Tag Archives: Gospel

The God of Jesus

Who is the God of Jesus?

Unfortunately many view God as a monarchical ruler, but Jesus understood God as Abba – the Aramaic word for father. When a person explores what Jesus meant by Abba, it becomes apparent that it is a vastly different picture of God than many have today.

Theologian John Cobb writes, “But a very important difference between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures of his time was the shift from monarchical language to family relations.”[1]

Let us try to understand what Jesus had in mind when he used the word Abba. While the Christian Scriptures were primarily written in Greek, many believe that Jesus spoke primarily Aramaic and Abba was most likely the word that Jesus himself used when he referred to God. Cobb suggests that Abba is baby talk.[2] It is difficult to be certain of this, but if correct, a more accurate translation may be that of “daddy.” What is most important in understanding Jesus’ use of the word Abba, is that “The normal relation of the father to the infant is one of tenderness and unconditional love. It was unconditional love rather than controlling power that dominated Jesus’ understanding of God.”[3] Jesus did not understand God as ruler or king and in fact never spoke of God in this way, yet it has come to dominate the consciousness of many religious people today.[4]

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A person’s view of God greatly shapes how they understand the central teaching of Jesus which was that the “kingdom of God” has come. If a person views God as ruler or king then this message will be understood a certain way. If a person understands God as a loving and caring parent, then this message will be understood very differently. The phrase “kingdom of God” has been translated from the Greek phrase basileia theou.[5] Since basileia is best defined as “a politically defined region,”[6] it can be interpreted differently. For example, if a person views God as a monarchical ruler or judge, then basileia would surely mean the region or area where the king ruled. In a similar way it could be seen as God’s empire. This is certainly how many interpret the phrase “kingdom of God” today. If, however, a person looks at the phrase “kingdom of God” with a view of God as a loving parent, then they will arrive at a very different understand. Cobb suggests that if God is seen as a father, then “We might describe a father’s basileia better as the family estate.”[7] Of course, this is still open to different ways of understanding depending on the type of parent who owns the estate.

We come back once again to the view of God that Jesus held. Jesus’ Abba was not a distant, angry, or demanding father who ruled with an iron fist, but was rather a loving and compassionate father who cared for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable. Thus, “kingdom of God” or the of basileia theou means “the realm, or community, or commonwealth in which God’s will is done.”[8] The invitation is to become a part of that community or commonwealth right now. Two ideas surrounding this must be addressed.

First, Cobb addresses the belief of basileia theou as an eschatological reality. The “kingdom of God” or community is not something that will happen sometime in the future; rather it is a present reality. Second, if the invitation is a present reality to become a part of a community that cares for the well being of all things with a particular focus upon those most vulnerable, this brings with it a change of attitude, perspective, or way of living. This change – often referred to as repentance – is an essential part of the gospel message. Cobb summarizes the Synoptic Gospels well by stating that the heart of the message was: “reorient yourself radically; the basileia theou is at hand.”[9] The good news demands a shift, a change, or a reorientation of how a person lives so that they see with new eyes, but this shift cannot happen until a person understands God as Abba.

If the good news is an invitation to reorient our lives to enter into Abba’s commonwealth here and now, this inherently has affects on the individual as well as the community. Once a person is able to see God as a loving parent who desire’s to see them flourish (and not an angry dictator), they then cease to defend, hide, or pretend. Salvation is not simply extended by an intolerant God because of a blood sacrifice by His Son, but salvation is an invitation to enter into the healing process or to become more whole. Of course this invitation extends to all, but we must first we must experience this for ourselves.

The good news means that each person is a beloved child of God. If God is Abba, or father, then clearly that means we are His children. Cobb addresses the struggle of non-gendered language when referring to God and chooses to use the male masculine pronoun, though he realizes that this is also limiting because God is also mother. Cobb suggests that not using personal pronouns tends to inhibit an understanding of a personal God. This is something I had not previously thought of, but is beginning to make some sense. I don’t have a problem using the pronoun “she” or the word “mother” when referring to God, but I also understand that it is not common or widely accepted. Thus, perhaps a male masculine pronoun may more accurately reflect an intimate parent, limiting as it may be, than refusing to use any personal pronouns.

Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God and that they cannot and do not need to do anything to “become” this is the first of two steps in the gospel message. The second step is to reorient your life according to this truth. In my opinion, the first step is the hardest and since the second is a natural overflow, I tend to focus more upon the first. Realizing that a person is a beloved child of God is the hardest step because so many religious and non religious people alike understand God as a monarchical king who demands perfection. Because none of us are perfect and we have all “sinned” the idea that God demands a payment of sorts to make up for this “flaw” is prevalent in much of Christianity. Concerning this Cobb writes, “The idea that his mission was to die to appease the wrath of Abba was as remote from Jesus as devil worship, and its effect on the Christian world since Anselm has been poisonous.”[10] Theologically this view is called penal substitutionary atonement, and I agree that it is a poisonous view that has done much harm in our world.

God, according to Jesus, was a loving, caring, and personal parent. God was close, not distant, involved not disengaged, and always works through persuasive love and never through coercive power.

[1] John Cobb, Jesus’ Abba, xx.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 16.

[9] Ibid., 16.

[10] Ibid., 23.

Engaging Religious Pluralism – Is Jesus the only way? – Part 1

I grew up with the belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion. We have the “one, true, and only way to get out of hell card.” Come to us you can experience God’s blessings.

This raised many questions:

What about those who lived before Jesus? How could they possibly be “saved”?

What about those who died and have never heard about Jesus?

What about those of other faiths?

Here are the simple steps I took in my own journey.

Step 1 – If God exists, then all truth comes from God. This is true not only of all religions, but of science as well. Thus, if science reveals a long evolutionary process of creation then I need to figure out how to read and interpret the Bible in light of this evidence.

Step 2 – I saw truth, goodness, and compassion in people of other religions (and no religions at all) that I believed came from God. If Jesus was the only way, why do I find so much to celebrate in others who don’t claim to have Jesus?

Step 3 – Do I have to believe that Jesus is the only way? I began to wrestle with the Bible, my experience, and my upbringing to see if there was a way to be a Christian without being exclusive.

Two One Way roadsigns indicating opposite directions over blue sky - confusion concept

So first the Bible.

The go to text is John 14:6, Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” 

Plain, simple, straightforward, right?

Only pulling one text (or several) out of context and putting it into another context is not good interpretation.

The way or the path of Jesus is the way to God correct? Then what is that path?

I believe that path is the path of death and resurrection, which, interestingly enough, is a path found in most religious traditions. Paradoxically, the path of Jesus is a path to life, yet one must go through death in order to experience this life (resurrection). Isn’t this what all the major wisdom traditions tell us?

When Jesus talks about death, I used to think he meant that I couldn’t act on any impulses because they were all selfish. I should resist buying nice clothes, food, etc for if I denied these things that was “dying to self.” I no longer find this true or helpful, actually it is quite destructive.

The way of death and resurrection is the way to die to our own ego, our sense of superiority, our need to be right or correct, our need to see the world in black and white, our need to have clear boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out.” What I thought was “dying to self” was actually only bolstering up and feeding my ego and sense of superiority…wow!

This is also the great temptation of all religious people at the immature levels.

Interestingly enough, it was the religious leaders during the life of Jesus who seem to struggle with this the most. They did not want to die to these things for it is ultimately a death of the ego. We learn from them that one can use religion to feed the ego and go against this path.

I find it very fascinating that a religion that claims to follow the way of Jesus-  the way of death and resurrection – has a strong tendency to walk a different path and to create more exclusion, bigotry, racism, sexism etc.

