Sunday, 1 May 2016

Paul's personal greetings: a sermon for Easter 6

Texts: Acts 16:9-15 / Romans 16:1-16

Do you like the Marx Brothers? I love the Marx Brothers. The humour is so clever, chaotic, and subversive. Duck Soup is undoubtedly their best film, but At the Circus gives you a wonderful vaudevillian show, including Groucho singing about “the most glorious creature under the sun”:
Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia?
Lydia the Tattooed Lady.
She has eyes that folks adore so,
and a torso even more so.
Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclo-pidia,
Oh Lydia the Queen of Tattoo …
Well, you get the, er, “picture” of this illustrious illustrated lady.

I don’t suppose the Lydia of Acts 16 had any tattoos – Leviticus bans body art – but she was certainly a lady who knew how to make an entrance and leave an impression. An affluent Greek living in the Roman colony of Philippi, Lydia was a business woman, a seller of posh purple textiles. She encounters Paul and his missionary companions, has a conversation with them, and, moved to faith, she is baptised. Then to wet the lady’s head, she invites the boys back to her home for a meal. How I would like to have been a fly on those walls! The first convert to Christianity in Europe, Lydia is recognised by the Church as a saint, and the Orthodox Church has even given her the title “Equal of the Apostles”. Wow!

Of course, Lydia (“Oh Lydia!”) was not the only woman who left her mark on the early Church, as the passage we’ve just heard from Romans 16 demonstrates.

Let’s start with a critical principle for reading: always pay attention to beginnings and endings. So, too, in letters, with salutations and valedictions. The way we sign on and off may be mere boilerplate – “Dear So-and-So” and “Etcetera, etcetera”. On the other hand, they may have a significance disclosed to close and attentive reading. Perhaps that may be the case with Romans?

Another fundamental principle in approaching any text is to note its genre. Romans is, er – a letter! But for much of its history, readers have ignored this fact and treated it as a kind of mini-systematic theology. And it’s true that in Romans, after two decades of ministry, Paul is bringing it all together and writing it all down – about Jesus, I mean. Still, Romans is a letter. It’s what scholars call “occasional”, that is, it’s written to particular recipients in a specific context. Whatever the theology of the letter – well, theology is made for people, not people for theology.

But who are these people, people Paul knows by name? That in itself is interesting. For Paul had never visited the church in Rome, yet he is acquainted with quite a few of its members. How so? Presumably he has met them on his toing-and-froing around the Roman Empire – and in the early church, there was a lot of such to-and-froing. So you can understand why Paul begins the “Personal Greetings” section at the end of his letter by commending to the Roman church one Phoebe, who is acting as a postwoman between Corinth, where Paul wrote the letter, and its destination in the imperial capital. But Phoebe isn’t just a gopher, she’s a valued church-worker, indeed church leader, who has been of immense assistance to Paul.

Nor is Phoebe the only woman mentioned by Paul. There’s Prisca, or Priscilla (as she is called in the book of Acts). She and her husband Aquila were outstanding missionaries who risked their lives for Paul. Jewish Christians banished from Rome by an edict of the emperor Claudius, they worked abroad in Ephesus and Corinth, but Claudius is now dead and they have returned to their home church. The astonishing thing, however, is that Prisca is mentioned at all, since normally only the husband was named in greetings to a married couple. But Paul not only calls Prisca by name, he names her first, indicating that she is the more important of the two.

And the list of women continues. There’s Mary, and Tryphaena and Tryphosa (probably sisters), and Persis and Julia, as well the mother of Rufus and the sister of Nereus. And then there’s the peculiar case of Junias – or is it Junia? The manuscripts vary, but what may have happened is that, as women became more marginalised in the church during the following centuries, certain scribes replaced a woman’s name with a man’s, thus airbrushing Junia out of history. But in the original text, women account for fully a third of the people Paul greets, which is an astonishing statistic about leadership in the early church, and a shaming indictment of even the 21st century church whose members are mainly women but whose leaders are – still – mostly men. We have yet to get our heads around Paul’s revolutionary manifesto that in Christ there is neither male nor female.

