bible blog 1342

ASCENSION DAY

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:

IRISH PASTOR SAYS ISLAM IS A DOCTRINE FROM HELL  

Pastor James McConnell

Pastor James McConnell

Hebrews 2:5-18

J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)

5 For though in past ages God did grant authority to angels, yet he did not put the future world of men under their control, and it is this world that we are now talking about.

6-7 But someone has said: ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you take care of him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honour, and set him over the works of your hands. You have put all things in subjection under his feet’.

8 Notice that the writer puts “all things” under the sovereignty of man: he left nothing outside his control. But we do not yet see “all things” under his control.

9-12 What we actually see is Jesus, after being made temporarily inferior to the angels (and so subject to pain and death), in order that he should, in God’s grace, taste death for every man, now crowned with glory and honour. It was right and proper that in bringing many sons to glory, God (from whom and by whom everything exists) should make the leader of their salvation a perfect leader through the fact that he suffered. For the one who makes men holy and the men who are made holy share a common humanity. So that he is not ashamed to call them his brothers, for he says: ‘I will declare your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will sing praise to you’.

13 And again, speaking as a man, he says: ‘I will put my trust in him’. And, one more instance, in these words: ‘Here am I and the children whom God has given me’.

14-18 Since, then, “the children” have a common physical nature as human beings, he also became a human being, so that by going through death as a man he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might also set free those who lived their whole lives a prey to the fear of death. It is plain that for this purpose he did not become an angel; he became a man, in actual fact a descendant of Abraham. It was imperative that he should be made like his brothers in nature, if he were to become a High Priest both compassionate and faithful in the things of God, and at the same time able to make atonement for the sins of the people. For by virtue of his own suffering under temptation he is able to help those who are exposed to temptation.

the humour of the tradional story

the humour of the tradional story

On this day of the year the Christian Church celebrates “The Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ” that is, the teaching that God did not simply raise the crucified Jesus to life but also received him (back) into his own divine life. This doctrine is represented in different ways in different scriptures: Luke in the Book of the Acts makes it into a (rather improbable) story; Mark leaves it as a dark mystery; John refers to it as “the lifting up of Jesus” which is crucifixion, resurrection and acsension all in one. The heart of the doctrine is that Jesus who is himself “of God” carries human nature into the life of the Godhead. We should not confuse the biblical witness with the much later doctrine of the Trinity. From the passage above we can draw out these elements:

1. Jesus, the Son of God, is in origin superior to human beings. He is temporalily inferior to angels, but not, we are to understand, in origin. His precise nature as God’s Son is not discussed her, but assumed.
2. He is made inferior to angels as a flesh and blood human being, subject to pain, weakness, death and temptation. The passage emphasises the real humanity of Jesus.
3. His humanity allows him to be a) the “pioneer” of salvation: only a human being can achieve salvation or victory on behalf of other human beings. The passage notes that the promise of the Psalm that all enemies of humanity will be defeated (“under his feet), has not yet been fulfilled. For example, the power of death still rules over humanity. But in God’s grace, Jesus, the pioneer has suffered death and overcome it, on behalf of all who follow.
4. His humanity also makes it possible for Jesus to be b) humanity’s “high priest”, that is, one who can make a scrifice to God for the sins of the people. Jesus’ offering of his life to the Father is seen as an “atonement”, that is, an action which brings estranged parties together. As our high priest in heaven, Jesus can understand our human weaknesses and temptations.

The language of the passage will seem obscure to many readers, which is not surprising as it comes from a Jewish Christian steeped in the tradition if his people. But it expresses the writer’s faith: he thinks of Jesus as one who has gone ahead of him, as a pioneer, to tackle evil and death on his behalf, and has shown him a way to victory. This way is Jesus’ passonate offering of his life to God-not as a pious gesture but as a risking of his own existence for the sake of God’s goodness. The writer believes that Jesus has “gone through” into God’s life from which he came, but remains human in his understanding of the human frailty.

It’s an inspiring and helpful vision of Jesus.

The great theological crime of Christians (according to the Noble Qur’an) is that it puts “companions” alongside God. This refers to Jesus the Son of God and the Holy Spirit, as in the doctrine of the Trinity. If Christianity was really doing this, it would destroy the unity of the One God and open the way for all sorts of “powers” to be called divine. I think it can’t be denied that from time to time Christian teaching has in fact done so. But the true doctrine of the Ascension does not do so. Jesus is not “somene alongside God” a man ascdended into the Godhead; he is God’s own life made real as a human being. He is not a superman nor a mixture of God and humanity: as a human being he is God; and when he “returns” to God’s heaven he remains human and “opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers.” The criticism of Islam is useful if it challenges Christianity to make this clear.

The Noble Qur'an

The Noble Qur’an

I am writing this is the knowledege that a pastor in Northern Ireland has called Islam “a doctrine from Hell”, and has gained the support of the First Minister, Peter Robinson. It is of course part of traditional Christian teaching that Islam is inspired by the Devil like all non-Christian doctrines. Most branches of the Church although not all, have modified this teaching over the last 100 years.

The great Catholic scholar Hans Kung has in several works characterised Islam as a corrective to the elaborate theologies of the Trinity and the elaborate hierarchies of the Christian clergy. In general I’m happy enough with this sympathetic understanding of Islam. On the other hand, the doctrine that God wants us to identify and kill his enemies, is indeed spawned in hell, whatever religion is its mouthpiece.

But on this day I’m glad that the Christian tradition encourages me to see the face of God in the compassionate humanity of Jesus; and to see in his Ascension an invitation to share here and hereafter in the eternal life of God. I can love God rather than simply submitting to God as Islam invites me to do.

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