When the Gratitude Idol Kills Christmas

When the Gratitude Idol Kills Christmas

It’s that time of the year again, when Ghanaian Christendom displays its true character. The billboards started popping up way back in November, some as far back as October, reminding the ignorant (and not so ignorant) of the most important even on Christendom’s calendar. You might be tempted to think I’m talking about 25th December – Christmas day. After all, Christianity throughout history chose that day to commemorate the birth of the founder of our religion – the person who we deem is the saviour of the world – Jesus Christ. But you would be wrong. Neither Christmas nor Easter is the most important day on the Ghanaian Christendom calendar. No, the most important day is 31st December, and I will explain to you why.

Ghanaian Culture in Times Past

Ghanaians by nature are a very grateful people, and being able to go through a calendar year without succumbing to death (or even misfortune) is one of the things that Ghanaians are most grateful for. Ghanaian cultures are mostly deterministic by nature – they generally believe that whatever good or bad happens to them is as a result of God’s (or the gods’) direct intervention in their lives, a concept I’ve written about previously here. This determinism has unfortunately become associated with the biblical concept of “grace”, and scripture is very easily twisted in support of this understanding of grace with tacit approval by many Ghanaians. In many ways, most Ghanaians will fit right into a Calvinistic view of the world. But I digress.

This gratitude for surviving a calendar year is so strong, that many of the Christmas songs of non-European origin (ie. local language songs) are actually more about celebrating the end of a year’s cycle than they are about Jesus or Christmas itself. A typical example that you will hear on Christmas day in Ghanaian churches of all shapes and colors.

Bronya oh, Bronya oh, Bronya oh, afe ato yen biom” – meaning “Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, a year has gone and come again”

In fact the most famous non-European song you will hear in church on Christmas day is again, about the New Year, not about Christmas.

Ye ma mo afe nhyia pa oh, ye ma mo afe nhyia pa … Papa embra, bone enko” meaning “We wish you a happy new year, we wish you a happy new year … may good come to us, may evil be far from us”.

I want to emphasize here that this was the pattern long before I became an adult, before billboards became a thing, whiles we were attending boring old churches Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches. It seems that our attempts to contextualize into Ghanaian culture the celebration of Christmas via music always exhibited this character of gratitude for the yearly cycle more than an actual focus on celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, nothing prevents most of our local “Christmas” songs from being sung at Easter. I even reminded someone in my office the other day that those songs can as well be sung even when it comes to their personal birthdays. After-all, those songs aren’t about the birth of Jesus, but about a celebration of any 365 day cycle, and birthdays qualify perfectly.

General Christendom Attitudes to Church

Even looking beyond the Christmas period, if one were to ask many ordinary Christians why they go to church on Sunday, a large percentage will give you these standard answers.

  1. We go to church to thank God for the many things he has done for us (the “many things” are never actually defined, but assumed).

  2. Many are in hospital suffering from different ailments, and ‘by the grace of God’ I am healthy, so I must go to church to thank him for that.” (which presupposes that the person in hospital received no “grace” from God).

  3. Many are the plans of the ‘enemy’ against my life, and God has protected me from them, so I go to church to worship him for that” (which presupposes that those who may have died recently have been overcome by the “enemy”).

The favourite phrase by most Ghanaians to capture this notion of gratitude is “Ebenezer, thus far the Lord has brought us”, regurgitating words from the 1 Sam 7:12 of Israel’s defeating it’s Philistine enemies at Mizpah. By the way, if you haven’t noticed, Ebenezer is quite a popular name in Ghana.

All these should tell us to a very important truth about Christendom in Ghana.

At the heart of a large swathe of Ghanaian Christendom is not the kingdom of God breaking into this world and transforming it, but the kingdom of God being used as a tool of self-preservation.

This is easily couched in a sense of false humility – that whatever good things one has is from God, therefore one must always be in a posture of gratitude to God. This false humility leads to the elevation of a particular practice as the most important thing of all – the practice of singing songs of praise and worship to God, mostly centered around him keeping us “safe”, keeping us “alive” and keeping us “prosperous”. Just do a count of the number of Christian “worship” events held in the capital this year, and you’ll realize how important “worship” is to Ghanaian Christendom.

Whereas the Christianity that Jesus models for us is a Christianity that calls us as disciples to self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other, Ghanaian Christendom is about safety. Whereas Jesus calls his disciples to lose their lives in order to gain it, Ghanaian Christendom is about preserving it at all costs to their neighbour, couched nicely under the notion of “gratitude”. It covers these failures up with abundance of religion expressed in the form of gratuitous “worship” and “praises”, but very little action for the poor, the needy, the oppressed and the stranger.

The Aggravation: Charismatism

Despite the fact that this was the state of affairs of Christendom long before I was born, it managed to stay under the radar of Christian piousness for a long time. Many churches still managed to make the Christmas period a bit about celebrating Jesus’s birth, though the society barely felt the impact of such good news as the early church did. I remember my Pentecostal church used to have a potluck of sorts back when I was a child, but it quickly fell out of fashion in pursuit of even more church services in Christmas, couched as “conventions”. Many churches have always had a 31st night church event to commemorate the end of the year, but they were mostly low key events focused on church members simply gathering to express gratitude for the year.

However, the rise of Charismatism in Ghana, with televangelists jostling with each other to attract the largest crowds and establish their credentials as the biggest “men of God”, marked a significant turn of events. Many of these televangelists have resorted to tapping into the already flawed notions of gratitude as the foremost form of discipleship to organize larger and ever more grandiose 31st night “crossover”, “change over” etc services, making even small churches feel the need to pimp up their own events. TV and radio adverts simply use the right phrases of false gratitude, and Ghanaian Christians come running to pay their homage.

If you are seeing this advert, then it means you have survived 2017. Not everybody had this privilege. Therefore come to Tamale Sports Stadium on 31st December and let’s thank the Lord for how far he has brought us and pray to secure our blessings for 2018”.

The impression is created as if a person who doesn’t attend such services will be cursed in the coming year (or might even die before the midnight of 1st January) for being ungrateful. When one complains about these events and what they are turning into, the great excuse of “savings souls” that justifies every activity, expense and abuse is “31st night services are also a means to save souls”. As if God isn’t capable of saving souls on any other day.

The Cure

Whiles talking about this issue of how Ghanaian Christians treat Christmas and New Year celebrations with some friends just last week, I mentioned the Magnificat, the song recorded in Luke 1:46-56, that Mary sang when she was told she was pregnant with the saviour. These friends were surprised that the Gospels actually record a song in the mouth of Mary in response to the news about she carrying the saviour in her womb. That tells me the depth of failure of the church in telling the story of Jesus’s birth, even to its own members born and bred in Christendom.

And so, here is my recommended treatment for this disease of self-centered false humility masquerading as 31st night “worship” events, whiles totally snuffing the life out of celebrating the birth of the world’s saviour because we are more worried about reaching the end of the year and crossing into the next.

