‘Go at once to Ninevah…’ | Jonah and the Call of God

50b4d001eac9f80507037ee155c0faee.jpgThis morning the Church in Wales Morning Prayer Lectionary turned our attention towards the Book of the Prophet Jonah. It is such a joy to hear Jonah read aloud at the Offices for the next couple of days; it is one of the shortest books of the Bible and one of my favourites. The story is a surprising, funny, fascinating and deeply rewarding read. If you don’t say Morning Prayer, I would highly recommend taking 20 minutes and sitting to read the Book of Jonah – that’s all the time it will take and it is well worth doing. In this post, I’m going to run through the whole book and scratch the surface of its enriching message and the results of my lectio divina over the last week or so.

‘Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.’ (1.1,2)

There’s a lot going on in this first couple of verses. The first lesson of Jonah is one of its most important: the heroes of the Bible are always summoned, they are always, so to speak, in the passive voice. No great hero of scripture – or the Church for that matter – acts according to their own plan or design; they don’t cling to their own projects or ideas. The heroes of scripture are subject to a higher will; infused by a higher power. The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that there is a ‘power at work within us’ which ‘is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine’. This is the way the Scriptural imagination understands what it is to be a hero – it’s nothing to do with your own power and plans and everything to do with how you let the Holy Spirit work through you. John Lennon famously said: ‘life is what happens while you are busy making other plans’. This is a pretty good summary of what the Scriptures are saying: while you’re making your plans, Life is happening within you – the Spirit who is ‘Lord and giver of life’ is active, even when our back is turned.

The call of Jonah teaches us another important lesson: no-one is ever called in an abstract or generic way. Blessed John Cardinal Newman (a person whose own journey of discipleship was certainly unique) understood this. He wrote a beautiful prayer, whose first verse is this:

‘God has created me to do him some definite service;
he has committed some work to me which he has not
committed to another.  I have my mission – I may never
know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.’

I love this prayer. God has created each one of us for ‘some definitive service’. Each of us, every human being, has a particular way to serve God and the human family and the drama and true joy of life is discovering your call and living it out. Of course, the vocation of all of us is to be channels of God’s grace in the world, but we each have a ‘definitive’ way of living out this mission. For me, it is as a priest in the Church in Wales; for some it is the religious life; for some it is as a teacher; a parent; a spouse; a care-giver – there are as many calls as there are human beings. And the fullness of our vocation will never be revealed to us in this life, we will only see it clearly when we are ‘told it in the next’.

The opposite statement then is that, as Rowan Williams powerfully articulates in Being Disciples, the central tragedy of human life is to miss your calling: to fail to live out the ‘definitive service’ God has prepared for you. Human success is not about power, money, status or good-looks – God doesn’t care about these human marks of success – the fundamental question is whether you followed the call of God or not. That’s all that matters. Rowan Williams in Being Disciples tells the compelling story of Thomas French:

‘Thomas French’, he says, was ‘a great missionary of the nineteenth century who spent much of his life as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched – even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts.’ Bishop Rowan goes on to say, ‘it’s the apparent failure, and the drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.’

Bishop Thomas French failed. He failed on all the counts of human success. Yet, in the eyes of God, he flourished as a human creature because he heard the call to be with Jesus Christ amongst the people of the Persian Gulf. He heard the call; he performed that ‘definitive service’ which the Lord commanded him.

‘But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’ (1.3)

Jonah ignores the call; he flees from the presence of God and the result is ‘a mighty storm’ so violent that Jonah and all the people onboard are put in great danger. The lesson here is simple and powerful: to refuse the divine mission leads to trouble. Jonah thought he could escape the presence of God, but the presence of the Lord is everywhere, even in Tarshish! If Jonah had read Psalm 139, perhaps he’d have thought twice:

‘Where can I go from your spirit?
Or when can I flee from your presence?
If I ascent to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…’ (Psalm 139.7ff.)

But Jonah is not able to go far – he is thrown overboard and swallowed up by a great fish. We can learn something from this powerful metaphor – Jonah’s will, which was fleeing from God, is (literally) swallowed up and contextualised by a greater will than his own. It can feel like imprisonment; but it’s not – Jonah’s errant will is swallowed up by a greater will and the whale vomits him up exactly where God wants him to be. God’s ‘service is perfect freedom’ (St. Augustine).

