Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A poem written long ago- for today ...

The Sweetness of Gathering to the Vine


The sweetness of gathering to the wine

is claimed by children resting in a tree

whose root became the food within the vine.


These, childlike made, they bless the cup and dine

upon the fleshy food they cannot see,

and drink the holy bloody wine.


Like sibling children fighting in a line,

who later laugh when by the bell set free,

these happy ones are laughing in the vine.


And raging gods whose deeds their shape confine

have called for war, whose very end shall be

determined by the drinking of the wine.


Go death to death, the children life define;

now blood of saints and Christ's good blood agree

the holy life is living in the vine.


If nails be sharp pursuing flesh to pine,

and wooden burdens bend and bruise the knee,

feast on the broken flesh, drink up the wine;

hold fast the fellowship within the vine.


by Viola Larson


Monday, April 10, 2017

Some thoughts about Jesus, his death and Traci Smith's posting

Traci Smith, a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) pastor, who several weeks ago complained that the Reverend Tim Keller should not receive a theological award because of his beliefs about ordaining women and members of the LGBTQ community, is now making some rather confusing remarks about the atonement provided by our Lord Jesus Christ.  

Smith’s posting, “Protect Children from the Violence of the Cross and What to Do Instead During Holy Week,” broadens her perspective about Keller’s theology and all evangelical/orthodox reformed theology. No, she doesn’t mention Keller here but the reader begins to see two faiths emerging in her writings—one is progressive, the other orthodox—and Smith seems to be pushing away from the faith that is orthodox.

In an essay meant to help parents and leaders dealing with children during Easter and Lent, Smith, insists that the cross and suffering of Christ and what that means, put in what she calls a simplistic manner, can frighten and offend children. She writes:

“When we reduce the crucifixion story to a simple soundbite digestible for young children, we are actually presenting complex atonement theories that will shape their theologies their whole lives long. “Jesus paid the price for our sin.” (ransom) “Jesus saved us because we couldn’t save ourselves.” (penal substitution). “Jesus conquered death to set us free” (christus victor). … When we look closely at each of these theories, however, we realize that it’s not quite so simple. Did God really send God’s only son to be tortured and killed because God demands payment for sin? That does not sound loving. Did God simply not have the ability to rescue Jesus and spare him from all of that pain? If so, God must be very weak.”

And toward the end of her posting, Smith suggests that her readers “re-evaluate” their theology of the atonement. She asks “Did God kill Jesus?” and answers, “I don’t think so.”

Well no, some of the Jewish leaders, the Roman leaders in Jerusalem and all of us because of our sin killed Jesus. But, yes, his death was necessary.  Smith’s question and answer is simplistic in the extreme.

In his little compact book, Christian Doctrine,  J.S. Whale, after explaining the extreme suggestion by some that if the idea of atonement entails Jesus’ death as a necessity than God is a tyrant, writes:

“In all the classic soteriologies [atonement theories] of the Church, he who is sacrificed is not a human being chosen out from humanity to serve as a scapegoat. That would be the Nestorian heresy. On the contrary it is the offended One himself, the Holy God who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, who as the second ‘hypostasis’ or ‘person’ of the Trinity assumes a human nature in order to be able to suffer for offending sinners, and in their stead. According To Christian theology, the Being who goes deliberately and freely to his death is not a human personality but the second ‘person’ of the Trinity, God incarnate in the clothing of human nature. … the dogmatic formula of the Church is: two ‘natures’ in one ‘person’. The link between these two natures is ‘hypostatic’ and the ‘person’ constituting the link is divine.”

That is a lot of theology, both difficult and beautiful—complex and biblical—as Christian theology should be.

But let us return to the children. No, children should not be given graphic stories and harsh pictures of the crucifixion. It isn’t necessary. But plain pictures, simple stories and the understanding that Jesus died on the cross for our sins—and rose from the tomb to fill our lives with joy and hope. We shouldn't be afraid of the words; Jesus died for sinners. Jesus saves. That is blessed hope for children.

I have told this story before—I will tell it again. When my children were little I had a Good News Club in my home. We told Bible stories the old fashioned way with felt and flannel cutouts. Many of the children in my neighborhood knew nothing about Jesus. At Easter I told them the story of Jesus and his death on the cross. One little boy who had never heard this story before was so very sad when I told about Jesus' death. But then I told about Jesus coming alive, and he got so excited, so happy. Children need this story and they need to know in simple terms that Jesus loved them so much that he died for them.

The good news is deep—deep enough that scholar and student can bathe in its deep luxurious riches. No simplifying the work of the Trinity, the death of the Son, the gracious sacrifice given and the glorious resurrection. Adults need to dig deep.

But the good news is simple too. Laid out for the child and the special learner who struggles to understand. It is there as gift. Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus lives. He loves and forgives sins. He suffered because he loves. Children all over the world are suffering and dying because they love Jesus. Why should we withhold his truth?


Monday, April 3, 2017

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations

This posting covers the last lesson in Presbyterian Women’s Horizons Bible Study, Who is Jesus? What a Difference a LensMakes. Author, Judy Yates Siker, could have helped the reader of the whole Bible Study by placing this lesson, “According to Contemporary Cultural Interpretations,” or at least its underlying theme about biblical interpretation, as a part of the introduction. Looking back over the nine lessons one sees the real cheat—there is, according to Siker, no absolute answer to the question about Jesus—instead there is personal opinion.

