Jonah and the Patience of God

I've always loved the story of Jonah. I think this is because Jonah is a story about a man with a calling, a man who has a clear vocation, but who happens to have a complicated relationship to that calling.

I think that's where my connection to Jonah's story has always started. I too hear silent rumblings and inner twists of passion that call me to get up and go. But where I've connected with Jonah in the past is in my fear that I will misunderstand these nudgings of the Holy Spirit, and will accidentally go down to a seaport and board a boat headed in the wrong direction. In previous seasons of life this anxiety around calling, this fear of missing the calling, of accidental disobedience because of misread signals, slowed my responses to the calling in attempts to avoid what I took to be the punishment of violent storms and of having to camp out in the belly of a fish for three days.

But this is not that great of an interpretation of the story of Jonah.

Jonah is definitely a story about conflicted calling, but the way his story is told Jonah doesn't misread God's signals: we are made to understand that they were as plainly before him as they are to us in the text itself. Jonah doesn't board the boat headed to Tarshish because of a misunderstanding - Jonah boarded the boat exactly because he fully understood what he was supposed to do but was intent on not doing it.

Jonah's actions, unlike mine described in the previous paragraph, were decisive and determinative - even bold or bordering on admirable. Jonah was called to get up and go, and he got up and went with a sense of purpose, if in the exact wrong direction. Jonah's disobedience was that of a good Lutheran: he sinned boldly, he took a leap of (un)faith. And then the storm came, not exactly as an act of the punishment of God, but as an example of God's patience with his prophet, of God's invitation to the sailors to worship him, and ultimately (through the fish) of God's salvation of Jonah and, ultimately, of the "great city" of Nineveh.

This is a much more helpful and a much more interesting reading of Jonah's story, and, happily, it's also much more faithful to the story itself. The story as it is doesn't address accidental disobedience, and in whatever sense such accidents are even possible this is a book that should be read as good news over those situations too.

Instead of accidental disobedience, Jonah is primarily a book about direct and purposeful, strong-willed disobedience. Jonah is an anti-type of Abraham in that regard. Abraham displayed a profound, even disturbing obedience as he was willing to sacrifice his son to God. Thankfully that story had a happy ending: it turns out that God is more interested in this kind of crazy faithfulness than he is interested in blood.

But Jonah as an anti-type of Abraham demonstrates a kind of anti-faithfulness. The fact that God wills to save all the nations of the world through the descendants of the faithful Abraham seems to be made problematic in the person of one of Abraham's own descendants, Jonah. Jonah, who was given an opportunity to reach out to one of these nations whose salvation is his people's raison d'etre. Jonah, who was faced with such an opportunity to fulfill his people's destiny, and who ran the other way instead.

But the surprising good news in this story is that God is not so much interested in wooing-the-nations-through-human-obedience as God is interested in just wooing-the-nations. And so the disobedient chosen one descends into the belly of a ship set out to carry him away from his calling, only to discover that the ship is destined to carry him further and more deeply into his calling. Jonah's ship purportedly on its way to Tarshish is headed away from the letter of his calling, but in spite of Jonah and the ship itself, this boat is actually on its way more fully into the spirit of his calling.

The hellish storm comes, and the first chapter of Jonah ends with God's prophet descending into the depths: God's man, the one God called to preach to the nations, is hurled into the chaos for the literal salvation from the storm of the ethnically and religiously diverse panoply of sailors who remain on board, sailors who then praise God, the God of Israel, the God whose prophet sinks deeper still.

This alone would be an interesting story, full of fantastic irony - God called a person from his chosen people to preach to the nations so they wouldn't get destroyed, but God's chosen one tried as hard as he could to avoid this task only to have great success in it, just in the wrong place, and then finally in the end it is the disobedient prophet instead of the nations facing destruction and judgment. God takes his chosen people's disobedience and turns it into praise; God transforms the unfaithfulness of his people into praise on the lips of pagans; Jonah's unorthodoxy becomes the Gentile sailors' orthodoxy. All that while the unfaithful chosen one sinks to the deepest depths.


Until out of those depths comes salvation. Out of those same depths that would swallow the unfaithful one up as a sign of his unfaithfulness there comes a fish who swallows the prophet and keeps him safe as a sign of God's grace. The fish keeps him safe in the bowels of death and, after a time, places him back on track, nudges him back toward his calling.

We suspect that God could easily find another preacher for the city of Nineveh. Jonah has objectively been a huge jerk and obviously doesn't want the job. Jonah has done everything in his power to disqualify himself from keeping the job. And God can do anything he wants - clearly there must be some better, more efficient, less messy way, some way that leaves Jonah out of it. Surely God can save Nineveh some other way.

But God chooses not to. He chooses the disobedient one to preach his word to the people. He is patient with his people in their mission to invite the nations to worship him, the patient God. God through this patience wants to save the world, and save he surely shall do. But this God doesn't just want to save the world: he wants to do so through, with, in and in spite of our obedience and our disobedience, our understanding and our misunderstanding. And, beneath the Sign of Jonah, he wants to use even me.

Ignatius and the Hebrew Bible

Ignatius vs. the LionsIgnatius of Antioch is a fascinating figure from the early 2nd century. Famous for encouraging Christian unity through obedience to bishops and for getting eaten by lions, he also had a helpful and balanced, if not much elaborated, view on what it means for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible on this side of the Christ event. In his Letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius confronts 'Judiazing' Christians, probably not too dissimilar from those Paul confronted, though Ignatius does so with noticeably more gentleness than Paul does in his letter to the Galatians.

After offering his trademark prescribed cure for disunity - stand by your bishop - Ignatius proceeds to attack what appears to be the greatest risk to brotherly love within the church in Philadelphia.

