Simply Jesus: Part Two(a)

As I said in my first blog on N.T. Wright's Simply Jesus, I am processing what I'm learning by blogging through the book. Part Two consists of nine chapters, so I will blog through three chapters at a time.

God's in Charge Now

To summarize chapter six is to say that, in a sense, God's people knew that he was already in charge (before Jesus announced that God's kingdom was at hand), but at the same time knew that all the wrongs polluting God's good world must be put to rights. Up to this point, no leader, whether Jew or Gentile, had been able to do so. After spending much time under foreign rule, the Jewish people longed for God to rescue them as he did when they were slaves in Egypt. They were longing for a “new Exodus.”

Wright uses the analogy of sports fanatics celebrating when their team gets a new coach (or when a country elects a new leader) who will “sort things out” to help us understand the celebration that occurred wherever Jesus was. Israel had been on a roller-coaster ride of just-okay-kings, bad kings, and pagan kings/rulers for many years (see the outline of Jewish history on p. 62), but yet longed for the king (Messiah/Christ) of which their prophets had foretold. Jesus' healing and teaching led many to believe that he was the one they were looking for. Hence, the celebration, the good news.

Wright teases out these seven themes (pp. 64-65) of the Exodus to show what the Jews were expecting when the kingdom of God arrived:

  1. Wicked tyrant
  2. Chosen leader
  3. Victory of God
  4. Rescue by sacrifice
  5. New vocation and way of life
  6. Presence of God
  7. Promised/inherited land

This was the story in which the Jews were living and Jesus used the Passover festival (celebrating the Exodus) as the climax to his public career. It was finally time for the new Exodus.

The Campaign Starts Here

Jesus' proclamation that the kingdom was at hand, that God was becoming king on earth as in heaven, would have been understood by Jews at the time in terms of Jubliee (e.g., Leviticus 25 and Is 61:1-3) and New Exodus. Wherever Jesus was announcing the kingdom's arrival, in both word and action, there was celebration, healing, and forgiveness (pp. 68-73). A new kingdom was forming in the midst of the existing one, right under the noses of Herod Antipas, the high priest, and Rome. Wright explains:

The campaign, you see, isn't about someone running for office as happens in our modern democracies. Jesus isn't going around trying to drum up support like today's politicians. He is much more like a rebel leader within a modern tyranny, setting up an alternative government, establishing his rule, making things happen in a new way. He chooses twelve of his closest followers and seems to set them apart as special associates. For anyone with eyes to see, this says clearly that he is reconstituting God's people, Israel, around himself… This is a campaign. It's a rebel movement, a risky movement, a would-be royal movement under the nose of the present would-be “king of the Jews,” Herod Antipas himself. (pp. 85-86)

Stories That Explain and a Message That Transforms

Jesus spoke in parables about what it looks like when God becomes king on earth as in heaven. His hearers would have heard echoes from their ancient scriptures, which should have led them to recognize that God was fulfilling his promises, but most did not.

Another dimension of what it would look like when the kingdom of God broke through is that people would be restored, not just physically and not by external purity rules, but by transformed hearts:

Jesus had grasped that, if God was to become king on earth as in heaven, something deeper than outward reformation would be required. It wouldn't do simply to tighten up existing laws and regulations and enforce them more strictly… What will it look like when God becomes king? Hearts will be transformed… (pp. 98-99)

Jesus was announcing that God was taking charge, that the kingdom of God was at hand. The campaign had begun, and he spoke in parables to explain (to perceptive hearers) what was taking place.

Reading Priorities and Conducive Places

 
Reading Priorities
 
A while back I wrote a short blog about Tony Reinke's Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books. In the book, Reinke talks about the importance of setting reading priorities to help you choose, from the thousand upon thousands of options available to you, what you will read (and not read). Tentatively, these are the reading priorities I have set for myself (not that I am reading one of each at the moment, but where a book is on the priority list will determine how much time I spend with it):
  1. Scripture
  2. Books about Jesus
  3. Spiritual formation
  4. Biblical historical background, biblical languages, commentaries
  5. Marriage and parenting
  6. Self-improvement, business, productivity
  7. Novels, fiction, biographies, etc… (i.e. everything else)

Conducive Places

He also wrote that he has discovered that certain settings are more conducive to certain kinds of reading. For example, I am discovering that after a long day of work and wrestling kids, when it gets close to my bedtime, I probably don't need to try to read anything that requires a lot of thought or anything that I want to absorb word for word. I need to do my heavy reading either first thing in the morning or during the day when my mind is more alert.

