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God’s Kingdom & Our Hands

by Drew 3 Comments

What role, if any, do our hands play in God’s Kingdom? In his collected essays and lectures titled Signs Amid the Rubble (edited by my former professor, Geoffrey Wainwright), bishop and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin describes the Kingdom of God as the realm of God’s rule in human society and all creation – a rule that will not be fully realized until the last things, the eschaton.  He elaborates on why God’s Reign cannot yet be fully realized:

The perfect society cannot lie this side of death. And moreover it cannot be the direct result of our efforts. We all rightly shrink from the phrase “building the Kingdom of God” not because the Kingdom does not call for our labor, but because we know that the best work of our hands and brains is too much marred by egotism and pride and impure ambition to be itself fit for the Kingdom. All our social institutions, even the very best that have been produced under Christian influence, have still the taint of sin about them. By their own horizontal development they cannot, as it were, become the Kingdom of God. There is no straight line of development from here to the Kingdom.

But if we, with all our our wisdom and sweat and blood, cannot help but fail in any effort to bring God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven,” does our effort still matter? Do we need to work towards the Kingdom in some capacity, or can we simply sit with legs folded and enjoy a latte while all creation languishes?

Newbigin describes how good ministry is reliant upon the resurrection for its meaning and purpose, and how in Christ even death does not completely swallow up our effort.  John Ortberg may be right that it all goes “back in the box” when the game is over, but as Easter people we also know that death does not get the last word. The work of our hands, directed towards God’s purposes, is not work done in vain:

Our faith as Christians is that just as God raised up Jesus from the dead, so will He raise up us from the dead. And that just as all that Jesus had done in the days of his flesh seemed on Easter Saturday to be buried in final failure and oblivion, yet was by God’s power raised to new life and power again, so all the faithful labor of God’s servants which time seems to bury in the dust o failure, will be raised up, will be found to be there, transfigured, in the new Kingdom.  Every faithful act of service, every honest labor to make the world a better place, which seemed to have been forever lost and forgotten in the rubble of history, will be seen on that day to have contributed to the perfect fellowship of God’s Kingdom. (46-47)

No act of faithfulness to God’s Kingdom is ultimately lost, just as no person who has turned to God will be lost, for God will raise us up and make us participants in the fullness of His Kingdom – a Kingdom which we have not built, but a Kingdom to which our work has pointed, longed for, and honored.

Rightly understood, Newbigin’s point undermines the regnant eschatologies (ideas re: the last things) of many conservative and liberal Christians.  This view of the Kingdom as God’s realm coming to earth mitigates against any view that our eternal life is some individualistic experience of pure spiritual being, which is really a sort of gnostic existence; the Reign of God is communal, embodied, glorious, and yet physical.  The Kingdom is not, as many conservative Christians name it, “going to heaven when we die.”

Newbigin’s insights also remind us that the Kingdom is not ours to build, contra the social gospel of the early 20th century and many liberal Protestants since then.  The most perfect society humans can build cannot and will never be God’s Kingdom.  Having the right people in power or the right system in place does not equal God’s perfect society.  And yet, with our hands we can move the needle here and there towards a better reflection of God’s purposes.  We participate in that perfect Reign that is inbreaking when we insist that the way things are is not the way things shall be or should be.

I’ll close with a prayer purportedly from Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic martyr gunned down at the mass for his Kingdom stance on the widespread corruption at that time in El Salvador.  I believe this prayer strikes the balance that Newbigin names in the essay quoted above.  I hope, also, that you might find it meaningful for your life and ministry:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

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Jesus: The Way or Just Another Path?

by Drew 8 Comments
Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Is Jesus a unique revelation of God, or one of many sages or prophets who point us to the Transcendent?  Is he God in the flesh, or just another means for my personal growth and self-affirmation?

In John 14:6, Jesus makes a claim that was as startling then as it is today:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In the commentary from his excellent For Everyone series, retired bishop and St. Andrews professor N.T. Wright puts the ensuing controversy thus:

How dare he, people have asked. How dare John, or the church, or anyone else, put such words into anyone’s mouth? Isn’t this the height of arrogance, to imagine that Jesus or anyone else was the only way? Don’t we now know that this attitude has done untold damage around the world, as Jesus’ followers have insisted that everyone else should give up their own ways of life and follow his instead? I know people, professing Christians, for whom it seems that their central article of faith is their rejection of this idea of Jesus’ uniqueness.