And, for that matter, neither Jew nor Gentile. That’s another thing about the people Paul greets: many of them are Jews. Like Paul himself, they are Jews who have become Christians. In the Roman church there are also Gentiles who have become Christians. And it turns out that the two parties have been quarrelling. The Jewish Christians think the Gentile Christians are too liberal and treat them judgementally. The Gentile Christians think the Jewish Christians are too conservative and treat them with contempt. Sound familiar? Interest groups, lines drawn, exclusions, walk-outs – what else is new? But my opponents, Paul insists, are they not also my siblings whom the Father has given me to love, and who therefore have a non-negotiable claim on my consideration and care?

“We are,” observes Rowan Williams, “regularly undone by a form of inattention – the failure to see what other people really are – which in turn gives rise to inappropriate forms of harshness.” And the more power we have, the greater the temptation to treat fellow believers with intolerance and discourtesy. In Rome, power was shifting to the Gentile Christians, who unsurprisingly were getting what Pauls calls “boastful”. Is that why the apostle forefronts so many Jewish Christians in his greetings, even though, with his own theology of freedom, he is closer to their critics? Is he reminding the Gentiles of the debt they owe to their Jewish brothers and sisters, of how Gentiles are but honorary Jews who must use their freedom with sensitivity and respect? Is not Paul here subtly brokering the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile – of traditionalist and progressive – that is at the heart his gospel?

Male and female, Jew and Gentile – sexual and religious divisions – Paul also seeks to overcome the social divide of slave and free: all are one in Christ. And what do you know: we find that a few of the people Paul greets have names commonly used for bonded and freedmen. So we can be sure that that the church in Rome included not only men and women, Jew and Gentile, but also the wealthy and the poor, the educated and uneducated. Which leads me, finally, to make a rather astonishing observation, and to pose a quite urgent question.

In his famous commentary on Romans, Karl Barth wrote this: “The possibility that Tryphaena and Tryphosa and other ordinary people would not have been able to understand the letter does not seem to have been considered [by Paul]. That is, there was once a body of men and women to whom the letter … could be sent in the confident expectation that it provided an answer to their questions; that somehow or another it would be understood and valued. [That for these people] … theology – theology! – was THE living theme.” Ordinary folk who just could not get enough of thinking and talking about God. Wow!

Think about it. We can all read and write. We’ve all got some education, some of us a lot of education. Yet we find Paul’s theology demanding and difficult. Why is that? It’s not because we’re stupid. So why? It’s because Paul’s theology is difficult and demanding! It was difficult and demanding for the Roman Christians too: to the uneducated because it was learned; to the Gentiles because it was steeped in the Jewish scriptures; to the Jews because it subverted their cherished traditions. But they wrestled with the letter because of that “confident expectation that it provided an answer to their questions”. The BIG questions: the meaning of life, the purpose of history, creation and redemption, how to live creatively with conflict, how to make a difference as public witnesses to truth, compassion, and peace in a world of mendacity, self-interest, and violence.

Can we say the same? Are these BIG questions – and not the “Can Christians wear tattoos?” kinds of questions! – are they still the themes that draw us to faith and fellowship, that challenge and inspire us, that we can’t stop thinking and talking about? In Emily Dickinson’s striking image, is God “still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul”? In Philip Larkin’s famous phrase, is the church still “A serious house on serious earth …, / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet”? May it be so – for each of us and all of us – A, B, C, D, … and all the saints at Uniting Church Sketty!

Paul concludes his greetings (the translation is mine): “Cwtches all around!” Not a bad way to conclude a sermon – and head towards the sacrament!

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Doodlings de Nos Jours

Never ask anyone if they are a Christian because you’d be asking the wrong person.

The buck stops here only when we have exhausted all the possibilities of it stopping somewhere else.

The declension narrative of Republican presidential candidates which began with Ronald (as in the McDonald’s mascot) is reaching its nadir in Donald (as in the Disney waterfowl). The book about it will be entitled The GOP: From Clown to Quack.

Asked his opinion about one of his female social media advisers, the Donald said, “Nice Tweets. Shame about the Facebook.”

If abortion is murder, of course the woman having the abortion should be punished. It is a contract killing. But did she act on her own? What about not only the father, but perhaps a family member, friend, or some other third party? If they incited, encouraged, assisted, or even supported the female felon, then they are guilty of conspiracy to murder. It appears, Mr. Trump, that “as thou urgest justice, be assur’d / Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desir’st” (The Merchant of Venice, IV, 1).

