• It’s Hard to Believe in Jesus

    3298 Sermon on Mount 10.5x13.75 cas d(v) Dec. 23, 1949 signed (v)

    It’s Hard to Believe in Jesus
    Brian Zahnd

    The cross is shock therapy for a world addicted to solving its problems through violence. The cross shocks us into the devastating realization that our system of violence murdered God! The things hidden from the foundation of the world have now been revealed. The cross shames our ancient foundation of violence. The cross strips naked the principalities and powers. The cross tears down the façade of glory that we use to hide the bodies of slain victims.

    In the light of the cross, we are to realize that if what we have built on Cain’s foundation is capable of murdering the Son of God, then whole edifice needs to come down. In the light of the cross, our war anthems lose their luster. But this throws us into a crisis. What other alternatives are there? How else are we to arrange the world? The alternative is what Jesus is offering us when he told us that the kingdom of God is at hand. God’s way of arranging the world around love and forgiveness is within reach. If we only dare to reach out for it, we can have it. But we are so afraid. We’re not sure we can risk it. It’s so hard for us to let go of the sword and take the hand of the Crucified One. It’s so hard for us to really believe in Jesus.

    The crowd never believes in Jesus. Only the little flock that accepts its vulnerability can believe in Jesus. If you tell those rushing to war that their hatred of enemies and their plan for the organized killing of enemies is evil, the crowd will hate you. War is sacred. It lies beyond critique. To critique it is blasphemy. The crowd hates blasphemy. The crowd wants to kill blasphemers. The crowd knows that the criticism of their violence is blasphemy because they know their cause is just. They believe it. And from their perspective their cause is just. They can prove it. Both sides can prove it. Always.

    Achilles knew his cause was just and that it was perfectly legitimate to drag Hector’s body from his chariot in front of the gates of Troy in a show of grotesque triumphalism. It’s the same grotesque impulse that causes modern soldiers to pose for gruesome photos with the bodies of dead enemies. It’s literally the way of the world. But it’s not the way of the new world founded by Jesus. Jesus is not the warrior king the world is accustomed to. Jesus is not the Jewish Achilles. Jesus refused to be the violent Messiah Israel longed for. Jesus did not kill Pilate and drag the governor’s body behind his chariot. Jesus did not pose triumphantly over the dead bodies of slain Roman soldiers. Instead it was Jesus who hung naked on a tree after being put to death through a state-sponsored execution. Jesus founded his kingdom in solidarity with brutalized victims. This is the gospel, but it’s hard for us to believe in a Jesus who would rather die than kill his enemies. It’s harder yet to believe in a Jesus who calls us to take up our own cross, follow him, and be willing to die rather than kill our enemies.
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  • Jesus Trumps Biblicism: A Tale of Sticks and Stones

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    Jesus Trumps Biblicism: A Tale of Sticks and Stones
    Brian Zahnd

    This morning I was reading Scripture. From the Old Testament I was reading Numbers and in the New Testament I was reading John. In Numbers chapter 15 we find this story…

    An Israelite guy was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. This was forbidden. The guy got caught and was taken into custody. Moses inquired of Yahweh what should be done. Yahweh told Moses that the guy had to be killed. So the stick-gathering Sabbath-breaker was taken outside the camp and stoned to death by the congregation of Israel. Sticks and stones. (Number 15:32–36)

    Next I read from the Gospel of John chapter 5. This is what happens…

    Jesus meets a guy who has been paralyzed for 38 years. Jesus tells the guy to take up his bed and walk. The man is healed, takes up his bed, and heads for home. But this was the Sabbath. And the guy gets busted for breaking the Sabbath. When the Judean Torah enthusiasts find out that it was Jesus who was behind all this Sabbath breaking, they are prepared to kill Jesus. (Like Moses did in the Bible.) John concludes the story like this…

    “This is why the Judeans were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’ This is why the Judeans were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:16–18)

    Look at what we have here. In Numbers a guy gets caught picking up sticks on a Saturday and is stoned to death. The text tells us that Yahweh instructed Moses to do this. This is the Moses who spoke to God face to face. (Exodus 33:11)

    But in the prologue to his gospel John says this…

    “The Torah was given by Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God who is near the Father’s heart, he has made him known.” (John 1:17–18)
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  • Deep Time

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    Deep Time
    Blind Man at the Gate