It is powerful to remember that the darkest moment of Jonah’s life, the worst thing he has experienced, actually leads him where he wants to go. In this is great hope for us who are in the midst of a difficult time – trust in the Lord! Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (2.1ff.) shows the depths of his despair (‘I called to the Lord out of my distress’) but also his radical trust that the Lord hears and answers his prayer (‘As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple’).

The book goes on… ‘so Jonah set out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord’ (3.3)

Having tried to flee and failed, he arrives at the huge city of Ninevah. God brings him to this place and gives him the most unwelcome of messages – ‘forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!’ (3.4). Imagine going through Cardiff or Wrexham or St. Asaph with this message: repent or God will overthrow you! We would probably, like Jonah, flee as far from possible from this task! Yet God always calls us to self-sacrifice; calling us forward on the path of greater love and greater service. This is deeply rooted in Jesuit spirituality: semper meior, always greater! We are always spurred on to greater charity; greater sacrifice; greater love but, as we run the race, we have the promise of greater and greater life taking root in us.

Then, suddenly, Ninevah does the unbelievable – they repent. ‘The people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth’ (3.5). We can see here how much power is unleashed when we truly follow the will of God – the slightest cooperation with his grace can release the divine life into the world – the power always does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. When God calls, however the great the task, if we cooperate with his Spirit, there is no telling how wonderful the results.

Then comes the most challenging reminder of this great book – Jonah’s reaction to the faith of the city. We read in the Scriptures:

‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah and he came angry.’ (3.10, 4.1)

One of the greatest pitfalls of Christian discipleship is that sense of self-righteous superiority which infects Christian communities. Often we’d rather stay on our pedestal and can’t quite handle when God’s grace shows up and transforms lives around us. But we must remember that our call is to be a channel of the divine love and grace in the world! We can’t sulk when we succeed at that task. Our work is always to bring love, light and grace and not a sense of superiority that seeks to retain its own status, power and position. If you want to share in the divine life: give it away! Then, as you give it away, you will receive more and more! We receive God’s gifts, so to speak, on the fly!

So, what is God calling you to? Jonah ignored God’s call, but when he accepted the work he was given, enormous spiritual energy and power was unleashed into the world. What ‘definitive service’ are you called to? If I’m honest, I’m starting to thing that that is the only question in the world really worth asking – even if it will take all our lives, and the next, to find the answer.

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Original Sin

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I have just listened to BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Belief  (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07btlm7) which discussed this evening the doctrine of Original Sin. It consisted of a group of scholars (and a Jesuit priest) discussing the doctrine and their conclusions were effectively: St. Augustine is wrong, original sin is all about babies going to hell and it is responsible for all the problems of Western society. In response to this caricature, I wanted to provide my own discussion of original sin consisting mainly of a short exposition of the first chapters of Genesis. Sadly, this portion of the Scriptures is usually treated as an embarrassment to Christians – reserved for the Easter Vigil – and dismissed as silly whenever an atheist challenges ‘creationism’. However, I think the first few chapters of Genesis provide all the fundamental of the Christian life. In these chapters right at the beginning of the Scriptures we find in symbolic detail so much of the life of faith and the reality of things.

Perhaps the most significant verse for us now is Genesis 2.7:

‘Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being’.

God made us from the clay of the earth – affirming from the beginning that we are embodied realities. As I’ve said in a previous post, we as scientific people know even better than the Biblical writers that we are truly embodied – everything in us comes from stardust. We are made from the clay of the earth, the building blocks of the universe. This is very important because the problem we have (and we’ll get there) is not with our bodies! Heresies up and down the centuries, from Gnosticism to Puritanism have attempted to say that it our bodies that are the problem. They couldn’t be more wrong. Our bodies, our passions, our sexualities are not the problem – God made us from the clay of the earth and he ‘saw that it was good’.

But that’s not all. Into that good clay he breathes ‘the breath of life’ – the ruach in Hebrew or the spiritus in Latin. God breathes into this earthly stuff his own life, his own being. What this means is that there is in us an aspiration to God: our minds don’t just seek some truth, we seek the Truth; our minds don’t just look for goodness but the Good itself and our souls won’t rest until they’ve come to the Beautiful itself. In each one of us, created from clay, there is an aspiration, a longing for God. If gnosticism denies the body of claim then modern day secularism denies the breath of life! Secularism (and scientism) reduces everything to matter, scientifically testable matter – which means that the longing for truth and goodness is reduced to psychological fantasy or wish-fulfilling delusion. Secularism denies the breath of God which animates each one of us.