What are your reading priorities? What settings do you find are more conducive to certain kinds of reading? What settings are not conducive to reading? What are you reading right now and why?

 

Q & A with Michael Carpenter

When I was a student at Williams Baptist College I met a brother named Michael Carpenter. He is now a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, a church planter (along with other WBC alumni) of the Church at Argenta, and will soon be opening Mugs Café, which he hopes will become the “third place” of the Argenta district of Little Rock, AR. What follows is an interview I did with him recently.

Dustin Finch: What is Argenta like and why is it a good place to plant a church? How did you end up there?

Michael Carpenter: The “white flight” to the suburbs of the 1970’s and 80’s left Argenta’s store fronts empty, housing dilapidated, and the area all but forgotten. Churches left for the contrived landscapes of the suburban sprawl and abandoned their buildings. The crime rate increased exponentially as gangs began to occupy the territory once home to a vibrant neighborhood. The old First Baptist Church building became a bar and strip club that served as a front for most of the criminal activity in Argenta. Argenta quickly became the unwanted dog of metro Little Rock.

Fearful and angry residents became weary [of] the many problems that were plaguing their once thriving Argenta Neighborhood – high crime, disinvestment, and abandoned homes.

Yet, the church remained absent. Fear of urban neighborhoods, fear of the “other,” and the love of convenience rather than the Bible, prayer, and meaningful discussions among fellow Christians have driven the church’s perception of neighborhoods like Argenta. Not surprisingly, this perception is largely negative. We have moved our homes and congregations to the fringes of our historic neighborhoods in the city to suburban enclaves. Moreover, we have learned to speak of these neighborhoods as places for rescue missions rather than places to live, work, and play.

DF: What challenges have you faced in Argenta? What victories have you celebrated?

MC: Remarkably, we have been met with considerable favor in the neighborhood. We believe this is due to a group of pastors and denominational leaders who prayed over this area for nearly two years before we arrived on the scene. We have seen lives transformed and a community of faith come together bound by a common commitment to God’s mission in the world.

DF: What is a “third place” and why is it important?

MC: Sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the phrase “third place” in his 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day. The subtitle says it all.

According to Oldenburg, the first place is our home and the people with whom we live. The second place is where we work and the place we spend most of our waking hours. A third place is a public setting that hosts regular, voluntary, and informal gatherings of people.

The third place is a living room, but not in someone’s house; a workplace, but not in someone’s office. The third place is embodied by the modern coffee house. At their core, third places are where people feel at home. They feel like they belong there.

Third places have always been an important way in which the community has developed and retained a sense of identity.

How so? One of the most important aspects of any city is its collective commons: the shared public spaces where people gather…be they streets, squares, parks, markets, playgrounds, or coffee shops.

Yet, even in the heart of a city in neighborhoods like Argenta, isolation is a word that describes the kind of lives many people are living today. More and more people are spending less and less time with one another. People no longer give time to civic participation, religious involvement, and neighborhood relationships. More often than not people spend much of their time alone.

The deterioration of social connections in our neighborhoods should drive followers of Jesus to action. God created us as relational beings. God designed us to be in a deep, abiding relationship with him. But we also understand that we are also to be in life giving relationships with one another. The idea of people sitting at home, dying relationally from the lack of basic human connections should inspire us to bring about change.

Therefore, the church needs to be at the forefront of enhancing opportunities for a richer, fuller life. Our motivation should flow out [of] the desire to see those who are relationally starved be drawn to a life-giving relationship not only with others, but ultimately with the giver of life Himself – Jesus Christ.

In addition, we need to recognize that people who are far from Jesus are not interested in church activities. The church, as the missionary people of God, must realize that we must engage people on common ground – third places.

