Review: Passions of the Christ

Passions of the Christ, F. Scott Spencer. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021.

Summary: A study of the emotional life of Jesus in the gospels, drawing upon both classical thought and emotions theory.

Sometimes, Jesus is presented to us as without passion, always in control. Some of this arises from belief in the impassibility of God. Yet what does the incarnation mean if the fully human as well as divine Jesus is emotionless. F. Scott Spencer presents a very different picture of the emotional life of Jesus. He observes a range of emotions in Jesus from anger and disgust to anguish to surprise, deep compassion, and joy. Often, in the same episode, there will be a complex mix of emotions. Not unlike us.

Spencer’s approach is a combination of exegesis, word study and cultural backgrounds, a consideration of classic philosophy concerning the emotions and contemporary psychology. This results in a deep, probing study of the emotions of Jesus, surprising and unsettling at times, particularly the instances of his anger or disgust, and yet consistent in his passion for the full human flourishing of those to whom he came to minister.

After two chapters laying out the basis for his study, Spencer explores in eight chapters key emotions of Jesus evident in the gospels: anger, anguish both during his ministry and in his final hours, disgust, surprise, compassion, and joy. One of the most interesting episodes is the resuscitation of Lazarus where anger, anguish, disgust (Jesus “snort”), and compassion all come together in one narrative.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter was that on the amazement or surprise of Jesus. We see this both in response to the unbelief of his own people, and the unexpected belief of the Roman centurion. Spencer proposes that there is a kind of “enlargement” of Jesus on perspective in these episodes. Likewise, we may wonder about the anger of Jesus at times, for example with the leper in Mark 1. Spencer contends that the leper’s “if you choose,” questions the life-giving mission of Jesus, a form of unbelief deeply disturbing, sufficiently explanation for the anger of Jesus.

Spencer makes us take a fresh look at these emotional expressions in Jesus’s life. Whether one agrees with his exploration of these emotions, it is unavoidable that Jesus manifests the full range of emotions we all do. He is not the incarnate God in appearance only. Yet anger, disgust, surprise, compassion and joy also make sense in light of a singular passion for human flourishing in relation with God. And in all this, the saving God is revealed.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Spiritual Practices of Jesus

Spiritual Practices of Jesus, Catherine J. Wright. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of three spiritual practices of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel considering them in the first century context of his readers and the writings of the earliest fathers of the church.

Catherine J. Wright does several things in this book I have not seen before. First, she focuses attention on what the scriptures, and specifically Luke’s gospel have to say about the spiritual practices of Jesus. She does so systematically, looking at all the passages around a particular practice.

Second, she asks the question of how Luke’s earliest readers in the first century would have thought about the particular practice in question. In particular, she keeps in mind the intention of first century biographies not only to inform but also transform the readers. Consideration is given to the regard given the practice in the wider culture and how this might shape their reception of Luke’s account.

Finally, Wright looks at the earliest church fathers and their interpretations and responses to Luke’s gospel. This offers tangible evidence of how the church understood and received these accounts in their setting.

Wright focuses on three practices, each which recur in numerous passages in Luke: simplicity, humility, and prayer. For each, she offers commentary on the text, then discussion of the practice in first century culture, and thirdly, she goes back to the specific texts from the first overview and discusses what the early church fathers had to say about the text. Through all this, she both summarizes the practice of Jesus and draws compelling contemporary applications for the church.

For example, she considers the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich man who approaches Jesus., noting the lack of generosity with both, the unwillingness to be dispossessed of wealth for the care of others, and in the latter’s case, to pursue the kingdom. Wright notes the expectations in both Jewish and Greek literature for the rich to be benefactors. In learning from the fathers, we learn that Chrysostom considered the failure to give alms to the poor to be theft. Basil of Caesarea teaches that “the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in poverty.” Wright then concludes with this trenchant application in her summary:

Perhaps one reason for the emphasis on radical almsgiving is the lens through which early Christians look at wealth. In their opinion, we don’t really own our wealth. It is placed in our care by God so that we may bestow it to those who have less than we do. Therefore, when we spend our wealth on ourselves alone, we are essentially stealing from the poor (and thereby from God). The reverse is also true. When we give to the poor, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the resources God has trusted us with, and we are, in essence, giving to God. This attitude could not be further from the attitude that many Christians in America have today.