    1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 7/10—
    Thousands of Millions of Years ago…
    A silent singularity
    Pregnant
    Waiting
    (Of course, it cannot “wait” — there is no motion, space, or time)
    BANG!
    Light and Heat and Expansion
    ALL set in motion
    Gravity did the rest
    Galaxies and Quarks
    (I cannot comprehend)
    We have a Universe!
    1, 2, 3, 4, and 1/2—
    Thousands of Millions of Years ago…
    It comes together, it spins, blue and green
    We have a home!
    For the miracle of Life
    Amino acids
    Single cells
    Life in the sea
    Arriving on land
    The cold blooded rule
    A rock falls from the sky
    Gives the warm blooded a chance
    Living in the trees
    Venturing to the ground
    Running down prey
    To fuel a bigger brain
    And finally the—
    AWAKENING!
    Not only being, not only alive, not only aware—
    But aware of awareness
    Self-consciousness
    God-consciousness
    Speaking of God
    Did you know me way back when?
    Or are you so immersed in the Story that I was a surprise even to you?
    What are the chances of the exact me coming to be—
    When at the bottom of being there are tumbling dice?
    Always planned or happy accident
    Either way, I’m fine with it
    It’s enough that you know that I AM
    Too
    But this matter of deep time
    It tells me something about you—
    You are
    Patient
    So patient
    All that is holy is patient
    Love, Peace, Life
    All that is unholy is impatient
    sin, war, me
    Help me to be holy
    By being patient
    Like you
    With time—
    Deep time, future time, all time
    On your side
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  • Water To Wine (Some of My Story)

    Water-to-Wine

    Water To Wine
    Brian Zahnd

    Ten years later it’s time to tell some of my story…

    I was halfway to ninety, midway through life, and I’d reached a full-blown crisis. Call it a garden variety mid-life crisis if you want, but it was something more than that. You might say it was a theological crisis, though that makes it sound too cerebral. The unease I felt came from a deeper place than a mental file labeled “theology.” My life was like that U2 song stuck on repeat — I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. I was wrestling with an uneasy feeling that the kind of Christianity I had built my life around was somehow deficient. Not wrong, but lacking. It seemed watery and weak. In my most honest moments I couldn’t help but notice that the Christianity I knew seemed to lack the kind of robust authenticity that made Jesus so fascinating. And I’d always been utterly fascinated by Jesus. Jesus wasn’t in question, but Christianity American style was.

    I became a committed Christian during the Jesus Movement. I was the high school “Jesus freak” and by the tender age of twenty-two I had founded a church — as ridiculous as that sounds now! After a prolonged slow start I eventually enjoyed what most would call a “successful ministry.” At one point during the 1990’s our church was dubbed “one of the twenty fastest growing churches in America.” I was a success. Ta-da!

    But by 2003, now in my mid-forties, I had become, what shall I say?…bored, restless, discontent. From a certain perspective things couldn’t have been better. I had a large church with a large staff supported by a large budget worshiping in a large complex. I was large and in charge! I had made it to the big time. But I had become increasingly dissatisfied. I was weary of the tired clichés of bumper-sticker evangelicalism. I was disenchanted by a paper-thin Christianity propped up by cheap certitude. The politicized faith of the Religious Right was driving me crazy. I was yearning for something deeper, richer, fuller. Let me say it this way — I was in Cana and the wine had run out. I needed Jesus to perform a miracle.
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  • End of the Line

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    End of the Line
    By Brian Zahnd

    Western Christianity is at a critical juncture. Those who care deeply about the church are aware of this. Things are not as they once were. Things are changing. Dramatically so. Even if we don’t understand what is happening, we can certainly feel it. There is an uneasy feeling throughout evangelicalism that everything is changing. Long-held certitudes are being challenged from both within and without the Christian faith. The way things were even ten years ago is no longer the way things are today. It’s easy to be disconcerted by it all. Read more

  • How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?

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    How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?
    Brian Zahnd

    When we say “Jesus died for our sins,” what does that mean? It’s undeniably an essential confession of Christian faith, but how does it work? This much I’m sure of, it’s not reducible to just one thing. I’ve just finished preaching eight sermons on “The Crucified God” and I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the cross means. To try to reduce the death of Jesus to a single meaning is an impoverished approach to the mystery of the cross. I’m especially talking about those tidy explanations of the cross known as “atonement theories.” I find most of them inadequate; others I find repellent. Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus!

    Neither is the death of Jesus a kind of quid pro quo by which God gains the necessary capital to forgive sinners. No! Jesus does not save us from God; Jesus reveals God! Jesus does not provide God with the capacity to forgive; Jesus reveals God as forgiving love. An “economic model” of the cross just won’t work. It’s not as if God is saying, “Look, I’d love to forgive you, but I’ve got to pay off Justice first, and, you know how she is, she’s a tough goddess, she requires due payment.” This understanding of the cross begs the question of who exactly is in charge — the Father of Jesus or some abstract ideal called “Justice”?
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  • Sympathy for the Devil…or Pilate

    Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880

    Sympathy for the Devil…or Pilate
    Brian Zahnd

    Please allow me to introduce myself
    I’m a man of wealth and taste
    I’ve been around for a long, long year
    Stole many a man’s soul and faith
    And I was ‘round when Jesus Christ
    Had his moment of doubt and pain
    Made damn sure that Pilate
    Washed his hands and sealed his fate
    Pleased to meet you
    Hope you guess my name
    But what’s puzzling you
    Is the nature of my game

    –The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil

    In his fascinating novel, The Master and Margarita, Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov creates an imaginary conversation between the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the Galilean prophet Yeshua. When asked about his views on government, Bulgakov’s Yeshua says, “All power is a form of violence over people.” The peasant preacher of Bulgakov’s novel goes on to contrast the governments of power and violence with the peaceable kingdom of truth and justice. In response Pontius Pilate rages, “There never has been, nor yet shall be a greater or more perfect government in this world than the rule of the emperor Tiberius!” When Pilate asks Yeshua if he believes this kingdom of truth will come, Yeshua answers with conviction, “It will.” Pilate cannot stand for this. In a memorable passage Bulgakov’s Pilate rails against the possibility of the kingdom of God ever coming and supplanting Caesar’s empire.

