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malcolm chamberlain

musings about the emerging church, mission and contemporary culture...

God is at large, intimately involved in his world in ways that the church is maybe just waking up to!


Friday, June 29, 2007

During a recent discussion I was involved in, where we were debating the metaphor of journey to represent the Christian life, a friend referred to Luke's account of the penitent criminal dying on the cross next to Jesus (passage below) and argued that this demonstrated the need for a definite point of conversion. The criminal, his argument went, at that point of near-death, recognised who Jesus was and his own need of forgiveness, so he repented and turned to Jesus in faith. As a result, he was promised salvation.

At the time, I wasn't wholly comfortable with this argument but couldn't put my finger on why, so I came away and looked at the passage again. As I did, I realised that Luke said no such thing! What my friend was guilty of (if that's not too strong a way of putting it) was I guess what we all have a tendency to do (certainly Derrida thinks so!), and that's read texts through our own interpretive frameworks. If 'conversion' is a central concept for you then it's easy to see the criminal's words as reflecting a conversion of sorts which 'earned' him a place in paradise.

My problem with this interpretive framework is that it may reduce what really was going on, leading us to see the criminal as the true hero of the story who's own initiative led to the happy ending (granted, you could argue that this 'conversion' was itself a result of the Spirit's activity, but that could simply be another layer of interpretation applied to back up the point!). When I read the text in question, I see an example of pure unadulterated grace on the part of Jesus! The criminal had recognised that he deserved the punishment he was getting - he had committed a capital crime and this was justice (at least in the eyes of first century Roman law), whereas the man hanging between him and his partner in crime was nothing more that a political victim - a 'prisoner of conscience' to use terms that we are familiar with. His challenge to 'fear God' was to do with the outworking of justice and injustice.

But what about his words to Jesus? True, they could have reflected a deep theological understanding of Jesus as Messiah, even of Jesus' divinity, but I doubt it! My guess is that he saw in Jesus something different and, aware of the sign that hung above Jesus' head, simply wanted to show an empathy for this innocent man. The truth is... we don't know! Luke doesn't tell us what was going on in the criminal's mind (presumably, because Luke didn't actually know!). What we do know is that Jesus, in perfect keeping with his ministry of eating and drinking with sinners and outcasts, extends pure grace to the criminal next to him and promises him heaven.

Why am I bothering to argue such a seemingly trivial point? Because I don't think it is trivial... Jesus consistently resisted the theological boxes of his day that tried to explain away his actions whilst holding them in the structures of power that had been created by the religious establishment. Are we guilty of doing the same? Was my friend unwittingly reducing an amazing, even reckless, act of grace on the part of Jesus to simply the outcome of a spiritual transaction that was taking place on those crosses? Do we need to have an answer as to why Jesus 'saved' this criminal or can't we just rejoice that he did and gladly hold on to the hope that this gives us all?

There was a written notice above [Jesus], which read: "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS". One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."

Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[a]" Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
(Luke 23:38-43 (NIV))

[a] Some manuscripts read 'come with your kingly power'

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posted by Malcolm Chamberlain, 9:04 AM


I think everything you have written here is spot on, Malcolm!

In the end this suggests we are all on the Cross, and all reached by grace.

If that's universalism, it's universalism that hurts as well as heals!

But at least it heals!

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 3:04 PM  

Interesting post ... some unconnected ramblings in response.

1. Maybe the other person was wrong to argue from the particular to the general - just because the thief appeared to have a conversion experience (historical-descriptive) doesn't necessarily mean we should all have one (theological-normative if I remember my Trinity lectures!). But it would be equally wrong to dismiss the possibility that this was a conversion experience.

2. The thief does say "remember me when you come into your kingdom" - it seems reasonable to assume this was prompted by a spiritual insight about who Jesus was. After all, if we sum up the message of the 4 Gospels in a phrase, for me it would be simply "Who is Jesus?" and Luke is adding another layer to his answer through the words of the thief.

3. Furthermore, it seems reasonable that he "saw" jesus because the true identity of his fellow convict was none other than the King, which, as you rightly said, was an act of grace that preceded the thief's confession. I think Calvin called this "prevenient" grace or something.

4. He probably didn't need a deep theological understanding that this was the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy, but rather a much simpler insight - "there's something about this guy that makes me want to be involved with him in these dying minutes, and maybe beyond" kind of thing.

5. We can't use this passage to argue against theological boxes that the church imposed on the Christian faith after Jesus time ...

But in the end I'd agree completely - it's pure grace leading to grateful response, which is what any genuine conversion, be it momentary or gradual, is really about.

I don't know about you, but I'm still being converted long after I first met Jesus, and there are some bits of me that look distinctly unconverted right now, but I can sense myself being irresistibly drawn by some loving merciful Presence to let them come to light - maybe this is a bit like what the thief experienced, and it's what I want to build a Christian community on, if I ever end up leading one.


commented by Anonymous Richard L, 1:22 PM  

Steve and Richard - thanks for your comments!

