Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent is a time of lengthening, stretching ourselves, as we journey toward celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus.
Lately I’ve been thinking about an idea that has stretched me further, lengthened me. And, luckily, it has a roundabout connection to the Resurrection. So I’ll share it with you.
Last night my friend, and pastor, Doug Pagitt, hosted a book release party for his fantastic new book, Flipped:The provocative truth that changes everything we know about God. Doug has been really excited about this new book in particular. Doug is someone who feels strongly about people knowing just how much we are loved, included and accepted by God. And his articulation of ideas in this book seeks to further that great truth. As there has been a lot of anticipation around this book release in my community, I have been reading it this week. (By the way, I’ve forgotten just how enjoyable it is to read a thought-provoking, yet personable, theological page-turner! Buy the book and read it!)
In this book, Doug explores Jesus’ teaching style that sought to “flip” people’s ideas about, and relationship with, God. Doug focuses on a flip of one idea in particular, namely, the paradigm shifting bombs that Jesus and Paul dropped on the the transactional religious systems of their day; the enshrining of the Jewish temple and sacrifice system and the Roman idols and temples – both transactional systems of worship. These systems represented a fundamental belief of most people surrounding Jesus and Paul in their day, namely, that God required a go-between. We, mere mortals, were not worthy of co-mingling with the divine without an elaborate system of go-betweens, rules and sacrifices. To Jesus’ audience, the transactional Temple system was like a necessary “Jacob’s ladder” to heaven. You were here, God was there, and never the twain shall meet.
Yet, amidst this belief system, Jesus and Paul sought to turn society’s views of how and where to relate to God, on their heads. For example, when Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say to you” He is inviting his hearers to flip in their thinking on certain aspects of the Old law, and embrace the New law of living in light of God’s love. He is giving humanity permission – even a challenge – to believe differently and embrace a change in some of their fundamental notions about how we relate to God.
Doug highlights Paul’s challenge to the Athenian Romans to “flip” in their view of the Creator God, recorded in Acts 17. In this story, Paul goes to the altar of an ‘unknown god’ in one of their temples and teaches them that what they worship as unknown, he is going to proclaim to them as the very God of heaven and earth. This God does not live in a temple and does not need any sacrifices, offerings, or anything from us! In fact, Paul goes on to push aside any need for a transactional system at all and say, “God isn’t far away from any of us. IN God WE live, move and exist” (Acts 17:27-28).
Doug cites this borrowed – or rather reclaimed and up-cycled – example of Paul’s (Paul was actually quoting an ancient Roman poet writing about Zeus) as Paul’s way of seeking to explain, eventually by way of the resurrection, that God is “fully accessible to all of humanity without a go-between” (Pagitt, 35). And this got me thinking. If God is all-encompassing, if we are IN Him, then He is not something outside of us that we need to place inside of us. Rather, God, the one who gives life and breathe to all things, is the all-encompassing one IN whom we live. Doug says, Paul went on to play out this idea by suggesting that God does not need nor want anything from humanity, but rather that the fullness of humanity exists in God. He then argued that this idea was shown by God’s raising Jesus from the dead” ( Pagitt, p. 36-37).
Did you catch that connection to the resurrection?
God doesn’t need anything from humanity – and he showed that to us by raising Jesus from the dead. Let’s think on that a minute. Did God need a human intermediary to ask for, pray for, help with or execute His action of raising Jesus from the dead? No. He just did it! And that’s extraordinary for many reasons. God raised Jesus from the dead, when He wanted to, how He wanted to. Note that there were not a band of disciples or women praying ceaselessly that God would do this. There was no one making a trip to the temple to sacrifice to appease God to do this. No one had to lay hands on Jesus (like the half a dozen other resurrections in Scripture) or anoint him with oil or touch him with Elisha’s bones (which, bizarrely enough, raised a dead man in 2 Kings 13:21). He just got up. And God did this on His own because he doesn’t need us to DO anything in order for him to act for us. God is already here, with us and all around us, intricately woven into our story.
The God-with-us part of the story we seem to know, as we hear it all the time. Even so, too many of us still feel far from God far too often. But let’s take it a step further and consider that Jesus knew something even more; and that he knew it unshakeably; that he, as part of humanity, had his being in God. And that because of this, he didn’t have to worry about getting any of his friends to help prop him up or make him come alive. God would demonstrate his power in that He would resurrect him from the dead – alone. God’s got this one covered.
I’ve gleaned many insights from the Resurrection over the years, but this one is new; that God does not need us, yet we exist in God and He holds our very humanity in His very self. That humanity and God are more connected than we might first appear. And, truth be told, then this Good News is even Better News than I had previously thought! (For many of the reasons that Doug fleshes out in his book).
And that is something remarkable for Christians to consider. It’s something we don’t hear often enough; that we cannot “put” God into us, we cannot “let” God in, as if He was outside of us in the first place. We so often hear that it is our job to let God in, to invite God in, and to ask Jesus into our hearts. And, for initial ways to understand God, or for parents looking for nice concrete examples to help children understand what it means to begin a relationship with God, I can see how these explanations have their place. And its not even that they are wrong. It’s not that they are promising too much – its that they’re exposing too little! This explanation leaves out a lot about where God is and where we are in relation to God! God is in us, before us, behind us and all around us – we live and move and have our very beings in God.
Needless to say, in his book, Doug relates this kind of “flip” in our expanding understanding about God afresh to us today. He challenges his readers to move past the transactional faith systems that we still tend to construct for ourselves in Christianity. The point of embracing these flips in thinking and being, of course, are hopes toward getting us to a fuller, bigger and free-er faith. Doug invites the reader into a flip or a paradigm shift and to be open to embracing truths about God that may be new to us.
Diving into Doug’s book this week (I bought a copy and you should too – here) and hearing him read some portions live at his party last night have kept me thinking of other teachings of Jesus that have caused me to flip. Teachings that have flipped worlds for me. It made me ask myself, if I were to write a book called “Flipped” what would my theological flips – or paradigm shifts – be about? Some are pretty interesting – at least to me! I used to think the Scriptures were trying to get me to believe one way about some things. And now, based on further study and being shown a different perspective, I understand those same Scriptures to be teaching something totally different!
Paradigm shifts are a healthy part of a growing understanding of our infinite God. We are made to flip and shift in our understandings, just as we are made to grow and heal. Its part of being a thinking and feeling person. Let us let our contemplation of Jesus’ resurrection this year remind us to be open to the new ways God wants to flip in our understandings of things.
I’ll write more about some of my own shifts and flips in the future. But for now, what are yours?