types of behaviour out there, and the gospel message of Jesus, through which God’s glory is truly revealed (verse 11), is just as much opposed to them as the Jewish law is. But don’t imagine that by teaching the Jewish law you will do more than put up some more signposts warning people about these dangers. What’s far more important is to explore the gospel itself, the message which was entrusted to Paul and the other apostles. When the law was given in the first place, God also revealed his glory to Moses (Exodus 32–34), despite the fact that the people had already broken the law. Here, as in 2 Corinthians 3 and 4, Paul declares that, however good the law is, it is the gospel, not the law, which reveals God’s glory.
Despite a thousand Easter hymns and a million Easter sermons, the resurrection narratives in the gospels never, ever say anything like, “Jesus is raised, therefore there is a life after death,” let alone, “Jesus is raised, therefore we shall go to heaven when we die.” Nor even, in a more authentic first-century Christian way, do they say, “Jesus is raised, therefore we shall be raised from the dead after the sleep of death.” No. Insofar as the event is interpreted, Easter has a very this-worldly, present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, and therefore he is the world’s true Lord; Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun—and we, his followers, have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his lordship to the entire world, making his kingdom come on earth as in heaven! To be sure, as early as Paul the resurrection of Jesus is firmly linked to the final resurrection of all God’s people.
The power of the gospel lies not in the offer of a new spirituality or religious experience, not in the threat of hellfire (certainly not in the threat of being “left behind”), which can be removed if only the hearer checks this box, says this prayer, raises a hand, or whatever, but in the powerful announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun. This announcement, stated as a fact about the way the world is rather than as an appeal about the way you might like your life, your emotions, or your bank balance to be, is the foundation of everything else. Of course, once the gospel announcement is made, in whatever way, it means instantly that all people everywhere are gladly invited to come in, to join the party, to discover forgiveness for the past, an astonishing destiny in God’s future, and a vocation in the present. And in that welcome and invitation, all the emotions can be, and one hopes will eventually be, fully engaged.
Let’s be clear. The relationship each of us has with God is hugely important. It is also vital to insist that God will indeed look after his people following their deaths, all the way to his final new creation. But these are not the center of the good news. We have placed the stress at the wrong point, like people putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. The words may be true, but the way we say them gets in the way of that truth coming out clearly. The good news is about the living God overcoming all the powers of the world to establish his rule of justice and peace, on earth as in heaven. Not in heaven, later on. And that victory is won not by superior power of the same kind but by a different sort of power altogether. We know what the power of the world looks like. When push comes to shove, as it often does, it is the power of violence, using the threat of pain and death. It is, yes, the power of tanks and bombs, and also of guns and knives and whips and prisons and barbed wire and bulldozers. Weapons to destroy people’s lives; machines to destroy their homes. Cruelty in the home or at work. Malice and manipulation where there should be gentleness, kindness, and wisdom. Jesus’s power is of a totally different sort, as he explained to the Roman governor a few minutes before the governor sent him to his death—thereby proving the point. The kingdoms of the world run on violence. The kingdom of God, Jesus declared, runs on love. That is the good news.
Know yourself” is as good advice now as ever it was. The question, though, of what to do with that knowledge once you’ve acquired it is far more difficult. What if the self I discover, through the deepest introspection of which I am capable, is a self that longs to murder, or steal, or molest children? How can we tell which of our “hidden depths” are to be acknowledged in order then to be neutralized or (if possible) killed off, and which are to be brought out into the light, celebrated, and acted upon? The fact that they are deep within us provides, in itself, no answer. Things get still more confused, finally, if we bring in another highly contested notion, the appeal to “freedom.” Saying, as many do today, “Surely we’re meant to be free?”—meaning by that, “Surely you’re not going to say I can’t do what I want?”—simply begs the question. It isn’t just that the freedom of my fist stops where the freedom of your nose begins. It’s that everything any of us does creates new situations which may, themselves, be a severe curtailment of freedom in all directions. If I do actually punch you on the nose, we are neither of us free, thereafter, to be the people we might otherwise have been with one another (and perhaps with others, too).
I find it impossible, therefore, to imagine a growing and maturing church or individual Christian doing without the Psalms. And that is why (to be frank) a fair amount of contemporary Christian music has worried me for some time. The last generation in the Western churches has seen an enormous explosion in “Christian music,” with hundreds of new songs written and sung, often with great devotion and energy. That is wonderful; like all new movements, it will no doubt need to shake down and sift out the wheat from the chaff, but one would much rather have all these new signs of life than the sterile repetition of stale traditions. Until very recently, though, the kind of traditions from which this new music has emerged, traditions that think of themselves as “biblical,” after all, would always have included solid doses of psalmody. If that has changed, the sooner it changes back the better, with, of course, all the resources of fresh musical treatments upon which to draw. To worship without using the Psalms is to risk planting seeds that will never take root.
Jesus, then, went to Jerusalem not just to preach, but to die. Schweitzer was right: Jesus believed that the messianic woes were about to burst upon Israel, and that he had to take them upon himself, solo. In the Temple and the upper room, Jesus deliberately enacted two symbols, which encapsulated his whole work and agenda. The first symbol said: the present system is corrupt and recalcitrant. It is ripe for judgment. But Jesus is the Messiah, the one through whom YHWH, the God of all the world, will save Israel and thereby the world. And the second symbol said: this is how the true exodus will come about. This is how evil will be defeated. This is how sins will be forgiven. Jesus knew—he must have known—that these actions, and the words which accompanied and explained them, were very likely to get him put on trial as a false prophet leading Israel astray, and as a would-be Messiah; and that such a trial, unless he convinced the court otherwise, would inevitably result in his being handed over to the Romans and executed as a (failed) revolutionary king. This did not, actually, take a great deal of “supernatural” insight, any more than it took much more than ordinary common sense to predict that, if Israel continued to attempt rebellion against Rome, Rome would eventually do to her as a nation what she was now going to do to this strange would-be Messiah. But at the heart of Jesus’ symbolic actions, and his retelling of Israel’s story, there was a great deal more than political pragmatism, revolutionary daring, or the desire for a martyr’s glory. There was a deeply theological analysis of Israel, the world, and his own role in relation to both. There was a deep sense of vocation and trust in Israel’s god, whom he believed of course to be God. There was the unshakable belief—Gethsemane seems nearly to have shaken it, but Jesus seems to have construed that, too, as part of the point, part of the battle—that if he went this route, if he fought this battle, the long night of Israel’s exile would be over at last, and the new day for Israel and the world really would dawn once and for all. He himself would be vindicated (of course; all martyrs believed that); and Israel’s destiny, to save the world, would thereby be accomplished. Not only would he create a breathing space for his followers and any who would join them, by drawing on to himself for a moment the wrath of Rome and letting them escape; if he was defeating the real enemy, he was doing so on behalf of the whole world. The servant-vocation, to be the light of the world, would come true in him, and thence in the followers who would regroup after his vindication. The death of the shepherd would result in YHWH becoming king of all the earth. The vindication of the “son of man” would see the once-for-all defeat of evil, the rescue of the true Israel, and the establishment of a worldwide kingdom. Jesus therefore took up his own cross. He had come to see it, too, in deeply symbolic terms: symbolic, now, not merely of Roman oppression, but of the way of love and peace which he had commended so vigorously, the way of defeat which he had announced as the way of victory. Unlike his actions in the Temple and the upper room, the cross was a symbol not of praxis but of passivity, not of action but of passion. It was to become the symbol of victory, but not of the victory of Caesar, nor of those who would oppose Caesar with Caesar’s methods. It was to become the symbol, because it would be the means, of the victory of God.14