Marcus Borg wrote that there are three ways of seeing one’s religion:

1 – The absolutist understanding – one’s own religion is the absolute and only truth

2- the reductionist understanding – all religion is a human invention

3- the sacramental understanding – “religions are human constructions in response to the experiences of the sacred.”

Eventually, through a long and difficult journey, I have come to the third understanding and would agree with Borg when he wrote, “Each of the enduring religions is a mediator of ‘the absolute,’ but not ‘absolute’ itself.”

If God exists, then God cannot be fully known or captured in any one religion.

The question then becomes, “why be a Christian?”

For me personally, I am a Christian because this is the tradition most familiar to me. It is the tradition I was raised in and it is one I continue to find beautiful and compelling. It is “in my bones” so to speak and is very much a part of who I am. It has and continues to be the way I find a deep connection to God.

That being said, I have little interest in converting someone else. If someone is seeking a tradition, or they are wanting to go deeper, I enjoy walking with them. If they are walking along another path or tradition, I don’t feel it is my job to convince them to “change sides.” Rather, I see my job as reflecting the image of God to them and helping them along their path.

I love the story of a Christian who came to the Dalai Lama wanting to convert to Buddhism. His response was to encourage the Christian to follow his tradition (Christianity) in a deeper way.

What a beautiful story!

 

 

The Good News – part 3

So what is the good news ?

I believe that the good news is an announcement of who you already are; a beloved child of God.

It has everything to do with the last three words Jesus uttered on the cross.

It is finished.

It’s really easy to begin to sense if the good news is what you have to do, say, confess, believe or if it is something that has already been given (grace is always a gift) and you simply receive – it is finished, it has been taken care of. In 1 John 3 it says, “Dear friends, now we are God’s children…” As Richard Rohr puts it, “You are already a child of God, equipped with everything you need to begin resonating with the divine”.[1]

I believe this is true of every person, even those who would never darken the doors of a church and who may not consider themselves a Christian. I think this is true of all people, of all ethnicities, of all religions, of all genders, of all sexual orientations. One doesn’t need to find the right religion, church, or belief system in order for this to be true.

Now, my upbringing would push back at this as say that it makes the death of Jesus pointless and cheap. As a Christian I still see the point, value, and cost of the cross. Some say that Jesus died for my sins, I wonder if it is not more accurate to say that Jesus died because of my sins.

It is clear that the first Christians used language and imagery that made sense – sacrifice, ransom, payment, debt etc because that is how they understood the world to be. I don’t see a God who demands payment for sins while being born into a broken world. I do not see a cigar chopping loan shark who demands a pound of flesh in order to offer forgiveness. I do not see a God who inflicts pain and ultimately kills God’s Son – God’s one and only Son on top of it.

What do I see?

I see a God who is willing to endure hell instead of sending me there. I see a nonviolent, self-sacrificing, unconditionally loving God who was not pounding the nails into the hands of Jesus, but who was hanging on that cross some two thousand years ago because that is who God is – surely the cost was great! God endured hell for us and now we better understand who God is.

Now I heard a friend quote a sentence that I believe originated from Richard Rohr, and it has changed my life since.

Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity, he came to change the mind of humanity about God.

The last sentence deserves a second read.

One thing I find so compelling about the Christian tradition is this idea of incarnation – that the divine and human can be found in one place. What is so beautiful about Jesus is that Jesus reflects the image of God…at least that’s what the Christian tradition teaches. So in a world where religion had often become about status, prestige, and control, a Jewish rabbi came along and created a revolution that changed the whole thing. Now people no longer had to enter into that system, no one needed to offer a sacrifice in order to think they were right with God, no one needed to go through a gruesome ritual where they sliced a piece of their foreskin off, no one needed to be bound up in all the laws which benefited the wealthy at the expense of the poor, but instead offered freedom by throwing away any distinctions imposed.