  1. Scrap or rewrite the local language songs sung during Christmas. They have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

  2. Write new songs focusing on the actual stories as recorded in the gospels regarding Jesus’s birth. There’s a reason why Jews came up with the Psalms. Because it’s a convenient way for them to tell and retell the history of Israel and God’s relationship in song form. If your church members do not know the song that Mary sang about Jesus’s birth (and yet you tell us you are a “bible-based” church), its because we are not learning about how God’s people taught their children to know him well. Make it hip or danceable if you need to, but write it from the Gospels.

  3. When we have birthday parties, we have shared meals. We bring friends together and eat and dance together. Christmas should be less about attending more church services to hear more boring sermons and more about eating together as church communities. It’s a birthday celebration, for the love of peace. How many of us want sermons on our birthdays? There will be challenges in putting it together, but it’s a learning ground for us to do it better, not to abandon it. Our current practices of celebrating Christmas are rather promoting individualism, not unity, and that is what the devil likes – division and selfishness.

  4. Re-evaluate our understanding of the Gospel. The Gospel is a declaration that Jesus is the world’s king, not Nana Akuffo-Addo, nor Donald Trump. Ponder why in Mary’s Magnificat she talks about this announcement meaning that Jesus will lift up the humble, feed the hungry being and bring the rulers down from their thrones. In what way is our Christmas celebration uplifting the downtrodden, whiles also confronting the powerful?

  5. Consider joining the rest of the church worldwide in the practice of Advent, which enables Christians to go through weeks of preparing for the birth of Jesus as a way to focus our minds on the kingdom of God.

  6. 31st December nights have become idols to Ghanaian Christendom. Relinquish it. If one still wants to use it, then turn it into a night of stock taking for the church community together, and not a praying station for individual prosperity and thanksgiving. Every blessed day is a 365 day cycle, and so is 31st December. Its a human tradition that has taken a life of it’s own. It needs to die, or be transformed into a tool for reflecting on the kingdom of God.

A certain wise man once said “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and everything else shall be added unto you”. Is your 31st December a night for seeking the kingdom of God – a kingdom of other-centered love and fellowship with one another for the benefit of the world – or is it a night to pursue religious self-centeredness in the name of  “gratitude” and “worship”?

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Ghanaian Charismatism and the Total Bastardization of “Grace”

This is the 2nd in a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity. It follows from the first one, which is available here.

Walk into many Charismatic churches in Ghana, and do a survey of it’s church members. One will find that apart from the very young generation, most members of these churches were originally members of what are considered “orthodox churches” in Ghana – the churches founded by the missionary efforts of Europeans in the pre-colonial era. And though Charismatism began with an emphasis on the operation of the gifts of the spirit, it soon became infused with teachings originally from Kenneth Hagin and his cohorts – what is referred to as Word of Faith (WOF) teaching/prosperity teaching. In Ghana, I can confidently say that 90% of charismatic churches are now driven by WOF teaching, hence I hope I can be excused for not differentiating between WOF adherents and non-WOF charismatics in this post. In any case even those who aren’t WOF-inclined have some of the same seeds of divine determinism in them, and so will benefit from this critique.

Additional Ingredients

In addition to the seed of divine determinism that already flourishes in Ghanaian cultural Christianity, one more seed that has found fertile ground for the flourishing of these abuses of “grace” is the seed of individualism. Since Western Christianity had even before the Protestant Reformation, interpreted and preached the gospel as a call for each individual to save themselves from being thrown into hell fire and to rather gain a ticket to heaven, it had already been evident in the work of the missionaries to Ghana that Christianity was an individual walk with God. When this is mixed with the Ghanaian cultural deterministic perception that God has set out a “destiny” which is unique for each and every individual, you have an explosive mixture just waiting to be lighted up. And that is exactly what happened with growth in 3 things – urbanization, upward mobility and the arrival of the prosperity teaching, what I call the 3 horsemen.

The 3 Horsemen

Horseman 1 – Urbanization

Many people I’ve spoken to, including some people much older than me, speak of the sense of unity that existed in the orthodox church they used to attend back in the rural areas. They complain after moving to Accra, they experienced that even in a branch of the same denomination they attended here in the city, that sense of unity was no longer there, with everyone seeming to mind their own business. These friends bemoan this state of affairs, and pine for earlier days. What people like these fail to realize was that this sense of unity was always a false one that couldn’t last when transplanted into a new, more challenging environment – because this unity was based more on ethnic and cultural homogeneity than on a theological and practical outworking of what the New Testament means by unity. Once that sense of unity and care is lost, one begins to focus much more on oneself for survival. Enter horseman 2.

Horseman 2 – Upward Mobility

With no sense of real unity other than just showing up on church on a Sunday to perform the rituals and appease God (in the form of tithes and offerings), people naturally drifted into competition to show oneself as “moving forward” in life. Here, moving forward is defined as getting married if one was single, having children if one was married, having a better job and a nicer car than your fellow church member, probably owning one’s own home by 5-10 years of work. In recent times, becoming an entrepreneur has been added to this list. Enter the 3rd horseman.

Horseman 3 – Prosperity Teaching aka Motivational Teaching

Due to the de-prioritization of unity (which was already built on shaky grounds within orthodox churches anyway) and the elevation of individual achievement to the highest ideal, it is no surprise that the message of “name it claim it” and “everything is possible” sounded much more pleasing to cultural Christian ears than the boring old “clinging to the rugged cross”, hence Ghanaians moved across in droves. In recent times, the fashion is that almost every Charismatic pastor is also a “Motivational Preacher”. What they don’t realize is that one doesn’t even need to be a pastor to be a motivational preacher. All one needs is a bit of self-confidence to propound some 7 or 8 theories of success. Voila!! Of course they themselves need to show you that their teaching works to bring material prosperity, so it is near impossible to meet such preachers who look and live simple lives. Obviously that life is built off the back of their congregants, either via directly controlling the cash and exercising undue influence on its spending because they are the “founder” of the church, publishing books that are required reading by church members or have an appeal to a general audience in the “motivational speaking” genre but have nothing to do with the biblical gospel, or moving from office to office of richer congregants in the name of “praying” or “prophecying” for them, yet collecting monies for such “visits”.

What Has All This Got To Do With “Grace”?

I listen to a lot of snippets of sermons by many Charismatic preachers (unfortunately I don’t have a choice – almost every corner is filled with them in Accra so one can’t avoid them). And increasingly I hear the use of the term “grace” to speak of how God was going to bless church members with material wealth. Remember what we said in part 1 of this series? That Ghanaian cultural Christians have an already flawed understanding that God is a micromanager of lives who decides freely (“by grace”) who he was going to “curse” (typically the “wicked”) and who he was going to bless (typically the “righteous” ie one who does what a pastor/church defines as “righteous”) irrespective of hard work, access to opportunities and privilege? Well, these WOF preachers then play this false definition of God’s “grace”, by saying that God will “give more grace” (ie more good decisions) to those who desire to be materially prosperous. Of course, this “grace” always comes with a caveat – it’s given to those who have “faith”, i.e. those who show such “faith” by plenty prayer and profuse attendance of said pastor’s church programs and those who give monies to their church (called “sowing a seed”, “sowing into the man of God’s life”).