Before we get to the great problem of original sin, there is another observation from Genesis which is fruitful to remember, this time from Genesis 2.15: ‘the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden’. Human beings are placed in Eden, the garden full of delights to taste and experience and enjoy. The Lord gives us practically free reign – ‘eat of every tree of the garden’ except one (but we’ll get to that). But, before we look at the problem, look at the extraordinary permission given to us! God wants the people he has created to flourish in the garden. In ancient mythology, God and humans are always rivals but the true God cannot be threatened by creation – he needs nothing from it, he demands nothing for his own well being – he simply delights to see us fully alive. We are placed in a beautiful garden, not in the desert.

Augustine and the Church Fathers take this further – all the trees represent everything that makes life wonderful. ‘Every tree’ includes philosophy, art, science, friendship, sex, politics and music  – everything that makes life wonderful is represented here and God says, ‘eat of them all!’ God never seeks to limit the human project, to arbitrarily restrict our flourishing but says to us – your being fully alive is my glory. Eat, enjoy, play!

But, what about the prohibition? One tree is forbidden – ‘the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ The Lord God is unconditioned Good, he is good in his own being and so, in his own being, is the measure of good and evil. Therefore, this prerogative belongs to God alone. Original Sin is nothing more and nothing less than making the prerogative of determine good and evil our own. The calamity of creation is that we seek to make our will the measure of good and evil rather than God’s. This is a subtle point – not a particular offence, like murder or theft, it’s much more fundamental – Original Sin is making ourselves into God, claiming we are the deciders of good and evil. Since this appropriation, human misery has followed – just read the first eleven chapters of Genesis to see this laid out; murder, pride and violence have followed this fundamental sin.

This is not abstract theological musing designed to frighten people, as Beyond Belief tried to say, it’s written into our culture. It’s seen as a basic liberty to determine the meaning of good and evil, to make my own meaning. Ask most people today and they’ll say, ‘right or wrong, that’s my personal decision’. And this attitude, before any particular sin is the disfunction introduced into the human condition.

How do Adam and Eve respond in this symbolic narrative – Adam says, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hide myself’ (Gen. 3.10). This isn’t being ashamed of the body, it is evidence of a deep and uncomfortable turning inwards. If goodness is found in God and the world he created, we turn into ourselves if we try to ignore this reality. Sin is turning oneself into God and the result is a turning in on yourself – no happiness can be true if you appropriate the divine life, you must receive it as a gift! The divine life is a gift, it exists in gift-form in the Trinity: the Father gives himself to the Son, the Son gives himself to the Father and the Spirit is the mutual giving of Father and Son! If you want the divine life, if you want to return the beatitude of the garden you can’t grasp the divine life, you receive it ‘on the fly’! As you receive it, you give it away! As it comes in, as you receive grace, it goes out. Then, and only then, does it really take root in you.

The best example of this is the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17.8-16). Elijah says to the women, ‘bring me bread’ and she tells him that she only has enough for one meal for her and her son and then they’re going to curl up and die. Elijah responds, ‘make me some bread.’ (Charming) She makes him the cake and the bread and oil never run out! The Scriptures tell this story over and over again – if you want the divine life, give it away, and as you give it away you get more and finally it becomes a fountain bubbling up in you to eternal life!

Original Sin is not a barbaric doctrine about the eternal damnation of children – it is central to who we are; children of God, filled with the breath of the divine life, but twisted inwards and in need of grace! It would take a lifetime to tell you how wonderful the grace of God that slowly turns us outwards – which polishes the diamond and returns us to the happiness for which we were made. But, to sum up this post – if you want to be happy, give yourself away! if you want the divine life, give it away! 

O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
– Collect for Quinquagesima Sunday (Book of Common Prayer)

Understanding the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6)

A more academic-style article, exploring the Christology (understanding of Christ) of the Book of Revelation. 

Introduction

The Revelation of John is an apocalyptic text rich in imagery and symbolism, with a particular Christological focus – indeed, it is described in 1.1 as ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ and concerns itself with the revelation of Jesus by Jesus, through the angel, to John the seer.  Therefore, it is through how Jesus is presented that we can gain a ‘way in’ to the study of this most complex text of the New Testament. However, having said that, the life and teaching of Jesus are largely ignored, and the focus is on the heavenly exalted Jesus post-resurrection. The book follows a three-stage kemaxresdefaultnotic Christological model with the midd
le act, Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, largely ignored with the focus on the preexistent and post-resurrection Christ. Before beginning, to explore the book of Revelation, we must note that the apocalyptic idiom of the book was probably necessitated by the situation of the Christians in Asia. In the midst of persecution at the hands of the Romans and conflicting claims to power, meant there was a need for a strong stance: if you confess God to have asserted his rule over the world, then you cannot put your trust in any other earthly power or authority.