    “It will never come!” Pilate suddenly shouted. Many years ago in the Valley of the Virgins Pilate had shouted in that same voice to his horsemen: “Cut them down! Cut them down!” And again he raised his parade-ground voice, “Criminal! Criminal! Criminal! Do you imagine, you miserable creature, that a Roman Procurator could release a man who has said what you have said to me? I don’t believe in your ideas!

    In The Master and Margarita, Pontius Pilate seems to have little personal animosity toward the wandering Galilean preacher, but Pilate hates his ideas. In the end what forces the Procurator to condemn Yeshua to crucifixion is the preacher’s revolutionary ideas about power, truth, and violence. Like Pilate we too wrestle with the conflict we have between Jesus and his unsettling ideas. We often want to separate Jesus from his ideas.

    This bifurcation between Jesus and his political ideas has a history — it can be traced back to the early fourth century when Christianity first attained favored status in the Roman Empire. In October of 312 the Roman general Constantine came to power after winning a decisive battle in which he used Christian symbols as a fetish, placing them as talismans upon the weapons of war. (The incongruence is absolutely stunning!) Having emerged victorious in a Roman civil war and securing his position as emperor, Constantine attributed his military victory to the Christian god. In short order the wheels were set in motion for Christianity to become the state religion of the Roman Empire. The kingdom of God had been eclipsed by Christian empire.

    Almost overnight the church found itself in a chaplaincy role to the empire and on a trajectory that would lead to the catastrophe of a deeply compromised Christianity. The catastrophe of church as vassal to the state would find its most grotesque expression in the medieval crusades when under the banner of the cross Christians killed in the name of Christ. The crusades are perhaps the most egregious example of how distorted Christianity can become when we separate Christ from his ideas. Read more

  • Bread, Circuses, and Violence

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    Bread, Circuses, and Violence
    Brian Zahnd

    On Sunday the Gospel reading was the temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:1–11). After church someone asked me if I thought the temptation of Jesus was literal. The questioner was struggling with what seemed to be a cartoonish contest between Jesus and the devil. This person was particularly perplexed by the idea that Jesus would actually be tempted to worship Satan.

    So when asked if I thought the temptation account was “literal,” what did I say? I said, yes and no. I certainly believe Jesus encountered Satan in the wilderness and was tempted. But I don’t think the devil showed up in a red suit sporting a tail and a pitchfork saying, “Hello, I’m Lucifer, and I’m here to put you through your paces. Alright, shall we get started? First off, how about turning that rock into lunch? No? Okay. What about showing off with a leap from the temple? No again? Well, how about you just fall down and worship me and I make you king of the world and we’ll call it a day?”

    No, I don’t think it was quite like that. It wasn’t cartoonish. It was far more subtle and insidious than that. I suspect the satan came to Jesus the same way he comes to you and me: disguised as our own thoughts. Just like the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. I’ve never met a talking snake, but I’ve sure had some serpentine thoughts crawl through my head! So let’s treat the temptation of Jesus seriously.

    What was Jesus doing in the wilderness? Fasting, praying, preparing to begin his ministry. What was on his mind? We might assume he was contemplating how to go about his work. That’s when subtle and satanic thoughts entered the mind of the Son of God.
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  • The Crucified God

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    The Crucified God
    Brian Zahnd

    “When the crucified Jesus is called ‘the image of the invisible God,’
    the meaning is that this is God and God is like this.”
    –Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

    “Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death,
    the Christform is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.”
    –John R. Cihak, Love Alone Is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics

    “Jesus is the only perfect theology.”
    –Brad Jersak

    God is like Jesus.
    God has always been like Jesus.
    There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
    We haven’t always known this.
    But now we do.
    –Brian Zahnd

    I want to know who God is. I want to know what God is like. So what should I do? Read the Bible? Yes…but. The Bible is a big and complicated book and subject to what Christian Smith wryly calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Smith is referring to the embarrassing plethora of contradictory interpretations from equally qualified and well-intentioned interpreters.

    So what do we do? Where do we stand within Scripture in order to interpret the rest of the text? Genesis? Leviticus? Joshua? Revelation? What we need is a way to center our reading of Scripture – a vantage point from which to interpret the whole of Scripture. My humble suggestion is that this place is the cross. Not only do I advocate a Christocentric reading of the Bible, I contend that the cross is the most Christ-revealing moment in the Bible.

    If we want to know what God is like, the best thing we can do is look at Jesus upon the cross. God is like that!
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