In the end, what these preachers mean by “grace” is exactly the opposite of what the New Testament means by “grace” – one does nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing – to deserve it. Not the number of tongues per minute, nor hours of prayer, nor hours of church attendance, nor amounts of money given to the church nor trees planted in the “man of God’s” life. Interestingly the one place where the New Testament uses the phrase “more grace” (according to the NIV translation) is the place that actually condemns selfishness and greed in the name of God.

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God … But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” (Jas 4:3-6).

Edit: Just a few hours after publishing this blog, a friend sent me what I consider to be Exhibit A of the problem I’m addressing – from the “Grand Papa” of Ghanaian Charismatism – Duncan Williams

Grace: A Quick Reminder of Its Biblical Usage

I have said a lot in defining what grace means in a previous post, but let me restate it here in a quick fashion.

  1. The New Testament talks about “grace” in terms of Yahweh’s launching his kingdom by deciding to accept both Jews and Gentiles as part of his chosen people – his church – without asking anything from them ie requiring Gentiles to keep the law of Moses. Sadly, because our notions of the gospel are so individualized (getting a personal ticket to heaven), we don’t realize that when the NT talks about grace, it’s talking about how Yahweh maintains the promise he made to Abraham – just as he chose the Jews by grace, he will make that grace available to all others so that he will have one united people, irrespective of ethnic, social and cultural line. This is what Paul calls “the blessings of Abraham” (Gal 3:14). It is this critical understanding of grace that was not properly planted by our missionary churches, going way back to both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Reformers themselves, for which we are suffering today.

  2. The New Testament speaks of grace as the power to serve God faithfully in this kingdom agenda – the agenda of creating and sustaining one united people of God via bringing this good news to others, and creating disciples out of those who believe this news regarding how to submit to one another and to suffer for one another just as God himself suffered for us to show us the way. That is, grace empowers us to serve God and one another, led by the Spirit.

In short, grace is how you get into God’s chosen people, and how you stay and serve in God’s chosen people. It’s got nothing to do with one’s personal ambitions of wealth and prosperity, and everything to do with who one is in Christ, and how one is living by Christ’s own self-sacrificial example after one becomes part of his people. Grace is about reconciliation with God and one another, and sacrifice for one another once reconciled. Simple and short.

Conclusion: The Seeds of Deception Have Always Been Therefore

Human beings, due to our sinful nature, are always selfish, whether spiritually or materially. We are selfish for holiness, righteousness, peace and self-sufficiency as much as we are selfish for sin, wickedness, violence and greed. Jesus came to show up our selfishness for what it is and to reveal the number one character of God that confuses the wisdom of both Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor 1:18-25) – that God dying on the cross shows himself as the unselfish God who is willing to die even for his enemies.

And this leads to a very important point that many Ghanaian Christians, whether orthodox or Penteco-Charismatic, are missing. Christianity is not about going to heaven, nor material wealth. If your creator is a God who takes risks and suffers for the sake of his enemies, then being made in his image, one must also be seen all your life to be one who is making sacrifices for one’s fellow human. We choose to love not because we will be rewarded with heaven, but because that is the nature of the one in whose image we are made. Therefore, Christianity is a matter of discipleship in the way of the one who created us, not for reward, but because that’s what makes us truly human.

Whenever Christianity is posed in the form of determinism – that God is micromanaging the world and deciding to bless only those who do “right”, we make room for false teachers to come up with their own definition of “right” so we can selfishly appease God whiles they milk us dry. Whenever Christianity is posed as a reward scheme – that saying the “right prayer” or “living the holy life” automatically guarantees access to heaven, we produce people who are more interested in their own individual walk with God than those of their fellow human beings.

When spiritually-minded Ghanaian cultural Christianity got tired of waiting to go to heaven, it obviously chose the next best thing – grabbing all that we can on earth. May we not be overcome by this selfishness, whose seeds were planted by our orthodox churches, but whose fruits are now being harvested in the form of modern Penteco-Charismatism and its WOF champions.

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Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

Orthodox Churches and the Distortion of “Grace”

This is the first of a 2 part series of posts on the phenomenon of unbiblical understandings of “grace” that permeates Ghanaian Christianity.

Readers of my blog will notice that I have a problem with the way Ghanaian cultural Christianity uses the term “grace”. The hegemony that this term “grace” holds here (which I consider a distortion of what the bible actually means by the word “grace”) is encapsulated in the almost required response amongst cultural Christians to the simple greeting “How are you?”. If one answers with “by the grace of God I’m fine”, then one is considered a well brought-up Ghanaian Christian. If not, you might be required to bring your parents over for questioning on the kind of “upbringing” you were given.

But as I delve more into reading about the beliefs, culture and history of the Old Testament (a culture scholars refer to as the Ancient Near East i.e. ancient Israel and their Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Canaanite and Hittite neighbours), the greater the similarities I find between these beliefs and those of traditional and even modern Ghanaian culture. It has caused me to reflect a lot on things I have heard since I was old enough to process my culture around me, and increasingly I’m coming to a very important conclusion – long before the modern abuses of “grace” came along, our traditional orthodox churches failed to challenge the worldview of retributive justice that existed in our African cultures (and most other cultures worldwide), and that failure is coming back to bite us really hard in the ass in this modern, fast-paced, individualistic and pluralistic world. And for those reading this who may not be Ghanaian, in Ghana we use the term “orthodox churches” to refer not to either Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox churches, but rather to the churches founded by European missionary efforts i.e. the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, AME, Roman Catholic etc who dominated the landscape before the rise of Pentecostalism and its junior brother – Charismatism.

Now, let me explain myself.

Retributive Justice in the Old Testament

Scholars point out that in the Ancient Near Eastern world, many people believed the gods to be intricately involved in the affairs of men, especially in their fortunes or misfortunes. The right worship of the gods (aka righteousness) led to the receipt of blessings from them. Consequently, it was also assumed that misfortune was as a result of the anger of the god(s) due to a failure in worshiping the gods or doing their bidding, whether one knew what one’s failure was or not. Hence, scholars use the term “retributive justice” to mean the following beliefs .

  • The god(s) reward righteous behaviour with blessings of material prosperity.

  • The corollary was this – misfortune could only be explained as resulting from the anger of the god(s) at one’s personal or inherited “unrighteous” behaviour.

This belief was also dominant amongst the people of Israel as expressed towards Yahweh, and is reflected in the Old Testament. The Psalms are full of passages about the Lord blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, and this whole post will be taken up with examples if I attempt to give them.

However, some authors within the Old Testament began to question Yahweh about why the wicked were rather being blessed instead of the righteous. Many Psalms (like Ps 94) question God for allowing the wicked to rather prosper, calling on him to punish them immediately. The author of Ps 73 consoles himself about Yahweh’s eventual punishment of the wicked in the long run, even if not immediately.