It’s so easy for us to withdraw to the comfortable confines of our Christian sub-culture. But that is not the example Jesus set. He crossed every conceivable demographic and line. Think of it this way: Jesus did not hang out at synagogues. Jesus hung out at wells. Wells were more than just a place to draw water. Wells were natural gathering places in ancient culture. Jesus didn’t expect people to come to him. He crossed cultural boundaries and went to them. So, instead of building a traditional church building where people gather once a week, we are digging a well where people gather all day every day.

DF: What can your church do when Mugs opens that it can’t do now?

MC: Connect and build relationships with more people for the sake of the gospel. We are limited as individuals as to the number of people we can meet and develop lasting relationships with. Also, Mugs provides for us a financial stream that will allow us to do church for free. That is, the coffee shop will pay for our building and staff which frees us up to give more to mission.

DF: How important are hospitality and sharing meals to the mission of the Church at Argenta? Why?

MC: In today’s culture, the church needs to recover the conviction that table fellowship is essential to the Christian life. In the book, I Was a Stranger: A Christian Theology of Hospitality, Arthur Sutherland writes, “Hospitality is the practice by which the church stands or falls.” Sutherland suggests that hospitality makes the Church, so much so that the Church disappears without it. He argues that the Church, as Christ’s body in the world, comes to life through hospitality; that it lives and flourishes when it participates in, imitates, and extends the table fellowship of God, but withers when it neglects it.

Far from being a gospel option, the sharing of our table is an essential practice of the Christian life and the responsibility of all. Our faith in Christ ensures that there will always be a home for each of us in the presence of God giving us freedom to follow Jesus’ example as he models for us the profound power of sharing a table with tax collectors, sinners, Pharisees, and prostitutes. Surely this kind of hospitality is the locus of missional activity.

Willingness to practice the radical table fellowship of Christ is the beginning of spiritual vitality. In common acts like sharing a simple meal, we can begin to see others as uniquely fashioned creations of God with names and stories. And these encounters just might teach us more about God and his Kingdom than all the Sunday school classes we have attended. Just as the two disciples who were traveling home to Emmaus did by inviting an unknown man to stay with them who happened to be Jesus himself.

DF: You have had a coffee shop before, called Java Joe's in Lebanon, TN. What did you learn from that experience and what will you do differently this time?

MC: One doesn’t learn much about running a business in seminary. We made a lot of mistakes when it came to our day-to-day operations. However, good business practice alone will not by itself point people to Jesus. For that to happen we must be more intentional.

As a business we are committed to being an incarnational presence in our community and to encouraging those we do business with “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). To achieve this we must create a world of more conscious workers, citizens, and consumers. We are committed to creating a world that is rich in the values demonstrated in the life of Christ (Luke 22:24-27).

We believe that our business should engage in the spiritual growth of everyone who works for us. In other words, we will create a discipling culture among us by meeting God daily in a set time of prayer, allowing God [to] confront us daily through the Scriptures, and participate in God’s mission in the world by ever remembering the command, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34).

We are committed to approaching everything we do from a systems perspective, a perspective that allows us to see the larger whole, not a fragmented, compartmentalized world, not just what we want to see, our own point of view, our own reality, but a world that is endlessly interconnected. (For more on systems thinking click here.)

DF: The first-century church spread throughout the Roman Empire in less than a century without buildings or professional clergy. Your church is also (currently) without a building. How does your neighborhood know about your church without your having a building or a sign? In other words, how does Argenta know of your church's presence?

MC: One word: relationships. For relationship is the means by which the gospel travels.

DF: What does it mean to be incarnational? (or) What is incarnational ministry?

MC: If God’s central way of reaching the world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational. At the very least, an incarnational lifestyle requires us to set up a real and abiding presence in a particular place with the basic motive of revelation–that is, people will come to know God through Jesus. By becoming one of us, God has given us the archetypal model of what true mission should look like and behave.

DF: What is the best way that churches or individuals can partner with the Church at Argenta and Mugs? How can people pray for you? How can they keep up with what the church is doing?

MC: The best way for churches to partner with us right now is through financial giving (see equip.churchargenta.org). This is our greatest need at the moment in order to get Mugs open. Our biggest prayer is that we will not fold in on ourselves and keep following the Spirit outward. People can keep up with us on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/churchargenta), Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/churchargenta), our blog (http://www.churchatargenta.org/blog), and our newsletter (http://www.churchatargenta.org/about/newsletter/).

