If you have not yet read Rachel Held Evans’s post, “Your Daughters will Prophesy,” now is the time. Off you go.
The final chapter of Church Dogmatics volume 1 returns to familiar themes: the importance of teaching, the grace which the church must entrust itself to so that it can continue teaching while it recognizes its own imperfections, and the mandate to continue teaching that the church must answer to in all circumstances.
I find myself once again wrestling with an ambivalent reaction to Barth.
On the one hand, he does well to keep insisting that the church must entrust itself to grace and continue teaching, not waiting for some presumed level of perfection to be attained before following its mandate. I have known too much, in the Reformed Tradition, of “waiting for the Spirit to move”/allegedly “keeping in step with the Spirit,” as an excuse not to pursue obedience.
But on the other hand, I continue in my dissatisfaction with Barth’s summary of the church’s vocation in under the rubric of “teaching.”
Even in the book where Jesus is most centrally depicted as “teacher,” and where the disciples are entrusted with carrying forward the teaching ministry of Jesus, they are not told to “go teach doctrine,” but instead, “Go… teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.”
Doctrine is important. What we believe can delineate the saving story of God in which we are enveloped and within which we find our salvation.
However, the end of the church is not teaching, but obedience to what we are taught; not obeying the mandate to teach true doctrine, but the mandate to live a whole life following in the way and submitted to the instruction of the Teacher.
There is a rise in the love of old things in the church these days. Some people falling in love with the Reformers and their theology, some people falling in love with the church fathers; everyone falling in love with the liturgy.
The old things are good!
But there is a danger here that in getting wrapped up in the ancients we will get wrapped up in their fights; that in getting wrapped up in the controversies that lent them their identities we will wrap our own up in affirming the answers to the questions they gave.
We become the church that believes, and confesses through its practice, that our identity and highest calling is to teach true doctrine. And on the way to our theology classes, ancient texts clutched close to our breasts, we bless the homeless on the street: peace be upon you! be warm and well fed!
This is where I think Barth is dangerous: in affirming as the core of our identity the mistake that many of us, academics like my self most of all, are prone to fall into. Teaching is not what makes the church the church.
The self-giving love of Jesus has that honor, and our highest calling is to embody that story in our life together.
In last night’s rendition of a sermon on salvation, the pastor began by asking whether salvation is something past, something present, or something future.
The answer is “yes,” depending on where you look.
As he was working out the past, present, and future dynamics of salvation, it occurred to me that one might frame the “yes, all of the above” answer on the “Memorial Acclamation”: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Christ has died
When were you saved? One answer to this question is, “Circa AD 30, on the cross at Calvary.”
“He gave himself up for me,” “We have been justified in his blood,” “Reconciled to God through the death of his son,” “we have been saved in hope…”
Christ is risen
Especially if you want to get more technical about how the Greek verb σώζω is used, the answer, “When were you saved,” has much more of the present and future dynamics going on. I am saved as I am united to the risen Christ–both when I first believed and currently as I walk by that same faith.
“He made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved;” “Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead;” “to us who are being saved, the cross is itself the [resurrection] power of God.”
Christ will come again
“We will be saved by him from the coming wrath of God;” “We will be saved in his life;” “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.”
The parallel between death, resurrection, and coming and salvation past, present, and future isn’t perfect. But it’s a potentially fruitful entry into thinking about the various tenses of our salvation.
When were you saved? “I’m still waiting for it, in hope.”
When were you saved? “When God bound my life to the life of his resurrected son.”
When were you saved? “When Jesus who loved me gave himself up for me on the cross.”
For those of you all up into joy today for advent, here’s the Kirk family’s favorite joy song nowadays:
I’ve thought a lot about diagnosing and prescribing this week. Two trips to the family doc to have a kid’s swollen face examined, and one to get a referral to take care of some lower back pain for me, and I’ve had more than my fair share, thankyouverymuch.
Mostly, the doctors do a good job of listening before asserting a cure. In other realms,I find this to rarely be the case.
Almost inevitably, when I call someone about a computer problem, an issue with a payment on a website or the like, they start jumping to solutions without listening to what the problem is that I’m experiencing or what I’ve done to try to solve it.
One day, I’m going to start all such calls by asking the help person, “Do you know a lot about xxxxx? Yes? Oh great! Then you’re going to have to listen very carefully to what I’m telling you in order to make sure you can pull out the one thing I need to hear.”
Over the past week, I have been struck on several occasions by the, I won’t say uniquely, but typically Christian sin of prescribing a cure for diseases that do not exist. On the Twitter feed, FB page, and, yes, even in print, I have heard people make grand proclamations about what “man strives for” in contrast to what Christianity offers.
