Jesus: On Our Side

Recently a very good friend of mine, Father Ben Wallis, reposed a “Coffee with Jesus” that he liked very much. The comic strip is here:

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The strip references a few different theological ideas. First, the common perception that Jesus must be judgmental. Second, that Jesus did not come into the world to judge the world, but to save it (John 3:17). And finally, that Jesus, not coming to judge people, is indeed on their side.

Far be it from me to argue with the author of the Gospel of John. Indeed, I believe John’s gospel has a depth of understanding that comes from the decades of reflection on the man Jesus and the events of his life, death, and resurrection that the other three Gospels simply do not display.

Coffee with Jesus, on the other hand, does not quite have the apostolic authority that the fourth Gospel lays claim to. And it is their reading of the first two theological points, and their conclusion with the third that I want to consider and perhaps nuance.

First, the idea that Jesus judges people is something I’m familiar with only in Christian circles. Outside of those circles, it is Jesus’ followers that appear to be the ones whose judgment people do not want. If “Kevin” in the comic strip is meant to be a non-Christian, I think this whole message is off. He might, if he were like the non-Christians I know, say something like “Jesus, you seem OK, but your followers really suck,” or, “Hey man, I don’t even think you existed” or “strange how you and Mithras share the same birth story” (there may even be  Coffee with Jesus strips that do these very things, I don’t know). Indeed, amidst all of the criticisms of Jesus that I have heard, few if any have been about how judgmental that Jesus guy was.

However, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that “Kevin” is a Christian. He has been told that Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead (something we hold as dogmatically true by the authority of the Nicene Creed). This man, “Kevin” doesn’t want any of that. Who needs judgment?

Jesus’ response, that he didn’t come to judge the world, is certainly johannine in origin. However, it does not tell the whole story about judgment in the New Testament. Indeed, also from Jesus mouth is the coming judgment of the world from Matthew 25. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5:10 speaks of the judgment seat of Christ.

But more damning to this simplistic view is the rest of the Johannine witness. Jesus makes it clear that he does indeed judge in John’s Gospel. The fifth chapter speaks clearly about Jesus’ judgment coming from the authority of the Father. Even more confusing is John 9:39 when Jesus says he “came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’”

John’s Gospel then seems to have conflicting information. Jesus did not come into the world to judge it, but he also came for judgment. Clearly “Coffee with Jesus” is taking one side of a somewhat murky problem.

Another statement by Jesus in John’s Gospel adds more information, but does not really clarify the situation.

“I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” (John 12:47-48)

The word Jesus has spoken will judge. How Jesus’ word is both connected to him and distinct from him is not fully clear. However, we will leave the issue open, where it must be. Jesus judges, but has not come to judge.

So what then of Coffee with Jesus’ conclusion? Jesus’ last words in the comic “I’m on your side, Kevin” are very interesting. Those of us who do not hold to a limited atonement, who believe that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension were really for every person who has ever lived and will ever live, must believe that Jesus is really on our side.

But, while this is a beautiful truth, it is not the whole truth in a world stained and darkened by sin. Because the people we are, the people we identify ourselves as. the goals and opinions and self portraits we have, may be diametrically opposed to the teachings of Jesus. Insofar as we identify ourselves with those things, and not His love and teaching, Jesus is very much not on “our” side. Indeed, the thing we call our “self”, doing all it can to not love our neighbors as Christ loved them, to not forgive, to not hold our lives lightly, and to gather goods, money, fame, and power, and to beat down others so that they have less than we do, can never be said to have God on its side.

God must and will kill that thing. He will stamp it out; tread it underfoot even if it strikes him in the heel. He will cast it into a fire of hell until it dies the last death. All of this will be very painful to what we call our “selves”. While the process is going on, it will seem very much like God is on anyone’s side but our own.

Then, when that false self is slain, when the shade that hid the man or woman is banished by the burning light of judgment, which is to say the light of truth, for judgment is only calling a thing what it is, the true man or woman will stand forth before all of creation and declare rightly that Christ was always and everywhere on his side.

For Christ is for the woman or man as they are meant to be. He is for you in a way that you are not for yourself. He is for each person even if they would slay him to keep him from bringing out of them the good that they will be so that they can keep the evil that they are.

