The conservative lens
Many readers of the Bible read the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel they believe and this is what that gospel looks like, though it may be packaged differently in differing theological and ecclesial contexts:
God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
You have a sin problem that separates you from God.
The good news is that Jesus came to die for your sins.
If you accept Jesus’ death, you can be justified and reconciled.
Those who are justified and reconciled will live in heaven with God.
Every line of that statement is more or less true. It is the sequencing of those lines, the “story” of that gospel if you will, that concerns me. And it is not only the sequencing, it is the omitting of major themes in the Bible that concerns me. What most shocks the one who reads the Bible as Story, where the focus is overwhelmingly on God forming a covenant community, is that this outline of the gospel above does two things: it eliminates community and it turns the entire gospel into a “me and God” or “God and me” gospel. Who needs a church if this is the gospel? (Answer: no one.) What becomes of the church for this gospel? (Answer: an organization for those who want to do that sort of thing.) While every line in this gospel is more or less true, what concerns many of us today is that this gospel makes the church unimportant.
I believe this gospel can deconstruct, is deconstructing, and will deconstruct the church if we don’t change it now. Our churches are filled with Christians who don’t give a rip about church life and we have a young generation who, in some cases, care so much about the Church they can’t attend a local church because too many local churches are shaped too much by the gospel I outlined above. To be truthful, the gospel above is a distortion of Romans. Yes, Jesus said something like every one of those lines though he never packaged them quite like that. (Nor did Paul in Romans, to be honest.) This set of five factors like taking five stars from the sky, knocking them out of their orbits and solar location, and lining them up like ducks in a row and then saying in van Gogh-like wonder, “Here’s our starry sky!” The only way to understand stars is to learn their location and their history and their connections and let each star shine in its place in the sky – and the only way to read the Bible is from front to back. It doesn’t make sense if we don’t read the whole thing and to see how each chapter relates to the whole Story. Once we do we come to terms with the gospel that emerges from the Bible’s Story.
The liberal lens
Other readers of the Bible read the Bible through the lens of the gospel of social justice. I’m more nervous about that word “social” than I am about that word “justice,” but that’s for another time. The gospel of such folks drinks deeply from the social vision of justice in Deuteronomy, the powerful critiques of prophets like Isaiah and Micah, and especially the inaugural sermon of Jesus in Luke 4. God’s redemptive work in this world is to bring social justice. Anyone who has ever seen the flowering of justice out of injustice, as I did as a high schooler with the American civil rights and which you did as led by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, knows the redemptive power at work. They know what God’s work is. The work, one might call it the jihad as a struggle, and the creation of social ubuntu leads one to gratitude.
The oddity of the social justice gospel is that, like the conservative approach, it has little or no room for the church as the locus of redemption. If the conservative shifts redemption away from the church to the individual, the liberal shifts redemption away from the church to the social sector of a nation or world. The former can be obsessed with atonement theology and the latter with resurrection theology.
These two approaches, which I’ve made simplistic come from two ends of a spectrum, and deserve to be put to the test, and I suggest that we look into the narrative of Luke-Acts to see how we might best understand what Luke tells us about salvation in this world.
Luke’s wiki-story of the gospel
We can’t possibly trot through the whole of Luke’s Gospel so I want to focus on one element of Luke’ Story because it opens up the entire Gospel. Luke’s Gospel, like the rest of the Bible, focuses on the covenant community of faith instead of on an individual’s relationship with God. If you read Luke together with Acts you see that what Luke wants to tell us is that the transition from Israel to the Church is now complete and the work of God in the covenant community is alive and well.
The community – and here is how Luke defines the “problem” that flows out of the Story of Genesis 3—11 – is out of sorts. The community that confronts Jesus in Luke’s Gospel is blanketed with social injustice, Israel’s bondage to Rome, economic injustice and the like. Into this world Luke writes his wiki-story and says that Jesus formed a community, which we call the church, where those things are to end – right now. So, I want to focus our attention on Luke’s own particular narrative, what I will call his “wiki-story” or his own “story of the Story.” What I mean is that there is a “Story” that holds the Bible together and each author has a “version” of that Story. No one tells the whole Story, not even Jesus or Paul. Each is summoned to the table of history to give his “witness” to the Story, and that version and that witness is a “wiki-story of the Story. I want to begin by asking this question of Luke:
If “kingdom” is the solution, what is the problem?
