A Reading Life (pt 7): Reading the Life of Christ


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Just in time for Christ the King Sunday.

By Joe LaGuardia

A Reading Life is a blog series focused on the literature that has shaped my life and call to ministry. Find the introduction here.  This, the seventh article, was published on Christ the King Sunday, November 2018.

When my wife and I got married, we thought we knew each other well. We loved each other, but we really did not know how much we did not know at the time. At our wedding altar, our officiating minister said, “Joe, love Kristina as God’s tailor-made wife for you; and remember that it will take you a life-time to get to know her intimately.” Now, 20 years later, I see exactly what he means!

I feel the same way about Jesus. When I was baptized in high school, I thought I knew him. I gained comfort from his love and forgiveness, acquired a love for the church and the Bible, and had several spiritual experiences that moved me deeply; but, even then, I did not know him well.

It was not until I got to college that I studied Jesus the man and got to know him for who he was and who he continues to be.  Since then, a large portion of my “reading life” has been invested in studying this man whom I betrothed when I walked the aisle of the First Baptist Church of Perrine so many years ago.

Jesus’ name comes from the Hebrew Yeshua, which means, “he will save.” The root for this word is yasha, which means “to redeem” and “to release.” It hints at liberation–a savior who does not enslave, but releases people to be who God called them to be by opening new doors and opportunities to live in a new way. This is how I felt when I went to college. Jesus was opening my eyes to see him in a new way!

Part of my new-found passion came from a calling to go deeper in my faith, but it also came from studying under religion professors who loved the Bible as much as I.

The professor who influenced me most was New Testament dynamo Daniel Goodman. Anyone who attended Palm Beach Atlantic University School of Ministry in the 1990s will tell you that Dr. Goodman was a big part of their lives. He was enthusiastic, erudite, humorous, relatable, and entertaining. His chalkboard-filled lectures and soaring grammatical feats were things to behold.

When I entered Dr. Goodman’s class, I met Jesus as if for the first time. It was there that I learned about this historical figure who walked the earth, lived in a particular context and culture, and shapes the church and its liturgy today. Goodman’s enthusiasm and quest for Jesus (he was a Q scholar) were contagious, and it was hard not to walk with a pep in your step upon leaving class.

The first book he assigned us was The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders. Sanders, a Jesus scholar out of Duke University who takes a modest view of the Gospels, was a good introduction. His book opened a new world to me. I walked with Jesus and his disciples in the first century; went to temple to study and pray with him; and I confronted my own journey to Calvary, wondering whether I had what it took to “pick up your cross and follow me.”

My admiration of Jesus studies only grew from there. I read anything I could get my hands on related to Jesus and first-century Palestine, from J. D. Crossan and N. T. Wright, to Richard Horsley and Luke T. Johnson. My appetite was insatiable, and my passion deepened all the more when Kristina and I traveled to Israel in 2000. I was reading Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus at the time, and what better book to read while traveling the Holy Land and walking in the footsteps of my Lord?

Part of the problem of religious studies is that sometimes the head gets away from the heart, and my love for the Bible grew into an acute cynicism. Why did it take attending college to learn the basics of the faith I thought I knew so well? I remember going back to my home church one summer and grilling the pastor: “Why aren’t you teaching us this stuff? Why am I learning it for the first time?”

I later learned that my anger is natural, a part of the learning process in which faith moves from orientation, to disorientation, and to re-orientation (per Walter Brueggemann). That movement, at least from orientation to disorientation, leads to grief and uncertainty. It heightens fear and anger and stretches critical thinking to a near breaking-point. My many “whys?” to my pastor hinted at this stage of my spiritual pilgrimage.

I can’t remember the answer my pastor provided, by the way.  But now — being a full-time pastor myself — I can see why it is difficult to teach those deeper truths that an academic passion seems to unveil. And when I do preach a new or deeper truth that is unfamiliar to most congregations, especially truths that defy the cookie-cutter, Sunday school answers, people approach me with skepticism, as if learning something new is not biblical. I can’t tell you how many times someone said, “I never heard that before,” and meant it as a negative statement rather than a positive opportunity to grow as a disciple of Christ.

At the same time, I have learned that every sermon should have something new to share–not just a spiritual insight or application, such as “Five ways to improve your marriage,” but rather something new about the world of the Bible–even if its an insight into the meaning of a Greek or Hebrew word. Several weeks ago I went to a Bible study for pastors and I did not hear anything new. We are pastors–you have to step up your game if you’re going to teach pastors! Anything less than that is just lazy pontificating.

In college, when I was learning something with every paragraph I read, it was overwhelming. I was confronting a culture in which my Savior lived and moved about and died; and the culture shock still rattles me to this day. If you claim to love Jesus, don’t just know a few things about him–know him and read about his life. Get to know what he values. Take him at his word, and venture beyond the shallows, into the deep end with him!