Catherine J. Wright, p. 63.

She offers challenges around humility as the mark of the early Christian but forgotten in the contemporary church’s quest for power and influence. She notes the practice of continual, fervent prayer by both Jesus and his early followers and the superficial practices that characterize most of our Western churches.

As we hear of the practices of simplicity, humility, and prayer in connection with our Lord, we say, “but of course.” What Wright’s close reading of Luke’s gospel, and consideration of Luke’s earliest readers does, is challenge us to see what this meant for those who called, and call themselves disciples. As Wright traces this out, it becomes apparent that many of us have not looked very closely at Luke’s narrative, not the Lord of whom it is written, if measured by the lack of correspondence between our lives and His. Wright does not bludgeon us with this truth but beckons us to join Luke’s early readers in the embrace of these practices out of love for the one who called us and models and teaches them for us to live into.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Nazarene

The Nazarene: Forty Devotions on the Lyrical Life of Jesus, Michael Card. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: The author helps us consider Jesus through lyrics from his songs and biblically informed reflections.

Michael Card has been singing and writing about Jesus for over thirty years. I first encountered his music in the late 1980’s and was struck with the depth of the lyrics that made the biblical text of the gospels come to life. Later on, he began writing more about the biblical texts that had informed his lyrics in books like Scribbling in the Sand, and commentaries on the four gospels titled The Biblical Imagination Series. Last year, his book Inexpressible made my “Best of the Year” list (review).

This work is a series of forty devotions, nearly all associated with lyrics from his music, beginning with his title “The Nazarene.” They are grouped in four groups of ten based on each of the gospels. Each of the devotions can be read on its own or in conjunction with listening to the recordings (not included with the book).

Each section begins with an imagined reflection on each of the attributed gospel writers. Matthew is found reflecting on the expulsion of Jewish Christians from the synagogues. This gives added meaning to his reflection on Jesus’s words, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” His last devotion on the Kingdom reflects on the hidden and revealed, its smallness and enormity, its nearness and far off character.

In Mark, the devotion on “A Great Wind, A Great Calm, a Great Fear” brought to light the demonic character of the storm, enroute to the encounter with the Gadarene demoniac. Most fearsome was not the storm but the authority of the one who calmed it. It raises for me the question of whether I want Jesus to be that powerful. This is followed up with the devotion on “The Stranger” and how we the real Jesus may be a stranger to us. I think of the many times of reading the gospels, and asking, along with Card, “who is this Jesus?”

For me, one of the most thought-provoking of the reflections from the Luke section was number 26 on “The Bridge.” He writes:

From the head to the heart
From the heart to the mind
The Truth must make a journey

He believes that the “bridge” from heart to mind is the imagination–that we often read scripture only with our hearts or only with our heads. He proposes that the parables of Jesus help bridge these. It seemed to me that this devotional captured the essence of Card’s work–a life of studying and meditating on the word and using the imagination in lyric and writing to enter deeply into the narratives of Jesus.

Finally, in John, I felt Card brought to life for me the significance of Jesus’ proclamation on the last day of the feast, “come to me and drink” in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles. He also takes us deeply into the shortest verse in scripture, “Jesus wept” and why he did so at the death of Lazarus.

This work comes out just in time for Advent but equally would make a great collection of Lenten readings. More than that, Card invites us to join him in singing the songs of the Savior. When asked why he writes all these lyrics about Jesus, Card responds, “How can you not sing about him?” Perhaps amid a pandemic and after contentious election, we don’t want to sing at all, and perhaps if our worship is online, it has been a while since we’ve sung the songs of Jesus. This book will restore those songs, and perhaps help us approach with wonder the Jesus we thought we knew, but knew so little.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review galley of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Jesus of the Gospels

The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Andreas J. Köstenberger. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2020.

Summary: An introduction to the four gospels, providing accessible scholarship, introductions and commentary focused on Jesus, to whom each gospel witnesses.

