I’ve been studying for a message I’m giving this Saturday morning on “Christ our Coming King” for Eastbrook‘s monthly men’s breakfast. I came across this quotation from N. T. Wright in his book Surprised by Hope, that captures so much in such a small space that I couldn’t help but share it.
What we have here, with minor variations, is a remarkably unanimous view spread throughout the early Christianity known to us. There will come a time, which might indeed come at any time, when, in the great renewal of the world that Easter itself foreshadowed, Jesus himself will be personally present and will be the agent and model of the transformation that will happen both to the whole world and also to believers. This expectation and hope, expressed so clearly in the New Testament, continues undiminished in the second and subsequent centuries. Mainstream Christians throughout the early period were not worried by the fact that the event had not happened within a generation. The idea that the problem of ‘delay’ set out in 2 Peter 3 was widespread in second-generation Christianity is a modern scholar’s myth rather than a historical reality. Nor was the idea of Jesus’s ‘appearing’ or ‘coming’ simply part of a tradition that was passed on uncritically without later generations really tuning in to what it was saying. As with the ascension, so with Jesus’s appearing: it was seen as a vital part of a full presentation of the Jesus who was and is and is to come. Without it all the church’s proclamation makes no sense. Take it away, and all sorts of things start to unravel. The early Christians saw this as clearly as anyone since, and we would do well to learn from them.
(N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, page 136)
During this past Lent I read through Jürgen Moltmann‘s classic work The Crucified God. I am just finishing it up, but it is both an intellectually challenging and deeply moving book. As I draw near to the end, there are some real jewels in his writing. In my mind, the entire book was worth reading simply to encounter this profound paragraph.
When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religions, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.
Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1974), 276.
In my message this past Easter weekend at Eastbrook – “A King and His Kingdom” – I explored the startling reality that Jesus’ closest disciples did not initially believe the message of Jesus’ resurrection but doubted. Luke tells us that they even went so far as to categorize the story of the women who encountered angels at the tomb as “nonsense.” This terms comes from the medical realm and refers to the delirious ravings of someone overcome by their sickness. Not a good response from the disciples, it seems.
However, I believe their honest engagement with doubt and questions actually is an expression of faith as they move into a new experience of Christ. It is not authentic to disavow our doubts when they are there. It will not lead us into faith to shut our questions into a back room of our minds, and pretend they do not exist.
Even in our own day, we’ve had our share of doubters who have in their honest journey of doubt experienced the risen Jesus. Here’s a list
- Lee Strobel (journalist) – at the popular level, Strobel sought to disprove his wife’s faith in Jesus, but ended up becoming a Christian himself. His book The Case for Christ shares that journey.
- C. S. Lewis (Oxford and Cambridge medieval literature professor) – Lewis is so well-known for The Chronicles of Narnia and his own journey of faith that it’s hard to remember that his journey from agnosticism to faith was triggered by conversations with J. R. R. Tolkien. Basically, Tolkien got Lewis thinking about whether all the best myths which cause longing to rise up in our hearts might be echoes of the one true story found in Jesus Christ.
- Edith Stein (Jewish philosopher) – Stein’s upbringing in a Jewish home led her to reject her faith. She wandered for years before finding faith in Jesus Christ after battling through philosophical issues. Stein went on to become a nun, later known as Teresa Benedict of the Cross
- Francis Collins (geneticist) – Collins was an atheist scientist, but his work on the human genome project with DNA brought him to a point of consideration about the intricacy of the nature of life and the universe. He later converted to Christianity, and wrote about it in his book, The Language of God.
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn (novelist and social commentator) – Solzhenitsyn is best known for writings such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn’s suffering in a Russian gulag actually led him to faith in Christ.
- Antony Flew (philosopher) – Flew was a rabid atheist throughout most of his life, but changed directions later in life. His 2007 book, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind, offers this striking description: “It may well be that no one is as surprised as I am that my exploration of the Divine has after all these years turned from denial…to discovery.” He defended his change of direction and directly addressed claims of ‘the new atheists’, most notably in his review of Christopher Hitchens’ book The God Delusion.
Let your doubt lead you to Christ in this resurrection season.
This past weekend in my message, “The Sent Son,” from Luke 20:1-19, I shared an illustration from Kenneth Bailey‘s excellent book, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels, from the life of King Hussein I of Jordan. I am trusting Bailey about the accuracy of the story since he writes: “I was able to confirm it from a high-ranking American intelligence officer who was serving in Jordan at the time the incident took place.”
I utilized this story, as Bailey did, to help us get a sense of what is happening in the parable of the vineyard in Luke 20:9-16 when the owner sends his beloved son to confront the tenant-farmers who have already harshly rejected the servants he sent. As Bailey highlights, in a shame-honor culture the vulnerability of the powerful creates a decision moment in which those bound to a wrong response are shamed into responding honorably. For King Hussein this story ends with honor, but for the noble owner and his beloved son in the parable the conclusion is shameful rejection and ultimate destruction for the tenant-farmers.
One night in the early 1980s, the king was informed by his security police that a group of about seventy-five Jordanian army officers were at that very moment meeting in a nearby barracks plotting a military overthrow of the kingdom. The security officers requested permission to surround the barracks and arrest the plotters. After a somber pause the king refused and said, ‘Bring me a helicopter.’ A helicopter was brought. The king climbed in with the pilot and himself flew to the barracks and landed on its flat roof. The king told the pilot, ‘If you hear gun shots, fly away at once without me.’
Unarmed, the king then walked down two flights of stairs and suddenly appeared in the room where the plotters were meeting and quietly said to them:
Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that you are meeting here tonights to finalize your plans to overthrow the government, take over the country and install a military dictator. If you do this, the army will break apart and the country will be plunged into civil war. Tens of thousands of innocent people will die. There is no need for this. Here I am! Kill me and proceed. That way only one man will die.
After a moment of stunned silence, the rebels as one, rushed forward to kiss the king’s hand and feet and pledge loyalty to him for life.
I’ve been rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic book, Discipleship, over the past month or so. As I was reading this past week, a paragraph from his reflections on Matthew 10:26-39 stood out to me. Here it is:
Human beings should not be feared. They cannot do much to the disciples of Jesus. Their power stops with the disciples’ physical death. The disciples are to overcome fear of death with fear of God. Disciples are in danger, not from human judgment, but from God’s judgment, not from the decay of their bodies, but from the eternal decay of their bodies and souls. Anyone who is still afraid of people is not afraid of God. Anyone who fears God is no longer afraid of people. Daily reminders of this statement are valuable for preachers of the gospel.