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Do you have an Easter, Christian Worldview?

By Joe LaGuardia

Over the last four weeks I have had the honor of being adjunct professor for a Thursday night class at Palm Beach Atlantic University.  The class, an eight-week required course for graduating seniors, asks students to think through how their education synchronizes with the rest of their life and projected fields of service.

It is a class about worldviews–and encouraging students to articulate, further define, or develop a Christian worldview that sees not as the world sees, but as Jesus sees.  It is a lens through which we interpret the world and our place in it whereby the Bible is true, God is real, and an ethic of God’s activity on earth determines the boundaries of our thoughts, behaviors, and actions.

You will be surprised to know how few Christians reflect on how they see their world and whether they see it as Christ sees.  Much of this depends on our values growing up, but it is also shaped and formed by our experiences of church, Bible study, and public engagement.

Here are a few thoughts I have pushed in my class:
†  Our worldview and our view of who we are in the world largely rests on our view of who God is and how we believe God relates to us.  For instance, if you believe that God is mean and judgmental, you will likely see the world as a hostile place only worthy of wrath and doom.  But if you see God as ever-loving and intimate Creator, than there is something to be said about the world that is worth saving.  If God gave Jesus to die on the cross for the whole world, then it is worth the Gospel message indeed.

How we treat others–from strangers to enemies–rests on how we see them as either beloved or alienated by God.  If you have a worldview that takes Genesis seriously, then it is logical to posit that all people–to the most depraved to the saints among us–are made in God’s image.  God knows each person well; and, because of that, each person has the potential to experience the saving love of Christ and find redemption at the foot of the cross.  But if we are too busy judging people or ignoring them or killing them, how will they ever have a chance to hear the Gospel or experience Christ’s love through us?

Our debates, whether theological or political or whatever, depends on where we stand and how we see the world.  If we grew up on the island of Guam, for instance, we may believe that there is a scarcity of land and an abundance of water in the world; whereas if we grew up in, say, the Gobi desert, we may believe the opposite.  Bring these two citizens together and two worlds collide: How will we shape public policy when we believe that two divergent resources are scarce?  Our debates must consider our worldviews.

We have assumptions and presuppositions that have never been tested and, in many cases, never scrutinized by the lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture.  A large portion of my time in class is helping students figure out why they believe, talk, and act as they do.  One of their assignments is to present a 15-minute conversation on an ethical conundrum with which they struggle.  A majority of time is not spent on ethics, but their assumptions that have shaped their ethics on the subject.  We deal with what philosophers call “first-order beliefs,” which ultimately determine our actions (second-order and third-order beliefs).  It is amazing how little we think critically about our own convictions!

As we come upon the empty tomb of Easter and re-affirm our confession that the Lord is risen indeed, it might be worthwhile asking the hard question of how our Easter faith informs our life.  Is our faith so private that it has no bearing on our public life–can people even tell that we are Christians by our behaviors, words and deeds?

Is our faith so individualized, that it has become irrelevant in shaping both Christian community and our public witness in secular society?

These questions are important–we wrestle with them every Sunday, and its part of the work of the church.  But let us not avoid them just because they may frighten us.  Remember, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

The violence of Pentecost and the peace of the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Its not everyday that I get to try a new hermenuetic on for size.  Hermenuetics is the study of interpretation.  Like scientists who can switch out microscope lenses to vary magnifications, we Bible geeks can swap out various interpretative lenses in order to read scripture differently.

I stumbled upon a review by Tony Jones of Adrian Goldsworthy’s Pax Romana that offers a new lens.  Goldsworthy claims that we westerners have understood Roman culture and politics through the eyes of the New Testament for far too long.  The review recommends switching the lens, to read the New Testament through the larger worldview of citizens of ancient Rome instead.

Goldsworthy argues that Palestine was quite insignificant to the Roman Empire.  It was too small to call a “true province,” too poor to justify a Roman legion to police the area, and too unwieldy to pay too much attention to policies that affected the area.  Palestine was, in fact, too hostile and violent to create anything other than a modest military presence that quelled protests every now and then.  Jones notes,

“The internal strife in Judaea was among the worst in the empire: Jews hated Samari­tans, Samaritans hated Jews, and they both hated gentiles. Constant civil conflict in the territory vexed the governing Romans.”

In other words, Romans had prejudices against Palestine and its people.  This may be helpful in reading the Bible in general and the Book of Acts in particular.

According to tradition, Luke authored both the gospel and the book of Acts as a two-part work to a mysterious benefactor named Theophilus (although some scholars argue that Theophilus is a community rather than an individual; I beg to differ), who was likely a gentile–Roman, in fact!–who stood on the verge of making a decision about either hosting a Christian church or funding church starts in his community.

