Posts Tagged ‘cross’

Why New Testament ethics can’t be summed up by “love”

September 22, 2009

The first and greatest commandment, Jesus tells us, is to love God; the second to love our neighbour – and on these two the whole Law and Prophets depend. Paul echoes this in Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” and it is also prominent in the Gospel and Epistles of John. So why is it that Richard B. Hays does not use “love” as one of his focal images in his synthesis of New Testament ethics in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (London: T&T Clark, 1997)?

First, there are some New Testament authors for whom love is not an ethical emphasis. Hays mentions Mark’s gospel here – discipleship is defined more in terms of following Jesus and taking up one’s cross than it is by love. “If Mark were the only Gospel in the New Testament canon, it would be very difficult to make a case for love as a major motif in Christian ethics” (p.200). Hebrews and Revelation also have only sporadic references to love, and Acts does not contain the word “love” (more properly, any of the various Greek terms translated “love”) either as a noun or a verb. Luke is not opposed to love, but it does not form part of his narrative in Acts about the emergence and growth of the church. The problem is then that synthesising the ethical teaching of the New Testament with a focal point of “love”  drives these texts to the periphery of the canon, which is “an unacceptable result” (p.202).

Second, love is not really an image which can become a focal point in the same way as Hays’ suggested triad of “Community, Cross and New Creation” but an interpretation of an image. Hays points out that what the New Testament means by “love” is embodied and shown most clearly in the cross. The gospel narrative gives meaning and content to “love”, rather than the other way around:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1John 3:16)

In addition, though Hays does not mention it, John 3:16 might be better translated:

For thus God loved the world: He gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but shall have everlasting life.

John 3:16 begins with a statement of the manner in which God loved the world (God loved the world in this way, that he…), not about the degree to which he has loved it (“God loved the world so much, that he…) 

Apart from the focal image of the cross, love is ambiguous in meaning, which leads to the third reason Hays does not adopt it as a focus: the term can easily become debased in popular use and detached from the cross. Hays quotes Stanley Hauerwas to this effect: “The ethics of love is often but a cover for what is fundamentally an assertion of ethical relativism.” If love becomes a focal point of ethics, rather than the points of community, cross and new creation, ethics can lose its moorings in the gospel story. The radical demands of Christian discipleship made by the New Testament (e.g. Mark 8:38) might not be seen as “loving” things to impose upon others. I think that this is a very important observation – almost every appeal I have heard to evade the didactic moral teaching of the New Testament has been based on the priority of the admonition to love. Yet if we take the point Hays makes that the New Testament’s gospel narrative gives content, shape and meaning to “love” then such evasions become much less persuasive. We need to look to the gospel narrative, the Christian community and the Christian hope to know what we are to love and how we are to love it.

God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1John 4:9-10)

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Mark’s Big Question

April 15, 2009

Today I’ve been working on an essay on Mark’s gospel. The question at the centre of Mark’s gospel is the identity of Jesus – and the gospel seems to turn on the episode often referred to as “Peter’s confession of Christ” in chapter 8:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am? Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”

Jesus himself asks this question, and Peter answers that he is the Christ. Who is Jesus? Jesus is the Christ; the Messiah. But is this really the answer Mark is hoping we’ll get at? Are we supposed to applaud Peter’s statement here?

In light of what follows, and Mark’s wider narrative of the way to the cross, I’m not sure we should. Peter’s answer to the question “You are the Christ” (8:29) is true, but it’s not the whole story: before we can applaud Peter’s faith, Mark continues the same episode with a shocking exchange of mutual rebuking between Peter and Jesus, culminating in the suggestion that Peter’s denial of the divine necessity (δεῖ – “must” or, perhaps better, “it is necessary”) that the Christ will suffer means he is playing the role of Satan! Just before this, we have the account of the “botched” miracle (8:22-26), which serves as an “acted parable” of faith. Mark uses the restoration of sight as a metaphor for spiritual “seeing” things throughout his gospel. By placing this two-stage restoration of sight miracle just before Peter’s confession, perhaps we are supposed to understand that Peter’s confession and then rebuke of Christ show his eyes are only half open – that is, he only comprehends half of the truth about Jesus. Peter does not understand the necessity of Jesus’ death, and won’t finally understand until after the crucifixion.

