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October 2014 • A New Look at Christian Words and Concepts

October 1, 2014

Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored

New York: Harper One, 2011. 248 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-197655-1.


Marcus J. Borg

     Bible scholar, Marcus J. Borg, is interested in some of Christianity’s most important words and concepts that have lost some of their ancient significance in modern times. He strives to focus on the original roots of Christian words to restore a power to them in modern times. Among the Christian words and concepts of concern to him are these: 1) Death of Jesus, 2) Bible, 3) Easter, 4) The Only Way, 5) The Ascension, 6) Pentecost, 7) The Rapture, 8) The Second Coming, 9) Heaven, and 10) The Lord’s Supper.


Death of Jesus

     Crucial to Christianity has been the death of Jesus. Borg traces the concept of Jesus dying for us as a substitute for us so that God’s wrath might be appeased back to 1097 when Anselem of Canterbury wrote in his book, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Was Made Man), that God’s retributive justice requires “the penalty for our sins must be paid from the human side” (98). From that time on many Christians spoke of Jesus dying for our sins. The death of Jesus from Anselm’s view was as a substitutionary sacrifice (98).

     Borg looks to ancient history to see the death of Jesus as a killing, because Jesus challenged the “established authority” (99) and thus the crucifixion became “a form of Roman execution used for a specific class of offenders, those who systematically defied Roman authority. You challenge the authority, then you die. You speak against the imperial powers of the elite authorities, then you die.

     For Paul the death of Jesus became “a metaphor for the personal and ultimately communal transformation at the center of the Christian life” (101). In Romans 6:1–4, Paul speaks of “dying and rising with Christ as the meaning of baptism” (101). In Matthew 16:24, Jesus asks us to take up the cross and to walk with him, which may be a work against those in power. Borg insists: “Thus, in Jesus’s passion for the kingdom of God and his challenge to the powers at the risk of his own life, we see the depth of God’s love for us” (102).

     The Latin root of sacrifice is sacrum (sacred) and facere (to make). Sacrifices and love go together so that within Judaism there were sacrifices of thanksgiving, of petition, of purification, and of wrongdoing (103). The sacrifice was “to heal the broken relationship” (103) with God. In this context, Jesus was killed, not sacrificed, but died on a public cross because he defied Roman and Jewish authorities as he was “filled with God’s passion for the kingdom of God—a different kind of world” (105).


Bible, Easter, The Only Way

     The Bible includes 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. The Greek root of the word Bible translates “little books” (56). Written from within and for the “ancient Jewish people” (57), the Old Testament includes their experiences, stories, and understandings of their life with God. The New Testament focuses upon early Christian communities. The word canon comes from the Greek word for “rule” or “standard” (59). Common agreement on what books to include in the canon of the Bible developed from the Council of Nicea in 325 CE to Eusebius’s historical account in 330 CE to Bishop Athanasius’s account in 367 CE. The book of Revelation was the last to be included in the canon in the 700s CE. Martin Luther called the Bible—the manger in which we find Christ (63). The Bible as the “Word of God” means, to Borg, “that it is a vehicle, a means, of communing with God” (63).

     Easter becomes meaningful to Christianity because Borg attests, that the empty tomb “was not the end” because “Jesus lives and is Lord” (113). Borg points to the New Testament references to Jesus’ appearance to others after the empty tomb. In John 20:19, Jesus appears to the “disciples in a locked room (by passing through walls)” (110). In John 20:14, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and in Acts Jesus appears to Paul. In John 20:27, Jesus appears to Thomas and invites him “to touch his wounds” (108), while in John 21:1–14 Jesus appears and “cooks breakfast for his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee” (108). In Luke 24, Jesus appears to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus who experience Jesus as “a stranger who travels with them” (112), Jesus not being recognized until they all break bread (112).

     Borg stresses the meaning of Easter as a belief “that Jesus was not simply a figure of the past, but one who continued to be experienced as an abiding reality in the present” (111). Easter points to “dramatic visions and mystical experiences” (111) of Jesus after the empty tomb. Jesus becomes “a continuing presence” (111) as well as “a divine reality” (111). Jesus appears as “Lord” and “one with God” (111). Jesus being “Lord” means “that Jesus has been vindicated by the God of Israel, the creator of heaven and earth, and raised to God’s right hand” (111) so that Jesus means “the lords of this world, including the ruler of the empire that executed him, are not supreme” (111). The powers of the world that killed Jesus and sealed him in a tomb did not end the presence and experience of Jesus.

