Tuesday, March 18, 2008

New Testament Spirituality :: The Breaking-Down of God

New Testament spirituality was not conceived with the birth announcement of the Christ child or the dawning of the early Church and the infusion of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Rather, New Testament spirituality is deeply rooted within the context of the biblical narrative. We cannot fully understand, appreciate or appropriate the work of Christ without a comprehensive understanding of the story as a whole. It is into this story that the Gospel writer John ardently aspires to catapult his earliest readers, as well as us today.

John takes us all the way back to the beginning. His opening line echoes that of Genesis, in the beginning. He’s reminding us of God’s original design and desire to experience relationship and intimate communion with humanity. As our minds track back to what was in the beginning, we are reminded of what happened to that divine plan and the consequence of humanity’s disobedience. Humanity lost connection with God as spiritual death occurred. God, at that point ultimately became unknowable, at least in the truest and deepest sense. As Paul said, humanity after the fall no longer possessed the ability or capacity to receive and understand the things of the spirit.[1] Jesus, writes John, is the only one who has seen God at any time. Furthermore, John says that Jesus not only has seen God, but He has “declared Him to us.”[2]

In our Western Culture, the word “declare” doesn’t pack much punch. It seems that everybody is declaring something, much of which we pay little or no attention. Therefore, it’s unfortunate that this is the English word used in the translation of verse eighteen. In actuality, this is a spellbinding word in the Greek and when it is applied to Jesus as John does, it becomes mesmerizing. It’s the Greek word exegeomai, we get the word “exegete” from it. This word is used in the context of someone doing an exegetical teaching of a particular book of the Bible. In short, if someone were to do so, they would take a particular book of the Bible and begin to “draw out of it and bring out of it”[3] everything that was originally intended and hoped for in the heart of the author. There would be a thorough discourse of the culture, history, geography and social allusions of the time. To do an exegetical study means to look into any and everything that could provide insight and greater understanding to what the text actually meant to the first hearers, as well as to us today. In addition to the externals of the text, one would then turn his or her attention to the structure of the text, the words used, the words not used, the words that could’ve been used, all of this helps one gain a fuller understanding of what the author was originally communicating. After all that has been blown out on the table, one begins to pull all of those pieces back together to show forth the fullness of the text.

It can be a bit like endeavoring to put a thousand piece puzzle together. The first thing you do is scatter all the pieces on the table. Initially, only a few of them provide a clear enough picture to know where they go. Yet, as the picture becomes clearer, the pieces begin to appear and as more pieces begin to appear, the picture becomes clearer still. The corners and the borders provide additional clarity as to what this puzzle will at some point be.

John has a picture in mind of who God is, and he desperately wants us to see it. John said, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”[4] Jesus is full of grace and truth, He is from God, He is God, and now He’s come in the flesh to us and began to “declare Him” to us. What John is literally saying is this: No one has seen God, since the fall of humanity, indeed no one could. With the first Adam, life- spiritual and eternal life found in communion with God was lost, but now One has appeared and He possesses it once more. Not only that, but He is giving us an exegetical disclosure of who God is[5]. He is breaking the infinite God down bit by bit, showing us, teaching us, demonstrating to us the mind, the heart, the core of Who God is. For John, everything Jesus did was indicative of who the Father was, this is why in John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I do nothing unless I see the Father do it, and the Son does it in like manner.”[6]

Jesus is the picture of Who God is, He’s the picture on the box of the thousand piece puzzle. In chapter one, John tries to lay out some of the corner pieces that are imperative to our seeing Jesus, as well as our understanding of Christian Spirituality. The corner pieces are the elements that Jesus possesses, which have been beyond the reach of fallen humanity: the eternal life (1:4), the truth (1:14), the Logos-Word – which entails an accurate understanding and perspective of who God is (1:1), and the Spirit residing within (1:33 & 20:22). Everything John then proceeds to tell us is in effect filling in the borders and interior of Who Jesus is and what He came to do. Each piece is “declaring” to us another aspect of the Father. This is where John starts his Gospel. However, as he’s writing, John concludes that there is not enough room on the table to put the puzzle together, and what he thought was a thousand piece puzzle has turned out to be at least ten million. He discovers, that he’s going to be unable to complete the puzzle in the writing of this Gospel, actually he’s pretty sure that he’ll never finish it. He simply closes the Gospel by saying, “And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world (cosmos) itself could not contain the books.”[7]

Herein lies the biblical foundation of New Testament Spirituality. Jesus, the one who possess eternal life has been incarnated, thus restoring the eternal life of God to humanity. As such, humanity may once again walk with God and be indwelt by the Spirit of God. The Second Adam has restored to humanity all that the First Adam forfeited through disobedience. The longings and needs within humanity, as Bowe writes, have been fulfilled in Jesus.[8] Furthermore, it is through this awareness of the ongoing work of Christ to bring “restoration to all things”[9] that our “futurology”[10] is developed with faith, hope and love.[11] True New Testament Spirituality is expressed with an empowerment of the Spirit to live in the present world, an enablement to see the earth as it really is,[12] and an enduring passion for the soon coming King and His Kingdom.[13]

[1] 1 Corinthians 2:13.
[2] John 1:18.
[3] New Testament Lexicon, ref. no. 1834. (Computer Software)
[4] John 1:14.
[5] Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 145.
[6] John 5:19.
[7] John 21:25.
[8] Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 146.
[9] Acts 3:21.
[10] Paul Stevens & Michael Green, Living the Story, (Cambridge: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 179.
[11] Ibid., Living Jesus, 180.
[12] Ibid., Living Jesus, 192.
[13] Ibid., Living Jesus, 183, 192.