“The attempt to ‘climb to heaven’ on the rungs of reason, morality, and experience” is indicative, apparently, of the quest for “a god we can manage rather than the God who is actually there.”
What struck me about each of the problems to which the Christian was offering a solution was that none of my non-Christian friends, spiritual, religious, or otherwise, really has the disease for which the Christian prescription is offered.
The cause of our misdiagnosis, it seems to me, is twofold.
First, we don’t get out enough. We learn who we are, and that in antithesis to other people, within our own communities. We develop our theologies in conversation with a church history that is not the present. We tell ourselves not only what is “real” about God and us, but what is “real” about them. And so we are taught to prescribe a set of salutary solutions to an assumed set of problems that do not coincide to the reality we experience beyond our bubble.
Second, in the wake of the first point, we become strong reinterpreters of other people’s reality. They tell us that they are not working their way to God. (Buddhism might say, “I neither work nor attempt to arrive at your god.”) But we know that they “really” are both working and striving after God–even if they don’t know it yet.
This makes us bad listeners, bad friends, and bad ambassadors for the gospel. In fact, it shows that we don’t have a very good grip on the gospel ourselves.
When we have a good, a wide and all encompassing grasp on the gospel, we recognize that it is diverse and holistic in the solutions it brings to a troubled earth. And that means that we do not have to cram every alternative into one box, fit it under one diagnosis, in order to say that God in Christ offers a better way.
I do believe that God in Christ has offered something better. I do believe that Christ is greater.
But greater than what?
Yes, I know that chemotherapy is powerful and awesome. But I’ve got a broken leg.
I can’t assume that I know how to answer that question before I’ve listened.
Keener, in his historical study of miracles, began with the historian’s caution. But he has come to embrace the validity of miracles both ancient and modern. The quote that stuck out to me was this:
To dismiss miracles because they run against uniform human experience is an ethnocentric argument.
This reality, it seems to me, is going to confront the academy increasingly in the coming years. While the academy continues to hold to its secularist vision of purely academic study of religion, it is also increasingly demanding that we listen to voices outside of our how western cultural milieu. As this happens, we have the potential to find ourselves speaking to people for whom the post-enlightenment worldview is simply another form of western colonialism.
Keener has said so in not so many words.
The other dynamic of the interview that I appreciate is the way that Keener does what some might call theological exegesis. He comes to the point where doing “pure history” with grave doubt about miracles no longer works, and he is happy to say that such a position, Hume’s position of miracle as breaking the laws of nature, is an inherently non-Christian position. He will proceed on the assumption that God can and will act, that God does perform miracles.
It’s an interview worth reading.
Having said all this, I also don’t want it to sound like I’m an anti-Enlightenment, anti-scientific revolution type of guy. The challenge of hearing the witness of the NT to miracles, while also studying the world that operates on sufficient scientific law that experiments are repeatable and predictable, is a continuing challenge for people who take seriously both Christianity and the science.
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
The stark cry of Jesus on the cross.
The cry of the man who ended up abandoned by God because he did exactly what God wanted him to do.
The cry of the man who had prayed to God for deliverance only to have his request denied.
The cry of untold others of us who find ourselves abandoned by God, not rescued from our trials, despite our prayers and, most disturbingly of all, in spite of our attempts to faithfully follow God in the world that is now the source of our death.
I had a conversation this week with someone who was living this: the experience of suffering, of rejection, the lure of death even, that stemmed from years of trying to be faithful only to have it fall apart.
The stories aren’t uncommon.
A young couple devotes themselves to the church community. They know that this is is the means God has ordained for their spiritual growth and health. The find themselves spiritually and emotionally abused.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
A professor at a Christian school or pastor of a particular church serve faithfully—with true fidelity to both God and their congregation, only to be run out because of politics, because of theology.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
A young couple diligently seeks the guidance of God before committing to engagement and marriage, commitedly works through their issues in therapy and counseling, continuing the relationship in the face of what appear to be insurmountable obstacles, relying on the Lord’s strength, only to end up divorced.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The bottom line is this: the feeling of abandonment by God is more severe the greater our conviction that what we’ve done, and the point where we’ve been abandoned, has been done in order to honor God, in what is true obedience to scripture combined with our personal sense of calling.
Here’s the point: any experience of emotional trauma can wreak havoc on your relationships, including your relationship with God. And, when the reason we were in the circumstance in the first place is not our own creative notion but a response to the calling of God, that relational dissonance is amplified incalculably.