The book of Proverbs is especially guilty of preaching the “righteous will always be blessed” mantra, leading to the notion that one can only be blessed with material prosperity if God explicitly gives it to you. No actual effort of yours counts towards this.

The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, without painful toil for it.” (Prov 10:22)

Thankfully, other wisdom books like the book of Job, Lamentations and Ecclesiastes were written to counter this simplistic thinking by the people of Israel. Sadly they seem to have made little impact in changing their minds about retributive justice, and even in the New Testament, Jesus’s disciples ask questions which reflect such thinking in John’s Gospel.

His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (Jn 9:2)

Enter Traditional Ghanaian Determinism

Many Ghanaians, including many well educated pastors and church leaders, have a deterministic view of life, drenched in traditional African notions of destiny. Traditionally Ghanaians express a belief in their god(s) already determining their destiny (“hyebre” in the Twi language), with the notion that if one doesn’t stray from the path that has been laid out for you by the god(s) (by correctly and constantly worshipping the god(s) and obeying their commands), then one will reach this destiny – which most of the time is hoped to be a materially prosperous one. If one’s life is turning out to be difficult, the best one can do is to plead with their god(s) to “change their destiny” (“sesa me hyebre” in the Twi language), so that at some point in the near future, prosperity will be their portion. Because one is not in control of one’s destiny, it presupposes that one is at the mercy of one’s god(s). The choice to give you a “good” destiny is in the hands of the god(s), and therefore it is a gift to you if one receives a “good” destiny. The Twi term for being gifted something one doesn’t deserve (or isn’t in control of) is “adom”, and that is how the word “grace” in the bible is translated in Twi bibles – “adom”. Hence, if one is doing materially well, has bought a new car, has gotten married or is generally alive and not dead, one must acknowledge the god(s) for this by saying “eye Nyame Adom” i.e. “it is by God’s grace”. A well brought up Ghanaian, when commended for some good fortune, is expected to say “it is by grace oh, not my doing”. Hence, the Ghanaian cultural expectation of the response “I’m fine by God’s grace” to the simple question of “How are you?” .

Now, do you see where I’m going with this? Do you see the similarities between this way of traditional Ghanaian thinking and those of retributive justice as evident in some parts of the bible? And do you see how our European missionaries and their Ghanaian counterparts who took over from them have failed to see where they are reading the bible with Ghanaian cultural eyes and assuming that it lines up with their pre-existing beliefs, despite both Old and (especially) New Testament evidence to the contrary?

The Effects of this Syncretism

Because these Ancient Near Eastern beliefs reflected in especially the Old Testament are quite compatible with this traditional Ghanaian (and largely African) worldview, Christianity, despite all it’s positive achievements in Ghana, has also had a very dark side in the Ghanaian experience. Here are some of its effects.

  1. It is very difficult to question the source of a church member’s riches in a Ghanaian church. Because the bible expresses God’s desire for righteous people to be materially prosperous, and because of passages like Prov 10:22 quoted above, it is assumed that God must have given the person these riches. Hence, God’s will has been confused with God’s causation.

  2. Because God is assumed to have actively caused people to become materially rich, it is not surprising for people who have gained wealth through all sorts of nefarious and illegal means to be immediately elevated to positions of huge influence in our churches, and to be treated specially. This may not necessarily be due to an attempt to benefit from their riches, but an inherent assumption that this person must be a “righteous” person to be that “blessed” by God.

  3. Given the above 2 effects, church leaders typically resign themselves to benefiting from such “blessed” people for the benefit that their wealth will bring to the church’s ABCs – attendance, buildings and cash. Afterall, God has already placed their “stamp” on such people, so who are they to ask questions but just to “tap into such blessings”.

  4. Listening to Ghanaian gospel music, one can see how it has become saturated with “Eye Adom” (it’s by grace) and “Hyebre” (destiny) and “Nhyira” (material prosperity). These sound deceptively biblical, but are purely based on a traditional Ghanaian worldview than by the worldview defined by Jesus and especially the New Testament.

  5. Traditionally, Western Christianity has been guilty of “spiritualizing” the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20) instead of usual “blessed are the rich” of retributive justice, by a flawed interpretation of Matthew’s version “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt 5:3). By his declaration that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, Jesus turns the retributive justice principle on its head, urging the church communities to take active steps in elevating the poor from their status, which one sees in the book of Acts and the life of the New Testament and early church. However, “Blessed are the poor” taken literally, sounds totally against every fibre within the bone of our traditional Ghanaian “God must bless me” worldview.

  6. These deterministic beliefs undermine the need for hardwork. Despite all our lip service about the importance of hard work, we preach and act as if hard work isn’t necessary to material prosperity. Using passages like Prov 10:22, we keep our people in church for so many hours, engaged in myriads of “church programmes” because that is the means by which we show our “righteousness”. Coupled with giving to the church, this is preached as the means by which God will “bless” us. Given that 70% of Ghanaians are Christians, is it surprising that we as a nation remain poor?

  7. Ghanaian Christians live with a very huge cognitive dissonance. Despite all their “good worship” of God, our nation continues to wallow in poverty. We keep quoting the portions of scripture that tell us that being righteous will lead to us being materially prosperous, whiles the Japanese, Chinese, Indians etc who largely don’t even care about Christianity are living much better lives in terms of material prosperity than we do, and are giving us loans and grants. Confront church leaders with this, and they’ll give you some flimsy reasons, just like the people of the OT when it comes to why the wicked prosper.

The Seeds Have Always Been There

The only reason why our “orthodox” Christian churches were a bit reserved in their endorsement of materialism (as compared to the modern Charismatic movement and it’s love affair with Word of Faith teachings) was because they had a much larger focus on saving souls from hell to heaven. Now that the seeds of syncretism that they planted regarding an incorrect view of divine determinism and “grace” are being taken advantage of by these prosperity preachers, leading to a loss of church membership, our “orthodox churches” are beginning to sound more and more like their Word of Faith counterparts.

In the next post, I will explain how the Ghanaian Charismatic church (which has largely imbibed Word of Faith teaching so much it’s difficult to find a non-WOF Charismatic church in Ghana) is hammering the word “grace” out of all proportion in the pursuit of material wealth.

Discipleship and the Imago Dei

following-jesus

A few years ago I gave a presentation to young undergraduate Christian students on the importance of discipleship, which was then followed by multiple small groups to discuss the subject further. During this group session, somebody asked if a “disciple” is a higher level of Christian than a “believer”. I felt a bit devastated with the question, given all that we had said before, but I managed to clarify that to be a Christian was to be a disciple. But such levels of ignorance about discipleship amongst young educated minds who will in the future become leaders in Ghanaian churches and Christian communities made me realise that there really was a huge gap of understanding between what the New Testament expected of us, and what our churches were training us to be. Reflecting on J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image – Imago Dei in Genesis 1” brought home the centrality of discipleship to the whole enterprise of Christianity, evangelism and church. As i promised in my last post, its time to learn a thing or two from him.