He explains that although he is in chains and on his way to his death, he nonetheless has hope because of the gospel message proclaimed by the Apostles. But this message was also proclaimed proleptically by the Hebrew prophets, who themselves "have obtained salvation within the unity of Jesus Christ" and "are included as participants in the universal Gospel hope" (IPhil 5).

But this doesn't mean, for Ignatius, that Christians should practice Judaism. Without Christ we're dead (cue tombstone metaphor), so avoid these kinds of teachings so they don't "weaken your love" (IPhil 6). Instead, cling to the unity of the church.

Ignatius works for unity in the church, because, he tells us, that's the kind of church that God lives in and where forgiveness reigns. So the Philadelphians need to avoid the teaching of factions and instead cling to the teachings of Christ. Ignatius seems to have come across some people when he was in town who told him they couldn't believe any teaching unless it was explicitly written in the "ancient records", the Hebrew Scriptures. They were using the prophets as the measure of the apostolic teaching, and where they didn't find clear precedent for a doctrine in the scriptures they refused to believe it. Ignatius counters:

But for my part, my records are Jesus Christ; for me the sacrosanct records are his cross and death and resurrection, and the faith that comes through him. (IPhil 8)

For Ignatius, that is his justification, that is his proof text, that is his Scripture: the narrative of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, and the faith - the life of the ecclesia, the church - that springs forth from that Christ event.

Early Christians slowly and organically developed what was called the regula fidei, or rule of faith, which they used as the guideline for interpretation and the development of doctrine. Think of it as an early edition of the Apostles' Creed. But for Ignatius, Christ is the rule of faith. The narrative of Christ is the essential condition of Christian faith and teaching. While Judiazing Christians insist that all belief and practice pass through the litmus test of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, for Ignatius Christ takes priority as the only litmus test needed. This represents not just a high understanding of the person of Christ, but a profound Christocentrism. The good bishop understood the story of Jesus to be the story through which all other stories are illuminated.

UMC Candidacy Questions: My Beliefs

As a part of the candidacy process for ordination in the United Methodist Church one is required to type up and submit answers to a number of different questions and prompts. As I approach my meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry on Thursday, February 23, I will be posting a few of my responses here. The third of these responses (and the last one I intend to post on this blog) follows, below.  ¶ 311.2.a.iii Write about your beliefs as a Christian.

I believe that the God who created all things took on flesh and walked the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is the Word of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s history of Israel, the full enactment of God’s faithfulness to the promises he made to his people, the assertion of God’s Reign on earth. I believe that Jesus displays the power and the wisdom of God in the weakness and foolishness of his death on the cross. I believe that Jesus’ innocence, his faithful obedience, was affirmed when he rose from the dead. I believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection sin was defeated and death itself died. I believe that God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the whole world to bear witness to this Good News about what God has done in Jesus.

I believe that God has called-out the church to be witnesses of these things —- to partner with him in the sharing of this News and in the performance of this Reign through the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that to bear witness to Jesus as Lord means to renounce all other lords as ultimately false and to follow after his pattern of Lordship by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, showing hospitality to strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. I believe that living life towards this God who has come to love us his enemies in the person of Jesus means to live by a similarly radical kind of love toward God, toward neighbor, and toward our own enemies. I believe that holiness is becoming consumed by this kind of love, overwhelmed by its fulness and completeness, and graciously perfected and overcome by its practice. I believe that the Holy Spirit works on us through certain ‘means of grace’, central among them being the practice of baptism, whereby the church welcomes one into its covenant community of worship and witness, and holy communion, whereby the church takes up particular discrete acts of Jesus, gives thanks to God through them, breaks bread to remember what Christ has done for us and to rehearse for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, and shares a common table as an act of holy hospitality and as spiritual food to empower our ongoing worship and witness. I believe that to follow after this Jesus, to walk on his way, is the only good and true and beautiful way to live, the only genuinely, fully and originally human way to be.

I believe that the same Jesus will one day bring his Reign into its fulness, at which point we will answer for our sins, but he will wipe away our tears, make all things new, and come to dwell fully and completely with humankind in a New Earth. I believe that whatever this looks like, however God freely determines to wrap this whole drama up, it will be Good, and Holy, and Righteous, and True. And I believe that living our lives together and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all things that his own resurrection foretells is what gives us the courage to live counterintuitive lives of faithfully hopeful love as described above.

Genesis 32-33

We might meet with God.But approach with caution: God is not tame or tepid -- God is wild and God is dangerous.

If you meet God, your world will be turned upside down. If you meet God, your life will be shaken up, and you will be brought to the brink of your own annihilation.

Because if you meet God, he might want to wrestle. By his great grace and mercy, you may walk away alive, but you’ll do so as a person re-named, made new.

And probably with a heavy limp.

Worship and Scripture: Three Theses

1. For Christians, Holy Scripture is that vehicle through which God makes his Word contemporary to us. Therefore any worship service claiming to be both Christian and contemporary must be organized around and composed largely of read, sung and otherwise embodied/enacted direct engagements with Scripture. 2. For Christians, Holy Scripture is the story of God's tradition of saving his people and establishing his reign on earth. Therefore any worship service claiming to be both Christian and traditional must be organized around and composed largely of read, sung and otherwise embodied/enacted direct engagements with Scripture.

3. For Christians, Holy Scripture is the drama of God's condescension at Christmas and Good Friday as the means for the redemption and exaltation of Easter. Therefore any worship service claiming to be Christian at all must follow in the footsteps of Christ's humility - in other words, worship has to do with repentance in the character or capacity of crucifixion: and first of all my repentance, not yours or theirs.

Much more needs to be said about worship and scripture, but this is a start.