It is wrong to say that Christ is for the slightest sin done with the best intentions by the holiest of saints. Insofar as that saint is allied with the sin, Christ would pay the dearest price to have the sin out, and the woman who committed it no longer linked with its evil. He will have it dead and cast into hell. And insofar as she identifies with it, she must go to hell as well until it is out.

But it is right to say that Christ is for even Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers, and every rapist, child molester, and murderer. He is for the very humanity in these people and their dearest friend, for no power can save them from the evil that they have made themselves but His.

And as far as it goes, all who allied themselves with the sins of their fellows, which is all of us, are not really on the sides of those we call our closest friends. We are against them when we help them to become less themselves, which is to say less God’s idea of them, and become more the sin. In fact, insofar as we are all broken, all falling short, all complicit, we have never really been on each other’s sides. No one has ever had a true friend in the sense that every movement of every action was always for their good.

Except for this man, Jesus.

So yes, though it is over simplified, and perhaps easily misunderstood, Coffee With Jesus gets at one of the deepest truths of reality. Jesus is on our side. But we must remember and tremble at remembering, that while he is on our side, we may not be.

 

You can find all of the Coffee with Jesus strips here: http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php

We Won’t Stop


The Lyrics are pretty simple and shallow.  They are all about partying, dancing, getting high, and basically living for pleasure.  They are about a sense of self-ownership and freedom, with a repletion of the phrases “we can x” and “this is our x”.  “We run things/Things don’t run we.” We can’t stop. We won’t stop.

It is an anthem of youth that is concerning itself with asserting that it will not be stopped in its pursuit of the party.  At a very basic level, this is a song about sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

But it points to something more. Everyone who has ever been to a truly great party knows that the party is the people.  It’s the spirit that moves the gathering, the crazy friend who is busting out his dance moves too early in the night, the three or four people on the balcony who are getting too deep for everyone else, and the group getting way too loud.  It’s the moment when that song that everyone knows comes on, and, which is rare in our culture, all of a sudden our voices are one, singing together.  And anyone who has been in that moment knows that more often than not, we sing together against something.  This song has it.  If we sing along we are singing together against . . . what?  Responsibility?  Age?  Waste? Authority?

Death?

There is something wildly pagan about a good party.  There is the uplifting of the senses to the higher powers, the elevation of pleasure, the worship of the wild gods of drink and sex.  The little lights of men and women lift up their fierce celebration against the unknown and the solitude of individuality.  And, if they so deign, the natural gods descend to move amongst us with the spirit of the bacchanalia, and the orgy.

“We Can’t Stop” is another summer party song.  It’s a song that has been sung generation after generation.  As flagons, wine skins, red cups and 40’s are lifted up across time, the spirit of the party moves.  It rages.  We sing.

Many in the history of the church would condemn it all.  Others would simply dismiss it as harmless youth.  Neither is the right answer as far as I’m concerned.  Instead, we must ask what God can make of it.  What can the Incarnate One who has made use of the very small things of hands and legs and eyes and ears, make of the party?  What if the spirit that moved the party was, not replaced, but crowned with a new ruling Spirit of harmony and a new kind of elevation?  The Erotic, not cast aside, but transformed, still called us to each other.  The false high replaced with the true ecstasy too intense for the small imitations of our little drugs.

What if the Spirit reworked it all into something truly beautiful?

What Jimmy Fallon, Miley Cyrus, and the Roots do here is only a sign, only a hint, only the merest suggestion of the mystery that is the God who will take our human lives and shoot them through with eternal arrows of burning joy.  Something small is made large.

I imagine that the pleasures of this life are not even to be compared with the pleasures of the next, and yet they are a shadow.  This is so far from us when we understand the kingdom only as a set of laws, or a legal or forensic transaction between the Legal God and Himself.  The kingdom is ecstatic, each of us going out from ourselves in total love for one another. What we saw as the spirit of the party will be seen only to have been its herald.  The Spirit comes to make us love with a raging love and acceptance that brings us into wonderful harmony.  Not just one voice singing, for there is the hell of self.  But a harmony of voices, affirming and elevating, loving and healing.

It won’t be abstract.  The people who were in a line in the bathroom trying to get a line in the bathroom will find the very thing they were looking for.  It will look very different, of course.  But what they will find, what they will do in that coming party, will have been hinted at in the drug.  What we sought in sex and drunkenness will appear for real before us.  There will be newness and resurrection, but it is these old paltry things that will be made new.  One remembers the lizard of lust that becomes a stallion in The Great Divorce.