If “kingdom” is the answer, what was the question?
Pause just a moment. How do you answer either of those questions?
In very non-Protestant fashion, now, I begin with Mary, who (seemingly) causes many Protestants to break out in a rash.
To understand how Luke tells his wiki-story of Jesus, we have to dip into his preliminary passages, those found in Luke’s first two chapters. The kingdom vision of Jesus gets a start in the famous Spirit-inspired song of Mary, called the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), because Mary announces what God is about to do through the Messiah (her son). There is much to be said here about context, not only in discerning the historical tradition at work but also the social context, which seems to most to be the Anawim tradition – the pious poor that we encounter in the Psalms and in Isaiah and who became a living tradition in first century Judaism. Two others in the Anawim tradition that deserve to be mentioned here are Simeon and Anna. That Anawim tradition, which comes to life in some ways in the teachings and praxis of Jesus, will also make an appearance in the Letter of James. But we are now concerned with Luke’s portrait of Mary’s Magnificat.
Mary knows she’s playing a unique role in God’s Story by being the mother of the Messiah and she knows that from now on everyone (except Protestants!) will call her “blessed.” Here are Mary’s words, and Luke’s words literally echo the Bible’s Story in line after line. Most notably, her prophetic words also declare that God’s work of redemption finds its way into community formation. In fact, Mary’s words are a charter for the kind of community God wants for his people.
And Mary said:
My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.
What was God about to do through Mary’s son? God was about to save through her son. Why? Because Israel’s God is faithful to his promises to Abraham. How does Israel’s God save? Here are the five main points of what God was about to do in his saving work:
* Scatter the proud
* Strip rulers from their unjust thrones
* Stand the humble up with confidence
* Satisfy the hungry with food
* Send the rich away empty
Which means these are the problems that salvation resolves:
* Unjust rulers and injustice
* Oppression of the humble
* Oppression by the rich through accumulation
Notice the last few lines of Mary’s Song: Mary swings her final punch (at Herod the Great, the very embodiment of injustice) by bringing up Abraham and the covenant God promised him. In other words, what Mary is saying is that the covenant that created the community in Genesis 12 converges in her Magnificat. Herod, if he lives long enough, may well be a witness to an entirely new way of life for Israel. For Mary, the problem is spiritual and social; therefore, the solution is spiritual and social.
Zechariah takes the vision of God’s about-to-be-revealed saving work inside the temple courts to the inner sanctum, for Luke depicts Zechariah as a priest. Now we have both priest and populous, both the powerful and the pious, declaring the saving work of God. Here are his words from Luke 1:68-79, and again our intent is to ask: If the solution is “kingdom,” what is the problem?
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
There is so much to be said, and I can only say a few things. Zechariah’s song is like Mary’s in that he sees Israel’s God being faithful to his promises to Abraham in this new work of redemption. But a shift occurs with the priest: he is focused on salvation as political liberation from Rome. Salvation here is connected to enemies and to ransom images and peace. So, what are the solutions and problems?
• Redemption/ransom/salvation from enemies
• Mercy and memory of the covenant
• Ability to worship in holiness and justice forever
• Forgiveness of sins
Which means the problems Zechariah sees being resolved through the birth of his prophet-son, Yohanan, are these:
• Oppression from enemies
• The absence of covenant faithfulness and blessings
• Obstacles for worship and justice
• Bearing the burden of sins
• The absence of Shalom
Zechariah’s emphasis may have shifted toward the enemies, but his solution is largely the same as Mary’s: the creation of a day and community where God’s kingdom justice, peace, and holiness will finally be manifested for Israel.
We must move on to Zechariah’s boy, Yohanan – known to us as John the Baptist.
John the Baptist
Here are his words to those who asked what they needed to do to enter into the kingdom of God:
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
John’s words for would-be repenters reveal what he thinks the problems in Iserael are. Israelites had turned at one another’s throats and John calls them to care for one another, to live in a community the way God wants them to live. Repentance is more than feeling bad about your sins, though it involves that. For John, repentance looks real: sharing extra possessions to take care of those in need, collecting a just tax, and ending the abusive use of power.