Imago Dei in the Ancient Near East

One of the important reminders about reading the Old Testament is that there is the general scholarly consensus that it was edited and compiled during the exile. It thus exhibits certain tendencies to be critical of the ideologies that it was confronted with before and during the exile. And the 2 most dominant ideologies that it critiques are those of Mesopotamian ideologies (ie Assyria and Babylon, who ended up enslaving Northern Israel and Southern Israel respectively) as well as Egyptian ideologies which they inherited after the Exodus. Viewed in this light, Middleton points out how the idea of humans being created in the image of God would have developed to counter specifically the Mesopotamian ideas about humanity, seeing as Israel was exiled there for 70 years.

Middleton points out that in the Ancient Near East amongst whom Israel existed, almost all the dominant cultures viewed human beings as slaves of the gods, created to do the menial work that the gods didn’t want to do. However, there was a small but very important distinction amongst human beings. The Egyptians believed that their Pharaohs were gods (or incarnations of the gods), whiles Mesopotamians believed that their kings were humans, but were made in the image of their gods. Alongside these Mesopotamian kings, the priests, who served in the presence of the gods were also made in their image. This implied that every one else was just a slave of the gods via the gods’ appointed representative “images” ie the king and his priests. Given this status of a Mesopotamian king, to disregard the commandments of a king like Nebuchadnezer was to question not just the king, but Marduk himself, the primary deity of the Babylonians whom the king represented. You can understand why Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego and Daniel wouldn’t have been holding hands and singing kumbaya in Babylon, as recorded in the book of Daniel. Of course there were times Mesopotamian kings not only held their “image” status dear, but blurred the lines between being the image and being the god themselves, but that is of course the way of humans when power gets into their head.

Imago Dei in the Old Testament

However, the people of Israel tell a different story about human existence. Their story went like this.

  1. Yahweh, the Creator god, created all human beings in his image. All humans are of equal worth to Yahweh, meant to “rule over the earth”, not be slaves for the benefit of others made in his image.

  2. Being “made in Yahweh’s image”, each and every human being’s responsibility was to look a little bit like that of a previous group of people I have mentioned above who were made in the image of the gods in Mesopotamia – kings and priests. It is therefore not for fun that both Yahweh’s address to Israel after the exodus, and John of Patmos’ vision in the book of Revelation are aligned when they speak of Israel and the church respectively.

    Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’” (Ex 19:5-6 NIV)

    And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”(Rev 5:9-10 NIV)

  3. The primary problem then would seem to be that humans have lost the sense of direction as to what god in whose image they were made. They therefore worship their own creation or themselves, and fail to live as Yahweh had designed them to live. Just as Eve got deceived by the serpent into thinking that the fruit of knowledge of good and evil was desirable for gaining wisdom” (Gen 3:6 NIV), humans craft their own “wisdom”, leaving behind the real source of wisdom – Yahweh himself. Hence the wisdom statement “the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of Wisdom” (Prov 9:10;Ps 111:10 NIV)

  4. And even when humans discern this god in whose image they were made (as Israel claimed to have discerned after the Exodus), they misunderstand understand his character and so do not reflect it properly. Speaking of Israel during the Exodus, Yahweh says:

    For forty years I loathed that generation, And said they are a people who err in their heart. And they do not know my ways” (Ps 95:10 NIV)

In short then, the key problem of human beings is not that they have failed some morality test that God set for Adam and Eve, but that they have rejected covenant relationship with the loving Creator god, Yahweh which will enable them to reflect his ways as image bearers upon this earth. This has lead to frustrations, inequality, poverty, violence and death. As NT Wright puts it in his book “The Day the Revolution Began”, the key problem of humanity is idolatory, leading to not being a true image bearer after the one in whose image we are made.

Once this conclusion hit me, being an avid reader of the Psalms and the prophets, I began to notice how stridently they criticize the “nations” aka Gentiles for not listening to Yahweh, and why Paul the apostle launches his epistle to the Romans with the standard Jewish criticism of this problem – the problem of idolatory leading to immorality.

Enter Jesus

Jesus enters the scene, and makes certain claims about his identity. The people of Israel think they know who Yahweh is, and what his character is like. But Jesus makes a scandalous claim – he is the embodiment of Yawheh, Israel’s God, and everything they previously knew about Yahweh, they knew in part. He had come to reveal Yahweh’s fullness. The Gospel of John puts the above scandalous statement pointedly.

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.” (Jn 1:18 NIV)

John even puts these words in Jesus’s own mouth

Stop grumbling amongst yourselves”, Jesus answered … “No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” (Jn 6:43-46 NIV)

The author of Hebrews nails it down further

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb 1:3 NIV)

It is important that Christians not miss the implication of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Since Yahweh desired that the human beings he has so loving created in his image will actually learn to “be his image” (not the image of Marduk, Enlil, Zeus, money, sex, power and a million other gods that can be named) and to properly represent his character and “ways” on this earth, he came in the flesh and showed us who he was like. And when he had finished showing us who Yahweh was like in the person of Jesus – that Yahweh was a loving God who was willing to sacrifice himself even to death for the ones whom he loved, including for his enemies – he made a simple statement that large swathes of Christianity have been avoiding for centuries on end.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

The implications are clear, if one is paying attention and not reading the Gospels as nice stories for Sunday school children.

  1. God has shown us his character and his ways in Jesus. To “worship” Yahweh then, is to “follow Jesus”.

  2. We who are created in his image are meant to follow in manifesting that character and way. There is a reason why the disciples were called “followers of The Way” (Ac 22:4).

  3. That way leads through the path of self-sacrifice and loss, and into eternal life both on this earth, and in the life to come.

  4. God himself takes upon himself defeats the powers of death and sin that enslave us from living as people made in his image by taking upon himself the punishment for our sins in the person of Jesus on the cross. We can now truly live as those made in his image.

The apostle Paul caps it off with a seminal statement about God’s goal for calling people into his church, using imago dei language of Genesis 1.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29 NIV)

The Priority of Discipleship

The Christian life then, is centered around discipleship – following in the way of the one in whose image we were made. The Christian life is not about “saving souls” and giving them a ticket to heaven so they don’t go to hell. The Christian life is not about elevating “spiritual issues” over daily life ones. The Christian life is not about living in a constant state of “sin management”, as Dallas Willard puts it. All these are side issues that have clouded the real issue. The Christian life IS about being human on this beautiful earth that Yahweh, the Creator god intended for us to live, in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth that he himself will bring to pass. In Jesus we see what it means to be human, because we see the character of him in whose image we were made. The church Father put it this way.

Christianity is an entirely new way of being human.”- Maximus the confessor,

And that is why Jesus reminded us of the 2 most important things in the world, what Scot McKnight calls “The Jesus Creed”. a) Worship the right God (Yahweh, as revealed by Jesus) and b) follow in that God’s ways (ie love your fellow human being as Yahweh does, for they are also created in Yahweh’s image, as you are).

