Book Review: The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of The New Covenant

 

51-K0sC-AFL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I interrupt my series “Healing the Divide” to bring you my thoughts on a book I just completed, as promised.

It is the Franciscan monk Father Richard Rohr who I heard say in an interview that “A lot of times, one sees only what one is told to see”. I came away from reading Michael J. Gorman’s 2014 publication “The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement” with the same feeling. How did I not see this before! Well, I didn’t see it because I wasn’t trained to see it. It was indeed hidden in plain view.

I first heard of Michael J. Gorman when he interviewed NT Wright and Richard Hays together on the implications of Wright’s big book “Paul and the Faithfulness of God”. In that conversation, they referred back to Gorman’s own writings on the cross, and I made a mental note to read him sometime. However, I’d been thinking of the subject of atonement for quite a long time, and someone recommended him. To that someone (David Fitch), I say “may your tribe increase”.

Previous Atonement Models

First, what do we mean by atonement, for the uninitiated? Atonement is a fancy word created from multiple words: “at-one-ment”. It describes how human beings become reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, there have been many ways (or models) of explaining how this “atonement” works – some of the models are Christus Victor, substitutionary atonement, moral example etc. And it seems each tradition of Christianity gravitates to one or the other, leading to disagreements.

However, Dr Gorman begins the book by making the following statement:

All models of the atonement are necessarily selective, because the New Testament writers did not set out to write a theology of atonement, and certain perspectives and themes emerge in particular writers and writings more than in others”.

He argues that the selective nature of these models of atonement lead to the following observations:

  1. Current models of atonement are isolationist. “Each one is constructed as a kind of stand-alone theory that supposedly tells the whole story and requires exclusion of other versions of the story” (Gorman, 2014).

  2. Drawing from the point above, current models are atomistic, not drawing from the richness of other models.

  3. The third problem is individualism. Most models of the atonement are focused “on the individual, rather than on both the individual AND the community”(Gorman, 2014, my emphasis).

  4. Each model under-achieves. On it’s own, each model does not do enough.

He proposes a different starting point for understanding why Jesus died – by looking at Jesus’s own words at the Last Supper in the context of Israel’s own story of covenant in both Torah and the Prophets. It seems that though other scholars may have hinted (in bits and pieces) in the same direction, he might be the first who has written in full detail what he calls a “new-covenant” model of atonement. It is here that he blows my mind. Because he points out that, this should have been obvious, but has somehow been screened out of our conversations about why Jesus died, or has not been read in light of Old Testament history and context.

The Absence of the Obvious

At the Last Supper, the evangelists Luke and Matthew record Jesus using specific words when he shares the wine as his blood.

In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Lk 22:20 NIV)

Then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Mt 26:27-28 NIV)

Though Luke uses the word “new covenant” to describe the blood of Jesus, Matthew simply says “covenant”. But the implications are the same, if we look to Moses and the prophets.

After Moses had received the Law from Yahweh (Ex 19-23), he (Yahweh) instructed him to call the elders of the people together, read it out to them and perform a ceremony. In Exodus 24, Moses does as Yahweh instructed, reading the Law to these leaders and asking them to express their agreement to do as Yahweh has instructed, which they agreed to (“they all responded, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do’” – v 3). Moses then sacrifices young bulls on an alter made from “twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel”(v 4). He then took the blood of the bulls, sprinkled it on the people and said the magic words “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words” (v 8). Obviously, the blood was meant to seal the covenant between Yahweh and his nation Israel.

The observant reader will realize that these are more or less the same words that Jesus used at the Last Supper. But why does Luke say “new covenant” and why does Matthew say “for the forgiveness of sins of many”?

Here, Gorman points out that as the prophets had attributed the exile from the land to Israel’s sinful unfaithfulness to the covenant with Yahweh, the prophets again had promised that Yahweh will enact a new covenant with his people, a process which will involve him cleansing them of their former disobedience. This is best captured by the prophet Jeremiah.

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. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jer 31:31-34 NIV)

In a nutshell then, Jesus, echoing both Moses and the prophets, states that the goal of him shedding his own blood was to enact a new covenant between God and humanity. Gorman posits that

The forgiveness of sins is certainly important; it is an integral sign of the new exodus and new covenant. But forgiveness is only part of the larger purpose of God in the Messiah’s suffering and death; the larger purpose is to create a new people who will both be and bear universal witness to the new covenant”. (Gorman, 2014)

Gorman could have ended the book here, and I’d have been convinced, but he goes on further to clarify in what way this new covenant was different from the old one.

