Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Jesus or Moses?

In John's gospel account, Jesus is often compared with Moses. The many comparisons highlight the tension between the early Christians and their Jewish roots. It's clear that the message of Jesus divided the Jewish community.

Look at John 6, for example. This is Jesus out-Mosesing Moses. He's out in the desert and is followed by a crowd who are fed by a miraculous supply of bread. He even follows it up with a miraculous crossing of the sea, walking on it rather than walking through it. Sounds a lot like the Exodus experience, and the crowd knows it.
So they said to him, ‘What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” ’
So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
The story goes on to say that after this, many of his disciples left him and for a long while I thought they left him because his teachings were crazy, or because people just didn't understand the metaphor. With texts like these, it's no wonder that some people accused early Christians of cannibalism.

But this is far from the truth. The clue to the real problem here is back with Moses, and specifically in Leviticus 17.
If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.
Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off from the people. They will be expelled, excommunicated, rejected, and disinherited. They will lose their identification with the nation. Jesus doesn't reinterpret the principle of eating blood, he drives it to an extreme conclusion. Yes, the blood has the life and yes, if you eat Jesus' blood you'll be cut off from the people.

No wonder they turned away from Jesus. Seen in this light, he was preaching a message that forced them to choose between Jesus and their own heritage. Choose Jesus or Moses, you can't have both. If you choose Jesus, you'll drink his blood and be cut off from the people of Israel.

For the original audience of John's gospel, this might have represented their own struggle with conversion to Christianity. Many were rejected by their families because of it. But is the problem really Jewishness? I suggest that the problem is larger than that, and that it could be Australian-ness, or British-ness, or American-ness, or even Christendom. The problem that Jesus confronts is group identity. We're entrenched deeply within the groups that raised us; so deep that it gives us our identity. Jesus insists that to follow him is to leave that identity behind and be rejected by that group for Jesus' sake. To follow Jesus is to risk being cut off from the people you call family, from the land you call home; and at the same time, to follow Jesus is to follow the holy one of God, to hear the words of eternal life.

The contrast between Jesus and Moses is not about Moses the man, but Moses the symbol of what we inherited from our culture. When we follow Jesus we need to be willing to leave that behind, and to be rejected by those who remain there.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Whose side are you on?

I think it's fair to say that God is on our side only inasmuch as God wants the good for us, but no further. Beyond that it is we who must move to be on God's side. If we forget this, or even worse reverse it, then we have made God into an idol of our own image. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Knowing Jesus, Being Known by Jesus

"From the human point of view there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey. ... Those who treat the word of Jesus any other way except by acting on it assert that Jesus is wrong; they say no to the Sermon on the Mount; they do not do his word. ... I can insist on my faith and my fundamental recognition of this word as much as I want; Jesus calls it inaction. The word that I do not want to do is no rock for me on which I can build a house. I have no unity with Jesus. He has never known me." - Bonhoeffer, Discipleship


In characteristic severity, Bonhoeffer slaps us in the conscience with this stark reminder of Jesus' message of the houses on the sand or on the rock. He labours the point about those who put Jesus' words into practice and those who do not.

There are many sermons today about faith, but how many about action?

There are many people who look at us Christians and form an opinion of Jesus from what they see in us. When they look at us, will they see a people who have built their houses on the rock by acting on the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus calls us to action, saying that to act this way is to be on the firm foundation of the divine will, that it is the way to be known by Jesus and to know Jesus. Do you want to know Jesus? Do you want to be known by Jesus? The answer is the same: do what he commanded in the Sermon on the Mount.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

We aren't made for heaven

I don't hold much to any sense of a disembodied afterlife. There doesn't seem to be overwhelming evidence in the bible for a heavenly afterlife, at least. If anything, the bible holds views either of nothingness or resurrection, depending on which books one reads in the bible.

Salvation isn't about pie in the sky when you die. It's not about escaping hell with a kind of "Get out of jail free" card. Salvation is for the here and now. Salvation is for this world, to transform this world and its people. Jesus had a message for his contemporaries, about a divine way to live, about the interruption of God into the world. He preached that the Day of the Lord had arrived, and with it the justice of God for all people.
"It is not with the beyond that we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of liberal, mystic pietistic ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of the creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ." - Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
Bonhoeffer's words remind us of Jesus' saying that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Heaven was made for us, not us for heaven. God's reality is made to come here, to be manifest here. That's the first target for salvation. The good news is that God wants to do something about this world here and now by bringing heaven to us.

A careful reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus preached almost entirely about the arrival of the kingdom on earth, and about how we should live. Even in his sayings about Gehenna and Abraham's Bosom and Paradise he brings it back to contemporary life, the life lived by us here and now.