So Trump has declared, “I’m the Lone Ranger.” But the Lone Ranger always spoke moderately, precisely, and with perfect grammar; he never shot to kill; and he famously came to the aid of a Mexican president. Oh, and he was never unmasked.

If you want to know what their support for Trump discloses about the faith of American evangelicals, just keep your eye on the baal.

Ted Cruz is actually a quasi-Barthian: the Bible in one hand, a .38 in the other.

I am extremely disappointed with Lovejoy (not the classic BBC comedy crime drama starring Ian McShane but the apostolic exhortation starring Pope Francis). Where are the illustrations?

Why can’t the Vatican perform a miracle when it comes to the indissolubility of marriage and eucharistic welcome for the divorced and (adulterously) remarried? Signs and wonders are never a problem when it comes to making a saint.

If you don’t believe in original sin, why believe in sin at all? It’s like complaining about environmental pollution while ignoring the existence of Chevron and BP.

If the conflicted Augustine does not convince you about original sin, the ever-so sincere and sensible Pelagius certainly should.

If not apokatastasis, then Manicheanism Lite. Augustine did not bring his A game to eschatology. He went and spoiled what might have been a heavenly omelette by tossing in some old eggshells.

On Trinity Sunday I’ll be preaching on Rublev’s The Hospitality of Abraham. The title of the sermon is “God’s Selfie”.

Lucky for them, people who say people get what they deserve are self-refuting.

The prodigal son said, “Father, I’ve taken Jesus as my personal Saviour.” The father replied, “So you’ve been corresponding with your brother, have you?”

Spare a thought for Lazarus. Due to a rush of messianic exhibitionism, the poor bugger had to die twice.

It is a misconception that the British populace is not weaponed. In fact, three people sitting next to me in a Swansea café have just unholstered their iPhones.

Nearly a fifth of British adults experience anxiety or depression. The other 80% suffer from delusions of contentment.

If you’ve got issues, see a life coach: a problem shared is a problem doubled.

For Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books. Alas, culturally, 1 Corinthians 13:11b.

Truth is tonal too. Just compare the huffy, preachy, cloistered screeds at First Things with the blithe, conversational, world-affirming essays of Marilynne Robinson. It’s the difference between having a bug up your ass and a butterfly on your palm.

I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 7:21: “Knowing the correct password – saying Master, Master, for instance – isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience – doing what my Father wills.” Another, more catholic “correct password” is “Eucharist, Eucharist.”

So trendy did it become to take the Road Less Travelled that now it’s a carpark.

A friend who knows me well – too well – has suggested that I write my memoir. Apart from the vanity and banality of such a project, I have no talent for fiction. Besides, my story has already been written. It’s called the Bible.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Jenson as teacher: an almost-review of A theology in outline

Robert Jenson writes and speaks neatly. Such a gift is rare within the academy. This generation’s greatest baroque theological stylist, David Bentley Hart, once lauded Jenson’s ability to produce “formulations of a positively oracular terseness”, even if this tone contrasts with Hart’s own “taste for the sesquipedalian and pointlessly elaborate.” (Jenson returns the compliment by observing that “Hart never uses one clause where twenty will do”). Such rhetorical reserve may appear casual—and frequently masks both the imaginatively spectacular and fervently orthodox character of Jenson’s theology—but it is in fact the sign of a strictly disciplined teacher.

Academics are often maligned for their delight in linguistic obfuscation. We will, we are told, always find the most difficult way to say something. Such judgements represent a deplorable misconstrual of the situation. Explaining a complex idea by the employment of technical and complicated language is easy. The great challenge is disciplining oneself to say something plainly. Why do academics speak and write incomprehensibly? Because we are not clever enough to speak neatly. Colouring inside the lines is beyond us.

Given this situation, there is no task more difficult for the professional theologian than teaching an introductory course in theology. In our cowardice, many of us take the painless option by giving a comprehensive historical survey of the discipline liberally peppered with Latin axioms and eloquent anecdotes: providing the students with dates, technical formulae, and names to memorise. The more difficult way to teach theology is to inhabit the world of these thinkers and their arguments, and attempt to speak plainly of their concerns and ours. This is how Robert Jenson teaches.

