Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Faith that kills trees...

Probably best if you read the previous post 'faith that moves mountains' first...
Mark 11v12-19
[12] The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. [13] Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. [14] Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it.

[15] On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, [16] and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. [17] And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: "'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'"

[18] The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. [19] When evening came, they went out of the city.
So here we have two things that appear out of character for Jesus
  1. An act of senseless cursing against a tree, and
  2. An apparent act of violence against people.
What's going on here?

John's gospel records Jesus clearing the temple at the start of his ministry (just after the water into wine incident):
John 2v13-16
[13] When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. [14] In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. [15] So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. [16] To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"
I have heard people commenting on Jesus's use of violence before. Especially the bit about the whip. But look at the text, the whip was used exclusively on the sheep & cattle, not on people. And when it came to the people he scattered their coins and overturned their tables. There is no record of violence against people. Yes, he was angry. Yes, he took action. But he didn't hurt or attack anyone.

So even in his anger, he is still the Prince of Peace. Whew!

But its the bit about the fig tree that still bothers me. Matthew tells it like this:
Matthew 21v18-22
[18] Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. [19] Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, "May you never bear fruit again!" Immediately the tree withered.

[20] When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. "How did the fig tree wither so quickly?" they asked.

[21] Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. [22]If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
If Jesus wanted to prove a point about the power of faith and prayer, couldn't he have done something good to demonstrate what faith can achieve? Instead he uses faith to destroy a perfectly innocent tree. Mark goes as far as to note that it wasn't even the time of year for fig trees to be bearing fruit. (I've heard some folk say that it wasn't unusual for some fig trees to have some fruit at this time of year, but I think that's really clutching at straws - according to the text itself there was no good reason to expect the tree to have any fruit, but Jesus curses it anyway).

I've heard it said how this tree is a kind of living parable of the temple as it is in the same part of the story - looks healthy, but was actually bearing no fruit - and it was really about the temple which Jesus declared 'may you never bear fruit again'; sure enough, in a few decades time, the temple was to be destroyed. It really did never bear fruit again.

But that still doesn't explain why Jesus should kill a perfectly innocent tree. He is never recorded as having killed anything else in any gospel, so why do it now?

I'm afraid I have a very human explanation to propose. I believe Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. Being divine, he knew what he was about to have to go through in the days ahead. Being human, his emotions must have been all over the place, I believe that this act of violence against the tree was just a way of releasing some tension. In Matthew 26v38 Jesus says "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death" he even prayed for the cup to be taken from him - for God to change his plans. Simply, he did not want to be crucified and it was affecting him. Eventually the divine won over the human and he said "but not my will..." but that can't have been an easy choice. Indeed, I fully believe that he did have the choice to go on or go back, and he chose the way of death. Not an easy choice to make. And along the way he had to let off some steam. Some of this he channeled into clearing the temple, and some of it got unleashed on a poor tree.

I believe the gospel writers record this incident primarily because it happened. Also because it gives a good visual parable of the temple. But also because it shows just how human Jesus was.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Faith that moves mountains...

(Wow. Post number 100. I must have too much spare time on my hands...)

Mark 11v12-14 & 20-25
[12] The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. [13] Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. [14] Then he said to the tree, "May no one ever eat fruit from you again." And his disciples heard him say it.

[20] In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. [21] Peter remembered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!"
[22] "Have faith in God," Jesus answered. [23] "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. [24] Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [25] And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."
This is a familiar passage. We've all heard it used and abused and taken totally out of context. This is the passage (in parallel to one in Matthew) which speaks of moving mountains... Except it doesn't. It speaks of 'moving this mountain' - one specific mountain, not a general principle.

I mean, Christian history isn't full of stories of people moving geography by faith, is it? I can't actually think of any instances of people moving mountains or even hills without some serious earth-moving equipment. So what's Jesus talking about here?

Which mountain?

In the context of the story, the only mountain that Jesus could be referring to is the Temple Mount - just across the valley from where the fig tree stood. The in-between verses in that story (which I missed out above) are about the clearing of the temple.