Monday, March 17, 2008

What is Christian Spirituality - Part 4 - Re-Member the Story

One of the fundamental components of human existence is the quest to answer the enigma of “Who Am I” and “What am I to do.” The answers to these questions are inseparable from one’s personal experiences, environmental shaping, as well as one’s understanding of the world in which he or she lives. For a Christian, this understanding is fundamentally embedded in the story of God’s dealing with and relating to humanity found in the Biblical narrative of Scripture.

Lamentably, the Bible has often been earmarked merely as a theological treatise, a rulebook and manual for daily living. It may be able to be utilized as any or all of these on various occasions, but is that the primary purpose of the biblical narrative? “Before the theologian,” Stevens points out, “there was the storyteller.”[1] These storytellers captured God’s interactions with humanity. It is in these chronicled narratives, as a plot of a great novel, that they paint a picture of God’s intentions in the earth, heart towards humanity and aspirations for the future. It is through these stories that we see God not only as the director of this great drama, but also the narrator and main character. At other times, it seems, God is present, but not overtly active. Perhaps He’s simply a member of the audience at large patiently waiting to see how humanity will respond and act. Nonetheless, there is a divine plot and plan to this narrative. It has movement. This story is anything, but stagnate. The power of this story isn’t merely that it happened, but that it is still happening.

Stories are living and active. If a picture or image is worth a thousand words, than what must a story be worth? Stories are multiple layered images in motion, bursting with emotion, passion, knowledge, insight, even obscure clues detectable only by the wise and discerning. God cannot be chased into a linear holding pen by the sheepdog of systematic theology, nor can He be held hostage by bullet point(s) on a spreadsheet. God cannot be captured in a photograph or some cheap biographical sketch. Stories on the other hand, though still ultimately incomplete, bring us closer to the flame, by touching the core of our humanity, exposing the very essence of who we are, while disclosing the very depths of God’s nature. Stories are ripe with metaphor, tension, conflict and climax. It is as we immerse ourselves in the narrative of Scripture that we begin to discover who we are and who we are becoming.

Christian Spirituality has suffered greatly at the hands of well-intended men and women who have attempted to dissect the sacred Scriptures on the hermeneutical operating table like some amphibian in a tenth grade biology class. Biblical hermeneutics and rigorous study do have their place within biblical spirituality, but it is imperative that we don’t ultimately dismember the story in our quest to understand the text at hand. When Scripture is treated as a systematic treatise and a guide for moral orientation, it is typically done so at the altar of sacrifice, rendering the overarching story and meta-narrative of God’s narrative splintered, segmented, with the dissected limbs left on the lab table permanently detached. For example, my five-year-old son may learn the valuable lesson of faith and courage through David’s exploits against the formidable foe Goliath. There are many such morals and faith-lessons to be extracted from Scripture. The question becomes, when we’ve stitched together all these moral extracts quaint for eulogizing, sermonizing, even chronological liturgical readings, have we done so at the expense of stripping out the very narrative threads seaming the very essence of our professed spirituality? We must remember the storyline of this sacred narrative. Remember, not as some form of cognitive calisthenics of the mind, rather a comprehensive pulling together of the various dissected pieces back into a whole. It is only as we re-member God’s story back together that our spirituality will have the holistic dimension desperately needed.

I believe it is largely this re-membering of the larger story that Stevens & Green and Bowe are endeavoring to recover. Stevens & Green, more than Bowe, capture the ethos and passion of the storyline, brilliantly making room for the humanness of us all to be seen. However, it is Bowe, who sees the story of Scripture not merely as something that happened, rather as something that is still happening. As such, she intentionally invites the reader to find his or her place in the story. She also invites the reader to find where the place(s) of the story and characters thereof may find their place within the reader, as in the case of Pharaoh.[2]

Stevens & Green vividly paint the picture of how the people of God partner with Him as active characters in this great unfolding drama. Humanity has a part to play, we are response-able, we are on a mission. “Biblical spirituality is a mission spirituality… God goes before us. God goes through us. God goes in us.”[3] Bowe on the other hand, illustrates the progressive nature of transformation and the cyclical tendencies of humanity.[4]

True Christian Spirituality must be rooted in the biblical narrative. It is incomplete without the vivid and generous expressions of God’s nature and character presented in simile and metaphor. It is made up of many parts, but insufficient without the coming together of the whole. We must mine Scripture as a pirate looking for buried treasure beneath the layers of each verse, while like a skilled seamstress or tailor weaving each thread carefully together to make one breath taking peace of art. The biblical narrative of the past, is the foundation in which our Christian spirituality is firmly rooted, while at the same time, it is very much the ongoing story in which we find ourselves in.

[1] Paul Stevens & Michael Green, Living the Story, 47.
[2] Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, 63, 66.

[3] Stevens, Living the Story, 55.

[4] Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality, 63. (Israel was liberated from oppression only to later oppress others and so forth.)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Journey of the Last Meal...

For Centuries,
each year around this time, people of God have taken a journey. It's the journey of Passover. Passover, is a meal, but it is much more than a meal, it is a journey that happened, happens and will continue to happen within each of us.

Jesus and the disciples
were experiencing this very mean when they were in the Upper Room with His disciples, just before Jesus went to the cross as the ultimate Passover Lamb.

As with many things
in the Story of Scripture, places, events and feasts are saturated with multiple layers of meaning and relevance.

This Easter,
we are going to participate in this Journey by interactively and experientially exploring some of these multiple layers.

I believe
that this encounter is going to serve as an interactive icon that will catapult us into the Story and reality of Easter like never before...

Journey of the Last Meal - March 16th-21st

Sun 5-8pm + Mon-Thur 6-8:30pm + Good Friday 7-8pm

*Space is limited per night, so be sure to make reservations for the day and time you would like to participate*