The Distinctives of the New Covenant

He draws out the ways in which this new covenant will be “new”, because that is precisely the word that prophets like Jeremiah used to describe it.

  1. This covenant is enacted in and through Jesus’s self-sacrificial actions on the cross. In effect, God himself, through Jesus, sheds his blood to seal this covenant.

  2. Drawing on the Eastern Orthodox theology of “theosis”, Gorman traces all over the Gospels, Paul’s letters and the book of Hebrew how the new-covenant people are not just called to be beneficiaries of this self-sacrificial action, but to participate in it as God’s means of redemption of the world, and as a means of taking on the divine nature. Hence Paul’s statements like I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (Phil 3:10).

  3. In line with point 2 above, he draws on Phil 2:5-11, point out that Jesus’s willingness to be made nothing, “taking the very nature of a servant”, shows an attitude that this new-covenant people must adopt. Its an attitude not to “lord it over”, but to serve, even one’s enemies. Indeed this new-covenant people become a people of non-violent, non-coercive, self-sacrificial love.

  4. This new-covenant is also marked by a widening of the gates for non-Jews to be participants, unlike the previous covenant that was limited to Jews only. This is also part of the prophetic expectations being fulfilled.

  5. An additional dimension that he points out, which I’d never observed before, is the dimension of the new-covenant being both a means of peacemaking and showing to participants in this covenant, Jesus’s way of peace. He reminds us of Paul who, when speaking of God joining Jew and Gentile together in Eph 2, states that “For he himself [Jesus] is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14 NIV). Drawing again on the prophetic hopes for a future King, he points out that the goal of righteousness is peace. “See, a king will reign in righteousness, and rulers will rule in justice … the fruit of that righteousness will be peace” (Is 32:1,17 NIV). This peace is not simply an inner peace in one’s individual self, but a reconciliation between all hostilities in the world – what the Jews call “shalom” i.e. wholeness. Hence Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on The Mount – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9)

  6. Lastly, this new-covenant will be marked by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, to bind together the new multi-cultural, multi-ethnic new-covenant people of God in their ability to live self-sacrificially, non-coercively and non-violently at peace with each other, and at peace with a world in which violence still reigns, until the consummation of the kingdom yet to come. As he puts it, “Life in this new covenant is life in the Spirit of the resurrected Lord that is shaped by the faithful, loving, peacemaking (and therefore hope-making) death of the same crucified Jesus” (Gorman, 2014).

Step Aside, Former Atonement Theories

And so he wraps up by restating clearly his proposal for understanding the death of Jesus Christ.

The purpose of Jesus’s death was to effect, or give birth to, the new covenant, the covenant of peace; that is, to create a new-covenant community of Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus who would fulfill the inseparable covenantal requirements of faithfulness to God and love for others through participation in the death of Jesus, expressed in such practices as faithful witness and suffering (cruciform faith), hospitality to the weak, and servant-love for all (cruciform love) and peacemaking (cruciform hope).” (Gorman, 2014)

He goes on to the express how a new-covenant model of atonement makes sense of all the previous theories of why Jesus died, and yet overcomes all the deficiencies that one sees if one tries to hold only one of them up as the “correct” theory. In this effort then, Gorman has indeed established a way forward beyond the atonement wars, a way forward that was so obvious and yet has been missed for centuries. If taken seriously, it overcomes a lot of the earlier complaints he began with about holding one of the standard ones against the other – complaints of isolationism, individualism and underachievement.

Laying My Atonement Demons To Rest

Michael Gorman’s proposal enables me to finally lay my atonement demons to rest. One of the greatest problems I’ve had with some expressions of substitutionary atonement had been its over-reliance on legal language and it’s tendency towards individualism. A new-covenant model not only takes care of that (especially the latter), it actually places the church squarely where it should be – at the centre of understanding why Jesus died. Hear Gorman on that score:

The existence of Christian community, then, is not an addition to atonement theology, nor a way of superficially joining together myriads of individuals who each happen to have received the forgiveness of sins. Rather, Christian community is part of atonement theology’s very essence. There is no atonement without ecclesiology, and no ecclesiology without a comprehensive account of the atonement” (Gorman, 2014)

In light of this great book, Michael J. Gorman is now very welcome on my Amazon wishlist. I believe after my personal readings of Richard Hays (whose beloved book “Moral Vision of the New Testament” was referenced quite a bit by Gorman), his 3 part series on cruciformity should be next.

