Thursday, October 28, 2004

The Passion of the Christ, 3:
Gospel Truth?
GEM 04:10:23

AS we continue to look at The Passion of the Christ, it is clear that we must address several burning questions, first of all: is Jesus just a fairy tale? For instance, a 1998 survey, of Britons of ages 18 to 24 years, revealed an astonishing gap in what many of us think we know about Christ: for, half of the people surveyed have been led to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was not a real historical person!

But, in fact, this sad statistic simply reveals the impact of persistent attempts by many opinion leaders, media houses and educators to reduce our Lord to little more than a Santa Claus figure. Worse, the statistic also reflect badly on the competence of those who lead and staff these key social institutions. For, if those who have just completed sixth form, or even a first degree in today’s TV-saturated, Internet-age UK have been largely deceived about the following easily established historical facts about Jesus, just what else is being twisted, manipulated, suppressed or even censored?

“Easily established historical facts . . . ?” Indeed:

? First and foremost, Jesus is the subject of no less than four biographies written by his contemporaries well within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses: the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. By 95 – 110 AD, these biographies were being cited by knowledgeable people, such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, and Ignatius. And, while these biographies, strictly speaking, are anonymous, it is equally clear that there is a 100% consensus of the early church’s leaders that they were in fact written by: Matthew, Mark (summarizing Peter’s testimony), Luke (long since shown to be a habitually accurate historian), and John – who was known by Polycarp and Ignatius.
? Second, the greatest Roman historian of the era, Cornelius Tacitus, in his Annals, sums up how the infamous Nero tried to divert suspicion that he had set the AD 64 fire in Rome: “he . . . inflicted the most cruel tortures upon a group of people detested for their abominations, and popularly known as ‘Christians.’ Their name came from one Christus, who was put to death in the principate of Tiberius by the Procurator Pontius Pilate. Though checked for a time, the destructive superstition broke out again, not in Judaea only . . . but even in Rome.” Gaius Suetonius, in remarking on Nero, affirms that “Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a body of people addicted to a novel and mischievous superstition.”
? And, just what was the nature of such ‘mischievous’ ‘abominations’? Pliny, Governor of Bithynia, wrote to the Emperor Trajan in 110 AD, concerning his trials and tortures to extract confessions from Christians: “. . . they all declared that the sum of their guilt or error amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn . . . to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. After the conclusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food; but it was ordinary and harmless food [i.e. the Eucharist of bread and wine, not cannibalism! And certainly not to indulge in incestuous orgies -- an equally vicious and just as widely believed rumour. (Thousands of Christians died unjustly because of these vicious, widely believed lies.)] . . .”
? Similarly, Josephus, the C1 Jewish historian, also refers to Jesus in two passages, the shorter indicating that “the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ – James by name [i.e. leader of the Jerusalem church in 62 AD] – and some others” were put to death by the Sanhedrin in the gap between Festus’ Governorship and that of his successor. The longer but somewhat disputed passage at minimum affirms that Jesus was reputed to be a wonder-worker and was crucified under Pilate.

For any other figure, that would be more than enough to secure his place as a real person in history. But, Jesus’ life story cuts across the dominant anti-God superstitions of our age: for as Peter said in Acts 10, he was a miracle-working Messiah anointed by God to destroy the works of the Devil. Worse, the official (and, sadly, martyr’s blood-sealed) testimony of the church – traceable to ~ 35 AD – is: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” [1 Cor 15:3 – 6.] And, for 2,000 years now, that testimony has been backed up by the continued life-transforming, miracle-working power of the gospel in millions of lives, including the members of this panel. So, sadly, the truth is being trimmed – that is, censored -- to fit what many in our age want to believe.

