Retelling the Jesus Story

I’ll tell you why I love JRD Kirk.  He’s helping to take the life of the believer out of a world in which all that matters is whether he can recite certain propositions about Jesus and the Bible.  This, incidentally, is the dire consequence of systematic theologies.  In turn, he’s then helping us move from there to a place where the measure of our lives is the degree to which we actually resemble Jesus.

And that has made all the difference.

Kirk is no stranger to systematic theologies.  He is, after all, a seminary professor.  But systematic theologies–putting all your thoughts about God into certain tidy categories to be recalled when asked certain prescribed questions–can have a difficult time getting power to the wheels.

Instead, Kirk thinks in terms of stories, just like the rest of us do.  Stories have a way of carrying the same ideas trapped in systematic theologies and delivering them in a clandestine manner, often bursting open within the hearts of an audience before they realize what is happening.  They are a Trojan Horse of sorts.

And the best of stories, in my opinion, are non-fiction.  They must be compelling, certainly.  They must have action and danger and risk and noble ends, of course.  But the best stories are of actual events, actions that have changed real people in real time, first on the occasion of the live drama and then again in each retelling.

To Kirk, this is what it means to follow Jesus.  It is to hear his story, to hear how he transformed person after person, crowd after crowd, how he risked all he had for the sake of all there was, how he believed he was acting on behalf of the one Creator, and how his actions were wholly good.  And then, upon hearing, the hearer decides that her life must resemble that one.  Her story must echo Jesus’ story.

In his own words:

Jesus is the key to our identity and our actions.  How does new creation come about?  By the self-giving love and power of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.  How is the family of God formed?  By following Jesus along the way of the cross and receiving the commission of Jesus, the Resurrected One.  What does the family of God do?  It images God to the world by giving itself in the self-giving love first shown to us in Jesus.  Jesus is the interpretive key not only for reading both the Scriptures and Jesus’s connection to the story of Israel but also for reading our own lives as those who would follow him (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, 195).

NT Wright has written that one of the best ways of considering our lives in relation to the Bible is to regard scripture as an unfinished drama, with our lives being the most recent ad libbed scenes.  This, ultimately, is what JHILBP? has been all about.  Paul, upon encountering the resurrected Jesus (Acts 9), discovers that there’s a better life for him to live, that it has already been modeled by this Jesus, and that it is truly in line with the drama that the Creator is writing, a drama that ends, in time, with the restoration and peace of the entire creation.

What To Do about Homosexuality?

Now we’ve come to the final substantive chapter (the final chapter–stay tuned–is a series of concluding reflections on Jesus and Paul) in JRD Kirk‘s Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, in which Kirk is unquestionably presenting his boldest argument in the text.  The chapter is entitled “Homosexuality under the Reign of Christ,” and in it Kirk takes a very different approach compared to the rest of the book.

Throughout JHILBP?, Kirk has mostly been content to paint the corresponding pictures of Jesus and Paul in their own contexts of the first century Mediterranean world.  Kirk’s comments on 21st century culture as it relates to Jesus and Paul are helpful and thought provoking, though they do not dominate any particular chapter–certainly not as contemporary homosexuality and the church’s response to it dominate this penultimate chapter.

It’s here that Kirk goes farther on a limb than at any other time–a risk he’s to be commended for–and I had the impression reading it that this subject must hit very close to home for him.  Kirk is very seriously considering the place of the gay or lesbian in the Christian community and the message of the Christian community, explicit or otherwise, for the homosexual community.  It is clear that Kirk is dissatisfied with the stance that both the liberal and conservative Western church has taken on this issue.

Kirk presents a double edged sword.  On the one hand, he writes, the Bible is actually very clear about homosexual activity.  It is, in Kirk’s own words, “anticreation” (176ff).  On the other hand, the Christian narrative is one of embrace of the supposed outsider.  The well of Christ is limitless in its abounding love and grace for any and all.

Further, we could put various streams of Western Christianity on either side of this aisle.  Liberal denominations have emphasized the latter at the expense of the former and conservative believers have done the opposite.  Kirk is clearly unhappy with both camps.  I admire his willingness to say so.

There is way too much that could be said about this crucial subject for a brief blog post.  But I will say that I agree with Kirk in his dissatisfaction.  In fact, I’ve written as much previously.  Though I disagree with the possible way forward he presents in JHILBP?, I admire the risk he took in putting forward an alternative.

I’ll leave it with these two primary commissions presented, really, throughout the book.

First, for any who would seek to enter the Body of Christ (or for any who already claims that allegiance), your story must match the story that God had written in the person of Jesus and is continuing to write through His renewed people toward a grand conclusion.  No one can enter the Body of Christ and remain the same.  No one.  That’s simply not how the story goes.  In the end, we will all be changed, some of us in a twinkling of an eye.  We will be transformed from our current state to a glorious incorruptible form, much like the resurrected Christ (1 Cor 15:51-53).  That process, however, must not wait until Christ’s return.  For Paul, certainly, it begins the moment you meet Jesus.

Secondly, for the church as it relates to those outside the community of Christ, we have one primary task.  We are to exhibit at all times the same love that Christ displayed.  Of course, this is part and parcel of the point above, but is especially true in our relations with those outside our body.  The only way those outside the church know Jesus (and God) is by looking at his followers.  And that means laying down our lives for the sake of the world.

Gasp! The New Testament Talks about S-E-X

It’s taken me some time (finally!) to work through JRD Kirk‘s short (just 202 lovely pages) Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? because of, well, life.  But I’ve wrapped it up this weekend in anticipation (finally!) of NT Wright’s 1000+ page Paul and the Faithfulness of God.  Sometimes we need external motivators.  Ya know?