The most important Christological descriptions we will explore are: Christ as universal saviour and judge who shares in divine authority; as the slaughtered Lamb; the eternal ‘alpha and omega’; and the one worthy of worship alongside ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Finding in chapters 4 and 5 the climax and interpretive key to the text, we will argue that the most significant depiction of Christ is as the Lamb, and we will discuss the implications of this striking image.

Christ: Sovereign Lord

The sovereign and eschatological Lordship of Christ is a central image in the Book of Revelation. Against the backdrop of persecution, it is natural to focus on the sovereignty of Christ, Christ’s judgement on the wicked and the vindication of saints and martyrs. The role of Christ is to turn the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of the Lord (e.g. 11.15), which is why the concepts of salvation and judgement are so inextricably linked. Because Christ ‘shares the one eternal being of God, what Christ is said to do, in salvation and judgement, is no less truly and directly divine’ than what is said to be done by ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Salvation, the formation of this eschatological kingdom, belongs both to God and to the Lamb (7.10) and they are related together in the New Jerusalem (22.3), which will be the final consummation of Christ’s victory. In this, Christ and God are so closely connected, with language and speech often inseparable, demonstrating a clear sense in which they are seen as, in some way, one in their reign over all creation.

It is this unity in sovereignty which means that ultimate victory is assured and both God and ‘the Lamb’ can occupy the divine throne together (5.6-13). There are political overtones to this understanding of Christ, he is described as ’Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1.5); ‘the one who is about to shepherd all the nations’ (12.5); ‘Lord’ (11.8; 14.13; 22.20); ‘lord of lords and kings of kings’ (17.14; 19.16), in contrast to the imagery of two beasts (ch. 13), which is an assault on the imperial cult. Clearly then, the image of Christ as ‘lord of lords and king of kings’ is very Christologically significant. It has a twofold purpose: it demonstrates the close identification of Christ and God; and the finality of Christ’s victory over Satan and thus, his lordship over creation. However, this politically charged and powerful language is subverted by the central image which John uses; the ‘Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (5.6).

The Lord of Creation: The Slaughtered Lamb

In the cosmic imagery of the Book of Revelation, the slaughtered Lamb is at the centre of the divine throne and, in a literary sense, at the heart of Revelation. The sacrificial death of Christ is the governing image of how God rules the world and accomplishes salvation – the love-that-suffers-even-to-dying is the messianic conquest and the focus of the book (Boring, ‘The Theology of Revelation’). This image is so significant as it provides the lynch-pin to the book’s central claim: the death and resurrection of Christ has won a decisive victory for God (ch. 5) and the world only awaits the revelation of the already fully consummated victory of God. The Scroll, which governs the narrative of Revelation from chapter 5 onwards, is also closely related to this. Christ is the only one ‘worthy’ to open the scroll, which contains the secret purposes of God for establishing his kingdom (5.1). There is then a deliberate juxtaposition of the language of ‘the lion of Judah’ (5.5), with its militaristic overtones, and the image of the slaughtered lamb (5.6).

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‘Behold the Lamb of God’

It is the opening of the scroll which is the climax of chapter 5, and John’s decision to subvert the traditionally powerful and militaristic image of the lion with a slaughtered lamb is very significant – God from his throne conquers the world by being a slain lamb and not a devouring lion, this is the shocking irony of Revelation. This reversal of power could be compared to the Johannine theology of the Cross, which subverts the traditional expectations of the glory and kingship of God. The strength, which allows the Lamb to open the scrolls, is deeply unconventional; it lies in the consistent and non-violent resistance to evil which is the witness of Jesus, a resistance which led to his execution. The slaughtered Lamb is rightly described by Boring as, ‘one of the most mind-wrenching and theologically pregnant transformations of imagery in literature.’ The lion, referenced in Proverbs (30.30), 1 Maccabees (3.4) and other Second Temple literature as a symbol of strength and military might is deliberately contrasted with the symbol of a sacrificial death and the meaning of kingship, conquest, strength and power is subverted and redefined.

