea that Madiba shouldn’t die not the ultimate reminder that when we loose this icon of reconciliation, we (and I’m speaking primarily from the white community) would have to face the reality that we have not committed ourselves to reconciliation? (In similar fashion to Rollins’ parable and Zizek’s example from the concentration camp).

And then we need to go to the end of the list. Jesus. When Nolan writes:

“On the whole we don’t take Jesus seriously – whether we call ourselves Christian or not. There are some remarkable exceptions, but by and large we don’t love our enemies, we don’t turn the other cheek, we don’t forgive seventy times seven times, we don’t bless those who curse us, we don’t share what we have with the poor, and we don’t put all our hope and trust in God”

Why then do we call Jesus in as example? Is it because we think he should be followed?

I’m not against Mother Therese, Ghandi or Jesus. But if we use them to keep in place that which they were fighting against, then the faithful act might be to reject them.

Peter Rollins talk about the leader who reject leadership. This is Christian leadership. The leader who always gives the decision back, never willing to be the leader.

We cannot get around celebrities, if with celebrities we mean those known by many. People are not connected in a random network (see explanation of random and scale-free networks in the beginning on this well-known article by Dwight Friesen), where everyone is connected to a similar amount of people. This becomes even less so when one a one-way connection is needed (such as with twitter, where you can follow someone without them following you, and different from facebook, where both need to confirm before they are friends).

Celebrities require such a one-way connection. And we will always have some people that are more well-known than others. But the world in which we live has created a culture where celebrity is being fed with meaning. Now the popularity of this person gives them authority. Authority to make truth-claims which then need to be followed simply because of the celebrity which said this (see how we quote celebrities sometimes). Authority to be above the system, to be untouchable (some of this came to the surface during the recent Polanski/Hollywood affair).

The Christian is part of a tradition in which texts such as these are important:

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul the Apostle, 1 Corintians 1:12-13

Also texts such as these:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good– except God alone.

Jesus in the Gospel according to Mark, 10:17-18

The Christian celebrity, meaning the one who is known by more people within the system of human relations, always rejects the celebrity status that come with the connection, the status which provides authority or privilege in any way on the basis of being a celebrity. It is impossible to be a celebrity, in my second definition of celebrity, and in line with the teachings of Jesus as they are reported in the gospels.

I don’t know when this question struck me the first time, but attending an Alpha course again tonight it struck me again: How unique was the suffering of Jesus really?

I’ve heard it countless times, how Christians talk about how bad the suffereing of Christ was. About the extreme pain, how the extreme pain Jesus experienced was something that no one could even imagine. Add to that the fact that he was innocent, which supposedly makes the pain even worse!

But the more I think about it, the more this sound like utter nonsense. I mean, many others was crucified, many of them similarly innocent (understand the Roman government of the time and the role of crucifixions in keeping people in line to understand my comment). Thousands over the ages have been tortured and killed innocently, and I believe the human specie only got better at torture as time goes by.

It’s as if Christians have this extreme fear of finding out that Jesus was just another human like me and you. Just a plain crusifixion would have been extremely bad, just as bad as it would have been for any other human. You know that it was an early Christian heresy to downplay the humanity of Christ? But by amplifying the uniqueness of his suffering, ain’t we downplaying his humanity? As if the normal suffering that a human would undergo isn’t enough, it had to be worse than anything you could imagine.

I don’t doubt the uniqueness of Christ. But I believe that much of what Jesus did was not unique to him. The Bible doesn’t have a problem with this. It talks about sharing in the suffering of Christ (Rom 8:17; Phil 3:10), about following Paul like he follows Jesus (1 Cor 11:1), about disciples doing the same things that Jesus did (Matt 10). Jesus was imitated, followed. Others have done similar things. In many respects what Jesus broughts was not supposed to be unique, but rather point to something that is common! Maybe his suffering is not supposed to be unique either. Maybe his suffering is exaclty that which so many Christians suffered while being persecuted, which so many slaves suffered on slaveboats, which so many poor have suffered at the hands of the rich. The extreme example of what humanity is capable of! The value of the severity of his suffering then is not in it being worse that what others suffer, but exactly in it’s being just as bad as what others are suffering!

Again, I don’t doubt the uniqueness of Christ. But I don’t like the unnatural way that it gets enforced, and can’t see why this is neccesary. Had I been an outsider I might have asked if there is something these people are trying to hide by overemphasizing this so much?

I haven’t really blogged on Easter this year, as I usually do (2007, 2008), but I’ll be preaching on the Easter events again this Sunday, since I know that most of the kids sitting in that service wouldn’t have been to church over Easter weekend. But my preparation is a struggle! I know the kids in this service: They know nearly nothing of the Bible. Many haven’t been to church for a number of years now. And they are very prone to fundamentalism. Their fundamentalism worries me. But broader than the fact that I need to preach to these kids, I also need to find a way of talking about the cross; for myself. This has obviously not started today, but I’ve been theologizing about the cross probably for at least 9 years now, since the first time I led a small group of 13 year olds at a camp.

In the American conversation I notice a lot of talk about atonement. I found the fact that I don’t share this love of talk about atonement a bit strange, untill I realized that the Afrikaans translation of this word wasn’t one I ever heard much in church. Rather, we talked about salvation. But similar issues seem to be at stake.