It’s not everyday that one finds a United Methodist who describes himself as an Anabaptist-Wesleyan, and yet expounds Eastern Orthodox theology whiles holding a chair in New Testament at a Roman Catholic Seminary, itself a rare feat. These are divisive days, and the church needs courageous theologians like Gorman, who are not willing to let themselves be confined to the boxes of their own traditions, but are willing to seek truth where it may be found. In this respect, Gorman is indeed a gem.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conqured, Let Us Follow Him

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When Eating Together Became Dangerous

When Eating Together Became Dangerous

There are certain ways in which Christendom has conspired, mostly unintentionally, to deprive the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) of their compelling power to shape the lives and activity of the Christian. It is not for nought that the NT ethicist Howard Yoder’s “The Politics of Jesus” had such an impact on Christian theology with his critique of much of Christianity’s attempts to define Christian behaviour not based on the pattern that Jesus laid down in his life and times as recorded in the Gospels, but instead finding our patterns from either misconceived interpretations of Paul’s letters, or our own “experiences” of the world. One of such marginalized practices is the simple, “carnal” activity of eating together.

Mark Moore documents 36 mentions in the Gospels of Jesus either feeding people, or eating with people. This by the way is many more times than certain things that some Christians use to evaluate their fellow Christian’s “spiritual level”, but that’s a story for another day. Mark concludes with the following statement.

In a sense, Jesus’ subversive message was embodied in his table fellowship. He used meals as a fulcrum for social reconstruction. Truly, Jesus turned these tables into pulpits and used them to reconfigure his world.” – Mark Moore, The Meals of Jesus: Table Fellowship in the Gospels

And yet it’s so amazing how amongst today’s disciples of Jesus, eating together has been so diminished of it’s power. The fact that after all the numerous explanations of Jesus was advancing to his 2 friends on the road to Emmaus, sitting down and eating with them is what finally clinched it should tell us there is something about sitting and eating together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that we might be missing out on. Let me illustrate with a small experience I had at my church.

The Jesus Community in Agbogba is a small home church with a membership less than 20. We do eat together regularly as and when we have the opportunity to do so, aside of taking the Lord’s Supper every Sunday. In addition, we never spare the chance to have a good meal together during special occasions like Christmas, and this Christmas was no exception. The fact that I actually drove for an hour to Kpong by the Volta River from Accra to buy tilapia fish for the Ghanaian favorite “banku and tilapia with pepper sauce” should tell you that we kid not with the Christmas party.

But reflecting over this, as well as over my church’s general attitude towards eating together made me realize that we might be fulfilling in some ways Jesus’s admonition

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Lk 14:12-14).

Now a disclaimer is in order here. When we have a “party”, we don’t intentionally invite the lame, the cripple, the blind etc. We simply not have much resources now to throw such a party, and we hope for a time when we can actually do so in the near future.

However, my church community is dominated by the urban poor, and especially during Christmas parties like the last one, some of our members do invite other friends, some of whom may also be in the same economic state. In the end, food and games unites us all as we celebrate the birth of Jesus the Christ.

Eating with one another so often, without regard to each other’s social, economic or tribal status enables the creation of friendships that go beyond the surface. We develop bonds of closeness and empathy, and when we find any brother in difficulty, one can hardly look at them and harden one’s heart not to do what is within one’s power to help. Reflecting over this simple act of eating together, I have learnt many lessons and realize how subversive Jesus Christ’s agenda is if we truly take the Jesus of the Gospels seriously.

  1. Most Christians have been fed an overly romanticized idea of how one may “feed the poor” or “help the poor”. The Mother Theresas and the Jean Varniers of this world who are able to leave everything behind and dedicate their lives solely to the poor and marginalized continue to be needed to dedicate their lives to these acts of mercy. But one doesn’t have to be like them before one can help the marginalized. There are many poor people around us, if we just open our eyes we will see them. You can start from your church community, because that is the place Jesus actually desires you to start from before going elsewhere.