The Lamb, as we have discussed it, is undoubtedly a significant image for John in Revelation, indeed, I would argue it can be considered the most significant. It is the most significant because it provides the interpretive key through which God can be understood; as the sacrificial-victim in the centre of God’s throne, he is worshipped alongside God, and provides the definitive expression of God’s activity of salvation and judgement. The centrality of chapters 4 and 5 to the book also confirms the importance of this image, which subverts the worldly understandings of power prevalent at the time, and also provides the means of understandings of Christ’s lordship as ‘king of kings’.

The Alpha and the Omega

However, before drawing to a conclusion, we must explore the image of Christ as ‘the alpha and the omega’. This concept is used both of God and Christ (God, 1.17, 22.13 – Christ 21.6 etc.), reflecting the remarkable extent to which Revelation identifies Jesus Christ with God, which prepares the ground for later Christological debate and discussion. The centrality of this designation is underlined by its use seven times, the number of completeness (see also the seven beatitudes scattered through the text). John, in this symbolic use of numbering, shows the significance of this idea and writes the theological detail of his work into the meticulous composition of Revelation. This Christological statement expresses John’s belief that Jesus belongs to the fullness of God’s eternal being. In contrast to adoptionist Christologies, which understand Jesus as only being exalted after his resurrection (although the resurrection is significant in Christ’s participation in God’s Lordship (c.f. 2.28; 3.21)) Jesus in Revelation shares in God’s eternal being from the beginning. This idea has its roots in Isaiah (c.f. 44.6 etc.) and in YHWH’s claim to exclusive monotheism – God and Christ are creator and the bringer of eschatological fulfilment; in other words, the origin and goal of all history. As well as its roots in Isaiah, this idea borrows from the Greek philosophical tradition, it is used in this sense by Josephus in Ant. 8.280 and Philo, as an explication the divine name. However, this is not a static designation of Christ, he is described as ‘to come’, placing the emphasis on the coming salvation and fulfilment of his reign. This is not an ontological expression of self-existence in himself, but a promise of faithfulness and commitment to his people in history.

The designation of ‘the alpha and the omega’ is one way in which Christ is closely identified with the God the Father, which leads us to our final significant way in which Christ is depicted: he is depicted as receiving worship. Worship is a central concept of Revelation, as it indicates that which is due to the One Creator and none else. John undertakes a deliberate treatment of the question of true or false worship: there is the division between those who worship and the dragon and the beast (13.4, 8, 12, 15; 14.9, 11 etc.) and those who worship the one true God (7.15; 14.3; 15.3-4 etc.); there is also the double rejection of worship by the angel who gives John the revelation (19.10, 22.8-9). The worship of Christ is therefore not done from neglect, as the book’s stringent claim to monotheism in the sphere of worship precludes this possibility.

John implies that Jesus is somehow included in the monotheistic being of God. For example, the worship of the Lamb (5.8) parallels that which is offered to God (4.11) and the ultimate aim of the worship of the Lamb (5.8-13) is that it leads to the whole creation worshipping God and the Lamb together (5.13). This is not bitheism, but a functional identification of God and Jesus, in such a way that he can be included in monotheistic worship – particularly interesting is the use of singular verbs (11.15) and pronouns (6.17; 22.3-4) when God and Christ have been spoken about. While this may not be a deliberate allusion, it certainly points to John’s reluctance to talk about God and Christ in the plural. Christ is depicted amongst the candlesticks, which represent the Church, showing his centrality ‘to the life and activities of the churches on earth’, alongside the angels proclamation of ‘the eternal gospel’ which includes the call to worship the Creator (14.7, c.f. 13.8) points to Jesus’ worthiness to receive worship.

Conclusion

To conclude, there are several significant ways in which Christ is depicted in Revelation: his depiction as Lord and ‘king of kings’; as the Lamb who stands slaughtered; as origin and source of all history; and as worthy of worship alongside God. Each of these depictions mutually interpret and inform the others: the Lordship of Christ is informed by his inclusion in the divine identity; his Messianic victory is subverted and reinterpreted in the light of his depiction as the sacrificial victim and the power, worthiness and authority of God are located firmly in the readiness of the Lamb to die. It is therefore, the image of the Lamb which is the most significant of the Christological depictions in Revelation, as it informs the others and, in its central place in the pivotal moment of the text, contains the most profound teaching of the Book; at the centre of the throne of God, which has conquered all creation, is a sacrificial Lamb who governs the way God’s will is manifest in history. It is this Christology which influences the rest of this highly Christocentric and theological vision of creation.

Adapted from an essay submitted for supervision in New Testament Christologies (C3) as part of my Third Year Theology Tripos
at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.