The Lord and the Sword

A few weeks ago our college study group talked at length about differing viewpoints on Christians and war, self-defense, and violence. One passage that has always perplexed me is Luke 22: 35-38. I find this passage difficult on both sides of the argument because 1) The reading of this text prima facie (am I using that right?) seems to advocate the use of weapons for defense, when just a few verses later Jesus rebukes the disciples for defending themselves and Jesus and 2) In the direct context of the passage, Jesus appears to give the disciples the instruction to obtain swords specifically for a prophetic fulfillment… “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

Here’s what I have so far: If the above is the case, and the disciples’ sword wielding pertains directly to  Jesus being numbered with transgressors, then his rhetorical question in v. 52 “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?” is well fitted. Furthermore, if the disciples’ need to defend themselves is really the issue at hand here, two swords hardly seem sufficient.

With regard to this and a few other passages typically seen as “pro-sword” passages, Homebrewed Christianity has an extremely helpful blog post here (don’t hold the fact that he’s “emerging” against him…or do, but I think he’s on to something in this particular area). While I don’t interpret all the relevant passages exactly as is done in the post, overall it does a nifty job clarifying some of the Scriptural metaphors which are easy to misunderstand. I would encourage you to read it and engage the interpretations discussed.


Who is Jesus, anyway?

jesusJesus seems to be coming up a lot in my life this week. Imagine that. With the release of Reza Aslan’s book on Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and subsequent, seemingly obligatory media-fueled drama that has ensued , the historicity and historical claims on Jesus had been on my mind throughout the weekend. Then a few days ago I shared a brief conversation with a friend about spiritual experience, and in the wake of the conversation the thoughts began to turn over in my head more tumultuously. Why are people so intrigued by this Jesus?  It’s painfully clear that Jesus is a polarizing figure in our society, and to say that Jesus is a topic of popular discussion would be the understatement of over 200 centuries.

When we talk about Jesus, I think it’s important that at least the most basic of frameworks be agreed upon by all parties. After all, at least for Christians, what a person says and thinks about Jesus bears relevance for all of life. So, while some of these points may seem obvious, I think it’s worth hashing out. If for nothing else, just as a refresher to my mind.

1.  People need to realize that we’re talking about a historical figure. He’s a real guy. The evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is (almost completely) undisputed. Anyone who pursues knowledge of the person of Jesus with an ounce of scholastic integrity will come to find he existed. Years of research and critical analysis bear the evidence that Jesus walked the earth from around 7-2 BC till AD 30-36. Additionally, scholars have come to a general consensus that there is significant evidence from both sympathetic (Christian) and unsympathetic (Roman and non-believing Jewish) first century sources to warrant the belief that his baptism by John the Baptizer, an event recorded in the canonical gospels, and his crucifixion outside of Jerusalem by Roman authorities are historical fact.  So at the very least, when we speak about the person and work of Jesus, his baptism and crucifixion act as some very significant historical bookends to set in place our interpretation of who Jesus is.

2.  We must realize that since Jesus was a historical figure, his person, his statements and vocation have a specific context; He was a Jew living in Palestine under Roman occupancy and authority. With this in mind, recall that first century Judaism would have been pregnant with Messianic expectation, and an overwhelming desire to be freed from oppression as the Messiah’s coming would mark the culmination of God’s rule, the vindication of God’s people and the destruction of God’s enemies (Rome, among others in this case). Now, as a Jewish teacher traveling with disciples in Palestine–now under Roman rule, Jesus’ crucifixion may have been the product of a number of things, but often crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and enemies of the state. Indeed, many religious rebels and military messiahs had been crucified under Rome’s boot. Therefore, it is not far-fetched to posit that since Jesus was crucified as a Jew by a Roman prefect, either he himself was making authority/kingship/Messiahship claims or someone else was making them on his behalf. If it is the case that someone was making those claims without Jesus’ consent, it seems interesting that Pilate would have crucified Jesus without investigating, or that Jesus would have remained silent on the matter when he was brought before the authorities. Now we’re wandering further into speculation, but it is of some importance in my mind.