The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:29)

Whenever we think discipleship is a side issue, whether in evangelism, apologetics, theology or running a church, we are indeed missing the heart of the matter.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb has conquered, let us follow Him

 

The Death of Jesus – Why We Miss the Point

the_date_the_revolution_beganI finished reading NT Wright’s latest “The Day the Revolution Began” on Christmas day 2016, and have been ruminating on it since. It is indeed the paradigm challenging book that it was touted to be, although some of his arguments are familiar to fans who have read his other books. And though Michael Gorman helped exorcise my atonement theory demons last year, it seems Wright has put the final nail to the coffin. So I intend in this post to share some lessons I have learnt from these 2 theologians about how to read the Bible properly in order to understand Jesus’s behaviour and actions, including understanding perhaps the most important action of all – his death on the cross.

1Center The Discussion – Start from The Gospels

Just like Gorman, Wright challenges us to answer this all important question by not first looking to later commentaries about Jesus’s death, especially from Paul’s letters, but by starting from the the best record of Jesus’s own life themselves ie from the Gospels. And just like Gorman, he brings in the significance of Jesus choosing to die not on the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), but rather during Passover. Some of the results of doing this is already mentioned in my review of Gorman’s book, and in this respect he and Wright are aligned in their thinking so I will not repeat it here. Suffice it to say that they point out a very obvious problem that I have noticed in Christendom – we just don’t pay enough attention to the Gospels, and even when we do, we totally ignore the fact that the context for understanding the Gospels is 2nd Temple Judaism, not 21st century Christianity (or any other period of Christian history).

2“According to Scripture” – Know the Story of Israel

In 1 Cor 15:4, Paul makes a very important statement – “Christ died for our sins, ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURES”. Many Christians I have met and interacted with assume that Paul is talking about proof-texting ie finding 1 or 2 passages in the Old Testament that seem to foreshadow Jesus’ death. And in the case of answering why Jesus died, the go-to place has been Isaiah 53. But as Richard Hays points out in his book “Reading Backwards”, such attempts to look for individual passages or chapters in the OT to explain the NT without understanding the story of the people of Israel always leads to abuse of scripture. When Paul said “according to scripture”, he meant according to the whole witness of the Old Testament regarding the purpose of existence of the people of Israel, and not according to individual scriptural passages taken out of their historical context – which is the aforementioned story of Israel.

Let me give a clear example of how this bad attitude within Christianity towards the story of Israel has so distorted our understanding of scripture.

If you were to ask an ordinary Christian, or myriads of pastors, what Jesus meant by “forgiveness of sins” in his statement at Passover ie. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)”, you will get the classical answer which goes from Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden to how Jesus died to save us from the effects of this one particular sin. They will totally jump over the biblical story of Abraham, the Exodus, Israel as a nation as well as the exile and return from exile, as if none of that intervening bit recorded in the bible matters.

But when a Jew of Jesus’ day hears Jesus talk about “forgiveness of sins”, the “sins” that would have come to mind are not Adam’s sin which they inherited, but the sins of their forefathers which led them into exile, and even after returning from exile, into a state of slavery in their own nation. In an interesting set of coincidences (all Chapter 9), one can see which “sins” they mean by reading the prayers for Yahweh’s mercy on Israel recorded in Daniel 9, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9 – 3 different prayers from 3 different people offered during and after the exile. I quote from some of these passages below.

Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws … All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. Therefore, the curses and sworn judgments written in the Law of Moses … have been poured out on us … You have fulfilled the words spoken against us … by bring on us great disaster” (Dan 9:4-12, Daniel’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy during the exile).

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens … Because of our sins, we and our kings and priests have been subjected to the sward and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hands of foreign kings, as it is today” (Ez 9:6-7, Ezra’s prayer to Yahweh to have mercy after returning from the exile)

But they were disobedient and rebelled against you; they turned their backs on your law. They killed your prophets, who had waned them in order to turn them back to you … So you delivered them into the hands of their enemies, who oppressed them … But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors so that they could eat it its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, it’s abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress” (Neh 9:26,27,36-37, A prayer of the people of Israel to Yahweh for mercy after returning from exile)

But one may then ask – if “forgiveness of sins” was about the sins of Israel leading to exile, then how can we, non-Jews who didn’t participate in the “sins” that lead to the exile, receive “forgiveness of sins” in Jesus’s death on the cross? Here we go to the 3rd lesson.

3Covenant is the Key – Repent of Your Legal Filters

For centuries, and especially within Protestant tradition, many have focused on using law-court metaphors to understand not just places where they seem to appear – like Paul’s letters, especially to the Romans – but to read all of scripture, including the Old Testament. This is despite the fact that ancient Israel was founded on Israel’s covenant relationship with Yahweh – a relationship that was entered into not on the basis of “law keeping” but on the basis of trust – Abraham’s trust in Yahweh. The giving of the law was meant to keep the covenant relationship that had already been enacted intact, and not the basis of foundation of the covenant. Yahweh actually specifies the reason why he calls Abraham right from the get go.

I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:2-3).

The purpose of the relationship of Yahweh to Abraham was the salvation of the world. This is reiterated again to focus specifically on the nation Israel as the “inheriters” of Abraham’s task and promise.

I, the Lord have called you [Israel] in righteousness, I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you [Israel] to be a covenant for the people, and a light to the Gentiles” (Is 42:6)

Hence, when Abraham’s offspring missed the way, the means of salvation for the world had been missed. And since the exile was caused by the “sins” of idolatory and injustice, Yahweh needed to forgive these “sins” in order to restore covenant relationship. Hence the words of the prophets

The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah … for I will forgive their wickedness, and will remember their sins no more” (Jer 31:31,34)

Note that Yahweh didn’t say “I will make a new covenant with everyone in the world”, but with Israel and Judah – the northern and southern parts of the divided nation which had both gone into exile.

Abraham (and subsequently, Israel) is God’s vehicle of salvation of the world, including Gentiles like you and I. Therefore, Jesus’s death is the means of restoration of the covenant so that you and I, 2000 years after, can also be beneficiaries by becoming part of the chosen people of God – becoming part of the new Israel constituted “in Christ”.

This is why Paul says

Christ redeemed us [Jews/Israel] from the curse of the law [exile] by becoming a curse for us; for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole’. He redeemed us [Jews/Israel] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Gal 3:13-14 NIV)

Reading the bible with legal-metaphor filters however prevents one from seeing why covenant is so crucial to the bible. To make sense of the bible in a legal manner, Protestants especially, following their favourite forefather St. Augustine, have had to resort to reading Adam and Eve as breakers of moral laws, which sin is transmitted via direct inheritance (aka Adam as the first man) in order to make everyone guilty so that Jesus can come to save us all. It has been interesting to me listening to friends and pastors who read scripture with this filter explain Paul’s references to Israel, Abraham, “law”, “sin”, “inheritance”, “promises” etc that appear all over his letters, all the while skipping over the details of Israel’s story and trying to universalize the guilt of everyone so scriptures which applied to Israel will somehow apply to us all.