Richard B. Hays points out in “The Moral Vision of the New Testament” that the whole “narrative strategy” of Mark “challenges the reader to… answer the question ‘Who do you say that I am?’ by acknowledging Jesus as the crucified Messiah” (p.79). This is an insight I’m becoming more and more convinced about. There’s just so much in Mark that points to the cross, and that Jesus isn’t the Christ the people are expecting, but the one they need, who must go to the cross. From the rest of the New Testament it is clear that both Jews and Gentiles had big problems with this idea – in 1Corinthians 1:23 it is a stumbling-block (σκάνδαλον) to Jews and foolishness (μωρία) to Gentiles, and an “offence” (σκάνδαλον again) in Galatians 5:11 and 1Peter 2:8. The idea that the Christ would be crucified was literally scandalous, and if you think about it – it still should be! The idea has become perhaps too familiar to us, and to our culture, if people aren’t shocked by this message.

So, if the answer to the question “Who is Jesus?” isn’t just “The Christ” but “The Crucified Christ”; “The Messiah who must suffer and die”, how do we get this across when using Mark’s gospel evangelistically? I think the Free gospel project UCCF are running at the moment touches on this scandalous theme a little – the ‘graffiti’ on the page with 8:27-30 raises the question of why Jesus has to die – but doesn’t major on it, concentrating more on affirming the divinity of Jesus. (Which is something Mark thinks is important, too, but which only intensifies the scandal that Jesus should die on a cross!) Maybe there’s room for presenting this more explicitly – because if the “real Jesus” we want people to find in Mark’s gospel is the crucified Christ then we should tell them about that – and also why Jesus died. “Free” does do a very good job of raising the “why did Jesus die” question in the comment on 10:45 and the endnotes, actually. But perhaps it tones down Mark’s emphasis on the cross, and on the corresponding need for those who want to follow Jesus to be prepared to suffer as they do so (8:34-38). If CUs are about “making disciples of Jesus Christ in the student world for the glory of God” then we don’t want to hide the nature of Christian cross-shaped living from those we reach out to. Maybe it’s possible to draw these two ideas together more that I have done previously, in evangelism using Mark’s gospel… something to try out anyway.

Nailing it to the cross

April 12, 2009

At church this morning, as part of the Easter Sunday service, we had one of the best visual illustrations I’ve seen for a while. The minister had placed paper and pens on all the seats beforehand and encouraged us to write, draw or scribble on the paper something we have valued more than God, or, if you like, that we have done against God. Then we were to fold or scrunch them up – representing the mess sin makes in our lives. At the front he had some bags, chains and scrunched-up paper of his own to represent this – and covered it with a sheet and a (photocopy!) of a sacrificed lamb. Yet underneath the sheet the mess was still there. No – what we needed was something else entirely. He then got a laundry bag, and got the children to collect in all the papers on which we’d written/drawn our sin, put it in the bag, along with all the mess at the front, and threw in a blank piece of paper to represent our future sins. Then he actually physically nailed the bag to a huge wooden cross at the front of the church, explaining how Christ’s death takes away our sin.

I thought this was great – not only is it a hugely visual and memorable act, but it really hammered home to me (excuse the pun!) that my guilt as a sinner has been dealt with – it is nailed to the cross and dealt with there. It’s a tremendously liberating truth! It reminds me of one of my favourite passages in the Bible – Colossians 2, which just cannot be read in a passionless voice. You want to shout it:

“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:12-14)

Paul here is rejoicing in the truth that Christ has, by the cross, dealt completely and forever with the “debt” of our sin. I think he has in mind here the accusatory role of the Law (Rom. 4:15; 5:20) which shows us that we are sinners and guilty before God. This guilt is taken away at the cross forever – it is left there; it is dealt with in Christ, the one who was nailed to the cross. Paul then goes on to proclaim Christ’s victory over the demonic powers and to point out the foolishness of abandoning these truths for merely human religion, which is all show and completely powerless to deal with our sinfulness (Col. 2:23).

It’s this truth which inspires words like these, by Horatio G. Spafford. They’re part of one of the best hymns of all time, and have quite a moving story behind their composition.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Amen!