What did Jesus achieve?

What did Jesus achieve? Jews at the time of Jesus expected the messiah to achieve a number to things: to defeat the enemies of Israel; to restore the Temple; to gather the exiles of Israel; and to teach the Torah to the nations.

The earliest Christians, who were Jewish by and large, saw Jesus as fulfilling these expectations, but in unexpected ways. Jesus had taught that Satan was their true enemy, not Rome; that he would rebuild the Temple on the third day; that he had come for the lost sheep of Israel; and that his word would never fade. His disciples saw Jesus as fulfilling these messianic expectations through his life, death, and resurrection.

Throughout the ages, Christians have tended to drill down into different aspects of this. Some have tended to emphasise Jesus as warrior, defeating Satan and freeing God’s people; some have tended to emphasise Jesus as prophet, teaching God’s wisdom and modelling God’s ways; some have tended to emphasise Jesus as priest, offering himself as a sacrifice for our injustices. Each of these ways explains an aspect of his achievement, of the different ways in which the Messiah, Jesus, mediates between divinity and humanity.

The Journey Of The Magi

The Journey Of The Magi
By T S Elliott
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Exploring the Bible story as a chiasm

I have not often made this so explicit, but I tend to view the Bible story as a five act drama with a chiastic structure.
I would illustrate it most simply as follows:
A: Creation 
     B: Covenant 
          C: Christ 
     B’: Church 
A’: Coming Soon 
In each act there are high points and low points.
The Creation story tells of humanity and the fall. It begins with God calling humanity to act as priests within creation at large. But then there’s the fall, the banishment from Eden, and an ongoing slide into more and more corruption that climaxes first in a devastating flood, then later with God scattering the nations and leaving them to their own devices.
The Covenant story tells of Israel and the exile. It begins with God forming of a new people, who later come to be known as Israel, to act as priests within humanity at large. But even they fall into corruption, which eventually leads to exile. And even when the people return from exile, to Judea and Jerusalem, God’s glory does not return to the Temple.
The Christ story tells of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It begins with God sending Jesus to heal the sick, eat with the alienated, and announce the kingdom of God. But then opposition grows, and he is beaten and crucified. But in a stunning twist God raises him from the dead. It is in this twist that the story of Jesus, Israel, and Humanity are reframed.
The Church story tells of the church and its mission. It begins with God calling the church into a new covenant in and through Christ and sending it out to bear witness of the resurrection in Jerusalem, in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And this is the part of the story that we find ourselves in.
The Coming Soon story tells of Christ’s return and the final judgement. It offers glimpses of the things to come and things already upon us. Of both the renewal of creation and the final defeat of Satan, sin, and death. It leaves us with a challenge and a hope. The challenge of answering God’s call. And a hope grounded in Christ crucified, an event already accomplished.
Looking at the story this way helps me to understand why the apostles framed the story the way they did when they shared it with different groups. Amongst other Israelites, Peter shared the good news in terms of the covenant (B) and the renewal of the covenant (B’) through Christ. Amongst other nations, Paul shared the good news in terms of the creation (A) and the renewal of the creation (A’) through Christ. In every case, however, it should be observed that Christ (C) was shared as the climax and turning point. The good news is ultimately about Christ, whatever perspective we’re approaching it from.

The alabaster jar of our lives

In the Gospel of Luke the following story is told,

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.”

When the pharisee criticises both her and Jesus for this disgraceful display Jesus corrected him,

“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

 So what significance does this story have for us? Just this. God calls us to break open the alabaster jar of our lives.

The Satanic Verses

It seems to me that much of what the church has said about the fall of Satan over the years is based on figurative (specifically: anagogic) interpretation of Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 24 rather than literal interpretation.

Indeed, if we were to restrict ourselves to literal interpretation there would not be much we could say about Satan’s fall at all. As, at face value, these verses are not about Satan, but rather, the Kings of Tyre and Babylon.

How ironic then, that it’s self identified “literalists” who are most committed to the figurative sense of Ezekiel 28 and Isaiah 24, and visa versa.

Stories that shock

I think many people come to the bible with many false expectations. One of the expectations that I frequently hear people express is that the heroes of the bible should be great moral examples. Then they’re shocked and angered when they find out they’re not. But that’s to confuse the function of narrative: it’s about description, not proscription. I actually think one of the strengths of the bible is that it’s brutally honest about how flawed people can be. I think what we’re supposed to see is that God can achieve amazing things even with complete assholes so there’s hope for all of us.