DF: What is the first thing we need to order once Mugs opens?

MC: The first thing you need to order is the Wayfaring Slider for breakfast, the Smoked Salmon Club for lunch, and the Cuban to drink. http://www.mugscafe.org/menu/

 

Simply Jesus: Part One

I have attempted to read Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright twice before, but didn't finish, not because it isn't good, but because life sometimes gets in the way. I am determined to get through it this time and figured blogging through the book might help. This post is about Part One of the book.
 
A Very Odd Sort of King
Chapter one, “A Very Odd Sort of King,” begins with a description of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem during Passover time (Mt 21:1-11; Mk 11:1-11; Lk 19:28-44) and the people's celebration of the coming of God's kingdom. Wright says:
He was not the king they expected. He wasn't like the monarchs of old who sat on their jeweled and ivory thrones, dispensing their justice and wisdom. Nor was he the great warrior-king some had wanted. He didn't raise an army and ride into battle at its head. He was riding on a donkey. And he was weeping, weeping for the dream that had to die, weeping for the sword that would pierce his supporters to the soul. Weeping for the kingdom that wasn't coming as well as for the kingdom that was. (1)

Wright raises the question which he seeks to answer, both historically and theologically, “What did Jesus think he was doing?”

The Three Puzzles

Before we can begin to answer that question, we must acknowledge and address what chapter two calls “The Three Puzzles”:

  1. Jesus' world is strange to us.
  2. Jesus' God is a very specific one: the God of Israel.
  3. Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge.

The Perfect Storm

In chapter three, Wright starts using the metaphor of a “perfect storm.” The first perfect storm he describes is the one in the middle of which people who write, preach, and teach about Jesus find themselves. The storms are as follows:

  1. Modern Skepticism – “That stuff didn't happen the way the Bible says it did.”
  2. Conservatism – “Oh yes it did! The Bible says so!”
  3. Historical Complexity – On this note, Wright says: “In any particular historical context, certain things made sense, certain ideas and actions went together in a way that felt entirely natural at the time, but that we may well have to reconstruct with considerable difficulty.” (22)

The Making of a First-Century Storm

Wright begins his attempt to reconstruct Jesus' world and the situation he strode into on the donkey in chapter four. Here he is using the “perfect storm” metaphor in a different way, but only deals with the first two (of three) elements in this chapter.

  1. The Roman Storm
  2. The Jewish Storm

Rome had a story that, they believed, had reached a royal climax. Having been a republic for most of their history, they now had a monarch (Caesar), who was thought to be the “son of god” and pontifex maximus, or “chief priest,” who was also thought to have ushered in a time of peace and prosperity. Wright sums it up this way:

…[T]he new age, for which we have waited for a millennium, is now here at last through the peaceful and joyful rule of Augustus Caesar. The message was carved in stone, on monuments and in inscriptions, around the known world: “Good news! We have an Emperor! Justic, Peace, Security, and Prosperity are ours forever! The Son of God has become King of the World!” (30)

The Jews also had a story, but whereas the Roman story looked backwards from a “golden age,” the Jewish one looked forward to God's coming kingdom:

…[T]he Jews had been living in their great story for, they believed, well over a thousand years. Their story…stretched back to Abraham, Moses, David, and other heroes of the distant past. But it was all going to come to its great climax, they believed, any moment now. It was a single story, and they were living at its leading edge. (32)

The Hurricane

It doesn't take much imagination, given the brief descriptions of the Roman and Jewish storms, to imagine how Jesus' entrance in the middle of it all would initiate the “perfect storm.” Saying what he was saying and doing what he was doing would have gotten anybody killed in that day and age. In chapter five, Wright sketches the Jewish expectation of God's coming kingdom and of the Messiah. He also shows how God himself would one day be king, but that somehow, he would be king through his servant “David,” the “anointed one,” the Christ/Messiah. This is the chapter where the rubber begins to meet the road; if you're like me, you will have many “a-ha!” moments at this point.

I hope this brief overview of chapters 1-5 has whet your appetite to read this book for yourself. Join me! 🙂