How I wish I had this work as a young Christian reading the New Testament for the first time (the Old Testament would come later). I thought back as I read through this work how much I had missed in my early readings. Sure, I noticed the amazing, and sometimes perplexing, things Jesus taught and did. I noticed the similarities between the first three gospels, and some of the differences but had no sense of why they were different. Then there was John, which seemed so different. But I missed so much that Andreas Köstenberger highlights in this work, designed as a companion for new readers and students of the gospels.

In the introduction and first chapter the author sets out his basic premises for the book. He accepts these as accounts either by witnesses or based on eyewitness accounts that are trustworthy, coherent, and centered on the person of Christ. Rather than provided lengthy discussions of critical scholarship, the focus is on the text in its context. Citing the “quests for the historical Jesus” which often are reflections of the interpreters, Köstenberger’s approach is to allow each gospel to speak for itself, offering four complementary accounts of Jesus life, and he advocates the reading of all four gospels, proceeding in the canonical order.

After the introductory material, the author takes a chapter for each gospel. First he answers the questions of who is the person to whom the gospel is attributed, how they tell the story of Jesus, what their distinctive emphases are and the major contours or outline of the gospel. This is followed by passage by passage commentary of the text with helpful background, and occasional sidebars (for example on “The Herods in the New Testament”). At the end of each section, there is a Recap, summarizing the section and how this connects to the theme.

Köstenberger notes key structural features of each gospels, such as the five sections of teaching in Matthew, or the book of signs and book of exaltation structure of John. He calls attention to the “Markan sandwich” and alerts the reader to instances of this. He shows Luke’s concern for women and the outsider. He also offers a list of suggested resources for those interested in further study (although all of these were written by him!) and a thirty day reading plan to work through the gospels.

The book is a large format paperback that easily lies flat on a desk (or one’s lap) while you are reading your Bible. The commentary is easy to read and often offers applications. This is a great resource for anyone beginning to read the gospels, for anyone wanting to discover Jesus again, or perhaps for the first time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Jesus Creed

The Jesus Creed

The Jesus CreedScot McKnight. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2019.

Summary: Explores how reciting, reflecting upon, and living the Greatest Command can transform the lives of disciples.

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind and with all your strength.”
The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
There is no commandment greater than these.

Scot McKnight proposes that this response by Jesus to a teacher of the law regarding what was the greatest commandment was not merely a response of Jesus, but reflected the creed Jesus recited. Certainly the first part, drawn from the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), was a creed every devout Jew recited and professed. Jesus response did something revolutionary. He added Leviticus 19:18 concerning love of neighbor. Jesus sums up the spiritual life, and all the teaching of the law as love of God and neighbor.

McKnight, who came from a non-credal background, made  this a personal creed, reciting it morning and evening. In this work, McKnight offers a series of reflections on a life lived around the Jesus Creed, a life lived around loving God and others. After encouraging the use of this creed in prayer, McKnight explores the God we are to love and the powerful truth that we address Abba, the Father who first loves us, even when we were prodigals. The table he invites us to is an open table, a place where a new society is created. This sacred love, exemplified by John Woolman, manifests in transformed worship and transformed relationships.

In the second of four parts, McKnight leads us in reflecting on stories of people in the New Testament transformed by their embrace of Jesus and his creed: John the Baptist, Joseph, Mary, Peter, John, and the women around Jesus. I was particularly taken by his treatment of Joseph as a righteous man, who in taking Mary as his wife when she was pregnant with Jesus, lost his righteous reputation with a woman perceived as adulterous, and with an illegitimate child. McKnight observes that in his decision to love God and Mary and the baby, he loses his reputation and gains an identity as the husband of Mary and the Father of Jesus.

The third part explores a vision of the society of the Jesus Creed, It is a society that transforms life in the now. It is a mustard seed society in which small beginnings have far-reaching results. It is a society for justice, one devoted to setting things to rights. It is a society of restoration, that tears down walls of protection to spread the infectious purity of Jesus. It is a society of joy, where yearnings met by glimpses of joy become the full-blown joy of feasting with God and each other. It is a society of perspective, where we discover that “the end is the beginning,” where our communion now with God in scripture and in prayer in Christian community is shaped by what we expect to be our eternal destiny.

