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Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.
The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology. Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology? Well they did and they didn’t. Didn’t the pagans have theology? Well not really. They talked about the gods but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis. Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God as in the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: that Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors. So if you are going to have a community which is a single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation. If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world. So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology and I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.
They way I put it is this. You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.” He does that and that will help for a while. What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.” So teaching people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology. That is the heart of it.
Easter comes early this year: March 31, 2013. A long time ago it was decided to set the date of Easter as the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox (or the first day of spring). The decision was a long and complicated one, but a key factor was this: since Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples on a Sunday, then Easter should be on a Sunday. Other proposals had it so Easter could fall on any day of the week. The church, in its wisdom, decided instead to have Easter fall every year on Sunday. In a real sense, every Sunday is a little Easter.
But Easter is such a profound holy day on the church’s calendar that our spiritual ancestors decided to preface it with a season of preparation marked by prayer, fasting, and spiritual reflection. So the season of Lent was created to make the transition from more ordinary time to the day of resurrection.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—this year celebrated on February 13, 2013—and ends on Holy Saturday, the day prior to Easter. On Ash Wednesday Christians gather to remember a sobering fact: we are dust and to dust we will return. This year I will stand in line—or as my British friends prefer to say, “I will queue up . . . “—and have someone make the sign of the cross on my forehead in ash and they will say: “You are dust and to dust shall you return.”
Ash Wednesday means different things to different people, I suppose, but at a very basic level the ritual we gather and perform is designed to remind us that we are not immortal, that these bodies we coddle, clothe, decorate, protect, nurture, feed, and insure will go the way of the earth. The first man (Hebrew, Adam) was made of the dust (Hebrew, Adamah). The Adam came from the Adamah. That is what we are. That is who we are. On my best day. On my worst day. I am dust, and on another day not of my choosing I will return to the dust.
Yet, there is another reality, the resurrection. Listen to what Paul wrote (Philippians 3:20-21, The Voice):
But we are citizens of heaven, exiles on earth awaiting eagerly for a Liberator, our Lord Jesus the Anointed, to come and transform these humble, earthly [read . . . dust] bodies into the form of His glorious body by the same power that brings all things under His control.
All of us dust-men and dust-women down here on earth really belong to another kingdom. Right now, we wait, hope, and long for the world to come. It is our true home. When the resurrected Jesus returns, resurrection will become our reality just as it is for Jesus. On that day we will exchange these mortal bodies for glorious ones.
Ash Wednesday and Easter are two sides of an important, very human, deeply spiritual reality.
We enter the season with this confession: “I am dust . . . “
We arrive at the pinnacle of our holy day with this confession: “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.”