I have already quoted twice, in other parts of my continuing review, from this lesson. Siker’s words are the mainstay of all nine lessons whether they be orthodox or heterodox.  She writes:

“As we become more and more conversant with our sacred text, we begin to understand that to seek the meaning of a text is not as useful as seeking what New Testament Scholar Brian Blount calls ‘meaning potential.’ Some who hear this term may fear that it is watering down the biblical text, allowing it to mean whatever the reader wants it to mean. After all it is much more comforting to think that if we try hard enough or if we study enough, we can know the one true meaning of the text. I would like us to consider, however, that the approach of ‘meaning potential’ is a more honest reading of the sacred text. This way of approaching our Bible acknowledges the reality that every reader is an interpreter standing within his or her own community. Each interpretation is a conversation between the biblical writing and the biblical reader, most often mediated by centuries of tradition and immediate experiences and situations of the reader. Along the way, we encounter many potential readings of the text, some more compelling than others. There is no such thing as a completely objective reading of a text.”

Siker, using a radical feminist and liberation theologian, Leticia Guardiola-Sáenz, to exegete Matthew 15:21-28, attempts to explain how ‘meaning potential’ works. The effect is a Jesus who errs since he seemingly excludes the ‘other’ and needs to be “humanized” by the other.

The story in the text is about Jesus’ response to a Canaanite woman whose daughter is demon possessed. The story is problematic because at first Jesus apparently refuses to help stating that “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” The woman’s response, “…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,” is seen by most progressive theologians as a wise means of getting Jesus to see the other as equal to himself and others, also encouraging him to change.

Siker writes of Guardiola-Saenz’s view of the story as a liberation story. Her take, to say the least, is horrific:

“Reading the story this way, Jesus represents the powerful ones who demand that she stay in her place, as it were. This kind of power play is dehumanizing, even as we are surprised to see Jesus treating the Canaanite woman as less than a full human being. A culturally sensitive reading suggests that, rather than succumb to being dehumanized yet again the Canaanite woman stands firmly in her place and leaves Jesus speechless. The woman is able to awaken Jesus to the dehumanization that she has experienced, and the result is that she humanizes Jesus.”

I want to deal first with the story and then look deeper into the problems connected to Siker’s statement about biblical interpretation.

This particular story about the Canaanite woman is not a good story to come to the text with the question, “who is Jesus?” That is because who Jesus is informs this story. The text does raise questions. Why did Jesus tell the woman “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”? (NASV) And why did Jesus in the former part of the story tell the disciples, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

This latter question is simply addressing the scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry although it did entail a few gentiles. R. T. France answers the question in his Tyndale commentary on Matthew, covering both Matthew 10:5-6, Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, and 15:24, “To call Israel to repentance was the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry; the call was urgent and demanded total concentration (cf. 10:23). They were lost sheep, a common Old Testament metaphor (Je. 50:6; Ezk. 34:1-16; cf. Is. 53:6. …”[1]

The former question about Jesus’ reply to the Canaanite woman fits well into Jesus ministry to the ‘lost sheep of Israel.’ As John Calvin points out in his commentary, the “bread” that Jesus speaks of is not the good gifts that are given to all of humanity (God’s general grace) but the gifts of the covenant God made to Israel.[2] (Even Paul states that the gifts are first offered to the Jewish people and then to the gentile. Romans 2:9-11)

And while biblical scholar Richard Bauckham posits the idea that the woman had changed Jesus’ mind with her perseverance,[3] and biblical scholar, R. T. France believes that Jesus’ seemingly harsh words were said with a twinkle in his eyes, neither of them see Jesus as someone who views the outsider as ‘other.’ For them he does not represent the powerful. Nor do they see him as someone who needs to be humanized.

In the text, the Canaanite woman sees Jesus in a special way. She addresses him as ‘Son of David,’ a reference to his Jewish messiahship, and she worships him. She believes that he can do what she is asking of him; in humility she perseveres. All reasons for granting her request, and reasons for granting Jewish supplicants as well. It is who Jesus is that informs the text. He is son of David, the messiah king of Israel, the healer and the granter of covenant gifts. May his crumbs, marvelous crumbs, fall to all of us.

If there is a seeming problem in the text, the reader should apply other scripture to the text. Who is Jesus in all of scripture, not just in one particular passage? Is the whole passage being used to gain an understanding? For example in this story of the Canaanite woman, neither Siker nor the author she is using includes the titles that the woman uses to address Jesus. Nor do they comment on the fact that she worships Jesus and believes he is able to answer her request. They begin with their own feelings about being excluded and interpret from that position—they don’t ask what is God saying to me through this text, but how does my perspective or experience inform this text, or even how do other people’s perspective experience inform the text.

Scripture informs scripture and a commonsense reading of the text is important. Above all Scripture is God’s story not ours. The Holy Spirit is the giver and interpreter of the word. (2 Peter 1:20; 2 Timothy 3:16) Jesus cannot be both the compassionate savior and at the same time representative of the powerful oppressor. Siker rather than insisting that some interpretations are simply wrong, allows Jesus to be maligned—like the evil persecutors of the 17th century Christians of Japan, Siker and Guardiola-Sáenz might as well ask Presbyterian women to step on the face of Christ.[4]  

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he has proclaimed him.” (John 1:14, 18)


[1] R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, reprint, (Leicester, England; Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans 194).
[2] John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, vol.2, found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom32.ii.xlvii.html
[3] Richard Bauckham, Gospel Women: Studies of the named Women in the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 2002) 41-46.
[4] See Shusaku Endo’s Silence and The Samurai.