  2. The easiest way to start loving someone, whether rich or poor, is to start by being their friend. I live in a place with quite some big money churches around me. I do see their well-intended efforts at charity, some of it disturbingly labeled “corporate social responsibility”, and I shake my head. It is easy to make the disadvantaged into a project so that when we raise our big donations to go and donate to them and satisfy our conscience, so we can continue living our lives frolicking with those in our high class social settings without batting an eyelid. But in what way do the poor and vulnerable have a place within our day to day lives, so that they actually become friends whom we spend time with, whom we visit regularly and whose concerns (and annoyances) become ours as well? Because in so doing, they become our friends, not just a project or “a human being with a label called poor”. This is what the radical Shane Claiborne put so forcefully thus;

    I had come to see that the great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor” – Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution

  3. Our modern day love affair with individualism is so ingrained in us that we fail to realize that the tasks that Jesus gives to us in the Gospel cannot be achieved by individual Christian effort. I get the question very often “how can I help someone if I don’t have the resources”, where the questioner assumes that they alone are supposed to help the poor. But you see when the early disciples had problems with financial resources, it became a matter of importance to the church, and then individuals gave what they could to help relieve the problem. Without Christian community actually prioritizing economic justice as important in their midst and working to support it in any way or form, works of compassion becomes a “calling” that an individual person must find the will and resources to undertake on their own. Of course, this means very few people will be able to do so, and Jesus’s words in the gospel will need to be explained away with all sorts of permutations and combinations of theories. Whenever I hear another sermon from the Gospels being preached as if Jesus were giving motivational tips on individual self-help, without recognizing that the imperatives Jesus demands are meant to be lived out by the church community with one another, I shake my head in sadness.

  4. Coupled with the point about individualism above is church’s loss of identity as the agent of God’s will for renewal of this fallen earth in works of justice, compassion and peace, something they rather expect the politicians to be doing. Churches have resolved themselves to “save the souls”, and leave the bodies to the governments to devour. The current practice (at least in churches in Ghana) of taking all donations to the “headquarters” to execute a nebulous “work of God”, whiles local churches struggle to take care of the mounting needs of church members suffering under corrupt and unjust economic leadership in this country needs a total overhaul. I have lived within the town I live in now for 20 years, and used to attend a church here till I stopped attending. I have neighbours who are still members of this church whose economic fortunes have stayed the same or deteriorated in these years, even leading one person to experience mental problems. And yet some of these neighbours grumble to me about the church’s continuous plea for more donations to “do the work of God”, as if God does not care about their poverty. No matter how much an individual church member can give to these people, the community can give way more (and go beyond financial needs) if it was a priority that they could actualize. As it stands, church leaders are afraid of reprimand from the top, so the status quo stands.

  5. We live in the nation Ghana, where the large majority of our population lives below the poverty line. In the city of Accra, there are very few communities populated by only rich people. Because of the failure of our city authorities to enforce planning rules, there are “slums” in every suburb of Accra. If you find yourself running a Christian ministry full of only middle to upper class, upwardly mobile members whiles the population where your church is sited is actually dominated by poor people, one has to ask serious questions about your ministry. Are you actively excluding the poor, illiterate, socially excluded and oppressed class of people that Jesus so loved in the gospels with your ministry? Sadly, I find it ironic when some Christians wonder why so many mostly poor and illiterate Ghanaians seem to flock after pastors who these Christians consider charlatans(even if they don’t say it aloud that they are). The question I’d love to ask them is in what way is your “good church/pastor” actually working to make such people feel welcome and their voices heard? In some ways we must be thankful for these charlatans, for the conditions that existed in places like Nigeria to foster the growth of a terrorist group like Boko Haram are the same conditions that we are creating here, except that these “pastors” have not yet began to lead people to large-scale violence to solve their problems (though some do at a not-so-grand scale, like encouraging violence against one’s mother because she is the “witch” who is causing one’s poverty).

There is a subversive power in sitting down and eating together, and doing so regularly. When the rich eat the same food with the poor, when the oppressor sits, thinks and talks with the oppressed, when the depressed finds joy in cooking or serving his brethren salivating whiles waiting for the food, all in pursuit of following Jesus and his vision of an upside down kingdom, something indeed does happen that the world doesn’t understand. The Gospels and their depiction of Jesus doesn’t become just nice Sunday school stories we tell our children, but real life scenarios that we can point to.

I suspect there’s a reason why eating together has become a rarity in Christendom. It brings the real issues to the fore, it opens us up to the pain and suffering of others. It relaxes us to talk about our hurts and pains, our hopes and our disappointments. It pushes others present to want to do something about them. And that “something” can sometimes be dangerous to the empire-building desires of those at the top, be they political or church leaders. Because after all the wonderful meals together, if all you can think about is the pursuit of the next spiritual high or “prophetic” movement (interestingly it used to be “miraculous” movements a few years ago. Sigh …), the latest gadget in town, the next big car to own, the career competition between you and your contemporaries from school, or the next big church building “to the glory of God”, the next “pastor’s appreciation day”, then I have news for you. You might just not be following the way of Jesus. And following that way is all that matters.