But, that is not all that we should consider. For, if the educational and media leaders of our own age are so frightened of or hostile to the above cited records and testimony that they have suppressed the facts and have then boldly lied or subtly implied that Jesus was simply a legendary figure, is that not a stunning indictment? Moreover, if this has demonstrably happened on an issue so supremely and eternally important, about what else are the educational authorities and media elites distorting the truth? Clearly, these are troubling issues that we should soberly discuss. So now, let’s talk . . . AMEN

Thursday, October 07, 2004

The Passion of the Christ, 2:
How the Gospel can help us Re-build Montserrat as a Wholesome Community
GEM 04:10:02

C urrently, Let’s Talk is collaborating with Bro Ed Gough and church leaders across our community to promote a festival of Gospel Films, most notably The Passion of the Christ, but also The Hope and The Jesus Film – this last being the most widely seen film in history, now celebrating its 25th Anniversary. However, some wonder: isn’t that religious emphasis a distraction from the main theme of Let’s Talk, i.e. the Montserrat Sustainable Redevelopment Vision?

Last week, we gave a direct answer: The Passion is in part a cautionary tale about how toxic politics opens the doorway to horrible injustice – and as such it will always be relevant as long as the sad saying: “power tends to corrupt” remains true. But, a broader answer is also required, as it now seems strange, offensive or even crazy to many people that traditional Bible-believing “religion” can be seen as a positive force for liberation and development. For, many have been so influenced by (1) secularist thinking and (2) the bad examples of some believers, that Christians too often seem to be simply hypocritical bigots who want to terrorise the wider community by imposing their “outdated prejudices.”

If this were so, we should change our Vision Statement; replacing it with one that rejects the idea of rebuilding Montserrat as a GOD FEARING society. In turn, we would follow the many in the North who enshrine “separation of church and state,” in the modern sense — aptly called “the Atheist’s veto”: keeping God, religiously based moral influences and godliness out of community life, public discussion of issues, and policy-making. But, in fact, truly effective community moral codes have always been religiously rooted. So, now, let us consider a few material (but easily overlooked) facts:

1. While -- sadly – there have been many over the centuries who twisted the Gospel and so have horribly abused the Christian faith to support oppression, it is equally true that ever since the Bible was first put in the hands of the common man 500 years ago, Bible-inspired people have been in the forefront of liberation and true enlightenment. For, many Christians have been leaders (and even, sometimes, martyrs) in the struggles for: freedom of conscience, democratic self-government, the ending of the slave trade and slavery, child labour reform, the rights of the worker, the emancipation of women [e.g. Charles G Finney], ending racism [e.g. Martin Luther King], and more.

2. This is because the first step to positive transformation is repentance. In Paul’s words: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you WERE. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” [1 Cor. 6:9 – 11.]

3. Such personal transformation then flows out to the wider community, for, as Paul adds: “the commandments are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbour. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” [Rom 13:9 – 10, cf. Matt 7:12 & Lev. 19:15 – 18.] In short, true love has a moral cutting edge: Godly agape-love is that heart-felt force which values and so helps (rather than harms) its neighbours.

4. Nor can we brush these points aside with sarcastic rhetoric about “silly quotations from a backward, dubious, pre-scientific book.” For, it has long been a well-established (but often overlooked) fact of life that the movements that most consistently help people escape self- and socially- destructive, sinful lifestyles are based on the commitment to God and to the love-based godliness that the Gospel calls for. Often, nothing else works.

5. For instance, this Sunday on ZJB, we heard the 2,801st Unshackled radio testimony programme: a show that, for many years, has told how the Gospel changes families and communities one life at a time; just as we may read month by month in the most widely circulated regional magazine: Caribbean Challenge. The Salvation Army has been a global success story, based on this same Gospel principle. The world-renowned Teen Challenge ministry breaks drug addiction through Christian discipleship. Scouting is rooted in godliness and morality. The thousands-strong Exodus ex-homosexual movement (which the so-called mainstream media seem determined to shut out of public discussion!) is based on moral change through commitment to God. Even the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step addiction recovery programme is based on acknowledging “a Higher Power,” AKA God. So strong is this pattern that the United States Government has recently had to reverse its secularism-driven policy and re-fund “faith-based initiatives.”