I echo Wright’s observation that many Christians seem rather embarrassed by this passage, quick to dismiss it or downplay it.  Such folks are especially found in mainline and progressive evangelical circles.  There is a reason Lesslie Newbigin named this phenomenon “the scandal of particularity.”  It is a scandal that God calls a particular people (Israel).  Likewise it goes against all our enlightened notions of tolerance, of our axiomatic faith in the equal validity of every possible religious expression, to take Jesus at his word when he claims to be the unique path to truth and life.

As Wright notes, however, when we reject this truth, the medicine is worse than the illness:

The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work. If you dethrone Jesus, you enthrone something, or someone, else instead. The belief that ‘all religions are really the same’ sounds nice and democratic—though the study of religions quickly shows that it isn’t true. What you are really saying if you claim that they’re all the same is that none of them are more than distant echoes, distorted images, of reality. You’re saying that ‘reality’, God, ‘the divine’, is remote and unknowable, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Moses nor Krishna gives us direct access to it. They all provide a way towards the foothills of the mountain, not the way to the summit.

This is why the overwrought sermon illustration about the blind Hindustani – in which several blind sages try to describe an elephant by touch and they each declare that their part is the whole beast – is so misleading.  The only way one can argue that every religious truth is equally valid is to claim a fictional place of neutrality to all beliefs AND do violence by leveling every faith tradition.  This is re-heated Enlightenment ideology run amok, and it’s as patronizing as it is false.  We do not have to grind every faith down to some fictional core essence (see picture to the left) and pretend they all have the same conceptions of the divine, of values, of the ends of life in order to get along with others of differing beliefs.  We actually honor our Muslim or Buddhist neighbors more by engaging the fullness of their traditions as they describe them than by pushing every religion through a sieve of modernist bias so that we can compare similar crumbs of truth.

Nothing less than the New Testament witness is at stake here.

It isn’t just John’s gospel that you lose if you embrace this idea. The whole New Testament—the whole of early Christianity—insists that the one true and living God, the creator, is the God of Israel; and that the God of Israel has acted decisively, within history, to bring Israel’s story to its proper goal, and through that to address, and rescue, the world. The idea of a vague general truth, to which all ‘religions’ bear some kind of oblique witness, is foreign to Christianity. It is, in fact, in its present form, part of the eighteenth-century protest against Christianity—even though some people produce it like a rabbit out of a hat, as though it was quite a new idea.

Another way this gets argued is by folks who describe themselves as Christians but are clearly uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ.  If Jesus is primarily a sage, a healer, or a prophet declaring the righteous justice of God, then his divinity becomes

incidental.  Allan Bevere notes in an importance piece,

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Much contemporary theology has been quite deficient…by attempting to keep the significance of Jesus, while denying the necessity of his identity as the God-Man.

The way to clicks and headlines in contemporary Christianity is to claim that Jesus was everything BUT God in Jewish flesh: an activist, a Republican, an African-American, transgender, a capitalist, a rabble-rouser, a defender of the status quo, a teacher, a comedian, or the ideal member of the proletariat.  Stanley Hauerwas, in his characteristic wit, likes to argue that Jesus was bald (because of the patristic dictum, “what he has not assumed, he has not healed”).

Of course, the fact that Jesus’ life and teaching relates to us on so many levels is wonderful, a testimony to his ongoing appeal to folks in all walks of life across time space.  But all such reflection should be a celebration of the beauty of the incarnation, the radical affirmation that God has become flesh and never ceased being God.

The moment, however, that it’s more important to make Jesus affirm my identity than it is to affirm his divinity, we’ve dramatically reduced the Jesus we meet in the New Testament.  To make Jesus primarily an agent of personal affirmation or some other selfish purpose is to make incoherent the Jesus of John 14.  Instead of the way, the truth, and the life, we are left with a way, some truth, and my life.

Source: Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 59–60). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Accessed via Logos 6.

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