The pursuing God, summary (Part 3)
This is the last of three posts about Joshua Ryan Butler’s The pursuing God: A reckless, irrational, obsessed love that’s dying to bring us home (Nashville: W Publishing, 2016). It summarises Part Three, ‘Rising up from the waters: Resurrection.’ The second post is here.
The Trinity is a communion of love (Chs 25–27). The Spirit moves through the universe, sustaining everything. The Son unites divinity and humanity, reconciling heaven and earth and is King of earth. The Father is in a sense defined by that title, as without a Son he would not be Father. But God is ultimately beyond description, filling the universe through the Son and the Spirit.
The three are not in competition. The main theme of Jesus’ longest recorded prayer (in John 17) is that the Father and the Son seek to glorify each other and the Spirit brings glory to both (John 8:54; 14:13; 16:14). Butler translates the early church’s term perichorēsis as ‘mutual indwelling’, make up of peri ‘around’ and chorein ‘make room for’, as in John 10:30; 14:9–11. The early church described Jesus and the Holy Spirit as the two hands of God, present in all his works. Thus Jesus is the Word through whom the universe was spoken into existence (John 1:1–3), whilst the Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2). In the power of the Spirit Jesus does and says what the Father is doing and saying. The horror of the crucifixion is not just its terrible physical brutality but also Jesus’ sense of separation and rejection.
God doesn’t create us because he needs us (the Trinity already has perfect relationship) but because he wants us. We are created to lavish affection on. The Trinity ‘are life, light, and love. God is not just a being: God is Being, the ground of our existence.’ The Spirit guides us along potentially difficult paths to reach Jesus, the meeting place of heaven and earth, and through his resurrection we are drawn through faith into the circle of God’s love to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3–4).
Is Jesus the only way to God? (Ch 28) Butler suggests the question itself is wrong: ‘Jesus is the unique and decisive way God has come to us. . . he is the presence of the Creator come to us.’ When Jesus says ‘I am the way’ (John 14:6), he isn’t saying, ‘I’ll show you the way’: he is the destination. Immediately after he says this, Philip asks him, ‘Lord, show us the Father’ (John 14:8) and Jesus responds ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’ ((John 14:9-10). He says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ (John 14:10; 10:30). This is the language of mutual indwelling, of perichorēsis. When the Father and Son send their Spirit to dwell in us (John 14:23), we participate in this indwelling. ‘Our being “in Christ” shows up more than eighty times in the New Testament.’ Jesus’ own way was to the cross, planting God’s sacrificial love in this world, not taking us out of it.
When C.S. Lewis was dogged by the question, ‘How can this one story be true and all the others false?’ (Ch 29) J.R.R. Tolkien explained to him that Jesus is the ‘true myth’: he doesn’t abolish all the dreams and aspirations embodied in our stories—he fulfils them. He reveals what is good, true and beautiful in our culture and what is false and leads to death. Often, for example, if we see a movie, we are powerfully affected by it because we see in it components of the story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration, even if the movie-maker didn’t intend them in this way. And when we see scientists and doctors bringing health, schoolteachers bringing wisdom, or entrepreneurs launching initiatives that enable a community to flourish, we discern the goodness in our culture. Butler writes, ‘Jesus is the way God has come to us, … the truth that reveals, …the life that reveals.
Butler titles Ch 30 ‘Upside-down Kingdom’. Martin Luther distinguished between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. In a theology of glory, Butler writes,
’we want to ascend the sacred mountain, encounter our Creator in power, and “figure God out” . . . But God refuses to be found there, knowing it would only fuel our pride, our desire for control, and the corruption of our condition—because what we’re really out for is our glory. We want to be like God rather than with God and under God.
But God breaks into our world in unexpected ways, as Paul writes:
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. ( Corinthians 1:27–31)
When Jesus said he is the way, he summed up ‘the way’ as:
If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. (Matthew 16:24 NLT)
This is counter-cultural. God brings resurrection power through the back door, and we are invited to stop running and be found. For example, when God told Jonah to go to Nineveh, capital of Assyria, and call its people to repentance, he disobeyed and ran in the opposite direction (Chs 31-32). The Assyrians were Israel’s enemy and the most brutal and gruesome state of their time, so it is small wonder that Jonah ran. But he was swallowed by a whale, and three days later was vomited up onto a beach (Jonah 1:17; 2:10), so he finally went to Nineveh and invited its citizens to repent. To his surprise they did, leaving Jonah protesting to God that they should instead be punished.
On one level, the story is an allegory of Israel, which had turned its back on its prophetic role. In Hebrew thought the sea and the sea monster represented the chaos that threatened Israel. On another level, the story is about forgiving our enemies: poor Jonah was distressed that Assyria had repented, and God addresses his unforgiveness (Jonah 4:10-11).
Butler turns to a modern example. Célestin Musekura suffered badly in the Rwandan genocide and was filled with unforgiving hatred for those who had murdered his family members, but God showed him that only through forgiveness—and repentance over his own unforgiveness—could he find freedom from the past. He also talks about reconciliation, which goes a step further, as it entails the perpetrator’s repentance too (Musekura & Jones 2010). Sadly Western society has turned its back on forgiveness: instead of forgiving, one simply moves away from the perpetrator. Jesus is the supreme example of forgiveness, culminating in his forgiveness on the cross (Luke 23:34). He is ‘a better Jonah’. He compares himself to Jonah, but there is a difference: he plunges into chaos in an act of total forgiveness.