That coming feast which will be the biggest blow out that the universe has ever seen.  For we will not merely be stoic drones shuffling around talking about how Holy God is.  We will be our very selves made new, leaping and dancing with the divine life.  We will be gods whose music will take up the songs of earth and transform them into the anthems of immortal joy which they only hinted at here.

And then truly will we say we can’t stop.  Because there will be no end to the joy and ecstasy. The great enemy death will be cast away, and hell will be overcome.

Truly then we won’t stop.

Fire Upon The Earth

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Sermon for Hope Lutheran Church in College Park, MD 8/18/2013

Texts:  Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews: 11:29 – 12:2
Gospel: Luke 12:49-56

Our age is obsessed with the natural world.  We have learned how to manipulate it, control it, and we have delved many of its secrets.

Of course there are many secrets which we have only just scratched the surface of.  But the fruits of the pursuit of scientific knowledge are obvious and abundant.

But we have become so transfixed with our knowledge of the world that we have mistaken this kind of knowledge for all kinds of knowledge.  This kind of reality for all kinds of reality.

Jesus’ words in the Gospel today do not make sense in a purely naturalistic world, where there is only nature, but no supernature.  Where only the natural exists, the Gospel fails.  For Christ did not come to organize communities, or to set up societies.

No, instead, Christ tells us exactly what he came to do in this week’s reading.  He came, it says “to bring fire to the earth.”  But no, that’s not right.  The Greek reads “I came to throw, or cast fire upon the earth.”  Christ comes with a violent intention, to burn with fire, and to break like a hammer.  He has come to cast fire on the earth.

Now, fire consumes, fire destroys.  Where there is only the weak, fire fully destroys.  But where there are things that are made, not to resist, but to be refined by fire, it purifies.  The fire that Christ comes to cast upon the earth is like this.  It burns to purify that which is eternal by destroying all that is too weak and temporary to belong to the kingdom of God.

As George MacDonald, the great Scottish Preacher and Writer announces, God “will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.”

It is a supernatural fire that comes with Christ.  For He is the supernatural man.  He is supernatural in two ways.  First, in that he is God come into humanity to stand among us while remaining the living and Eternal God.  Secondly, He is man, come into the Godhead to make a place for us women and men.  He is the bridge that lays itself down that all might come to the Father.  And like all bridges he connects the two lands, and has some share in both.

The supernatural man, then, does supernatural things.  He heals, he raises the dead, he says to the storm “be still!”  He commands the earth as its rightful Lord, for he is above it, and greater than it.

And here, he comes to cast a burning upon the earth, and how He wished in that moment that it was already kindled!  Why?  What is this burning that he wants to send into the world?  Is it the Holy Spirit?  Well, to some degree that is right, but we know that the Holy Spirit was already active in the world from the very first day.  Is it the kingdom?  He was at that time preaching the kingdom that was to be an image of the very country from which He came where love rules and peace is permanent.

If not these, then what?  What is the fire upon the earth?

Look to your left and your right.  There, in the pew ahead of you, and the one behind you.  There is the fire that Christ has hurled to the earth to burn it.  The Church, set ablaze by the Spirit who was given at Pentecost, living the kingdom that He has established, stands as fire upon the earth.

We are God’s fire, for we are in the Son, the Word that is like Fire, as Jeremiah tells us.  The fire given to us in the Holy Spirit is the same fire that was in Christ, the heart and mind of Christ that sets the world ablaze.  The Church, for whatever we think of her, her failings, her stumbles, her empty pews and petty infighting, is under all of that, the very heavenly life that God has become human to establish here.

The fire that comes is the fire of the Trinity, lived supernaturally in the lives of natural people.  The computer programmer, the bank teller, the construction worker, the lawyer, the bartender, and the retail worker all are elevated to the life of the burning fire of God.

But lest we be deceived, we must understand the nature of this fire.  It is a relentless destroying fire, for it burns away all that is natural to replace it with that which is supernatural.  It conforms that which is passing away into that which is eternal.  And what does the eternal look like?  Is it a conquering majesty of armies, of haughtiness, of those who lord it over one another?