Finally, McKnight considers what it means for us to live the Jesus Creed. He summarizes this as:

  • Believing in Jesus
  • Abiding in Jesus
  • Surrendering in Jesus
  • Restoring in Jesus
  • Forgiving in Jesus
  • Reaching Out in Jesus

All of these were challenging chapters, and certainly the challenge to forgive is one many of us wrestle with. Another, that I do not hear much of these days, is that of surrender. McKnight speaks of surrendering both mind and body and gets very specific about each. Here is part of what he says about physical surrender:

   A disciple of Jesus recognizes the significance of what is physical. As Dallas Willard makes clear in several of his books, “the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life.” The challenge for spiritual formation is for our bodies to love God and others so that they “honor God.” While some people need to discipline the body more than others, the extravagances of some forms of monasticism, however well intended, express a fundamental misconception of the proper place of the body in spiritual formation. Having said that, however, the disciplines of the Christian life are “body acts of love” and cannot be set aside if we are being spiritually formed. In fact, the body cries for the opportunity to surrender itself to the Jesus Creed (p. 207).

No gnosticism here. McKnight explores how our bodily love for God and others works out in everything from our use of power to our quest for agelessness to our acceptance of the gift of our sexuality, while guarding from the misuse of this gift.

McKnight’s book is so valuable in calling us back to the heart of following Jesus. When asked about what we believe, at best we often stumble to offer theological, explanations, or at our worst, declare all the things we are against. McKnight invites us to reflect, and by saying this creed morning and evening, to center our lives on what Jesus thought most important. I suspect that we often get distracted from loving God and neighbor because it is simply hard. On the one hand, this is uncompromisingly simple–love God with all you are, and when you find a neighbor–love that person as you would be loved. On the other hand, it is hard, and that, I think is why we turn to other things. It is scary to give ourselves wholeheartedly to God. And we worry what will become of us if we give ourselves wholeheartedly to the neighbor. But does this not take us into the place of surrender, of trusting the love of Abba-Father, as we day by day pray the Jesus Creed?

WWJDO?

 

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Merchants_Chased_from_the_Temple_(Les_vendeurs_chassés_du_Temple)_-_James_Tissot

James Tissot, The Merchants Chased from the Temple. Public Domain via Wikimedia

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. (Matthew 21:12, NIV)

 

This verse was in the Palm Sunday reading at my church this past Sunday. I should mention that my reflections here may bear scant resemblance to my pastor’s sermon, so this only reflects the workings of my mind, not what my pastor had to say (which I also remember!).

I was thinking about some of the recent “What would Jesus…?” slogans. There was “What Would Jesus Do?” complete with bracelets. Later on, some environmentally oriented Christians started a campaign with the slogan “what would Jesus drive?”. This verse inspired me with a new one: “who would Jesus drive out?”

The context is that Jesus is standing in the temple courts. More precisely, he is standing in the court of the Gentiles–the closest that Gentiles  who are “God-fearers” and want to worship Yahweh are permitted to come. The sellers provided a service for Jews who wanted to offer sacrifices, providing a money exchange (probably at a tidy profit) into the approved temple currency. Then they sold birds and other approved sacrificial animals for those who didn’t want to transport them long distances. There was probably a calculation that this was a convenient location. The Gentiles, if there were any who were interested, were considered unclean. They should be glad they are even allowed here, amid the bargaining and calls and cries of the birds and animals–and all the smells of a barnyard. Not exactly welcoming for a Gentile wanting to worship Yahweh. I suspect a more than a few turned away.

Who did Jesus drive out (WWJDO)? It was those whose presence and actions turned spiritually hungry outsiders away from God. It was those who, by their actions, made God their exclusive preserve. We might be troubled by what seems an act of anger, but the focus here is an act that sets things to right, and communicates God’s displeasure with their exclusionary actions.

Strictly speaking, there is no longer a physical temple or a “court of the Gentiles.” The only temple now is the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). So who would Jesus drive out, today?

It would seem to me that it is any whose actions turn people away from Christ and the people of God. It might be intentional or unintentional. I suspect in suggesting this, you may already be composing a mental list of those Jesus would drive away. I have to admit that this is where my mind went when I heard these ways.