The story of Hosea, who is led to marry the prostitute Gomer and to treat her well despite her unfaithfulness, is an action parable of God and Israel (Ch 33). Israel turns away from God and enters into adulterous relationships with other nations, yet God continues to pursue her. While she is in deserved exile, God ‘plans a romantic date with her in the desert.’ But Hosea is also a parable of God and us: we are Gomer. Much as we depend upon the church, the church itself has too often been unfaithful to God. Augustine allegedly said, “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.” Luther wrote, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” Jesus is also a better Hosea, who comes after us in our worst states.
Baptism and communion
Baptism and communion are both sacraments that signify our place in the church (Ch 34). Baptism has layers of meaning, but it is primarily ‘an identification with Christ in his death and resurrection’. We go down into the water to be united with Jesus in his death, to die to self, and to be raised through his resurrection power into God’s people. Baptism is entry into the church. We do not enter into relationship with Jesus first, then find a church: no, by baptism we are bound into the church.
The eucharist or communion is not just a remembrance. It confronts Western individualism. We miss this in English translations of Paul’s letters, where ‘you’ is plural, not singular. Colossians 1:27, for example, is ‘Christ in y’all, the hope of glory’. Communion is us coming to the living Jesus at the centre of his people. Despite their differences, the major traditions agree that through it Jesus is present in communion. Whereas food we eat becomes part of us, the bread of life takes us collectively into Jesus: we are integrated into his body. This body is the body through which the pursuing God pursues the world. ‘Jesus continues to embody his outpoured love into the world—through us’.
There are striking parallels and contrasts between Israel’s and the church’s stories (Ch 35). Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, learning to depend on God. Jesus contrasts the manna that temporarily fed Israel there with his flesh, the bread that gives eternal life. Jesus chose twelve disciples, modelling God’s choice of Israel’s twelve tribes. Moses met with God on Mount Sinai and brought the Law; at the ascension Jesus meets with God and brings the Holy Spirit to his people. During Pentecost Israel and the church both waited on God: Israel retreated from his presence in the fire but the disciples are empowered by it to bring his presence to the world. After the golden calf incident at Sinai, three thousand rebels are killed; after the crucifixion three thousand rebels are ‘cut to the heart’ with God’s Word and receive new life (Acts 2:37, 41). After Israel is formed into a new community at Sinai, Achan plunders treasure for himself; after the church becomes a community Ananias and Sapphira keep treasure for themselves. Thus the church is grafted into Israel through allegiance to Jewish King Jesus, and becomes the fulfilment of God’s promises to bless the nations through Abraham’s line (Romans 9–11; Galatians 6:15–16).
Jesus takes the bread and wine of the Passover meal and gives them new meaning. The Passover celebrated both God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt and the coming liberation from pagan powers by the Messiah. At Passover, lambs were sacrificed in the Temple , and at his last meal Jesus becomes the last Passover lamb, inaugurating God’s judgment on the world’s Egypt-like empires and the powers that sustain them, and liberating the church in anticipation of the new creation. The Eucharist is a public proclamation that God is coming to reign on earth as in heaven.
Where are we headed?
Upon his resurrection and ascension, we’re told by Paul that God ‘put everything under Jesus feet.’ (1 Corinthians 15:25) (Ch 36) This phrase is used in two senses. In the Old Testament it means ‘authority over creation’, as in David’s Psalm 8:
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
the son of Adam that you care for him? . . .
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet
God gave mankind authority over the earth, but man messed it up with sin. Jesus liberates us from sin and as the new Adam takes on authority over the earth.
The second meaning of the phrase is ‘victory over one’s enemies’. The temple could not be built until ‘the Lord put his enemies under his David’s feet,’ (1 Kings 5:3). and David was safely enthroned. Jesus is now enthroned but “he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” — and “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25). As Butler says, ‘the fullness of his victory is coming.’ But now, we submit our lives to his kingdom and, as the church, we embody his life, reflecting his light and love into the world. The pursuing God pursues through us,
The final chapter doesn’t lend itself to summary. Instead, some quotations:
God will be all in all. The Artist will restore his masterpiece through his own indwelling presence. The Captain at the helm of creation will steer the ship into its intended port. Jesus, the Temple now rebuilt, will fulfill heaven and earth by reconciling all things to God. This is the end of the pursuit, for its goal has been attained: the world will be filled with God.
This side of kingdom come, in a self-centered world, this love seems reckless—for it’s willing to crash like a bull into the china shop of our lives and tear apart all the idols we’ve built in order to get to our hearts. In a world of “might makes right,” this love seems irrational—for it works through HIV moms, once-deadbeat dads, and a homeless carpenter who died on a rugged tree. And in a world striving to keep its distance from God, this love seems obsessed—for it’s a furious love that stops at nothing to hunt us down and get us back.
This love is dying to bring us home.
The question we’re faced with before the risen Christ is not whether we’ve done a good enough job going out to find God. The question is whether we’re willing to stop running and be found. God wants to be with us, but do we want to be with God? Really? Are we willing to receive his mercy that makes us whole, submit our lives to the ways of his kingdom, and prepare for his coming in glory?
“And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father.” (14:13)
“He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” (16:14)
You know … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. (Acts 10:37–38)
Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me". (John 7:16)
"For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it". (John 12:49)
I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.
There I will give her back her vineyards,
and will make the Valley of Trouble a door of hope.
There she will sing as in the days of her youth,
as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” (Hosea 2:14-15)
Musekura, Célestin & L. Gregory Jones, 2010. Forgiving as we’ve been forgiven: Community practices for making peace. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Books.