In other words: don’t be surprised if your experience of / relationship with God takes a huge hit as you struggle with that rejection or suffering that comes from faithfulness.
As I talk with people who have gone through these things (including myself, to whom I speak more than I speak to most people), it often takes people years to begin experiencing again what they know to be true in their heads with respect to God’s continued presence, guidance, and even provision of new and better ways.
When Jesus was most faithful to God, he also experienced the profundity of abandonment.
Our calling to take up our cross and follow, as much as we might hope it will mean that Jesus experienced it so we won’t have to, often means the opposite: that we will recapitulate his experience in ourselves.
So what is faith for the people of God?
Continuing to trust that the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will raise us also with Jesus.
It is trusting that the suffering is not a sign of faithlessness from us, an indication that we were “out of God’s will.”
It is trusting, and praying, that we will yet praise the name of the Lord in the land of the living, among our brothers and sisters who will celebrate our deliverance along with us.
“I can’t write about the ending of the story, papa, because it doesn’t have an ending.”
My six-year-old was in the back seat, dutifully completing her reading log for school. But The Giving Tree had introduced an unexpected wrinkle into her plans.
“All the happy things happen at the beginning and the sad things happen at the end. So there’s no ending to the story and I can’t write about ‘the end.’”
There is something beautiful about her refusal to accept sadness as the end of the story. There is a sense of hope, a yearning for redemption and happiness, that defines for her what constitutes a true ending.
There is something profoundly right about that.
Until there are no more tears, the story is not over. We must hope deeply for the true ending to show itself, and refuse to write “the end” before it appears.
Yesterday I had more opportunity to reflect on “peace” within the context of the Christian story. Where I kept getting pushed was how “Being children of God,” as peacemakers, reflects the breadth of God’s redeeming love.
In short, peacemaking as Christians is our turning toward one another, and the larger world, with what we have received from God.
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” More directly to the point, “Having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
The hope that Christians celebrated on advent week 1, is actually the product of the peace that we celebrated in week 2. It is the reconciling, redeeming, justifying work of God that gives us peace with Him.
Why is it that being “children of God” is tied to being a “peacemaker”? Because to be a child of someone is to bear that person’s image and likeness. God’s children are peacemakers because God is the Peacemaker.
God has given us life and peace with himself in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, being agents of peace in the world is a matter of living out in our own lives and in our communities the story of Christ crucified. We embody the peace-making mission of God.
But this peace is made in the cross.
This tells us that the means by which we will make peace will never be the sword.
It also means that we are going to have to step back and reconsider what “peace” means as we search for it in our lives. It will be a peace that is present in the midst of suffering and trial–not necessarily one that delivers us from it here and now.
Yesterday’s service included some reflections on Phil 4: “…make your requests known to God, and the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension will guard your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus.” Paul shortly goes into his means of peace and contentment: being able to get by in plenty and want, in any and every circumstance: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Peace is about living out of, and living into, the reality of the gospel of Christ crucified. It is a self-giving so that others my live. It is a trust in the provision of God, even as we walk the way of the Christ. It is an extension of the peace-making presence of God through the church which is the continuation of Christ’s presence here on earth.
“When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemy,’ he probably meant don’t kill them.”
The bumper sticker puts things starkly. It undermines political pretensions to go to war in the name of Jesus.
And yet, the question comes around again: is God’s plan for his beloved world simply that the various persons who may or may not be killing each other, biting and devouring one another, have “peace in their hearts,” or does the Prince of Peace intend to make peace known, truly, far as the curse is found?
We cannot escape the cosmic vision of peace that scripture holds out as creation’s future. Nor can we escape our calling to make that future a present reality.
The danger of the annual advent cycle through peace in my corner of the world is that we will look to inner peace as something on offer and, to a certain extent, attainable through the gospel. Turning our eyes to the world around we will see peace as an impossibility short of the second Advent, and so we will leave our musings on peace without being moved to participate in the peace- bringing mission of God.
Nation states will never be pacifist. They cannot be. They must operate in protection of their citizens, wielding the power of the sword when appropriate.
And this is why our commitment to peace is also a commitment to a power that is greater than the nation-state and is not confined to its channels. The great king over all kings has a different way to be at work, a different vision for how to establish peace–the reconciling work of self-giving love has conquered hostility between humanity and God, between God’s marked-out people and those beyond its pale.
And this power of peace is the power of the Spirit who empowers us to be at peace with one another and with all people, being not only peaceable but peacemaking people.
As we light our candles and celebrate the peace that we have already laid hold of, on this second Sunday of Advent, we should also find ourselves summoned to a peace that is the good work people might see and thereby glorify our Father in heaven.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.