Of course, everyone on my list was someone else. I was notably absent from the list. And I started to wonder about that:

  • I wondered about who it is I’ve welcomed and who I’ve ignored.
  • I wondered about whether there are some groups I’ve written off as unworthy or uninterested in God.
  • I wondered if at times I’ve only planned for or reached out to those “like me.”
  • I wondered if I’ve been content with having people at my dinner table and leadership “table” who are like me.
  • I wonder if there are those who have turned away from considering Christ because of what they have seen of my life.

Would I be among those Jesus would drive out? It seems that Lent, and particularly Passion Week is a time for self-examination rather than finger-pointing. It is a time to ask, are there things that I am blind to that are driving people away from God, and could drive me away as well? From what must I repent? Where have I been justifying myself?

What is clear is that Jesus wanted to include far more than those he drove out (who by no means were permanently excluded). The verse Jesus quotes is Isaiah 56:7, which says, “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” Jesus is the one who welcomes those who say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He is the one who promises rest to the weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Who would Jesus drive out?

Review: Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives

Jesus of Nazareth the Infancy Narratives

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy NarrativesPope Benedict XVI (translated by Philip J. Whitmore). New York: Image, 2012.

Summary: A study of the gospel accounts of the annunciations, the infancy, and boyhood of Jesus of Nazareth.

I read this over the Christmas holiday and found this a wonderful study on the narratives surrounding the birth of Christ. The work, by Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) combines careful scholarship with devotional reflectiveness that evidences deep reflections on the details of these gospel texts in Matthew, Luke, and John. What follows are some of the details I had either not noticed or thought about in the ways Benedict describes.

The work is the final volume in the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth series. He begins with the question of the identity of this infant, posed in John 19:9 by Pilate. He notes the differing geneologies of Matthew and Luke and their purposes emphasizing the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic promise, and Luke’s which emphasizes the one who represents all of humanity. One lovely detail was the focus on the four women in Matthew’s geneology, none of whom were Jewish and all considered “sinners” yet through them came this child,

The second part covers the annunciation narratives, comparing and contrasting them. I had not thought before of John’s descent from a priestly line, the forerunner of a new priesthood inaugurated in Jesus. I also appreciated the focus on Mary’s response of seeking understanding, holding the word in her heart, and her “yes” to God. Benedict suggests that in one sense, she conceived this child through her ear, taking in Gabriel’s (and the Lord’s) word. Benedict also affirms the historicity of the virgin birth and links this to the resurrection as the two great miracles of Christianity.

Benedict then turns to the actual birth of Jesus and his presentation in the temple. Again, his attention to small, yet meaningful details struck me: the manger for the one who would be our bread, our food, the birth of the son of David among shepherds, and the angelic announcement. Benedict translates “men of good will” as “those with whom God is pleased,” which he connects to the Father’s statement about his beloved Son, with whom he is “well pleased.”

The last portion focuses on the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt. He discusses their identity and the star. He then makes the observation that the star (or confluence of heavenly bodies) brought the Magi to Jerusalem but they needed the scriptures, God’s revelation, to help them find the child in Bethlehem.

This short work ends with an epilogue discussing Jesus remaining behind in the temple as a twelve year old. Benedict observes the reply to Mary’s “your father and I were looking for you.” Jesus says, “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house.” Even here is a hint of his divine-human awareness, that it is God and not Joseph who is his father. Benedict goes on to discuss the idea that Jesus must be there–a sense of his mission, and a foreshadowing of the other “musts” that would take him to the cross.

While Benedict shows his awareness of the biblical scholarship and discussions around these texts, he does not allow scholarship to overtake theological reflection on the finer details of the text. One has the sense of being invited to stop and take a closer look with him, a look that leads to wonder and joy, which Benedict would observe is a good translation of the word for “Hail!” As I write, the season of Christmas has not yet passed. And even if you cannot read it this year, then have it on hand for next Christmas.

 

Review: Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving Badly

Jesus Behaving BadlyMark L. Strauss. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Explores some of the disturbing acts and statements of Jesus, that actually reveal his counter-cultural message and mission.

A number of years ago I was leading a Bible discussion with a group of students on Mark 7:25-30, where a Syrophoenician woman asks Jesus to drive a demon out of her daughter. He answers her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). A student in the group commented, “I understood everything that was going on until Jesus opened his mouth.”