Now contextualise things and think about what the Temple Mount meant to the disciples. The temple was the very home of God, the place where God's Spirit rested and the place where the people could get close to their God. It was also the place of sacrifice and atonement. What Jesus says here is actually far more earth-shattering than simply moving geography about. The Jewish disciples were probably comfortable with the idea that God could move mountains about, but this mountain? It was probably the only immovable object in their world view.

Now think about what Jesus says - "I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him." - where does the 'action' take place here? With the person, 'in his heart'. Might the actual meaning of this statement be something more like this?:

"...not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done in him."

I think Jesus is saying that the only way to get rid of the mountain of religious baggage that the disciples were carrying is to live by faith; faith in Him. His way is the only way to be free of religion and actually live the unfettered life that God intended for them.

I'm sure for some, the idea of being totally free from all that was far more impressive than merely the ability to move geography about.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Before creation...

Genesis 1v1-5
[1] In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. [2] And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. [3] And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. [4] And God saw the light, that [it was] good: and God divided the light from the darkness. [5] And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. (KJV)
I came back to these verses the other day and something that I had never noticed before jumped out at me. The first day of creation is the creation of light. After that he creates the 'firmament' (day 2), which he calls 'heaven', then he creates 'earth' (day 3). So verse 1 "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" is the preface to what follows on the 2nd and 3rd days of creation. Creation starts in verse 3 with the creation of light.

But what about verse 2? Before the creative process starts, there is something; 'the deep', 'the waters' - these seem to pre-exist before creation. The bible does not tell us that God creates these.

So where did they come from?

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Trinity

OK. Time for a big doubt. The Trinity.

God the Father is God.
God the Son is God.
God the Spirit is God.

But why do we assume that they are three persons?

The language in the bible is quite confusing. I can see where the idea of the Trinity came from, but the idea itself is not to be found in the bible. It is a derived theology - a concept used to explain some of the confusions in the bible. Why do we try to subdivide God in some way?

If someone was to talk about my spirit, we would understand that they weren't talking about some separate person, but rather they would be talking about something that was part of me, something that was integral to my being. Indeed, they would probably mean the essence that makes me me.

So why when we talk about the 'Spirit of God' (e.g. Philippians 3v3) or the 'Spirit of Jesus' (e.g. Philippians 1v9) do we seem to assume that this Spirit is in some way distinct from God or Jesus?

Surely the Spirit of Jesus is actually Jesus!

And what about Jesus himself? He said quite clearly "I and the Father are one" (John 10v30) and never at any point in the bible does Jesus refer to himself as the "Son of God" (although his disciples and even accusers do use these words about him). But Jesus prefers to describe himself as the "Son of Man" - emphasising his humanity. But what if Jesus was/is the one true God?

Chapter 1 of John says some astounding things:
  • v1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." God's message to the world is a person. That person is God himself. Not two people, one.
  • v14: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only [Son], who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." Notice what they did there? ('they' being the translators of the TNIV, in this case) They inserted the word 'son' into the text so that it says what they think it means. But the original just speaks of "the one and only", not "the one and only son". Maybe it means the one and only God? Maybe Jesus is the one and only God?
  • v18: "No one has ever seen God, but the one and only [Son], who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known." They've done it again! And they did it a long time ago. Most of the early manuscripts for this passage (from the 3rd and 4th centuries) speak of the "only begotten Son", but the earliest fragments of this passage - from the 2nd century - speak of the "only begotten God".
How could the infinite and eternal one true God become a finite and temporal man? I have no idea. Nobody can grasp it. We have no words to even begin to explain it. But we can understand the idea of parenthood and the relationship between a Father and a Son. Perhaps this is why it is spoken of in this way - its perhaps the closest we can get to grasping the idea. But it is an imperfect picture, not the whole reality. The reality is too big and complex for us to fathom.

Jesus commissioned his disciples to go and baptise people in the name (singular) of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit... and his disciples went and baptised people in the name of Jesus. They didn't forget about the Father and the Spirit, the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit (collectively) is Jesus.

What if there is no Trinity, there is only Jesus, the only God?