The story of Amma Syncletica

Amma-SyncletiaThis story comes from the Greek Orthodox Christian Society:

Amma (Mother) Syncletica is probably the most well-know Desert Mother of all. Her sayings and spiritual counsels have made it into many books, especially the Sayings of the Desert Fathers which is a compilation of spiritual quotes primarily by men. Amma Syncletica showed the world that under Christ, there is no male nor female, proving to be even more glorious than many spiritual fathers, equal in honour to the great Desert Fathers such as Anthony the Great and Macarius of Egypt. Saint Syncletica was born in Alexandria to wealthy and devout Greek Macedonian parents during the 4th century AD. As a child, she distinguished herself from others not only by her physical beauty and extreme intelligence, but also by her abundance of virtues. Many sought Syncletica’s hand in marriage, however she refused them all, wishing to be spiritually betrothed to her Heavenly Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. While still young, she subjected her body to intense fasting and vigil, imploring God every night in tears. When her parents reposed, Syncletica distributed all her wealth and possessions to the poor and fled far from the city. She was tonsured a nun and consecrated her virginity to God. Although many holy women had devoted their lives to God through asceticism before, Amma Syncletica is considered the foundress of desert monastic communities for women, just as Saint Anthony the Great is for men. Throughout her ascetic struggle, Amma Syncletica did her best to hide her high spiritual state from others, however the Lord revealed her sanctity to those around her. She gathered a small community of nuns around her and exhorted them to fulfil Christ’s divine Law through perfect love of God and neighbour. She explained that this was done through charity, of which “we shall be blessed… and will win heaven”. Towards the end of her live, Amma Syncletica was assailed with a vicious cancer which physically ate away at her internal organs and then eventually her external flesh. The pain was so strong and the stench so intense that her nuns had to fill the room with perfume before entering. The Holy Mother never uttered a single word of complaint, mimicking Job of the Old Testament. Having been informed of her earthly repose, she fell asleep in the Lord after a three-month martyrdom receiving the crown of her contests.

Jesus appoints the twelve

Twelve-Apostles
The Twelve Apostles – Ethiopian icon

This is the story of Jesus appointing the twelve as told in the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.These are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

The story of John the Dwarf

John the dwarfJohn the Dwarf was a native of Egypt who lived around 339 AD – 405 AD.

At the young age of eighteen he was inspired to retire to the desert of Skeet where he became a disciple of an old hermit, Aba Pemouah.

John the Dwarf is best known for his obedience. The most famous story about his obedience is that one day Aba Pemouah gave Abba John a piece of dry wood and ordered him to plant and water it. John obeyed and went on watering it twice a day even though the water was about twelve miles from where they lived. After three years, the piece of wood sprouted and grew into a fruitful tree. Aba Pemouah took some of this tree’s fruits and went around to all the elder monks, saying “take, eat from the fruit of obedience”.

John believed that the perfection of a monk consists in his keeping to his cell, watching constantly over himself and having God continually present to his mind.

When the Berbers invaded Scetes around 395 AD, John fled the Nitrian Desert and went to live on Mount Colzim, near the present city of Suez, where he lived out his final years.

 

The Healing at the Pool

jesus-heals-a-lame-man-on-the-sabbath

The story of the healing at the pool is told in the Gospel of John:

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.  One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”

But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ”

So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”

The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.

Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.

Balaam and his animal guide

John_Linnell_-_The_Prophet_Balaam_and_the_Angel_-_Google_Art_Project
“The Prophet Balaam and the Angel” by John Linnell

Talk of animal guides is common enough in Pagan traditions, especially Shamanism, but not so much within Christianity or Judaism.  Nevertheless, the story of Balaam and his donkey, found within the Old Testament book of Numbers, provides a striking example of the will of the Creator being communicated to humanity through a creature. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from this? The author narrates the incident as follows:

Balaam’s Donkey

Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials. But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of YHWH stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.

Then the angel of YHWH stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of YHWH, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.

Then the angel of YHWH moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of YHWH, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then YHWH opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”

Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”

“No,” he said.

Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of YHWH standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.

The angel of YHWH asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”

Balaam said to the angel of YHWH, “I have sinned. I did not realise you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”

The angel of  YHWH said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with Balak’s officials.

Jesus calls his first disciples

jesus-apostles-unknown-artist
Jesus calling the disciples – unknown artist

This is Luke’s version of the story:

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”

When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken,  and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.

Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.