We have only sketched Mary and Zechariah and John, and we have not yet gotten to Jesus, but if we stop right now we get this: If kingdom is the solution, the problem it resolves is comprehensive injustice – before God, before the self, before others, and therefore with the world. Luke’s own wiki-story of the Story of God’s salvation does not take a turn from this comprehensive vision, and this vision will not stop when we get to the Book of Acts. So, now we turn to Jesus.
Jesus preaching kingdom
Attentive readings of the Gospel of Luke reveal that Jesus had the same solution and saw the same problems seen by Mary, Zechariah, and John the Baptist: injustices everywhere. And he had the same solution: repent and start living together as God’s beloved community. Listen to Jesus’ words from Luke 4:18-19, where we hear about his inaugural sermon. To announce his kingdom mission, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
In Luke’s telling of his story, we now have to ask our question: If the kingdom is the solution, what was the problem according to Jesus’ first preaching event? By appealing to the language of Israel’s release from the Babylonian Captivity, Jesus declared a solution to the following problems: poverty, unjust imprisonment, blindness, and (quite likely) the need for the Jubilee to be set in motion. The expressions “freedom” and “the year of the Lord’s favor” are allusions to the Jubilee of Leviticus 25.
If this solution Luke tells us sounds strange to you, I ask you to read this passage again. It’s in your Bible and in mine. Mary’s and Zechariah’s and John’s stories differ from Jesus’ but only slightly. Jesus carries on their vision to announce that the kingdom he is setting in motion is a kingdom that will undo injustices, establish justices, and create a society where God’s will is done. The gospel is about social formation before it is about personal formation.
Jesus blessing people
We need to jump ahead two chapters in Luke’s wiki-story to the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). Once again we find both an important passage for Jesus and another glance at the problem the kingdom is resolving. First, let’s get something straight: these “blessings” (Latin, beatitudo) are not Jesus’ version of Paul’s fruits of the Spirit. In fact, the Beatitudes are not setting out a list of virtues at all as if you and I ought to work hard at being poor or hungry so we can be blessed. No, the Beatitudes are a list of the kind of people who are finding their way into Jesus’ kingdom by jumping out of the boat and chasing after him. They remind us of something important to what we have already seen: Jesus is gathering a community made up of all sorts and it is especially populated by those at the margins of society who have, for any number of reasons, be excluded:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
Jesus knows the poor, the hungry, those in mourning, and the oppressed are responding to the kingdom. The words here from Jesus’ Beatitudes strike a three-times familiar song: the themes we have seen in Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus, and also John’s examples of repentance. If Jesus sides with one of these three, he sides with his mother.
And, like his mother who pushed sharp barbs into the ribs of the oppressors, Jesus turns on another group for what they have done to the poor, hungry, mourning and oppressed.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
Again, if the kingdom is the answer, what was the problem? A society marked by poverty, hunger, sadness, and oppression. Jesus came to form a community that would undo all that. He came to form a community noted by peace and justice and reconciliation – and suffering. Next passage from the life of Jesus, one that will also bring in the note of suffering.
Jesus answering John
Luke tells us that John is in prison for pointing his long finger at an empire builder, Herod Antipas. Antipas didn’t have the moral backbone to follow the Torah. In prison, John hears what Jesus is doing and sends two of his disciples to see if Jesus is “the one who is to come” or not. Jesus’ response in Luke 7:18-23 does nothing but confirm what we have already seen from Mary and Zechariah and John and Jesus’ words. Don’t tame these words of Jesus. Let them say what they say:
So he replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard:
The blind receive sight,
the lame walk,
those who have leprosy are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
John’s question was not a theological test. What John wanted was for Jesus to hear, if I may speculate, what John was thinking: “If you are the One who is to come, then get me out of prison.” Jesus’ answer is this: “If you want to know what I am doing, this is it: I welcome back into society those who have been excluded. Especially the poor.” He adds a potent summons: “Don’t get tripped up because of who I am and what I do because I don’t do what most people think I’m supposed to do.” Jesus’ answer to John reveals once again both the problem and the kingdom solution. Once again: the problem is community injustice and the solution is community justice – for all.
The last line of Jesus’ answer John says this: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” This line puts Jesus at the center of the kingdom. The “me” of that line is about to announce a new paradigm for what kingdom means and any kind of commitment to the kingdom involves a commitment, a personal one, to Jesus. Luke’s wiki-story converges onto one person. In fact, the Story is a Person and following him, as we are about to see, leads to that kingdom community.