If I’d ask the question “Why was Jesus crucified?” to a group of informed church members in our church, I’d probably get something in the line of the following: “God intended it” and “For our sins“. But my change in talking about the crucifixion isn’t that much a critique against these answers, but rather a reading of the Bible which calls for something else. I try and find the answer to the question “Why was Jesus crucified?” in the gospels, especially the synoptics, and I use historical and social scientific research as a lense in reading this.

Piet Meiring always talk about chapted 13 of Transforming Mission as vintage Bosch. If you want to know what Bosch thought, read chapter 13, he says. There Bosch the theologian moves to the background, and Bosch the preacher emerge, so to speak. I was just reading the part on salvation in Transforming Mission, and here Bosch does something similar than in chapter 13. His argument in both these parts is that we need to understand salvation and mission within the comprehensive christological framework – “his incarnation, earthly life, death, resurrection, and parousia” (p399). He explains the need for doing this with saying that

  • the Greek patristic tradition was orientated to the incarnation (I’ll have to read on the Orthodox church again to be able to point to the implication of this)
  • Western mission was oriented towards the end of Jesus’ life, his death on the cross. That tend to get us into a purely early Pauline understanding of salvation which focus on an apocalyptic event in the future
  • a Third model focused on the eartly life and ministry of Jesus, it was an ethical interpretation of salvation. According the Bosch this made Christ redundant in the end.

I think there is value in this comprehensive approach Bosch propose. However I’m thinking more and more that we should reorder this comprehensive narrative.

I love the historical Jesus writers. I really do. I’ve been reading parts of Nolan and Crossan again over the past two days. Bosch also liked the historical Jesus research, as can be seen in his approach to Transforming Mission. In writing Transforming Mission, he started out with the historical research on Jesus and the early church, and then moved onto three paradigms of mission found in the early church, this he found in Matthew, Luke and Paul. The historical Jesus research  help us in understanding Jesus, the person who lived and walked and talked in Galilea and Judea roundabout 27-33 AD. Who was crucified. Historical research has difficulty talking about the resurrection, not because of unbelieve, but the sources really makes it difficult (please make sure you really understand this point before critiquing). Historical research can however help us in understanding what the early church believed about this event.

The reordering I propose is to start where the early disciples started, and work in the same order that the story developed for the early church theologians.

  1. Jesus lives, walks and preaches in Galilea and Judea.
  2. He gets crucified
  3. The disciples experience him as alive and develops a theology of the resurrection
  4. Parousia (Christ’s second coming)
  5. A high Christology develops which lead to thoughts on the incarnation

So I simply moved the incarnation towards the end of the story. I think a fairly good case can be made that of these 5 elements, that was the one that became important to the early church last. My reason for doing this, is that when putting it first, we tend to answer the quesion “Why was Jesus crucified?” from the intentionality of God, while reality is that Jesus was crucified because the Jews [UPDATE: meaning, certain Jewish leaders, certain members of the Sanhedrin.  Thanx to Hugo’s comment] were really reallymad at him, and probably some Romans weren’t that fond of him either. This is reality: Some people really didn’t like Jesus, they didn’t like what he said or did, he was a threat, so they killed him. And at least some of what he said would have given enough reason to label him a terrorist, whether rightly so or not, so they could give him the death of a terrorist, and not of a religious heretic, which was being stoned, as with Stephen.

OK, but if this is why Jesus was crucified, where do we go from here? Well, we can say quite a lot about what Jesus said and did, the resurrection must have at least had a first meaning that what he said didn’t end with his death. That crucifying Jesus couldn’t kill what he started! But obviously his resurrection also gave rise to thoughts on his divinity, which I think there is also good evidence for that his disciples didn’t consider him divine before the resurrection, and it even took a while afterwards for the idea to sink in.

Only now could thoughts on the Parousia and incarnation develop. Now we could go full circle, or work backwords, and sya that if Jesus was God, and God was crucified, and a few obvious links with Jewish sacrificial rites can be made, and Jesus was God incarnate, then God’s intention with becoming incarnate in Jesus was to be crucified. That wouldn’t even be theologically incorrect! But that definitely is not the only interpretation! And I’m sure that wasn’t the first interpretation made in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem; maybe it was in the house of Marcus’ mother, who later wrote a gospel with no incarnation as part of the narrative.

So, how do I preach it? I think historically a good case can be made that Jesus expected his own death. He knew about the rizing tensions, and that the leaders wanted to kill him. But did Jesus have to die? Yes, because the message he brought was so at odds with the rulers of the world, that they couldn’t exist side by side. Either he had to kill his message, or be killed because of the message. But the resurrection tell the story of hope, what Jesus brought cannot be killed! If I now turn the narrative into it’s usual order, I’d say that this is so at odds with what God is bringing to the world, that it would even go so far as to try and kill it, but it cannot be killed! The world cannot stop what God is bringing about in it.

Maybe I’ll have some more thoughts on how to preach this before Sunday. If you’ve actually read all the way down to this point, thank you! Let me know, and please critique and add on.

I’ve been pondering leadership somewhat in the past few weeks. I wonder what the task of leaders should be? Should they be visionaries? Organizers? Well, I guess we need all of those. But what I believe we lack is the leaders capable of creating spaces where people are empowered. OK, so many others have said this, thus I’ll keep it short.

I dream of leaders who are creative creators of empowering spaces. Places where those who are in the group are empowered to become more than they are. If Obama say “don’t believe only in my ability to bring about change, but also in yours”, then i hope this is what he can do! Maybe this is what Jesus did, when he took a couple of rag-tag Jews and three years later left them and they started the church, something must have happened in the space that was created around Jesus…

Others participating in this months synchroblog on leadership: