My church started its Fall Bible study yesterday. We’re going through A Fragile Stone, Peter: Jesus’ Friend.
I’m having a hard time writing today. Maybe it’s because I’m tired after seeing Barack Obama do so poorly in last night’s debate. I myself feel rather listless right now. And, when that is the case, trying to say everything exactly right becomes a challenge. So I’ll grant myself some leeway in this post and just write what comes to my mind, whether or not it makes sense or is completely fair and accurate. It will probably be like Painter Smurf splashing paint on his canvas and calling that art!
I’ve been having positive thoughts about Jesus lately. One reason is that I listened to that Mark Driscoll sermon on Esther a few days ago—-in which Driscoll presents Jesus as a benevolent king—-and I was drawn to that picture of Jesus. Then, last night at Bible study, I was thumbing through our course book, and there was a part of it in which Michael Card (who is the author, sort of) is said to have stated on the DVD that he feels more drawn to worship Jesus when he reads that Jesus served his disciples breakfast, than he’d feel if Jesus were surrounded by a host of angels. That’s pretty powerful, isn’t it? Jesus the servant. It’s an elementary concept, but one that I’m happy to be reminded of as I go through this Bible study.
It’s tempting to embrace some form of emotional evangelicalism—-one that accepts without ambiguity that Jesus was the Messiah and that the Hebrew Bible points to him, one that views the Bible as without error, one that seeks to harmonize biblical contradictions, etc. As I was thinking about this last night, my mind wandered to how evangelical preachers I heard tried to explain the difference between a guilt offering and a sin offering in the Book of Leviticus. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I remembered that, when I first heard their explanation, it sounded to me like a stretch—-that it wasn’t based on anything explicit in the text itself. I wondered if embracing an emotional evangelicalism would essentially require me to check my brain at the door—-to disregard that the writings of the Hebrew Bible are diverse and reflect their historical contexts, in many cases overlapping with ancient Near Eastern culture. But then I thought about the importance of sticking with the text. I don’t have to try to reconcile the text with some faith conviction about it. I should just let the text be the text. But that is emotionally drier than inhabiting the world of emotional evangelicalism.
But then here’s where things get tricky. The text often is not explicit. We were sensitized to that last night at Bible study. The curriculum was asking us how we thought Peter felt when such-and-such happened. The fact is, however, that we’re not told how Peter felt. I’d say it’s fun to speculate, but one lady in the group seemed to think that it was idle to speculate about what we’re not told explicitly.
But, in many cases, we almost have to speculate to get anywhere with the text, or to do anything with it. For example, after Jesus in Luke 5 performed a miracle in which Peter caught a whole bunch of fish, Peter asked Jesus to depart from him, for Peter was a sinful man. Why? We’re not told explicitly. And so we went through different possibilities. Michael Card’s explanation was rather elliptical: he said that Peter was afraid of unlimited success, and so Jesus responded to that concern by telling Peter that Peter would be a fisher of men. Say what? Was Card suggesting that Peter feared that success would corrupt him—-perhaps make him proud—-and so Jesus was proposing service as a solution to that? I’m not sure. Someone in the group made the suggestion that Peter was afraid of having access to that much power, for Peter feared that he would misuse it. And the curriculum also suggested that Peter felt grossly inadequate in the face of the divine—-and I’d say that this does not necessarily mean that Peter at that moment regarded Jesus as God, but Peter could have recognized that Jesus was part of the work of God, and Peter was in the presence of that when Jesus did the miracle. I thought that the group’s speculation over this question was rather fruitful. It’s good to have ambiguity, because that makes discussions possible. But it was speculation. And yet, I’d say that there are some speculations that are better than others. For example, saying that Peter felt inadequate in the face of the divine makes sense, for there are plenty of times in the Hebrew Bible in which people feel inadequate before the divine. Luke could be drawing from that motif.
Here’s an area in which my warm feelings about Jesus conflicted with my scholarly reading of the text: We were asked in the curriculum if we were willing to die to self and take up our cross and follow Jesus. I checked that passage, and it was talking about martyrdom, then there followed the passage in which Jesus told his disciples that some standing there wouldn’t taste death until they saw the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. First of all, I wondered how that text could even be applicable to us, since we’re not in danger of martyrdom—-at least not where we are sitting (and I’m talking about those of us in that group, and probably most Christians in the United States). But I did not ask that question out loud. Second, I was reminded of the whole problem of imminent eschatology—-Jesus appears to predict that the end was near, but the problem with that is that it’s two thousand years later, and world paradise still has not come. And third, I was reminded that, yes, there is the nice, warm Jesus in the Gospels, and yet there’s also the fierce apocalyptic Jesus, who somewhat scares me. Can I get over my aversions to Jesus in the synoptic Gospels?
In any case, this will probably be a thought-provoking study. We’ll see how it turns out!