We now enter a new chapter in the Story with Jesus and this chapter turns everything upside down. Everything. Mary had to adjust everything to this change; had Zechariah or John been around, they too would have adjusted. John, quite frankly, never does quite get it.
Jesus anticipating cross
So far so good: kingdom means community formation through commitment to Jesus. That community brings justice and it ends every form of oppression. Jesus’ kingdom vision will mean a total spiritual and social make-over for Israel. With everything now in place, Jesus takes an about turn, faces his disciples, tells them they’ve got a blurred vision of what God is actually doing, and creates an entirely new vision for what kingdom means. Kingdom, formerly connected with triumph, will now be connected to cross.
How does Jesus do this? The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus solicits from his followers a confession by asking them who they think he is (Luke 9:18-26). Peter blurts out that he thinks Jesus is “God’s Messiah.” Lest we tame this word “Messiah,” don’t forget that in Jesus’ day “Messiah” flowed out of the Story of the Bible and it always meant “the Davidic king who would liberate Israel and establish peace and justice for the community.” If there was any word in Israel’s dictionary that was clear, “Messiah” was it. So, Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah and knows exactly what he means. So does everyone else. It means the final king and his kingdom. The Magnificat is a perfect expression of that view of Messiah. So is the Benedictus, and what John was pointing toward in his repentance vision was that Messianic vision.
But Jesus will alter the meaning of Messiah forever.
Jesus’ response to Peter’s perfectly orthodox answer was at odds with everything the apostles had in mind. Completely at odds. Instead of Jesus saying, “Finally, someone gets it! Finally someone has figured out who I am!,” Jesus jumps to Daniel 7’s wiki-story of the mysterious figure he calls the “son of man.” Here is what Jesus says in Luke 9:22:
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
The apostles must have been repelled when Jesus connected Son of Man to “suffer.” Jesus’ response is “Yes, I am Messiah. Now for the inside scoop: Messiah is not what you think. This Messiah will be crucified (and raised).” No one expected the Messiah to be crucified. Messiahs rule with power and glory in their kingdom. But Jesus deconstructed their kingdom vision by deconstructing the meaning of Messiah; and he reconstructed the kingdom vision by reconstructing the meaning of Messiah.
As this Story unfolds in the pages of the New Testament, the cross becomes more and more central. So, these words of Luke 9:22 can be taken as the first words of a chapter that will explain the significance of Jesus’ death. It is not possible here to do anything but sketch what is said, but I like to use three expressions to explain the cross and I’m quite aware that these three expressions expand Luke’s own theology. Jesus died
with us – in total identification;
instead of us – as our substitute to do what we could not;
for us – giving us forgiveness and oneness with God.
The entire Story of Jesus is reshaped by the cross that Jesus predicts. Kingdom will not be forever connected to cross. No cross, no kingdom; no kingdom, no cross. In other words, cross and kingdom are so connected that when either conservatives or liberals shift the gravity from kingdom/community/church to either individualism or society, something goes terribly wrong. The cross of Jesus is a kingdom vision and that means the cross-shaped community is at the center of what salvation means in Luke.
Not only did he deconstruct their kingdom vision, he also deconstructed their understanding of discipleship. There is no doubt the disciples’ image of discipleship had to do with ruling next to Jesus when he ascended onto his kingdom throne. This is exactly the ambition we see in Luke’s last supper/Eucharistic narrative in Luke 22:24-27. What lit up their minds was the prospect of being in charge; maybe some vindication too. Until they heard Jesus say this in Luke 9:23:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
We are now facing in Luke’s wiki-story a paradox the apostles could barely fathom. There are four elements here in this scene, and the disciples completely understood part one and two but parts three and four made absolutely no sense:
1. Kingdom is present
2. Jesus is Messiah
3. Messiah Jesus must suffer on the cross
4. Messiah’s disciples are to take up the cross.
So now we ask once again of Jesus: If the kingdom is the solution, what is the problem? Oppression, violence against God’s people, and the yearning for the Messiah who will deliver them. And the solution, still the same, is a community without oppression and marked instead by justice. That’s been clear since Mary’s Magnificat.