Steve, universalism is an interesting side debate to all this. On one level I'm attracted towards universalism but on another I'm repulsed by it! I'm not sure I want to share heaven with an unrepentant Hitler for example, but I guess that reflects my own humanity and lack of understanding regarding the grace of God. Your words "universalism that hurts as well as heals!" are very powerful.

Richard, what you've written is really helpful here too! Regarding your point 5... of course, you're absolutely right, but the point of this post was to argue that neither can this passage be used to support the theological boxes either. I used the story to illustrate how easily we impose our interpretive framework onto passages and read stuff that simply isn't there (and by 'we' I include myself here). I much prefer to see the encounter between Jesus and the criminal on the cross as an unexplained grace moment which doesn't fit the neat theological boxes we've constructed, though admittedly this cannot be a watertight argument because Luke does not tell us what was going on in the heart and mind of the criminal!

Your final paragraph really resonates with me! I was a member of a CU panel discussion a few months ago at the university and was asked the predictable question "can you tell us when and how you became a Christian". My response was, "In many ways I'm still becoming one!" I knew at the time that this would not be a universally popular answer (!) so I did qualify it with the kind of explanation you outline. I think it's more in keeping with the journey metaphor and doesn't fit neatly into the traditional evangelical box, but it's a concept that I find more in the teaching of Jesus than the 'now you're not, now you are' insiders and outsiders one.

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 12:09 PM  

I guess the crossover point between universalism and churchless faith is just that - how do you handle the cross?

I find Luke's passage to be a very powerful challenge to any version of Christianity which says that the right ecclesiatical boxes have to be ticked before one is reached by grace. Though Richard's fifth point is very pertinent. It occurs to me that Luke's reason for including the account might be to say "See, our theology even reaches men and women who others count to be out of reach" - like the retrospective baptising of dead ancestors; which is somehow subtly different from saying, "Men and women who are out of reach of our theology have something to say to us".

Our skin crawls at the thought of sharing heaven with an unrepentant Hitler. I think what I am saying is that my universalism includes the faith that everyone comes to repentence. Not as a mark of the weakness of God, but as a sign of the power behind the sheer extent to which his redeeming act reaches.

That forgiveness is freely given is the grace of God, but that we share the marks of our transgressions with him, to the extent that we are able, is also a part of that grace - and a gift to us.

By this interpretation, if Hitler is not able to bear the weight of his violence, God will bear it for him. If he is able to bear it, then he has something to say about the grace of God which, thank God, none of us ever need learn the hard way again. But this all follows his repentence, which is called out of him by the compassion of God, and not by our own theologies. We buy into these theologies, however appealing they may seem, at our own cost.

Do you see what I mean? The danger of our calling in this day and age is that we must identify with the racists, paedophiles, terrorists and other current bogeymen, against the prevailing wisdom - though, by the grace of God, only to the extent that we can bear.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 1:03 PM  


is this how you would read Paul when he quotes the ancient hymn in Philippians 2, stating that, "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord..." (Phil 2:10-11), and when he tells the Romans, "just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all people, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all people." (Rom 5:18)? If so, would you read Paul as a universalist?

I'm intrigued, even warm to the idea, but not yet convinced!!!

commented by Blogger Malcolm Chamberlain, 10:11 AM  

Hi Malcolm,

Phil 2:10-11 and Rom. 5:18 - yes, I think I do interpret them this way. It makes space for three things vital to the gospel: the limitless love of God, the acknowledgement of free will and pain, and the success, despite appearances to the contrary, of Jesus' mission.

With a note of wariness, because any interpretation I make is going to be provisional!

But for anyone interpreting them another way there are at least three questions to answer:

First, why in the scriptures use the words "every" and "all" if you don't mean "every" and "all"? The response may be something like "God may be holding out these things to everyone, but not everyone is receiving them", but that is problematic: a)it is not what the verses quoted actually say, and b)if Christians want more than what the verses offer, what could that possibly be? What is worth more than "justification that brings life for all people" (and why isn't it greedy to ask for more than this)?

Second, what do you suppose counts as a successful mission for Jesus the physician? Not judge, physician (thinking of the doctors I know). Would Jesus really be satisfied with a forced confession of his Lordship? Is that really what he demonstrated or fought for by going to the cross?

Third, this interpretation costs the church as much as it costs Jesus: why should Christians expect a less risk-filled journey than the one they are called to embody? If offered the choice between drawing everyone into Heaven, with the possible cost to you of your provisional interpretation of scripture, or drawing only some there, with the satisfaction of knowing that you were in the company of people who behaved according to societal norms, which, really, would you choose? Where does the adventure and self-sacrifice lie? WWJD? ;)

This is why I believe it is the mission of the church to die for the world around it - deconstruct itself without counting the cost, continually. It's why I remain outside the institution, and believe more Christians, not less, are called to join people like me. That old salt metaphor - if the salt in the dough remains clumped together, well, we just haven't kneaded it enough.

commented by Blogger Steve Lancaster, 11:23 AM  

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