What’s interesting about this element of Jesus’ life and ministry is that, being either self-identified as Messiah or postured as a messiah by others, following his crucifixion this Messianic claim resounds from the mouths of his followers even more clearly and audaciously than during his life. Ancient sources make it clear that the worship of Jesus by a growing population of Jews in the years following the crucifixion was identified by those outside the following. This is made all the more puzzling by the fact that there was no shortage of would-be Jewish messiahs prior to, during and following the first century. What’s true in every case, save Jesus’, is that when the leader died, the movement died with it. Any messiah who died under a pagan sword or on a pagan cross was no messiah at all. N.T. Wright argues this poignantly: ” I cannot as a historian see why anyone would have continued to belong to [Jesus’] movement and regard him as its messiah. There were several other messianic or quasi-messianic movements within a hundred years on either side of Jesus. Routinely, they ended with the leader being killed by the authorities or by a rival group. If your messiah is killed, naturally you conclude that he was not the messiah. Some of those movements continued to exist; where they did, they took a new leader from the same family. (Note, however, that nobody ever said James, the brother of Jesus, was the messiah.) Such groups did not suffer from that blessed twentieth-century disease of cognitive dissonance. In particular, they did not go around saying that their messiah had been raised from the dead” (“The Historical Jesus and Christian Theology”).

3. ( This specifically has bearing on pop-cultural awareness of Jesus) If you are going to make the statement that Jesus was/is “a good teacher”, “a moral leader”, “an inspirational figure”, “a role model”, etc., you should think long and hard about why you are saying such things, and where you draw your knowledge to come to such conclusions. In order to make such statements, one must decide what he or she believes about Scripture. Is Scripture historically reliable? Is it truthful? Because without looking to the gospels, one has no reason to make any claims regarding the character and moral nature of this man Jesus. This is another topic for another day, but suffices to say, these claims, apart from drawing from the Jesus of the gospels, have no basis in reality. It would be like saying “I look to Henry VIII for all my ideas on breakdancing.” It makes no historical sense. Notice, I say apart from drawing from the Jesus of the gospels. If you believe the gospels give a reliable, cogent, historical portrait of Jesus, then you may make the above statements (about Jesus, not Henry VIII) with a clear conscience and rational justification; however, such a portrait of Jesus requires that you say much more than that. The Jesus of the gospels does make kingship and Messiahship claims, indeed divine claims, and the same gospels that portray Jesus’ concern for the poor and helpless, his love of children and the marginalized, also portray Jesus’ indignation over sinfulness, the cost of being a disciple of Jesus, his exclusive rights to rule over the nations, and his claim to be YHWH, Israel’s God.

If you do not believe that the gospels offer up a reliable historical account, then to model your life after Jesus’ life and ministry, to admire his teachings, are nothing more than wishful optimism drawn from ancient myth. I can model my life after Jay Gatsby, Frodo, or any number of fictional characters, and I can really admire Winnie the Pooh’s teaching on friendship, and it may be of marginal or significant value; who knows? But it’s not grounded in reality. Additionally, if you are only looking to Jesus as a teacher of morality and inspiration, honestly you may be better off looking elsewhere. C.S. Lewis put it very well, I think.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

8 Horizon-Broadening, Nostalgia-Activating Albums from My Past

In no particular order, and for no particular reason, here are 8 albums that really helped shape my  musical influences in the past 10 or so years:

1. Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child (Tooth and Nail, 2002), Norma Jean

Norma will always have a soft spot in my heart. I bought this album in a Mardel’s Christian book store in Ft. Worth, TX when I was 14 or 15. I remember taking it to my grandma’s house and putting it in my walkman CD player…and freaking out over the intensity of the music. It was controlled chaos, my first big leap into metal/hardcore, and my first great admiration of brutal breakdowns.

2. A—>B Life (Tooth and Nail, 2002), mewithoutYou

Interestingly enough, on that same trip to grandma’s in that same store in Ft. Worth, I picked up this little number as well. I have to admit that this album was, to me, an acquired taste. I had never heard anything like Aaron Weiss’ now trademark speak-sing-scream. It’s kind of like spoken word poetry run amok. After a few listens, I really began to appreciate the depth of lyrical content, and mwY has remained a consistent favorite of mine over the years.

3. Peregrine (The Militia Group, 2006), The Appleseed Cast

This album is definitely in the running for my favorite album ever. Again, The Appleseed Cast were an acquired taste for me, and looking back, I probably would have been better off with an introduction via the Low Level Owl albums, but alas, twas not to be. However, after having Peregrine for a few weeks, I became enamored with the richness of their guitar tones, and their attention to detail, such as the snare hits on “Sunlit Ascending”; each hit was gated differently, or perhaps an altogether different drum, giving the song a unique rhythmic pulse. Peregrine is a keeper.