I suspect he wasn’t the first person to read the gospels and, and instead of finding “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” discovered challenging Jesus, disturbing and troubling. Mark L. Strauss has written this book for those who don’t find everything they encounter in reading the gospels easy to swallow and wonder how a person could possibly give their ultimate allegiance to a Jesus who says and does such disturbing things.

The instance I cite is just one of those Strauss explores in chapters that explore whether or not Jesus spoke in revolutionary or pacifist terms, was loving or angry, a scorched earth prophet cursing fig trees and killing a herd of pigs. Was he a works-oriented legalist demanding the rich sell all to attain heaven, a hell fire preacher (Jesus says more about hell than anyone in the Bible), an anti-family crusader who speaks of hating one’s parents, a racist (as in the passage above), a sexist, and an anti-Semite? In the end was he a deluded prophet of the end time who ended up a decaying corpse?

Strauss goes behind the scenes as it were, and explains the background and intent of some of Jesus most puzzling acts. He doesn’t “explain away” these things, but rather brings out the radical implications of who this Jesus is. While offering various ideas about hell that Christians affirm, he upholds the idea that God won’t just ignore evil and leave it unpunished. He points out that his word to the Syrophoenician woman was the diminutive of dog, softening the insult, yet provoking the woman to answer him in kind, and win, not only the argument (the only one who ever did and a woman at that!) but Jesus’ commendation and the deliverance of her daughter. He offers plausible interpretations of the end times sayings that demonstrate that Jesus did not get it wrong, and good reasons to believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

The book is a great one to give to the skeptic or seeking person or even the believer who is troubled by these things. Strauss’s discussions reveal a considerable background in biblical scholarship (he is a professor of New Testament) and yet very readable and easily understood.  Here is a sample, in his discussion of Jesus harsh words and conflicts with the religious leaders:

    “It becomes clear in this context why Jesus responded in such a forceful manner. He believed that his coming was the center point in human history, the climax of God’s plan of salvation. There was no plan B. His mission was to call Israel to repentance and faith in preparation for the kingdom of God. Anyone who opposed this message stood in defiance of God. Jesus said, ‘Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30//Lk 11:23). When the leaders of Israel rejected Jesus, he had no choice but to reject their authority and to publicly denounce them. He calls them ‘blind guides’ because, from his perspective, that is what they were. They were leading God’s people astray and missing out on God’s plan of salvation–the climax of human history.”

Strauss puts this out to his readers both forthrightly and yet gives them space to consider for themselves whether he has made his case. He acknowledges that not all will buy it, which I think for many is winsome. He deals with liberal scholars like Albert Schweitzer, and debunking critics like Bart Ehrman, whose work and television appearances may have swayed some.

The book includes a study guide which can be useful for both individuals and groups discussing the book. The season leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday sometimes leads to discussions about the significance of Christ. This is a timely book to make sense of a Jesus, who, as Rebecca Pippert describes him in Out of the Saltshakercould be both “delightful and disturbing.”

Jesus Was a Refugee

The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone

The Flight into Egypt by Giotto di Bondone

Jesus was a refugee.

He and his parents fled a vicious pogrom against the babies of Bethlehem, of which he was the target. Egypt opened its borders and provided a home for this child until the jealous king who sought his death found the death he sought for others.

We were refugees. Many of our forbears sought refuge in this country from famine, economic destitution, political tyranny and religious persecution. The church denomination of which I am a part came to this country as refugees seeking freedom of religion when they could be forcibly drowned simply for teaching a baptism of immersion.

My city has been a haven for refugees. We host the second largest Somali population in North America with over 45,000 living in different neighborhoods across our city. Many families came here in 1991 when warlords made life in Somalia a life and death struggle. Babies then are Buckeyes now, students at Ohio State and other U.S. universities. Somalis have bought homes, paid taxes, run businesses. It has been hard because of fears of ties with terror organizations. Yet the actual incidents of this have been few, but widely publicized. Do we give the same publicity, I wonder, to native-born citizens also drawn into these organizations?

Now refugees are pouring into Western countries from Syria. The estimates are that three million have fled Syria and 6.5 million are internally displaced, many in refugee camps in the country. So far our country has accepted 1500 refugees or .5 percent of those who have fled the country. We say we’ll take 10,000 more.