No . . . it is a kingdom of forgiveness.  It is the reign of love and mercy.  The supernatural confounds our natural desires.  The Lord Jesus does not come like the captain at the head of his legions of angels.  He could have, but that is not His character, for it is not His Father’s Character.  Instead, he comes meekly, calling us to the same humble life of service to one another.  Come and take up his yoke, come and obey him, come and follow, taking up your cross.  God is meek and lowly of heart, He forgives all offenses, he does not repay evil for evil, he has mercy  at every turn.

Come good people and live in the life of the trinity given now to you as fire upon the earth, and burn away all enmity, all hatred, all grudges, all judgment, all jealousy.  Be fire that burns with generosity and love, and convert the world with your peace.  We are to be a blazing light of obedience.

This is the good news, that God is beyond our petty quarrels, and has called us to his life.  Do you worry if you will be justified before him?  Cast that worry aside and cling to Christ in obedience.  For the Good Master is indeed Good, and no news is better than that He is Himself, this very man, Jesus the Christ.

Rejoice, forgive your enemies, and which may be harder, forgive those you love,  and be fire upon the earth until all else is burned, and only the eternal remains!

The Relational Secret and the Eschaton

Judgment

This week I attended the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology’s conference this week, a conference which I heartily suggest to those even mildly interested in adding an ecumenically attended conference to their year.  The academic presenters range in tradition from Roman Catholic to Methodist, Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran and more on common theological topics.  This year the discussion centered around the last things, or Eschata: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory.  The last was left open due to the ecumenical nature of the conference; though I think it got very little play.  Both the papers and the discussions surrounding the topic were top notch, and well worth the time of anyone interested in theological issues.  The center’s page can be found here for both its journal Pro Ecclesia and to keep an eye out for next year’s conference:  http://www.e-ccet.org/

Now that I have done my part to bring more people to the conference, I wish to address a topic which was not directly considered in the papers presented (I place here the caveat that I did not attend the very last paper of the conference which was concerned with preaching about Heaven and Hell).  The topic in question is one of relationships as constitutive of being.  Here I am drawing on Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ proposal that the most fundamental category through which we are to understand God is not “being” but “communion” (Koinonia).[1]

Zizioulas’ understanding of persons as relational aims at undermining two of the three great sins of our reading of personhood in the last century, Radical Individualism, and Collectivism (the third being Objectification which is obliquely addressed by this theory).  Persons are persons, not individuals.  They are not particular instances of humanity existing on their own in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, they are radically related to other persons in a way that both explains and constitutes them.  From our very conception to our death, our identity is defined by who we are in relationship with.  It is not the whole of our being, of course, for we are still subjective “I’s” thinking our own thoughts, loving Celtic Music instead of Hip Hop, or vice versa, or both.  We have our own tastes, our own experiences, and our own particular existence in relationship to other persons with their own tastes, experiences, and particular existences.  This is the safeguard against simple collectivism.  I am I because I am related in some way to you, though I was I before I met you.

Some relations are of course, intrinsically constitutive.  My parents are my parents at the same time that I come into being.  In fact, they are coterminous realities.  My brother, younger than myself, has my brotherhood as intrinsically constitutive of his being, since I became his brother the moment he was conceived. This is somewhat asymmetrical, of course, because the same was not true when I was conceived.  There are of course, many ways we could examine these kinds of relationships, but it is enough to say that who we are is deeply defined by who we are in relationship with.

The Eschatological question here is one that concerns itself with the question of the resurrected identity of those in the Heavenly State.  (I use Heavenly State here to describe the state of the resurrected who are in communion with God, in whatever environment that entails).  A question arises about our identity as either whole or partial in the resurrection if those who are in some way constitutive of our identity are not present.  If someone who was either more or less central to the constitution of my identity is missing because they are ultimately and eternally in Hell, how can I be a full person?  How can I be really myself?  And if not really or wholly myself, how am I fully raised?

While this may seem to us, as we know ourselves now, to be a question about a very few number of people, I think the question is ultimately about every human’s relationship with every other human who has ever lived, or will ever live.[2]  We may not understand how we are shaped by the person who bags our groceries for seven minutes once in our lifetime, but it would be a strange thing to say that even the minutest relationships between two images of God are meaningless.  Far less can we understand how persons who lived in faraway places in times remote and perhaps forgotten, even sequestered from the flow of the rest of human history, could constitute our beings.  But once more it seems strange that any two of the myriad images of the Living God should not be in some way related in a meaningful way that transcends our perceived social and familial relations.