Anyway, chapters eight and nine of JHLBP? provide the juicy sizzle to Kirk’s monograph.  These are the chapters on sex in the gospels and in Paul’s letters.  I read them with a flashlight under the covers so mom wouldn’t find out.

The picture that Kirk paints in chapter eight (“Sex in the Plot of God’s Stories”) would not be unfamiliar to anyone who spent their teens in youth group.  The biblical ideal is clear: sex has always been meant for the context of a lifelong committed relationship.  Thankfully, Kirk, unlike so many youth conference sex talks, also gave a good deal of the biblical basis for this stance.

What struck me, however, was a statement Kirk made as he juxtaposed the biblical ideal (also shared by Jesus and Paul) against our Western sex crazed culture:

We need to start acting like we actually believe that the Christian story line of sexual oneness in lifelong marriage is a better plot than the one on offer in the world around us. … Can our theological imaginations be so transformed that we can start believing that the Christian story of sex is beautiful and depict it as such (165)?

I like this question.  Although Kirk doesn’t provide an extensive answer, he’s right to raise the point.  Among my teenage frustrations was not receiving a strong image of the beauty and inherent health in the biblical sexual idea.  Don’t get me wrong, I was neither a rebellious nor promiscuous youth, but like any other 16-year-old, I had one persistent question on my lips: Why?  Aside from “the Bible says so,” why is this the best path forward?  What are the benefits in reserving sex for a single, committed marriage, particularly when it appears other narratives are providing a good deal of happiness?

These days, I’m beginning to see what wasn’t well articulated in my teen years.  I’m exceptionally grateful for the model of fidelity exhibited by my own parents (still married after nearly 40 years), especially when placed alongside the struggles of friends who grew up in the midst of divorce or separation or worse.

Now that many (OK, all) of my friends are married, I wish nothing for them but that they’re able to fulfill the “death do we part” portion of their vows.  Anything less would be devastating, not just to them but to all the rest of us as well.

Now that I’m (still) single (with a blog like this, can you believe it?!) with a few heartbreaks in my past, few words mean more to me than fidelity.  I don’t know that I could have imagined at 16 the power of someone telling me that they would stick with me through thick and thin, through successes and, especially, horrible failures.  Such a narrative might not have penetrated my teenage heart.

But I realize now that what we really mean (or, at least, should mean) when we talk about the power of love, we’re not talking about the power of electric sex, but the power of complete undying commitment.

Social Justice and the Gospel

via tamedcynic.org

I’ve never been a huge fan of the term “social justice.”

There, I said it.  And I will henceforth forever be disqualified from attaining my hipster credentials.

So much of what we today call “social justice” reminds me of Mark Twain’s insightful remark: “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”

I’m a bigger fan of simple justice, or, to coin a phrase that no one else will ever use, “Jesus justice.”

In Luke’s account of the start of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus famously announced his intentions.  He told the folks in his home town what he intended to do going forward.

[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.  And he stood up to read.  The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him.  Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down.  The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:16-21, NIV).

At last, his audience must have thought, we, the oppressed people of God, are going to get the kind of justice we deserve.  And at last, these pagan nations that have been crushing us will get the kind of justice they deserve!

It’s important to remember when reading the gospels that Jesus is living and working in the midst of a people that had effectively been under foreign domination for roughly 750 years.  Think about it: 750 years ago, the world was still 230 years from Columbus way underestimating the size of the globe.  So from the time the Assyrians conquered Israel (722 BCE) to the time of Jesus (~AD 30) the bulk of Palestine was ruled by people other than the Jews, a few very brief stints excepted.

All that is to say that Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes are ready for a change, and they surely thought Jesus was announcing it. More than that, they were certain it meant their elevation and the Romans’ demise.

But JR Daniel Kirk reminds us that Jesus justice (what a great phrase!) works a little differently than we expect, for Jesus goes on in Luke 4 to cite incidents in the Hebrew Bible in which God blesses foreigners through the prophets Elijah and Elisha (Lk 4:25-27).  Those who praised Jesus’ good news a few verses earlier are surprised and ready to lynch him.  Kirk:

The scandalous implication of Jesus’s good news is that God’s promises to Israel will come as a blessing through Israel for the sake of the nations’ glory rather than coming to bless the people of Israel at the cost of the nations’ humiliation (Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, 144).

Jesus justice (it just rolls off the tongue) doesn’t belittle one group in favor of another.  Jesus justice might bless one group, but that blessing is given to the one for the benefit of all.  Jesus justice is not a zero sum game.

Kirk again speaks of the culture of Jesus’ day:

In the first-century context, … the exaltation of Israel at the expense of Rome would be a perpetuation of the injustice already rampant on the earth–only now with a different perpetrator in charge (145).

To put this in contemporary terms, we might have imagined Jesus wandering into one of the Occupy Wall Street camps a couple years ago announcing the year of the Lord’s favor for the 99%.  The throngs would let out a cheer.  Those greedy bastards are finally getting theirs!

But then he might turn around, intersect a trader leaving the exchange and say, “Hey, what can I do for you?”  And the wealthy trader would say, “Well, my little girl is at Sloan-Kettering right now waiting for a blood transfusion.  I’m worried as hell.”  And Jesus would respond, “Don’t be afraid.  The cancer is already gone.”

The point is that in Jesus justice (aw, who am I kidding; it’s never catching on) there’s plenty to go around.  It’s meant for everyone, everywhere, at all times.