And we owe our thanks to Adam Eitel for allowing us to see this clearly as he invites us to sit with him in Jenson’s classroom during a series of undergraduate lectures given at Princeton University in 2008. The manuscript of these lectures, A Theology in Outline: Can these bones live?, shows that Jenson’s skill for “oracular terseness” extends to his extemporaneous teaching (as Eitel describes it in his introduction).

This is not Jenson’s systematics in brief. It is rather a public performance of Christian theology. Jenson describes it in his preface as something of a taster of Christian thought intended to whet the appetite. For this reason, the book bears more in common with a catechism than a standard academic introduction to theology. What Jenson introduces us to here is not theology as an academic discipline, but as a vocation. What do we receive from the tradition and the great thinkers of Christianity, “from Augustine to Hildegard of Bingen to Barth”? The exhortation to pray.

Jenson follows his usual method of explaining the tradition while simultaneously reinterpreting it and presenting it as a living option for present life. There is no need to summarise Jenson’s arguments: the book is short enough, so just read it yourself. Rather, it is Jenson in the mode of a teacher that is of particular interest. In all of his writing, Jenson asks us to evaluate how we undertake the theological task. 

A typology suggests itself here. Take a basic Christian claim: “Jesus is Lord”. Theology done in the usual way will consider this to be a densely-packed idea needing to be unfurled into elaborate theological rhetoric. Jenson’s theology, on the other hand, treats “Jesus is Lord” as a large billowing idea that needs to be compressed into theological claims to be shared. It is this compressive character of Jenson’s theology that leads Hart to write that a single phrase of Jenson’s might “detonate” if mishandled. Rather than expending his energy by expressing simple ideas through grand flourishes, Jenson saves the grandness and the energy for the ideas themselves.

This, I suggest, is what we learn from Jenson as a teacher. The basic stuff of Christian faith is conceptually grand: “Christ is risen”, “this is my body”, “your sins are forgiven” and so on. Moreover, they are grand in a metaphysical sense. Metaphysics is not to be contrasted with existence: “when we begin doing metaphysics—that is, when we begin asking questions like ‘what is it “to be”?’—we are not just playing empty word games. The questions we ask and the answers we give both express and shape the way we perceive and act in the world" (p. 108). Our metaphysical construal of such claims is the manner by which we decide how we will live. As Jenson treats the gospel, any word spoken about Jesus is simultaneously a telling of our own stories. A grand story, Jenson suggests, is one that makes room for all of us. Theologians might do well to foster more audacity in their thinking, and then they may be enabled to write neatly of the things of God.


A postscript on the “comprehensive” bibliography:
Eitel has enlisted the help of Keith Johnson to compile a very good list of academic works published by Jenson for inclusion in this volume, but it is a shame that it is not as “comprehensive” as advertised. Two of Jenson’s ALPB books are missing, Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, and On the Inspiration of Scripture. His book, Lutheranism, co-authored with the late Eric Gritsch is omitted, as is the volume of essays that Jens and I produced together, Theology as Revisionary Metaphysics: Essays on God and Creation. While essays from The Futurist Option (co-authored with Carl Braaten) appear, the book itself has no entry. Seemingly by design, Jenson’s occasional writings are left off the list (published letters and his many captivating editorials written for Dialog). And a significant number of essays are nowhere to be found: “What kind of God can make a covenant?”, “Deus est ipsa pulchritudo”, and many others. This does not reflect poorly on Eitel or Johnson, since Jenson himself has lost track of his publications. But it does seem that researchers wanting access to all of Jenson's writings will have to continue compiling their own lists.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Meditations on the seven words of Jesus on the cross

I gave these meditations at the Good Friday service at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point.


I. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.


There’s an old Chinese man who does Tai chi every morning at the park near my house. Sometimes I stop and watch him for a while. The precise rhythmic gestures, the sudden sweeping of the arm, the powerful, slow pushing of the hand. It’s beautiful to observe rituals that have been handed down for generations. For centuries this man and his ancestors have performed the same gestures. The old have taught these movements to the young. The young have grown old and taught the next generation.