4Recover Vocation – Re-Read Genesis and Revelations Again

And so we begin at the beginning. NT Wright makes a very important suggestion about reading the bible, not just in individual books but especially about the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelations). Reading the end of every story helps you to understand what the beginning and middle was all about. This is obvious advise, which is why the end of a movie or a novel explains all that happened before. And in that sense, he points out a very important but critically overlooked point in the book of Revelation. That there are 3 passages which point out the purpose of salvation, but which hardly feature in most people’s conversation about salvation.

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (Rev 1:6)

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years” (Rev 20:6)

You will note that the idea of being made a kingdom of priests and a royal nation is exactly the reason why Yahweh chose Israel in Ex 19.

You will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6).

Now, step back a bit, and ask yourself how God made human beings? He made them “in his image and likeness” (Gen 1:26). This would mean then that salvation is about that primary reason he created man – to set us free to become fully human, properly bearing the image of God. Humans were created with a vocation – to be priests and kings mediating God’s presence on the earth and reflecting his praises to him. The failure of Adam and Eve then is not simply about “law-keeping”, but about refusing to act as images of God through reliance on him as their source of wisdom, and deciding to be images of themselves, making themselves the ultimate source of wisdom. This is why “Wisdom” is such an important concept in the Old Testament – there was no true wisdom without “the fear of Yahweh” (Prov 9:10).

As Paul mentioned in Romans 1 when condemning non-believing Gentiles, whenever humans refuse to worship Yahweh and follow in his ways, they become less of themselves, falling to immoral behaviour. The solution then, is a restoration to covenant relationship, and learning from the Human One – Jesus the Messiah – what it means to worship Yahweh, and to be made in Yahweh’s image – which is fully revealed in Jesus.

Afterall, a certain apostle once wrote.

“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son” (Ro 8:29)

I have more to say about salvation as a recovery of the human vocation as “the image of God”, but let me finish reading J. Richard Middleton’s “The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1”, and i’ll give you my thoughts.

Suffice it to say that moving the conversation from “savings souls from hell to heaven” to “inviting people into a community where they can live life as genuine human beings both now and in eternity” is where we need to be headed. And I’m definitely on board with Wright, Gorman,Walton, Middleton et al.

The revolution against the powers of sin and death has begun in the death of the Messiah on the cross. Long live the revolution!!!

Why are We Not Having More Sex (sorry, I meant more Communion)?

Why are We Not Having More Sex (sorry, I meant more Communion)?

One of the bits of advice I got during marital counseling and also via websites and gurus of relationships and marriage, was the importance of sex to the strengthening of the marital bond. And the standard advice at the end of the day was couched one way or the other in this form – each marriage is different, but so far as is possible for the couple, they should have sex regularly, probably a number of times each week.

Now of course that was brilliant news for a couple pining away to be with each other, and when the marriage was finally entered into, we certainly did our best to have as much of it as we can, leading to two children as we speak (the most recent one giving us red and tired eyes from sleeplessness). But it’s become obvious to me the value of that advice – sex between a married couple is indeed a reminder of their bonds with one another i.e. it is a covenant reminder. No matter how couples fight, if they still agree to have sex, it means there is still hope for the union.

And so my recent ruminations on the relationship between the Great Commandment and Communion has lead me to wonder why we are not applying the same “wisdom” to communion. Think about it. In my previous post, I came to the conclusion that the command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Mt 22:37-38 NIV)is a covenant reminder. Hence it is not surprising that Yahweh instructs the Israelites to find ways to daily remind themselves of that covenant via all sorts of ingenious means (writing them on door frames, as symbols on hands, talking about them daily etc). If that is the case, then I have a few questions for Christians to ponder on this subject.

My Questions

  1. Why have most Protestant churches (including those I identify with i.e. historically Anabaptist) so regimented Communion to a once-a-month affair? I know most of the excuses, but I sincerely don’t buy it because the Roman Catholics are able to do it every Sunday, so if we wanted to, we could. If communion is a covenant reminder like in marriage, would our marriage counselors be satisfied to hear that we (the church community) only “have sex” with our husband once a month? Why can’t we do this more often?

  2. Why have we (most Protestants) made communion into an exercise in reflection on personal piety, when it’s primarily a reminder of our relationship with God and with one another? Somehow we’ve ignored the real point that Paul was addressing with his instructions to the Corinthian church (the issue of disunity, captured succinctly in 1 Cor 11:17-22, but visible all throughout the letter), and hence have interpreted v 23-34 as a diatribe on personal holiness. Can we get back to a communal-covenant theology instead of an individualist-legal theology when talking about communion?

  3. On the other hand, why have the Roman Catholics so mystified communion to the point where there is no real connection to the event? Yes, I know they view the wine and bread as the literal blood and body of Jesus, but for the love of peace can we get past those pagan notions and pay attention to the Jewish context of Passover, why it existed and why Jesus would transform that into his own meal for his disciples?

  4. Most importantly, and this one applies to almost all Protestant and Roman Catholic churches. Why have we implanted the idea in the heads of our congregants that 1) communion can only be administered by clergy and 2) that it can only be had in the 4 walls of a church building. I’m sure most churches will disagree with this accusation, but I’m yet to see any visible efforts at encouraging Christians to have communion in their homes with one another – that’s probably because most of us place no real value to meetings in homes anyway, unlike the early Christians. This attitude is akin to a marital counselor telling the about-to-be-married couple to only have sex in their bedroom. Well, some of us will be going to hell if that was the case, but I know that God is more imaginative and fun than that, considering he want his commands on door frames and the like.

So those are my 4 short and sweet questions. I know I’m rocking a few boats, but that’s what boats exist for – to be rocked.

Let us remember that there is a good reason for New Testament’s imagery of Jesus Christ and his church being depicted as a marriage. Prophets like Hosea started the trend in regards to Yahweh and Israel, and the NT simply followed in that direction. If we want our marriage (as a community) to Jesus to be as exciting as we want human marriages to be, let us reconsider the importance of the one tool of covenant renewal – sex. Let us have more of it, more regularly. (Oops sorry, I meant communion).

Communion & The Greatest Commandment

Jouvenet_Last_SupperI have a confession to make – I’ve developed a deeper appreciation and interest in the Old Testament, and it’s deepening my reading and understanding of the New, especially of the Gospels and of Paul’s letters. It has also radically re-aligned my understanding of one of the most important practices within Christianity since it’s foundation – the Communion or Eucharist. This is partly because I’ve been reading a lot of OT scholars of late, but also because of Richard Hays’ enlightening work in “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” about making use of metalepsis when reading OT quotations one finds in the NT. By metalepsis, Hays simply means that when one sees a verse of the OT quoted in the NT, do not just look for the corresponding verse in the OT and be satisfied, but rather read the whole OT chapter or chapters from which that one verse was obtained and quoted in the NT. Following that advise has wrecked my theology of Communion – but only for the better. So let me share with you how metalepsis has challenged my understanding of Communion.