Now there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, (neither heterosexual nor homosexual, neither American nor Iraqi, neither white nor black, neither rich nor poor) for you are all one in Christ Jesus. The distinctions we as humans make are not distinctions God makes. God sees all of humanity as loved, cherished, and accepted exactly as we are and we do not need to change a thing for God to love us – while we were still sinners…

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So where is the hard part? Where is the challenge and the struggle?

The invitation is simple yet so very difficult.

We are invited to receive this gift that we are loved and that there are no distinctions made. Grace is freely given to all (therein lies the offense of the cross ). The challenge then is the invitation that follows –  to enter into this way of being and seeing in the world. We are invited to see that all our loved. We are invited to see that any distinctions we make do not make anyone less loved or accepted. We are invited to look past the outer appearances into a deeper Reality and to be as Jesus – self sacrificial, unconditionally loving, full of grace, mercy, justice, nonviolence, forgiveness, and compassion toward all.

So the good news is really good news for all, but it invites us to see with new eyes and to enter into a new way of being.

If you’re like me, this is an extremely difficult task which is why I have found it necessary to rely on Something greater than myself, namely God.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013), 104.

Is this good news?

I grew up in a tradition where I was taught and believed that the good news (we called it the gospel) was that everyone has sinned and thus was separated from God, yet God sent God’s one and only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for my sin so that when I die I can go to heaven instead of being tortured for all eternity.

Now this is problematic on many levels, but to put it simply it’s not really good news for the following reasons:

1 – It begins with sin management

First, the story of the Bible begins in Genesis 1 where God creates and calls everything good. Where is the action? Here! Notice there is nothing about heaven, an afterlife, and most especially going somewhere else…the action is all here, on earth.

Second, sin (ie anything that is destructive) does not come into the story until Genesis 3.[1] If you start in Genesis 3 it becomes about sin management. Like every story one should begin in the beginning.

2 – It is primarily concerned about the afterlife

Notice the good news (gospel) I was taught is primarily concerned about escaping this world and going somewhere else – this has most definitely led to all kinds of destructive behaviors most recognizably the lack of environmentalism among many Christians. Thankfully the importance of earth care is gaining traction in theology and in faith communities around the world.

Back to the afterlife. As mentioned above the story begins here, on earth, with no mention of anything out there somewhere else.

Where does the story end?

In the book of Revelation (one of the most difficult to interpret and probably the most misinterpreted book of the Bible) we get this beautiful picture of a holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven as a picture of heaven coming to earth.[2]

In what has traditionally been called The Lords Prayer Jesus taught his followers to ask that God’s kingdom and will be done here as it is in heaven.

See a pattern?

The movement of the story is always about heaven coming down here and not us going up there.

3 – It paints a horrific picture of God!

This is one of my biggest struggles and concerns with the way I was taught the good news. This good news paints a picture of God who cannot stand to be around us (God’s good creation?) and needs  blood  in order to forgive. Now the imagery of sacrifice is sprinkled all throughout the Scriptures, but it seems to be the need of the people and not God (more on this topic later).

Now to the main point

God needs to send God’s one and only Son who must be tortured and killed in order for God to forgive? Many have already pointed out the multiple ways this understanding can be destructive, but it does raise many difficult questions and points to a divine child abuser who treats His/Her son in a way no sane parent would deem humane.

I am currently finishing a very good book by Richard Rohr titled The Naked Now where he raises two important points about this topic

  1. “The individual Christian is told to love unconditionally, but the God who commands this is depicted as having a very conditional and quite exclusive love himself or herself! The believer is told to love his enemies, but ‘God’ clearly does not; in fact, God punishes them for all eternity.”[3]
  2. “Even my less-than-saintly friends, the ordinary Joe’s on the block, would usually give a guy a break, overlook some mistakes, and even on their worst days would not imagine torturing people who do not like them, worship them, or believe in them. ‘God’ ends up looking rather petty, needy, narcissistic, and easily offended”.[4]

So what then is the good news?

 

[1] For a great teaching on this subject click here

[2] Revelations 21.

[3] Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013), 80.

[4] Ibid, 81.