The fact that Luke’s Gospel includes more teachings on money, resources, and hospitality than any of the other three gospels combined points to this rhetorical thrust in Luke’s motivation.

Yet, if Theophilus was indeed the gentile that we all assume he was, then it is also safe to assume that his outlook on Palestine, and the Jews that made up this early Christ movement, included the very  same prejudices Rome espoused.  There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

There is little reason not to think that Theophilus, like others in his time, saw Palestine as a place of hostility, conflict, and discrimination.

The first two chapters of Acts affirms this reading of Palestine in several ways.  In the first chapter, for instance, the disciples are still set on having Jesus–now risen from the dead–to recruit an army and usher in the kingdom of God.  This is not unique to Jesus’ disciples.  Other Jewish movements sought to inaugurate God’s kingdom, which meant funding and recruiting an army, overthrowing the Roman Empire, and establishing a theocracy once and for all with Jerusalem at the center.

In Acts 1:6, the disciples asked Jesus, “Is now the time that you will restore God’s kingdom?”  It is the “now” and the “restore” that tip us off to the violent intentions of the disciples.   John Polhill quoted R. Pesch when he wrote that Jesus did not reject restoration; rather, Jesus “depoliticizes it,” moving an agenda of restoration out of the purposes of the disciples and into the providence of God.

Let me put it another way: Even if the disciples didn’t have violent intentions, there is good reason for us to assume that Theophilus likely surmised as much.

In God’s economy, Jesus flipped the coin on its head.  Just as Jesus argued in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus here posited that the reign of God is neither bound by region nor vested in the violent protest of an army with sword and spear.  Judas’ failed attempt at trying to force Jesus’ hand was in the past–his replacement in Acts 1 points to the fact that Judas’ own motivations stood firmly on the forefront of the minds of the disciples.

In addition, Luke clearly utilizes the rhetoric of violence, hostility and discrimination to reinforce Jesus’ peaceful and non-violent gospel message in a way that further turns violence on its head in Acts 2.

Acts 2:1, for instance, describes the advent of the Holy Spirit as a “violent” or “mighty” wind.  This is not accidental or a mere poetic word choice; it is a purposeful rhetorical device that calls into question the type of violence that God’s reign enforces.

Second, the Spirit fell on the disciples like a fire.  Fire was a common weapon of war that would have certainly been used to raze villages and incite destruction and intimidation (see Joel 1:19-20; 2:3).  If the symbol was there merely to reflect the life-giving nature of the Spirit, why not use water  (Joel 2:23) or another natural element more fitting for the birth of the church?

Third, the Spirit empowered the disciples to cut across lines that Jewish discrimination would have perpetuated.  The disciples spoke in languages shared not by their families or villages, but by regions that Jews would have perceived as enemies, the Parthains, Medes, Cretans and the like.

Pentecost is an assault on nationalism, racism, sexism, classism–every way in which we separate one another…It is a surge of the Spirit that pushes the church out of the building and into the neighborhood.  –Rev. Dr. Brett Younger, Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

Acts 2 recalls that a crowd gathered as a result of what appeared to be the formation of a violent uprising in an upper room in Jerusalem during a high holy day.  Certainly, Pentecost, like other Jewish holidays that attracted pilgrims, created a hot bed for violent protests.

Peter spoke with brilliance not common among illiterate fisherman in the first century, and he quoted Joel to articulate the kind of movement for which Christ’s church will become known.  It was neither violent or hostile; rather, it was an inclusive message in its embrace, and peaceful in its purpose.

The words of Joel’s poetry reinforces what Jesus preached all along: God’s reign would not be defined by the prejudices, conflicts, and violence for which Palestine was known.  Rather, it would be a reign that disrupted status quo, turned the world upside down (a blood moon!), and broke down gender, generational, and socio-economic, class boundaries.

From Joel’s point of view (see Joel 3:9-10), this is a call to war as a result of God gathering nations for the purpose of executing judgment.  Peter’s rhetoric, combined with Jesus’ vision of salvation and community, declared different terms for peace– a peace brought not by weapons of destruction, but by life-giving proclamation, visions, dreams, and “portents”.

Judgment was on its way, but not before the work of the church was fulfilled.  Pentecost was a “day of the Lord” in which the church was born to reach across all boundaries, to communicate with urgency the coming of another “day of the Lord” in which God and Jesus would administer justice upon the earth.

Luke wrote his gospel and Acts to a Roman audience, an audience that held certain prejudices towards Palestine, the Jews, and, naturally, Christ-followers who made their way out of Jerusalem and Galilee.  It is no wonder that Luke utilized the rhetoric of conflict and violence, not to perpetuate a caricature of a violent Jewish community, but to redefine Christ’s Church and its mandate according to the peace, hope, love, and joy that resulted from being a follower of Christ, a Savior who knew–and knows–no bounds, who longs to save all who are both near and “far away” (Acts 2:39).