Sometimes when I watch him in the park it’s as if I’m seeing more than just one man. I also see his ancestors. Their movements are still being performed now in him. He continues to play the part of his ancestors. Their gestures move his body. In a mysterious way, his ancestors are still living.

That’s how the Bible sees our first ancestor, Adam. Adam is raised into life by God’s own breath, he is blessed, he is placed in the garden of Paradise, he is a friend of God, his life is crowded with a thousand joys. But he forsakes it all. He betrays God’s friendship. He hides from God. He is driven out of Paradise.

And every day, Adam’s gestures are repeated over and over by all his ancestors. We keep practicing the same moves, playing the same part, carrying on Adam’s bitter legacy. God watches us. We make our choices, we go our way through life, we get up each morning and play our part, and God has seen it all before: it is Adam, over and over again. Generations come and go. Adam’s faithless gestures are handed down faithfully from the parents to their children.

But our Jesus is the new Adam. He is Adam 2.0. He is a new beginning for the human family. He restarts the human story. He goes right back to the roots of the human condition. He becomes Adam all over again – but with a difference. He corrects Adam’s performance. He changes the gestures. He repeats Adam’s performance, but without the flaws.

What does Jesus do differently? Adam turns away from God. But Jesus turns towards God. Even at his darkest hour, as Jesus suffers on the cross, he turns his face towards God. His first word from the cross is not a word to us or to any human being. It is a word to God. Stretched out against the sky, Jesus seems to be reaching up to whisper in God’s ear. “Father,” he says.

The whole of Jesus’ life is summed up in that word. “Father.” God had spoken to Adam, but Adam turned away. He forgot his God. The whole life of Jesus is one long and dreadful correction of that unfaithful gesture. Jesus turns himself fully towards God. Instead of hiding from God, he opens himself to God. With his whole being he is nakedly exposed to God’s sight. He lives only to do God’s will. Even in his death he will not be alone. He dies into God. He dies in trust. He dies in love. He is frightened and rejected and in pain: but he never takes his eyes off the one he loves. He speaks from the cross, he says the one word that Adam refused to say: “Father.”


II. Today you will be with me in Paradise.

Adam is driven out of Paradise. He is an exile. He wanders the earth, restless and lonely. His children build houses but they can never find their home. They ache to return to a garden they have never seen. They yearn to find a peace that they have never known. They make families, they travel the earth, they build cities and kingdoms and empires. But at the heart of everything is a deep loneliness. We are far from home. The gates of Paradise are closed. An angel bars the way. We can never find our own way back. We can never undo what Adam has done.

Stretched out in agony on the cross, Jesus turns his head. He looks into a human face and says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus has found the way back to the garden. His own life is the way. He has opened the gate. His body is the door. He has gone right back to the start of the human story, back where it all went wrong, and he has made it right.

The criminal beside him on the cross has played Adam’s part. All his life he faithfully repeated Adam’s gestures. And it has led to this. A criminal condemned to die. Exiled from society, cast out, rejected and ashamed.

Jesus looks at this poor banished child of Adam and tells him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Human history began with a great migration, our exile from Paradise. And now the great return migration has begun. We are going home, all of us, every last one of us. The gates of Paradise are open.

The journey home begins with the lowest and the least. Jesus starts at the bottom of the human pile. He is salvaging the wreckage of Adam’s children, one ruined life at a time. The first one back to Paradise is a criminal. The last are first, and the first are last. But the great pilgrimage back to our true homeland has begun, and no one will be left behind. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”


III. Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.

The Lord God loved the man so much that one day in the garden he put him to sleep and took a part of him and from that part made woman. And Adam loved her and called her Eve because she was the mother of all who would live.

But what a sorrowful mother! Her firstborn son became the first murderer. Cain, the first child ever born into this world, killed his brother Abel. From that day on, the human family has been one long trainwreck, a nightmare of violence and distress. Brother rises up against brother. Parents are alienated from their children. Families divide and turn against each other. Each tribe hates and fears all the others, even though nobody can remember why. The great war machines of the nations consume the mothers’ sons. Young men strap bombs under their clothes and detonate themselves in the presence of their brothers.