Let me be clear. The kingdom of God is meant for this world now, not left for an unknown time or a disembodied place.

Furthermore, we are called to make it happen, not through the powers of this world, but through obedience to Jesus. In the shameful parts of church history we have tried to make it happen at the point of a sword, as though we were entitled to bring the judgement of God. And when we did that we were undoing all the good that Jesus had done. Our strategy is not the sword, it is obedience to Jesus. Imagine a world in which we all loved as Jesus loved. Imagine a world in which we all served each other, shared with each other, worked hard for the benefit of each other, loved each other. A whole world like that? That's the kingdom of God; the kingdom brought about by our obedience to Jesus' command to love.

In a world like that, the rich are set free from enslavement to wealth, the poor are set free from destitution. In a world like that, the perpetrators are set free from committing sin, the victims are spared the sting of sin.

It sounds too good to be true, like a dream of a delusional person. It sounds like hippy tree-hugging nonsense. Who would ever listen to a message like that? Worse still, who is the madman who would preach it?

Jesus preached a message so difficult that many could not accept it and they left him. But in his message is God's answer to the problems of this world. For us now we need to decide whether Jesus was the Christ, sent to preach the divine truth. Once we answer that, we know whether to take him seriously enough to obey him.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Seeing and Being Seen

Becoming a Christian entails a new perspective on the world. It's just not possible to believe that Jesus has been resurrected without also affecting how we see the rest of the world around us. Right at the heart of a new worldview is a new view of ourselves and of the people in the world around us. To that end, Bonhoeffer has this to say about how we see ourselves:
"The person now lives in the contemplation of Christ. This is the gift of faith, that one no longer looks upon oneself, but solely upon the salvation that has come to one from without. One finds oneself in Christ, because already one is in Christ, in that one seeks oneself there in Christ." - Bonhoeffer, Act and Being
In other words the Christian does not find themselves by reflecting on themselves, but in the singular focus on the person of Christ. Christ is where we find ourselves. Christ is also what we are to become. When we look at Christ we see ourselves purified here and now, and we see ourselves as we are becoming. As we continue to live as disciples of Christ we also continue to become like Christ. Our awareness of ourselves is found in our focus on Christ, not our focus on ourselves.

Furthermore, if the Christian only truly sees themselves in Christ, the Christian can only truly see others in Christ. In a way, they become like the Christ-in-need of Matthew 25. Every other person is the Christ who needs to be cared for in sickness, who needs to be fed in hunger. And when we see that Christ in them as well as ourselves in Christ, we immediately become the Christ who is able to provide what they need.

By contemplating Christ rather than reflecting on our own selves we are able to see Christ in other people, and see ourselves as the body of Christ at work in the world today. The Christian activity of seeing and being seen begins with seeing Christ, then it moves to revealing Christ in the world around us, and ends with us being the hands and feet of Christ in the world today. We truly see in Christ, and we are truly seen in Christ.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Even AI Has Learned How to Live Peacefully

It seems that rudimentary artificial intelligence has figured out and implemented what we mere humans have yet to do. They figured out how to live in peace with each other.

This screen grab from a forum (from a retweet by William Gibson) tells the story. In short, after running a Quake 3 bot simulation for four years, all 16 bots learned that the best way for individual survival is for each individual to stop initiating aggression. The secondary result is collective survival as well.

If the image doesn't display well for you, here's the link to where I found it.


Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Ruddy Returns

Kevin Rudd is PM. Again. Does that mean he qualifies for the PM pension twice over?

I feel a little prescient, though, about his comments on same-sex marriage. It's a vote-winner among some parts of the electorate and Rudd is keen to win votes.
"Wherever I go in Australia, it just hits you in the face what young people think about this, which is that our current arrangements are just wrong and offensive to people."
Let's see how much ground he gains with this, and how much he loses. There will undoubtedly be some people who are totally opposed to it and will vote against the ALP because of it. Rudd's almost playing a no-lose game with the issue. He's put the challenge out for a free vote. If Abbott agrees then Rudd wins a small victory by showing leadership. If Abbott refuses, then Rudd wins a different small victory by being able to decry Abbott for squashing the vote. If the vote goes ahead and is approved, Rudd wins by getting the issue through. If the vote goes ahead and is rejected, Rudd can be disappointed and say that it was the parliament's fault.

Seems like he can't lose, right? Except that if he was such a man of conviction on the issue he might also be able to simply push it through with a vote along party lines. Suppose he wins the federal election with a majority, what's to stop him putting the legislation through with the numbers from his own party? Only his willingness to retain support from party members. Despite the noise he's made about it, it's not at the top of his agenda of real things to do, but it's near the top of things to talk about in order to win votes.