But in this text Luke adds something we haven’t yet seen: the way to end oppression and violence and the yearning for the Messiah is to embrace the Messiah who will be crucified and raised from the dead. “Impossible!,” the disciples must have muttered to themselves. Kingdoms don’t emerge out of suffering and crucifixion; they follow the flash of swords and ascending onto a throne. But this is precisely what Jesus was saying: the messianic kingdom community will be marked by the cross and not the sword. The way to rule is to serve and die. I hope I sound now like an Anabaptist.
By the way, if in reading this you were frustrated by how social and national and political and economic the kingdom vision was presented by Luke, and if you felt some sense of relief by this last section about the cross, then I want you to know that is exactly how Luke wanted you to feel – this is what it means to read the Bible as Story and to let Luke’s wiki-story be what it is. If instead, you tossed this book down and accused me of being a social gospel guy, then I like that too, because Luke’s wiki-story presentation is indeed quite social. But, if instead, you denounced this sketch in Luke’s Gospel and ran over to Romans 3 to console yourself for how you thought the Bible was to be read, you may well have missed out on the incredible reality of what it was like for the first followers of Jesus to undergo the transformation from their vision of kingdom and Messiah to Jesus’ vision of kingdom and Messiah.
If you are like me, you are now muttering to yourself: “Show me what this kingdom community looks like.” The messianic community shaped by the cross (and resurrection and Pentecost) comes next in Luke’s wiki-story.
After describing for us that this Messiah did create a new kind of Passover meal called the Lord’s supper, Luke tells us that Jesus was crucified by the evil empire and that he was gloriously raised from the dead and that he flew back to the Father. Then Luke opens up a new book by reporting to us that God’s Spirit descended on Pentecost to anoint not just Jesus but all those who were in his family (and his mother and brothers are mentioned by Luke as now in his kingdom family). Here’s what we learn:
When Pentecost happens, a cross-shaped kingdom community emerges.
If we treat Luke-Acts as the wiki-story that it is, then we will read the first few chapters of Acts as the continuation of the story that began in Luke 1 and 2 with Mary and Zechariah and John the Baptist. And we will read it as a continuation of Jesus’ first sermon, his Beatitudes, his answer to John, and his anticipation of the cross. So, now here are the words of Luke and I hope you read them slowly enough to pick up on all of Luke’s resonances with the previous passages because Luke lets it all converge right here: the community Mary predicted, the worship Zechariah announced, the repentance John demanded, and the community Jesus declared arrived at Pentecost.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (2:42-47).
We have to add Acts 4’s description too:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).
Here we find a society marked by:
* Restoration with God in prayer and miracles
* Worshiping God in holiness and justice
* Connection to Jesus through the apostolic teaching and leadership
* Elimination of injustices and impoverishment and hunger by caring for one another
* Engaging the culture around them with the gospel.
* Serving instead of seeking power
Here in Jerusalem we see what Luke’s wiki-story was leading us to expect from the moment Mary’s soul began to “magnificat”: the kingdom community of faith is now alive and well on earth. It’s not all that big; it’s not powerful. Instead, it is a humble, cross-shaped community of a few believers living just as Jesus summoned them to live. It is a community living out the life Jesus lived, only now they are living “without Jesus” because they are living “anointed by the Spirit” (just as Jesus said of himself in Luke 4:18).
Once again, we ask Luke this question: If the kingdom is the solution, what was the problem? The community of God gone awry. What is the solution? A community standing on its feet, heart transformed, eyes and ears open, and a willingness to live as one. And if this isn’t missional then I don’t know what is. The church itself is a missionally-shaped community because it is the community that expresses kingdom in this world as a witness to Jesus and a witness to God’s salvation. It’s witness is both proclamation and performance.
Our focus in this conference is missional theology as seen in Luke-Acts. I have tried to set the context by seeing Luke-Acts as a wiki-story that leads from a kingdom vision from Mary on. That kingdom vision comes to embodied expression in the Jerusalem church that lives out the Magnificat. Luke tells us in Acts 1:14 that Mary was in the middle of the Pentecost church, and I suspect that she missed her son deeply but that she knew he was alive and well. I suspect also that when she saw the Jerusalem church doing what it was supposed to do, she thanked God for being alive to see the Magnificat become a living reality.