4. A Rush of Blood to the Head (Capitol, 2002), Coldplay

Don’t laugh. This album was great. For me, it marked the transition from my primary concern being “how crazy is it?” to “does it move me?” I distinctly recall sitting in my best friend’s living room in 8th grade, and Chris Martin appearing on a commercial singing “The Scientist”. At that time, my friend, his dad and I joked about how lame he was. By the 9th grade, I couldn’t stop listening to this CD. There are songs on this album that soar majestically, like “Clocks”. There are morose, passioned pleas like the chorus in “Warning Sign”. Every time I listen to this album, even 11 years later, I feel something.

5. The Kite EP (self-produced, 2007?), Ours to Alibi

My freshman year of college was another transition point. I began to fall in love with post-rock instrumental music, and I have Ours to Alibi to thank for it. Because of this album, I eventually connected with Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Ros, Unwed Sailor, and more. The delay-happy guitars playing off of one another, creating a fluid and beautiful melody, building to a full, huge, blanket of sound. It’s just good stuff.

6. Fleet Foxes (Sub Pop, 2008), Fleet Foxes

This album is nearly perfect. The deep reverb on the vocals and the rich finger-picked acoustic guitar create a simple but unmistakable sound that harkens to a time in recorded music long before I was born. It’s almost as if you recognize these songs, even if you are hearing them for the first time. It basically makes me want to build a fire and grow a beard that birds can live in.

7. The Swiss Army Romance (Vagrant, 2000), Dashboard Confessional

Can you tell when I went to high school? Now that I am in my mid-twenties, this album is kind of like a           guilty pleasure. Nothing about Chris Carrabba’s vocal ability is dazzling, and at times it’s even borderline annoying, but man, does that guy wear his heart on his (tattoo) sleeve. This album carries all the glorious and embarrassing mental visual of a teenage boy, fresh out of driver’s ed, belting emo lyrics at the top of his lungs while driving in his parents’ car.

8. Mending (The Militia Group, 2008), The New Frontiers

The New Frontiers is one of those bands that you are forever angry at for only producing one full-length before breaking up. This album is a melodic and heartfelt indie record soaked in Americana. The slide guitar riffs add just the right amount of grime to give The New Frontiers all the trappings of a great bar band, but this record is so much more than that. Every single song is listenable, and some of them ( “Mirrors”, “The Day You Fell Apart”, “Walking on Stones”) are downright phenomenal.

So there you have it. My 8 (although there are many,many more). What artists/albums have most influenced you?

Do Functionally Hierarchical Churches Stifle Ministry?

I have been sharing in conversations with a few people over the last few weeks regarding how to best get individuals to plug in to and invest in their local church’s ministries. There have been a number of suggestions, and obviously there are a number of ways to position people to serve. After all, a big part of my job as a member of a church staff is to create opportunities for Christians to serve the Body and the community. Throughout these conversations, and even before to be honest, one thing really keeps nagging me. Wouldn’t our churches benefit from having a broad and diverse representation (particularly women) serving on Sundays, leading in worship roles, and so on?

Before I go any further, let me take a moment and say I am not using this post to speak about designated church leadership roles, such as elders, pastors, or even deacons. Those are worthwhile debates, but none I want to address here. I am simply talking about the unintentional culture of ministry we create in an effort to avoid some of those danger zones (Baptists are historically infamous for this: i.e. “Baptists and Dancing”). I believe there is absolutely a right and a wrong way to do ministry in a church setting. I believe that there are structures and principles set out by the Scriptures for orderly worship and church leadership. However, I also believe we are doing ourselves a great disservice when our corporate worship doesn’t reflect the rich diversity of our family. For instance, let’s take public Scripture reading, public prayer, and taking up the offering. Three normative acts of worship involving volunteers. All historically male led in every Southern Baptist Church I have been in. Why? I don’t want to believe that it is out of an explicit desire to push women out of those ministry roles (although it might be?). I also don’t believe it’s just because no woman has ever wanted or asked to read Scripture or pray publicly. But whether it is deliberate or not, our evangelical ministry culture, being prominently male driven, has bred an a-biblical distinction of what women and men can and should do in corporate worship.

I realize that even by asking the question, a few will assume I am tiptoeing toward the broad road of egalitarian destruction, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking. Should we force the issue of equality in all areas of ministry just for equality’s sake, regardless of where people feel gifted and called? No. That would also be doing a disservice to our corporate worship. Southern Baptists, however, seem to err on the side of pigeonholing on the basis of gender in ministry roles, so it’s this we must address.

What do you think? Do you see this pattern in church worship? How do we respond?

*this article was originally posted at  on March 03, 2013