I’ve heard all the arguments against taking more–the costs, the risks. No doubt there is some truth in all of it. There are those more learned than I who can parse all this out. I’m stuck back at the first sentence in this post:

Jesus was a refugee.

This is the same Jesus who later said, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40, NIV).

It makes me wonder, if Jesus had sought refuge in America, would we have closed our borders? And if we did, what would that have meant for the world? And what about the many other refugees who came to our country? Albert Einstein, Elie Wiesel, Bela Bartok, Madeline Albright, Miriam Makeba, Isabel Allende, and Henry Kissinger are but a few.

I do not mean to suggest that we turn a blind eye to risks. But it seems that in the hysterical fears that would close our borders, we may protect ourselves from terror at the risk of excluding those who might be our saviors, or who may immensely enrich our society by their genius and unique contributions.

Jesus was a refugee.

What Would Bring Them Together?

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

The Crucifixion, As Seen From the Cross, James Tissot

What would bring together a Libyan, at least two criminals, urban natives, provincial dwellers, and diaspora people, women, children, the religious and cultural elite, and forces of an occupying army? On the first Good Friday it was the execution by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. If you don’t believe me, read the narrative of Luke 23:26-56:

  • Soldiers lead him away (v. 26) and mock him (v. 36).
  • Simon of Cyrene (a town on the coast of Libya) is impressed to carry the cross (v. 26).
  • A crowd of people including women follow (v. 27). Likely this included both residents of Jerusalem and diaspora Jews in town for the feast of the Passover. From Jesus’ words in v. 28, living and children yet unborn might have been there as well.
  • Two criminals were executed, one on each side of Jesus (v. 32).
  • Rulers of the people join in mocking Jesus (v. 35).
  • A Roman centurion (the officer leading the group of 100 troops garrisoned there and probably participating in the crucifixion) praises God and says “surely this was a righteous man” (v. 47)
  • Joseph, a Judean member of the religious elite, secures Jesus’ body and lays it in a grave (vv. 50-51).
  • Women from Galilee, a provincial region from which Jesus came, followed Joseph and noted the location of the tomb so they could return with spices and perfumes (which would mask the smell of the decaying body).

Only recently did I reflect on the wide array of humanity that the crucifixion brought together–people who otherwise would not associate. Different social classes, urban and rural dwellers, Jews and Gentiles, people from Palestine, Africa, and Eurasia, men and women, oppressed and oppressors, criminals and those who sentenced them all were at the cross.

This was not a “kumbayah moment” by any means. And yet this gathering in a strange way pre-figured the new humanity, the “beloved community” that would arise from the death of Jesus on a Roman gibbet. It didn’t happen all at once, but within fifteen years or so there was a community like this in Syrian Antioch consisting of both Jews and Gentiles that reflected this kind of diversity–so much so that outsiders coined a neologism to describe them–“Christians”–and it stuck.

Diversity and inclusion is a big thing in the university context in which I work. And yet I’m struck by the stark contrasts that I’ve witnessed this week in the realization of this vision. On one hand, I listened to the newly invested first African-American president of the university where I am engaged in ministry speak of “inclusion with excellence.” It was a moment not unlike the inauguration in 2008 of President Obama. In the same week, I listened to the news reports of a university campus in Kenya with students with aspirations much like those with whom I work that was turned into a killing field.

It is hard to be flung back and forth between such high aspirations and such virulent hatred. Yet Good Friday reminds me that the followers of the crucified One, when most faithful to their calling become a community drawing together all the polar opposites and scattered peoples found at the foot of the cross and more. The apostle Paul wrote about this saying, “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:15b-16, NIV).

If you don’t share my Christian convictions and have read this far, I thank you for extending such grace to my words. Truthfully, I’m writing more to speak to myself and perhaps to those who share my convictions. Against all the polarities we are tempted to create, God’s story is one of surprising us again and again by turning the “other” into a brother or sister, the despised “enemy” into my neighbor, and the criminal or oppressor I consider beyond hope to one with whom I’ll share paradise.

And it all began one Friday afternoon at a crucifixion…