The Greatest Commandment

The Gospels record a time when Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment in the Torah. Jesus responded by saying

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment” (Mt 22:37-38 NIV)

Years ago I simply thought of this as an injunction to strengthen my personal relationship with God via much bible study, prayer, church activities and a zeal to be obedient to God’s laws as found in the Bible. Of course, having been brought up a Pentecostal, such an individualist interpretation of this passage is well within acceptable bounds and will be common to many readers of this post. But going back to read and reflect on Deuteronomy 6 where Jesus quotes this from yields a much more interesting interpretation than most will be used to.

The Shema, Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East

If one reads the above passage from any good bible, one might see a footnote that points to Deut 6:5 as the source of Jesus’s quotation in Mt 22:37-38. What many readers of the bible may not know however is that Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is the foundation of a famous prayer called the Shema which was recited by Jews in Jesus’s day and is still recited by modern day practicing Jews as well. You can find out a bit more about it here. The fact that Jesus was quoting from the Shema is more obvious if you read Mark’s account of the interaction (Mk 12:29-34), which starts off with “Hear, O Israel…”, exactly as the opening line of the Shema.

Reading the whole of Deuteronomy 6 however, I found that the primary concern of Yahweh giving that commandment to love him so wholly was tied to something I’m discovering more and more all over both the OT and subsequently, seeing it’s footprints in the NT – Yahweh had a covenant relationship with Israel, who in their Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture were surrounded by many neighbouring nations who worshiped many other gods. Therefore this injunction to love Yahweh with their heart, soul and mind was a covenant reminder – a reminder not to go chasing after those other gods. Check out some subsequent verses in Deut 6.

It is the Lord your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you – for the Lord your God in your midst is a jealous God – lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.” (Deut 6:13-15 NIV)

Note that the consequence of following those other gods were not just personal. This injunction was about the fate of the nation Israel, not about an individual’s own punishment.

I also began to notice that many of the commandments in the Torah are prefixed or suffixed by a reminder that Yahweh was the one who delivered them from Egypt (or the one who created the world) and hence the only one they were to worship (Ex 20:1-3; Deut 5:6-7; Lev 26:13-14).

Many of us modern readers may miss the seriousness of this injunction because we tend to have separations between our religious convictions and our day to day interactions with people around us, but in the ANE world, everybody’s religious beliefs were part and parcel of their lives and all activities, including how they related to other neighbours. Having one’s “personal” or “family” gods in addition to national gods was the norm, not the exception amongst ancient Israel’s neighboring nations with whom they interacted regularly.

Hence what Jesus calls “the greatest commandment” was a commandment to Israel mainly to remind them to avoid unfaithfulness to Yahweh and switching their loyalty away from him to other gods. It was a covenant reminder. In a culture that was surrounded by many gods, an intentional effort was needed to remind them of the one Creator god with whom they had a special relationship as a nation. Hence the encouragement not just to love with all their minds, heart and soul, but additionally to “impress them on your children”, “tie them as symbols on your hands” etc etc. As with all outward showings of belief aka rituals, doing these things were not a guarantee of one’s love for Yahweh, but a means to remind oneself of who one was vis-a-vis one’s God. Unfortunately as with all outward expressions of inner belief, sometimes the rituals themselves gain a life of their own, leaving what it was supposed to remind us of itself behind. This is exactly the case by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, but in addition this has been the bane of all religions, Jewish, Christian, Islam, you name it. Too many of us find our comfort in our symbols rather than what they are supposed to represent.

The Wine as a Covenant Reminder

Having been directed to the importance of covenant in understanding the death of Jesus Christ by Michael Gorman of which I wrote about here, my mind immediately saw the link between “The Greatest Commandment”, and the wine of communion. When Jesus picked up the wine to share with his disciples, he called it “the blood of the covenant” (Mt 26:28 NIV) and “new covenant in my blood”. In this process, Jesus was not only evoking the “blood of the covenant” in Ex 24:8, he also invoked Jeremiah’s prophecy of a “new covenant” (Jer 31:31). Mulling this over, I came to the following conclusion.

Drinking of the communion wine is primarily an act reminding us that we the gathered people together are in a covenant relationship with God. It is a reminder to uphold the 1st great commandment – to not follow any other god but Yahweh, who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Bread as Community and Unity Reminder

Which brought me then to the subject of the bread. I’m yet to find any Old Testament linkage of Jesus’s use of the bread to signify his body. However, looking at Paul’s epistles and his statements about “the body of Christ”, it seems to be that the bread then stands for the unity of the participants gathered as one people of God. Paying better attention to the full context of Paul’s injunctions in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 then, one sees Paul’s rebuke of disunity in the body of Christ at Corinth as manifesting itself in how they actually didn’t have “the Lord’s supper” , but rather were eating individual meals (v 20-21). And given that the whole NT is emphatic that love of God must lead to love of brother, I came to the second conclusion.

Eating the communion bread is primarily an act reminding us that we who are gathered are one in the body of Christ, accepted by grace and of equal worth before God. Just as the unleavened bread used in the Passover during Jesus’s last supper with the disciples, we are indeed holy and set apart for his purposes – that of being a royal priesthood and a holy nation for the benefit of the world. We are made up of Jews, Gentiles, slave, free, male, female, Ewe, Akan, Dagomba, Fante, American, Chinese, Yoruba, Igbo etc. Nothing must divide us, because nothing can separate us from the love of God which we already confess by taking the wine. It is a reminder of the second greatest commandment – love your neighbour as yourself.

Rethinking Christian Unity

Following from these 2 conclusions on Communion, it became more obvious to me the futility of building Christian unity without prioritizing what Jesus explicitly commanded we must do regularly – communion and its associated Christian fellowship. As I put on my Facebook wall recently, Jesus never said “when you meet, have bible discussions in remembrance of me”, but rather speaking of communion, he says “do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me”. As Scott McKnight pointed out recently whiles reviewing Christian Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible” (a book I enjoyed myself and highly recommend), it is impossible to build unity around unity of biblical interpretations, and the abundance of divisions between many churches all claiming to obtain their authority from “Scripture only” is clear evidence to that fact. Unity built on “doctrine” and biblical interpretations is only possible among those who hold the same thoughts on these kinds of matters, which renders the concept of Christian unity quite unattainable.

Conclusion

So, I’ve come to some conclusions after such re-arrangement of my mental furniture regarding communion, Christian unity and the Great commandments. Whiles I continue to vigorously pursue improving my understanding of Jesus via the study of scripture, of theology and cultural/historical backgrounds of the biblical text, I’ve resolved that the pursuit of fellowship takes precedence over the pursuit of theological “rightness”. I’ve found myself having communion in some “unapproved” locations with some “unapproved” friends, and we’ve enjoyed doing so tremendously. This has not dulled my interest in learning one bit, but has rather led me to understand Jesus better – he was more interested in gaining a “negative” reputation for spending time eating and drinking with the “unacceptables” than he was pleasing the theological gatekeepers of his time. He didn’t have to compromise any of the truth he knew, but he knew that truth has a purpose – that in him (Jesus Christ) “God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:19)

Isn’t it genius of Jesus to use the one practice he commanded us to do regularly to also serve as a means to remind us of the 2 Greatest Commandments?