The Bible says that the whole human race is one family – but what a family! Poor Eve, condemned to be the mother of a family like this. Poor Eve, carrying such bitter sorrows in her heart. Mother of tragedy. Mother of grief. Mother of a world of sorrows.

From the cross, our Jesus looks down and sees his mother standing with one of his friends. “Woman,” he says, “here is your son.” And to his friend: “Here is your mother.”

Riddled with his own pain and grief, Jesus is thinking of his family. He is thinking of his friends. A woman is losing her son today. He gives her another son. The company of Jesus’ followers are a family now. They are the human family made new. Jesus has gone back to the start, back to the roots where it all went wrong. He has gone back to mend our sad and sordid family tree.

The last verse of the Old Testament promises that one day the Prophet will come who “will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” On the cross, this word is fulfilled. On the cross, the human family gets a brand new start. “Woman, here is your son.” What a terrible joy is in those words! The Blessed Virgin Mary has found a son – but she has had to lose her own son first. She has gained a family – but at what cost! “Woman, here is your son.” In those words, the mother’s heart is shattered and healed at the same time.

Now the human family is restored. Now the hearts of the children are returned to the hearts of the parents. Now poor Eve can find relief from all her sorrow. Now her sons can learn to love one another. Now we can start to live. “Woman, here is your son. Here is your mother.”


IV. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?


We have a new ancestor and a new beginning. That is good news. But the good news comes at a great cost.

Jesus has to repeat Adam’s story. He plays Adam’s part. He becomes like Adam in every way, except without sin. The death sentence that falls upon Adam falls also upon our Jesus.

Jesus is exiled so that we can return home. He loses his mother so that we can find a family. He falls down into darkness so that we can rise into the light. All of us now can look into the face of God, naked and unashamed. But Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus doesn’t march triumphantly back into the Garden of Eden to put things right. He has to return to Paradise by the same road that Adam took. If someone ties a very complicated knot, the only way to untie it is to do it in reverse order. Adam has tied the human family up in knots, and Jesus moves backwards through Adam’s story, unraveling the knot of faithlessness, following Adam’s path back to the point where it all went wrong. Jesus suffers his way back into the garden. He walks the road of exile all the way back to our home.

Jesus takes into his own heart all the loneliness of the human spirit from the beginning of the world. He takes into his own heart all our restlessness and bewilderment. He suffers the devastating weight of Adam’s exile from Paradise. He is cast out. The whole world has forsaken him. The earth itself seems to reject him: he hangs suspended against the sky. He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

For one terrible moment it seems that even God has turned his back on Jesus. To Jesus, the gates of Paradise are closed.

The criminal beside him is coming home. But Jesus is alone: more alone, more abandoned than anyone has ever been since the day Adam first left the garden. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”


V. I thirst.

The human being is “a hungry animal” (Alexander Schmemann). When God makes Adam in the beginning, God makes him hungry. He puts him in a garden filled with food. He tells him to eat whatever he likes. The whole world will be his food. And one day, when he has learned and grown, when his friendship with God has matured, one day he will eat from the tree of life and his deepest hunger will be satisfied forever.

But Adam falls for a piece of fruit. God gives him an opportunity to exercise his freedom. God gives him an opportunity to grow, to respond to God with trust and friendship. One forbidden tree in a garden filled with food. One forbidden fruit: Adam eats it. He is driven from the garden. Now he will never taste the fruit of the tree of life.

Now Adam wanders the earth, forever restless with a hunger that cannot be filled, forever tormented by a thirst that can’t be slaked.

All this is reversed when Jesus returns to the garden. Jesus refuses the temptation to turn stones into bread. Jesus says that his true food is to do the will of his Father. He looks out on the crowd and sees their burning human thirst. And he invites them, “Whoever is thirsty, come and drink.” He tells them that his own body will be bread for them – a bread that’s even better than the manna in the wilderness, because once you taste it you will never get hungry again. He tells them that his blood will be a drink for them – and once you drink it you will never thirst again. No longer does the human heart have to be tormented by hunger and thirst.

But all this comes at a great cost. Jesus retraces Adam’s steps. He feels in himself the gnawing hunger of Adam. He feels in himself Adam’s burning thirst. On a hill outside the city, the second Adam cries out from the cross: “I thirst!”

