God is Good. The moral vision of the Bible – part 1

“Summoning the crowd along with his disciples, he said to them, “If Anyone wants to be my follower, He might feed Himself a Big Mac, take up His Macbook Pro, and follow me on the rare occasions when He feels like something is lacking in His life” Mac 8:34

“Summoning the crowd along with His disciples, He said to them, “If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me.” Mark 8:34

I could perhaps preach a sermon on the differences between these two ‘gospels’ – but I’ll leave you to think about the differences and move on to a related subject.

To think about the goodness of God as revealed in Jesus is task enough for a lifetime, and many repeats thereof – it is in fact enough for eternity. Of course, many people believe that in saying this I have bought into one of the craziest delusions ever spouted on the face of this insignificant speck we call planet Earth. If you believe that and have the guts to tell Christians, I applaud your honesty. I recognise the value in considering this particular doubt, but believe that it is misdirected. The claims of Christianity are authenticated by history. Teasing that claim out is a topic for another time. I have debated and discussed it, interacting with various skeptics and Christian thinkers, and my confidence in the historicity of the core of the Biblical claims has been strengthened. Now I just want to give some hints of what makes me personally overawed at the moral excellence of God who is written about in the Bible. If you’d like to hear more, let me know – maybe someone will even fund me to write on it one day. 🙂

The moral wisdom of Jesus is very different to most claims fighting for our attention. Scandalously different. There are many claims that I believe Jesus would endorse that are part of the general moral consensus in our society (some listed below) – but the big picture undergirding these claims is radically different.

– care of the Earth and other creatures
– the rights of women and minorities to respect
– care for the poor
– peace rather than war is to be preferred
– people are more important than mere things
– money should not be the sole arbiter of life decisions
etcetera …

All nice enough. But, how to make sense of these claims? I begin to explore this general area by investigating how Jesus tells us we should live in this imperfect world. I hope to argue (incompletely here) that making sense of moral claims of the kind listed above requires re-envisaging the world so that the focus shifts away from many of our own moral expectations and that Jesus shows us the only fruitful way that this shift is possible.

Jesus did not, of course, say that we should follow him with expensive computing devices in our backpacks. But rather that we should in some sense follow him whilst dragging along a cross. A cross, here, is not something shiny dangling on a chain around the neck of someone who can afford gold ornamentation, an inexplicable symbol of vaguely cool; but an instrument of torture. The kind of thing that a human will die painfully on, subjugated by people more powerful than them and reduced to the social level of something worse than dog crap to make a fairly strong public point. Jesus says to follow him in his suffering, and does so in a very concrete and perhaps chilling kind of way. For him to take his cross was to assist in moving the very instrument that would kill him. Indeed, to willingly drag one’s cross through the city was like handing out flyers for the public event where you know you will be humiliated in the worst possible way you could imagine. “It’s an all day spectacle where I will suffocate to death, do come along – there might be popcorn provided by the Roman army! But probably not because the stench of death will soon be in the air.” To hang upon a cross was to face public scorn and physical pain. Further, to hang naked, for a Jewish man living at this time, was to be entirely stripped of dignity.

Dignity level: Zero.

The degradation of Jesus touched on many areas tied up in human wellbeing and pride including (1) physical health, (2) public status, (3) religious identity, (4) relationships and (5) sexuality. Each of us is broken and incomplete in various ways, and I’m convinced that Jesus can plausibly identify with us, across the diversity of human experiences. He was severely beaten up by the Roman army (1), abused in public on various occasions with no-one defending him (2), dismissed by the religious authorities (3), betrayed by his closest friends (4) and left completely naked, nailed to a pole, and left to die (5). Each of these and perhaps others could profitably be expanded on; maybe a topic for the future. I’m told that many people left viewings of the film ‘the Passion of the Christ’ visibly shaking. I remember hearing someone who was not a Christian report this, clearly intrigued. While some of the violence in that portrayal was perhaps gratuitous, the events portrayed truly were deeply harrowing. Imagine, if you will, a nightmarish combination of holocaust victims being forced to dig their own graves and schoolyard bullying in front of a large crowd of peers which involves the active, gleeful, participation of the principal and staff and near-complete abandonment by previously close friends. Many good things are reversed or parodied in the spectacle of the cross – one interesting one that comes to mind is multiculturalism – unity amidst cultural diversity (e.g. Galatians 3:28). Two clashing cultures combined (good!) in the crucifixion of the trouble-maker claiming to be King Jesus, to insult, hurt, insult more, hurt more, and finally kill a common enemy – who just happened to be the creator of the universe (not so good). Many people hold a vague suspicion that the God of the Bible is misogynistic and xenophobic, i.e. anti-women and racist. I believe that Jesus strongly urges that this is not the case.

God is love, and love personified is Jesus Christ. But the way that God shows His love is unexpected – as we might expect if God is really God and really good and we are his fallible rebellious creatures living in a broken world. We may like to think (and I suspect many of my Christian friends think this way too) that the main way we can know that God loves us is through personally experiencing sensations or experiences that we associate with love. Maybe we sometimes feel happy when singing in a God-related context, for instance. I can see why many atheists and nonbelievers, when faced with the ugliness and challenges of real life, would find this idea of love sickening. But God’s love is far stronger than any claimed emotional correlation we may experience. It is shown most not in our own little experiences of occasionally feeling loved, but in Jesus’ large climactic experience of rejection by the world and separation from God the Father. The death of death is achieved by the death of Christ not just because He was a willing sacrifice a bit like a goat but somehow better because human but rather because in Him the Trinitarian God personally takes on evil, swaps our lives of pain for One of peace, and feels the burn so we do not have to.

The goodness of God, His trustworthiness in the moral arena, is seen first and foremost in the extent to which divinity – God who is in eternal loving community – was willing to go to achieve reconciliation with those who showed nothing but enmity. Us.

Imagine for a moment that what follows is coherent: to counter-act or reverse the black hole of our sin, our opposition to God expressed but not exhausted by many little actions of rebellion, God does not desire that we somehow pile up a few good works. A few prayers said facing the right direction, a few cups of soup to the hungry, a few more trees planted following a carbon-intensive OE, a quick txt saying ‘sry’ (possibly with an emoticon :/); none of these are much of an antidote to willful continued rejection of this universe’s owner, director, and judge. Imagine crashing into a lamborghini, destroying one side of the car, and imagining it would suffice to leave a quickly scribbled note saying “sry m8, but this shld covr it – keep the change!” sellotaped to the wrecked car with a 20c coin. The many religions and philosophies of the world are wrong on this point. Instead God the Son takes the hit Himself, absorbing the just consequences of evil with a final death.
This spiel above: firstly is likely to raise many questions for you, and secondly needs much development. The questions may range from whether ‘crap’ is a swear-word that shouldn’t appear in a theological blogpost to what ‘trinitarian’ actually means to the sense in which Jesus’ death could possibly be described as final or conclusive. I look forward to hearing them and perhaps continuing the discussion with a Part 2.

References:
I think quite a bit of this material has been influenced by Tim Keller, perhaps his book “Center Church”, or else sermons of his. Of course, where I go wide astray, I am probably solely to blame.

I’m clearly just jealous that I don’t have a Macbook Air Mega Thinner than Paper Next Edition Pro and am resorting to theology to justify this.

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