But, of course, it is never good enough to point out that the Gospel is merely helpful: the key issue is whether it is true – and for that, we have five hundred eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, and the Gospel’s continued, miracle-working, life-transforming power right down to today. Thus, we can easily see that the Gospel message (of which the passion story is the core) is solidly established, sound, effective, powerfully transforming truth. So, while we should -- and do in fact! -- respect the fact that people who disagree with the Gospel have rights to freedom of thought, expression and conscience; wisdom is to re-build and develop our community on sound, life- and community- transforming truth: in one word, the Gospel. For, “[e]xcept the LORD builds the house, its workmen labour in vain . . .” [Ps. 127:1a.] So, now, let’s talk . . . AMEN

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Passion of the Christ: Pride vs. Penitence
GEM 04:09:24

Just before we went on air last Wenesday, Sept. 22nd, Let’s Talk’s hosts previewed Mel Gibson’s powerful and painful, but controversial record-setting blockbuster movie, The Passion of the Christ.

For me, three easily overlooked moments capture much of the essence of the movie: (1) a fellow prisoner calling Jesus a fool for prayerfully embracing his cross in humble submission to the Father; (2) the sadly comical picture of a heavily made up, half-mad Herod having his long-haired wig put on just before he goes out to examine and dismiss Jesus as an idiot; (3) Mel Gibson, blue eyes shining into the camera, acting as one of the Roman soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross:

I. The paradox of atonement: As the Apostle Paul long ago warned, “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” [1 Cor 1:18.] In our day, many want to believe that sin is a minor -- or even a mythical -- problem, so (a) they refuse to recognise the justice of God’s holy wrath against sin, and (b) find it hard to accept that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in [the crucified and risen] Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Rom 6:23.] But in fact, through the cross God shows himself both “just and the one who justifies the man who has faith in Jesus” [Rom 3:26]; for, in Christ God himself [Col 1:15 – 20, Phil 2:5 – 11 (cf. Isa 45:18 – 23!) & Heb 1:1 – 4] bears the eternal penalty for our sins, so that those who look in repentance and trust to that cross may there find grace: mercy, cleansing, and reconciliation with our heavenly Father (i.e. eternal life, cf. Jn 17:3). Then, in triumphant proof of this strangest of all spiritual truths, Christ Jesus “through the Spirit was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead.” [Rom 1:4, cf. 1 Cor 15:1 – 11; also see Jn 5:16 – 30 (esp. 16 – 24) & 8:42 – 59 on just what “Son of God” means.]

II. The sad pretence of power: The picture of ruthless and cowardly rulers putting up a false front to impress others while failing to be concerned with truth and justice, joined by howling mobs madly barking for Jesus’ blood, and leading to the callous brutality of the soldiers who gleefully carried out the unjust order to put an innocent man to a horrible death is one of the saddest parts of the passion week story. For, it lays bare the shabbiness of political scheming, exposes how easily mob-rage overwhelms justice, and shows how we too often shrug our shoulders and “just do our job” – thus making, supporting and carrying out unrighteous decrees. So powerful is this point, that some have said that the film is an attack on Jews, but in fact it is just plain too big for that; instead it is the shabby hypocritical injustice and cowardice of all of humanity that are on all too public display. (Indeed, if we were to sit down together as a Caribbean family and carefully reflect through the eyes of this film on just where our own fast-spreading hypocritical corruption, greed, slanders, prejudice and injustice are heading, it would be an important step toward God-blessed repentance and community reformation.)

III. The power of penitence: Gibson’s appearance as a Roman soldier at the cross is a direct echo of Rembrandt’s famous painting in which that great Dutch painter appears, blue beret and all, as one of the execution squad. Thus, for the whole world to see, Mel is confessing that he too, by his own sins, has helped nail Jesus on the cross. But, in fact, no clenched-over nails ever had the power to hold him there; it was love for us and submission to the Father’s will that we be redeemed by the blood of the spotless Lamb of God that kept him on that cross, in the teeth of the mocking taunt: if you are the Christ, come down. And so, we read:

“. . . Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [Jn 3:14 – 17.]

In the end, then, the Passion of the Christ is a love story: that of the God who reaches out to undeserving, ungrateful, rebellious wretches who ever so often gleefully resort to injustice and hypocrisy if there is an advantage in it. In short: US. Just one question therefore remains: how will we respond to that ever so painfully given love?

So, now, lets talk . . .