And from the beginning of the world until the end, no one will ever have to thirst again.


VI. It is finished.

The tragedy of Adam’s story is that human history ends before it ever began. It was all over just when things were about to start. The history of the human family is like a train derailed just as it’s leaving the station. “It is finished.” For all I know, Adam might have said those words as he walked out of the garden and the gates swung shut behind him.

“It is finished.” There is nothing left to look forward to now. Our best days are already behind us. We ache for a home that we’ve never even seen. From one generation to the next, we keep waiting for life to begin. But each new generation is born into a world that’s already finished. Hanging over our sad history is the sign, “It is finished.” We can’t read those letters at first, so we arrive in this world full of hopes and dreams and expectations. But as we grow older we learn to read the sign. We discover the sad truth, that before we ever got here our world was already spoiled. It is not young and new. Our best days are not ahead of us but far behind, and there is no way back.

And now all the sad wreckage of our history has piled up on this day. All our hatred and violence and stubbornness and faithlessness are gathered in a heap: and planted on that heap of rubbish is a cross. Human history has done its worst now. Now we’ve really exhausted all our stupidity and rage. We’ve used it all up and there is nothing left. Our history ends here, on Good Friday, at the cross.

Our Jesus knows this. He looks out on a sad and ruined world. He feels its bitterness coursing through his tortured body. He cries out, “It is finished.” The trainwreck of Adam’s history ends here. No further. No more. Never again. It is finished.

But the wonder of the cross! This ending is a new beginning! Because Adam’s journey ends here, the journey of the new Adam can begin. The whole human story has a new start. Now at last our lives can begin. Old things are passed away, everything has become new.

It is finished: it is only just begun.

It is finished: and now, for the first time, the world is fresh and young.

Our lives start here, where his life ends.


VII. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

The sayings of Jesus on the cross end where they began, with one word: “Father.” With the last breath that he can draw, Jesus wants to pronounce his favourite word. With the last strength he can muster, he wants to raise his eyes to look one last time into the face of God. Lingering on the boundary between life and death, he concentrates his entire being into a single act of trust. His whole life culminates in this act and in these words. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Jesus has lived before the face of God and he will die in God’s presence. Even on the cross he holds God’s gaze, even as he dies he will not look away.

He has done it – he has found the deepest source of Adam’s fall. He has located the root of it all. He has retraced all Adam’s weary steps right back to the first false step. A failure of trust. God loved Adam, blessed Adam, walked with him and gave him friendly promises. But Adam did not trust. He made his heart small.

Jesus, our second Adam, trusts God with every breath. He is naked before God’s sight, totally vulnerable, totally exposed. He keeps nothing back. He cracks his heart wide open to make room for God’s promise.

“Father.” He is dying now, but he savours the word one last time. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Now our lives can begin. Adam has lost his hold on us. Let us put on the new Adam. Let us learn his gestures. Let us imitate his performance. Let us throw ourselves naked into the will of God.

Today the sinner is forgiven.

Today the exiled heart returns to Paradise.

Today the broken human family is restored.

Today all who were forsaken are embraced.

Today our deepest thirst is quenched once and for all.

Today the world has ended, today the world begins.

Today, best of all, God is near, inviting each of us to say, with Jesus: “Father.”

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Jenson about Barth on Jenson on Barth: a review-anecdote

In a “review” of D. Stephen Long’s Saving Karl Barth published in Pro Ecclesia last year, Robert Jenson offers a corrective and an anecdote. Long, like many others, takes exception to Bruce McCormack’s view that II/2 forms the metaphysical centre of Barth’s theology. Students of Jenson will know that Jenson himself made the same claim—well before McCormack—in his PhD, which was revised and published as Alpha and Omega. Long claims that there is “no positive statement by Barth of II/2’s centrality.” Jenson is amused at this argument, since “there is in fact such a statement, and I am its most direct witness.”