The question of being as constituted in some way by relation continues to plague us when we consider the imago Dei of each person.  Drawing on George MacDonald’s anthropology,[3] I would argue that the revelation of God’s own self is enacted in a special way through the personal relations of each person to God.  Your relationship with God is revelatory of the God who made you, and that relationship is unique.  MacDonald uses the image of the White Stone in the book of Revelation for this idea.  Each person is given a white stone on which is inscribed a name known only to the recipient and the Father (Rev 2:17).

The revelation of God then is personal in multiple ways.  It is a personal relationship directly between a human being and her creator, redeemer, sanctifier, and deifier.  But it is also a relationship with the images of that God who speak, though their very lives, secrets about God.[4]  It seems true that if God has revealed Godself in a particular and unique way in my best friend and worst enemy, like it or not, I must love my enemy as well as my friend to fully love God.

And so we come to the second problem that lies inherent in the question of relation as constitutive of our identities.  For my relationship with God, and who I am in relation to God, is reliant on my reception of the revelation of God given to me.  But that revelation is bound up in the images of God close to me or distant from me in space and time.  Should some of these be lost, that revelation is lost.  My knowledge of God will not, in fact, be complete, or even complete in an Epektasis model, going from fullness to greater fullness.

We may argue that if persons are lost eternally, God will indeed supply the missing bits of ourselves.  God might say, “I am all in all, and I shall give to you what you once had with those persons without their presence or consent.  I will be your brother, cousin, lover, friend, so that you need them not.  What I have bound up in them as revelation of myself, I free from them and give to you directly.”

But can God, or would God do this?  Perhaps the second question first.  Would God take what was revealed as particular persons in our history and say “ultimately, you needed them not, for I am all you need.”  Would the God who has instilled in us the command that the eye should not say to the hand “I have no need of thee” (1 Cor 12:21), say to us “you in fact did not need them at all”?  This seems out of character for the God who teaches us to model all of our behavior on the divine character and life.

The more difficult question seems to be, can God even do it?  Can we distinguish some inner principle of the revelation of God which is in my worst enemy from the person that is my worst enemy?  Can we say that God can abstract from that person some truth or fact that can be presented to me in some other way?  Or is it that the revelation is the person in relationship with God?  Is it that my worst enemy is the secret or truth about God that I must learn, and can learn no other way?  If this is the case, it seems that the only way then, once God has set this truth, this person, forth in history, for me to know this truth, is to know this person in the most intimate exchange of love in the Heavenly State.

It seems then, if Zizioulas is right, that our beings are constituted by relation, and the steps taken in this short essay are safe ones, that the result of a doctrine of eternal hell leaves us with both incomplete persons in the Heavenly State, and an incomplete Revelation to those persons.  This seems intolerable for a solid Christian Eschatology.

Finally, as a bit of speculation, we might also consider the human race as a body (a not unbiblical image).  If the body is also imago Dei, and not only each individual, then we must ask who the audience is for that image.  Might it not be that the angelic hosts wait with bated breath for the day when the full revelation of God in human form is set forth?  One might argue that this is already done in Christ, but while that may be true on the level of nature, it does not seem true on the level of the particular members of that body in relation.  If, as Dr. Paul Griffith’s suggested at the conference, the only things really important about us are the sacramental elements, we might say that the revelation of each human is rather like every other.  But this seems to me to be a rather deficient anthropology.  If instead, my most despised opponent is in fact, by the very fact that he hates the show Mad Men, loves Eggplant, and skiing, particularly revelatory of God, then his inclusion in the body of Christ with Christ at its head is necessary for the full setting forth of the revelation of God called the Human Race.

Perhaps then it would be that revelation that the whole of creation stands in wonder of as the very last Son of Adam comes forth from the hell of self to stand in new godhood before all things.  Perhaps then he will be in new and renewed relation with all others, and all will be made whole.  Perhaps then will the Son of Man say to all else that He has made, “Behold, I tell you a secret about myself.”  And perhaps then the sons and daughters of the earth will shine forth like the sun in the fullness of the glory that was set as their inheritance for all things to behold and rejoice in with not a single light missing, nor a single voice silenced.


[1] John Zizioulas, Being as Communion.

[2] We may also say this about the creation as a whole, which would not stray far from Zizioulas’ ecological intentions.

[3] George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Series I.

[4] Once more we could also say this of the whole of creation.