In John 14:6, we read, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life” (173). What does Jesus being the only way tell us? Borg believes emphasis should be in what we see in Jesus’s life rather than in the name of Jesus. What we see in the way Jesus lived his life is, Borg insists, “a life of loving God and loving others, a life of challenging the powers that oppress this world, a life radically centered in God to whom he bore witness” (173).


The Ascension, The Pentecost, The Rapture

     The festival of the Ascension of Jesus occurs 40 days after Easter based upon the story of the Ascension of Jesus in Acts 1:1–11. The apostles gathered in Jerusalem where they witnessed Jesus’ Ascension. In Luke, the Ascension takes place in Bethany on the Mount of Olives where today sits the Church of the Ascension (176). Luke has Jesus ascending on the “evening of Easter—not forty days later” (177). What does the ascension mean? Borg believes the meaning is clear: “Jesus is now with God” (179) and “God is everywhere” (180). With Jesus sitting at “the right hand of God” (180), Jesus becomes the “most honored” and the “most favored one” (180), because the power of Jesus is not “simply as a figure of the past, but is present today as well” (181). “According to his ascension stories in Luke and Acts, Jesus is no longer here, but with God. But the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, is about to descend and be with followers” (181).

     Pentecost is observed 50 days after Easter and “celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the followers of Jesus” (183). The story of the Pentecost appears in Acts and reveals God’s presence descending as fire and wind. Borg notes that in “Hebrew and Greek, the word for wind is also the word for breath and spirit” (185). In the Old Testament in Genesis 11, the Tower of Babel scatters people into confusing languages or babble, while the Pentecost in the New Testament unites people through “the descent of the Spirit” (186) which makes speaking in tongues a reunification of language. Borg writes: “What happened at Babel confused the world by dividing it into separate languages and countries, resulting in misunderstanding, rivalries, and conflict. Pentecost is the beginning of the reunification of humanity” (186).

     Borg traces the concept of the Rapture back to the British John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) who interpreted Paul’s letter in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 as the rapture—an event “seven years before the second coming of Jesus and the final judgment” (189). True Christians will be taken up to heaven while those left behind will suffer from wars and tribulations. The 12 novels in the Left Behind series explore what happens to those not taken up to heaven in the rapture during the seven years before the final judgment. Rapture theology is all about “being right with God” (193).


The Second Coming, Heaven, The Last Supper

     Verses in the Gospels, Paul’s letters, and Revelation “speak of the second coming of Jesus as soon” (194). Borg moves the second coming from a “space-time world” (194) to the “passion for the vision of the world” which first-century Christians “saw embodied in Jesus” (195). The second coming becomes the experience of Jesus back in history so that “his passion” for the “kingdom of God” (195) returns. The second coming is “the return of Jesus already experienced as the risen Christ and the Spirit of Christ” (195). The second coming of Jesus may appear in the advent, in the Eucharist, and in the spiritual experience where “God will be all in all” (195).

     Heaven in the Bible points to “the abode of God” (197) rather than to a place for an afterlife, but Christians have viewed heaven as a blessed afterlife where loved ones will be met. In Mark 12:18–27, Jesus was asked by the Sadducees whose wife will a woman of seven husbands be. Jesus’ answer was that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living” (200). In 1 Corinthians 15:35–50, Paul speaks of two bodies—”a physical body” and “a spiritual body” (200). Borg explains that “the physical body is like a seed, the spiritual body is like the full-grown plant” (200–201). In Romans 14:7–8, Paul reminds us that we “do not die into nothingness, but we die into God” (201). Martin Luther believed life after death was like “a baby traveling down the birth canal” who doesn’t know anything about the world the baby is about to enter” (201). Paul writes in Romans 14:7–8: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we love or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (201).

     The Lord’s Supper or Communion is a Christian sacrament whose interpretation led to a debate that ushered in the Reformation. Martin Luther challenged the Catholic belief of transubstantiation which stated that the bread and wine in the Communion become the “body and blood of Jesus” (218) when taken. Martin Luther affirmed consubstantiation that supported the “principle that the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood of Jesus, but his body and blood are in, with, and under the bread and wine” (218). Some Protestants view the Last Supper as “the meal” which is “a memorial in which we remember Jesus and what he did” (218).

     Borg emphasizes the importance of the meal where bread and wine in first-century Christianity were “the staple food and drink of the Mediterranean diet” (219). Jesus had meals with many people, including “the marginalized, impure, and outcasts” (219). Jesus became in his vision for the world in God the source where hunger might be satisfied. As Christians we are united to the body of Christ and to one another in the meal, in the Lord’s Supper. Paul sees the body of Christ as “radically egalitarian” (220) where neither money nor gender nor rank separates us from the love of God (220).

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