In the summer of 1959 we moved our young family from Heidelberg to Basel in hope of my consulting Barth himself during the final drafting of my Heidelberg dissertation, which was on ‘The Election of Jesus Christ in the Theology of Karl Barth.’ Barth was open to this, reading a final version before we returned to Heidelberg. In it I argued, as bluntly as possible, that his doctrine of election in II/2 upended traditional understandings of the relation between time and eternity and thus inaugurated an innovative ontology, and that this complex was then—for better or worse—the ruling center of his subsequent theology. Barth invited me to his study, and after some conversation said, "Aber Herr Jenson—Sie haben mich verstanden," "But Mr. Jenson—you have understood me." A bit later an interviewer for the Christian Century asked Barth if anyone had grasped the real center of his thinking. Barth answered that there was ‘one, a young American.’ Subsequently I was identified by name in the journal as the one—not by me.

McCormack's theology is hardly identical to Jenson's, but they accord the same status to II/2. The result, Jenson claims, is that Barth's imprimatur extends to McCormack on at least this point. One who wishes to disagree with McCormack’s central thesis about election, Jenson concludes, is not discrediting McCormack, but “it is Barth’s teaching that is thus discredited.”

And so the Barth-wars continue.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Donald doodlings

“Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”
– Donald Trump [oops, sorry – Hazel Motes, in Wise Blood]

Of course Trump does not need to confess his sins. Or haven’t you heard of the Immaculate Deception? My wife – he makes her want to have a shower.

If you want to understand the phenomenon, go with the fact that Trump is not running a campaign but building a church. The ugly rhetoric and half-assed policy proposals are primarily a means to the end of selling himself as a charismatic Saviour. The traction of his teaching lies precisely in its apocalyptic promise to resentful and credulous marginalised and patronised white males, as well as to an assortment of chauvinists and bigots. Trump is the fearless frontier Übermensch who shouts “Fuck you!” to the establishment and “Trust me!” to the hoi polloi. What makes him so toxic is the combination of faux authenticity and can-do nihilism.

Trump has got it all wrong about asylum seekers. He should welcome them, while encouraging violence against them. “It’s good Yankee hospitality,” he could claim: “we’re making them feel right at home.”

Spot the homophonic error in Trump’s “Making America Great Again”.

I hear that 86-year-old Hal Lindsey is working on a new edition of The Late, Great Planet Earth. November 8th 2016 looks to be a key date in the End-Times scenario. Otherwise we can only be sure that the Last Trump will follow the first.

Three characteristics of the anal expulsive character are overweening self-belief, emotional dysregulation, and casual cruelty. And in his Assholes: A Theory (2012), Aaron James observes that the asshole is characterised by his failure “to recognize others in a fundamental, morally important way.” To coin a phrase, one might speak of the “anality of evil”.

Meanwhile, back at the Temple …“We thank you, God, that we are real Christians, living the Beatitudes, welcoming migrants, supporting ‘Black Lives Matter’, and not hypocrites, xenophobes, and racists like those (Re)publican Trumpvangelicals. Enlighten them, O Lord. Amen.”

The answer to an America full of lapsed Christians is a Christianity full of lapsed Americans.

Here in the UK, we are preparing for a wave of penitent prodigals, sick of presidential pig shit, returning from the far colonies later this year.

Three books being written about the Republican campaign for the presidency: From Ronald to Donald: The Decline and Fall of the GOP; Cruz Control; and O Rubio, Rubio, Wherefore Art Thou, Rubio?

The problem with Twitter is that it’s easier to hate than to love in 140 characters.

The doctrine by which the contemporary Church of Health and Beauty stands or falls is justification by face.

Everyone becomes a sacrifice. The only question is whether you are a self-offering or the immolation of someone else.

Love or certainty? You can’t have both.

Great novelists start by observing their characters and end by being observed by them.

It is said that belief in God begins with wonder. It ends there too.

Blessed are those who read and travel widely, for theirs is the kingdom of Odd.

The dead don’t haunt the living, but the living torment the dead.

We must handle our secrets with care and discernment, because some are to be cherished, while others are half way to being lies.

We are always trying to get away with something. Jesus never tried to get away with anything. I think that’s one way to parse his sinlessness.

Be a guitarist, not a guitar.

The reality of evil and suffering makes some people lose their faith in God. For me, it has the opposite effect.

I used to hate weeding, working with impatience. Now that I’m a drain on society, however, I identify with dock and dandelions, and I dispatch them reluctantly.

I once was lost, but now am found. Otherwise, I’m as screwed up as the next guy.

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